By Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Mallary
NMNG Bataan Memorial Museum
Women without previous military service were not permitted to enlist in the Army National Guard until May 1972, according to Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Listman’s article “Women in the Army National Guard,” published by the National Guard Educational Foundation. Documents from the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Va., indicate that this was partly in response to the growing equality that women were beginning to achieve in the civilian sector during this time. It was also a move to fill the growing number of vacancies in the Army during the waning days of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Yolanda Ortega became the first woman to enlist in the New Mexico Army National Guard on Feb. 14, 1973. Choosing to become a career Soldier, Ortega rose to the rank of staff sergeant before earning a commission through Officer Candidate School in June 1982. She attained the rank of captain before deciding to continue her National Guard career in another state.
Ortega, however, was not the first woman to graduate from OCS in the NMARNG. That distinction was shared by 2nd Lieutenants Victoria Chavez and Pamela MacCulloch, who completed the program and received their commissions in June 1980.
As soon as they began enlisting into the NMARNG, female Soldiers broke new ground as they occupied Military Occupational Specialties held previously by men in all-male units. For example, in 1991, Pfc. Roxann Otero became the first NMARNG woman Soldier to fire a live HAWK missile while assigned to Battery B, 7th Battalion (HAWK), 200th Air Defense Artillery. The live fire took place at McGregor Range, which is part of Fort Bliss, Texas, although it lies within the borders of New Mexico.
During the first 25 years that women were allowed to enlist in the NMARNG, they found their career progression limited to the rank of Sergeant First Class unless they chose to become commissioned or warrant officers. This finally changed in 1998 when then-Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Melvin Montaño promoted Diana Duran, Diane Padilla and Theresa Victor to the rank of Master Sergeant.
Debra Benjey achieved two “firsts” for women in the NMARNG. She became the first female first sergeant in 2002 while assigned to the 717th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) and the first female command sergeant major in 2004 in the 804th Quartermaster Battalion. Both units were located in Santa Fe.
It also took some time for women to reach the senior levels in the officer ranks. Marita Patterson was a lieutenant colonel on extended tour at National Guard Bureau in 2003 when Maj. Gen. Kenny Montoya, the Adjutant General at the time, asked her to return to New Mexico and assume duties as the state Human Resources Officer. In doing so, Patterson became the first woman to be promoted to full colonel in the NMARNG. Breaking new ground was nothing new to Patterson. As a captain, she became the first female officer in the state to command an ADA battery.
Women have increasingly filled our warrant officer ranks as well. Michelle Anderson was the first to do so when she joined the NMARNG as a chief warrant officer 2 in 1984. She also became the first female Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) pilot assigned to the 717th Med. Co.