WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 15, 2016) – While Sgt. Maj. Billie Jo Boersma said she’s glad all branches are now open to women, she hopes for the day when gender no longer becomes an issue because gender barriers of all types will be gone and with it, the culture that divided.
Boersma, who is the sergeant major for Army’s Soldier For Life program, or SFL, said she’s had the good fortune to have not encountered very many gender barriers in her 24-year Army career and as a child.
As a youngster, she said she played a lot of baseball with the boys and didn’t really give it any thought until she turned 16. At that juncture, she was told by game officials that she would have to join the girl’s team to continue playing, so she said she did.
She was around the boys all the time because she was very athletic, she mentioned. Besides that, she had an older and a younger brother to play and fight with.
One day when Boersma was riding her bicycle to the sports club, she said she saw an Army recruiting office and on a whim, she went inside and enlisted. She was 21 and it was in October 1991, not long after Operation Desert Storm had ended. No one in her family had ever been in the Army, so she knew she was breaking new ground.
Little did she realize she’d make a career of it, she said.
Her parents brought her up with strong values and a good work ethic, competitiveness and never quitting, she said, so that dovetailed nicely with what the Army was and is all about.
Boersma described her 24 years in the Army as rewarding. She highlighted a few of her experiences and her thoughts.
The toughest job Boersma said she ever had wasn’t one of her four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — although they too were tough. It was her stint as a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, from 2002 to 2003.
While it was her toughest job, she added that it was also her most rewarding.
“At the end of nine weeks, you meet the mother and father of a new Soldier,” she said, speaking of graduation. “Sometimes they tell me: ‘he or she stands so straight and looks so proud and confident. You’ve done what I couldn’t do in 18 years.’ That’s pretty rewarding.”
Boersma said she wanted to stay in that job the rest of her career, but “got promoted out of it.” But not before earning the title Drill Sergeant of the Year in 2003.
Boersma’s most recent combat tour was in Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014. She served as the command sergeant major of 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.
That position was for a male Soldier at the time, she said. But Boersma explained she had the good fortune of serving with the brigade’s commander, Col. William Ostlund.
“He saw me as a leader, not a female,” she said. “He put his trust in me and allowed me to lead.”
Ostlund invited her to all his briefings and included her on all aspects of operational matters, she said. Also, she accompanied him to meetings with tribal leaders and government officials.
He didn’t require her to cover her face or head, she added. “He empowered me,” she said.
Afghan women looked up to her and Boersma said she thinks she made a difference. In turn, Boersma said she looked up to her Afghan women counterparts who’d made it big in their army, police force or government.
A stereotype exists that all Afghan males are misogynists and treat their women badly. While some do, this just isn’t so for the vast number, she said. Many men are happy to see women succeed.
OUTLOOK FOR WOMEN
Opening up all the branches of the Army to women is just a start, Boersma said.
It will take years and even decades for women just coming into those branches to put in the years to get to brigade-level and higher leadership positions.
It’s not an option to lateral move a senior female NCO from one branch into a previously closed one, so getting there will take time and young female Soldiers will be the ones doing it.
“I had the good fortune to lead infantry Soldiers in combat,” she said. “Col. Ostlund made that happen.
“But it’s not just him,” she continued. “I’ve been blessed with outstanding mentors throughout my career, all of whom were men.”
Boersma said she in turn has tried to be a good mentor to her Soldiers, both male and female. Being a mentor doesn’t mean coddling them, however, she added. They still have to perform.
In a way, it’s perhaps a little tougher for female Soldiers, she said. If one of them presents a sloppy appearance in uniform, it tends to reflect badly on all women.
REMEMBERING THE FALLEN
Boersma said she’s fortunate to have survived multiple combat tours and that she often thinks about those who didn’t, many paying the ultimate sacrifice.
As a reminder, she wears a KIA bracelet, stamped with the name 1SG Andrew McKenna, who was killed during a firefight in Afghanistan, Aug. 7, 2015. She and her husband, Calvin, knew McKenna and were good friends. Calvin is still in the Army, serving in Special Operations Command.
Boersma said that during her 24-year career, she’s had to balance a lot of responsibilities, not just being a Soldier. For instance, family life comes with its own sets of responsibilities. One of them was caring for her son, Derek.
That can be hard when she or her husband were deployed separately or simultaneously, she said.
That sort of thing required a backup plan, and that’s where friends and family came in to assist, she said. “I could never have done what I’ve done without the help of these amazing people.”
She added that it helps to be optimistic and put your faith in God’s hands.
SOLDIER FOR LIFE
Upon returning from Afghanistan in 2014, Boersma was tapped for the senior enlisted position at SFL.
She said SFL is rapidly growing, but is still very much a work in progress.
By that, she said she means that SFL has been working to connect communities across the country with Soldiers and Army retirees. It’s a win-win for everyone when they do that, she added.
Soldiers like to volunteer and their leadership and values are great assets to any community. The word is still spreading, she said.
The Army is all about people and SFL is in the people business, from the time a young man or women joins the Army to the day they die, they remain Soldiers For Life.