ERBIL, IRAQ , –
When Pfc. Neesy Sanders joined the Army she was given three choices of military occupational specialties: 56M, Chaplain’s Assistant, 92G, Food Service Specialist and 12B, Combat Engineer, which was opened to women in June 2015.
After watching a combat engineer video she made her choice. She hails from the small town of Columbus, Mississippi and wanted to try something different.
“I didn’t want to stay behind a desk all day at a computer, I don’t want to cook, so I’ll breach these obstacles.”
A combat engineer’s duties include, constructing fighting positions, fixed and floating bridges, obstacles and defensive positions and emplacing and detonating explosives. Their operations can include conducting operations that include route clearance of obstacles and rivers, preparing and installing firing systems for demolition and explosives and detecting mines visually or with mine detectors including MRAPs with rollers for IEDs.
Although Sanders already had obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Medicine from Coppin State University in Maryland, she still decided to try serving in the Army as her mother had done in the mid-1980s.
Sanders felt the job would be exciting, but what she didn’t realize, nor could anyone plan for, was being the first female combat engineer to deploy to Iraq, which she did in August of 2016 with B Company, 39th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division.
“The fact that my leadership had so much confidence and faith in me made feel ok with my job.” She said. “It made me feel like ‘Ok Sanders, c’mon you can do this.’”
Although honored being the first female combat engineer in Iraq, it seems her unit members were a bit more excited about it then she was.
“It means a lot [to the unit]” said Cpt. Tyandre Ellis, commander of B Co. “It’s a ground-breaking step in the right direction.”
Although Sanders feels honored about her status, she is not one to seek the limelight and prefers to concentrate on her job.
“I feel privileged because this is the first time they [the Army] have integrated males and females into this MOS, but I just feel like one of the guys. We have a job to do, survivability, counter-mobility and mobility, and we do it.”
According to her commander she does her job very well.
“She quickly proved mastery of her skill set,” said Ellis, “and led the team as one of the few that actually drove the RG-31 [MRAP] with rollers supporting two distinct area clearance missions for named operations.”
Ellis added that she has a bright future ahead of her as she completed Air Assault school very soon after being assigned to the company and is being considered as a strong candidate for the unit sapper platoon.
In the U.S. Army, sappers support the front-line infantry, and they have fought in every war in American history. Their duties are devoted to tasks involving facilitating movement, defense and survival of allied forces and impeding those of enemies.
As for the deployment itself, although Sanders is the only female combat engineer among a group of men she feels comfortable in the situation. “I think it was more awkward for the guys having a female around,” Sanders said. “They’re used to their ‘guy talk’ and walk around in their boxers but the fact that they made me comfortable, were aware that I was around and really protected me, I feel this has been a great deployment.”