When Sergeant Stacy Blackburn-Hoelscher returned home from a two-year Army deployment in Iraq, she wanted to go back to the war zone. The Detroit, Michigan native served with an all-male tactical unit, a pioneering role for women at the time. In 2009, after switching over to the Marines, she deployed to Afghanistan. Stepping up to serve on a Female Engagement Team, she crossed over lines drawn for her male counterparts. In the last part of our series about the shifting roles of women in combat, WHQR’s Sara Wood brings us her story.
Like so many other service members, Sgt. Stacy Blackburn-Hoelscher watched the planes hit the Trade Towers and felt a greater calling to serve her country. She joined the Army. In 2002, five days after graduating high school, she arrived at basic training. Two years later, at 19 years old, she deployed to Iraq as a combat engineer.
“I guess it was my own way of stepping into womanhood through my family’s eyes, I think that they still saw me as a little girl until I went to combat.”
Sgt. Blackburn-Hoelscher spent her first deployment in Ramadi as part of an all-male tactical movement team. She provided security and logistical support, and served as protection for allies as well as her own company. Other than Blackburn-Hoelscher, there were only two other women on the team.
“In the heat of everything, we train so much together, that we trusted each other. It didn’t matter. We were very confident in each other’s capabilities and abilities to perform the task at hand.”
She returned from her two-year deployment with what’s known as survivor’s guilt. She thought if she went back over there, one more time, she could reverse the trauma she experienced. In 2009, she deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine. Because of her role with the all-male tactical team in Iraq, she caught the eye of her superiors, who were organizing female engagement teams, or FETs. Cultural differences in Afghanistan hindered male service members from talking to Afghan women, and entering their homes, which was vital to communication, strategy, and security. FETs, composed of all female Marines and Navy Corpsmen, were the only ones who could walk across these lines. FETs not only performed security and fighting operations, they were crucial liaisons connecting the Afghan community and US forces. She says FETs were perceived as a third gender.
“The men were very cautious initially and the women looked at us like oh my god, who are they? And here we are wearing the same equipment as the men, you know they were very curious. I think that we empowered them on the inside, because they were like, maybe I don’t need to do what I was told to do. Or maybe I can do what the American women do. And do what our men do.”
As a pioneer of the FET program, Blackburn-Hoelscher trained almost 200 other Marines and Navy Corpsman, as a FET Training NCO-in charge and team leader.
“I had amazing leadership that they trusted me from the very first mission, Master Sgt. Parker, he said, Well, Sgt. Blackburn, this gonna make or break it, this is the very first one. I know you’re gonna do your thing, but this is alright, I know you. No pressure. And I was just like Good to go, Master Sgt. I got this.”
Today she’s stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River. She has about 10 years left in her career. She’s also the mother of two-year-old Naomi. She hopes to eventually become a drill instructor at Parris Island, and end her long career as a Sgt. Major. She says it’s the best way she could give back to the Corps, because it’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. She says from her personal experience beginning with her first deployment in 2004, she’s already served in combat, doing the same things as her brothers. There were no front lines.
“So, for me to say that ‘Hey the imaginary front line that people keep putting out there is stopping at the compound doors to these Afghan homes,’ and I was able to go beyond that, I think that was an eye-opener, not just for the military but for the entire world to say hey, we’re in a different time, this is a whole different era.”