It’s Veterans Day – the special time we put aside as a nation to thank all those who have served our country. We honor those in uniform regardless of military branch, whether in combat or in peace time, at home or overseas and regardless of race, color, creed or gender.Today we explore the gender part of that equalizing statement by visiting with Susan Shoe. She is the first female State Command Sergeant Major in the 151 year history of the South Dakota National Guard.
Since minute “men” first gathered on Lexington green to confront British troops during our nation’s fight for independence, “soldiering” has pretty much been seen as a man’s occupation. The same goes for sailors, marines and air “men”.
But someone forgot to tell South Dakota Army National Guard State Command Sergeant Major Susan Shoe.
“I think that people have a calling and for some reason this was my calling,” says Shoe. “It was just in me. Get out of South Dakota, go see the world, go serve your country…go do good in the world. My junior year in high school I started thinking about it.”
The day after she graduated high school, Susan left for the U.S. Army. The year was 1989.
"My parents were against it,” Shoe recalls. “You’re supposed to stay in South Dakota. You’re supposed to go to college and get married and have babies and…blah…that didn’t appeal to me at all.’
So, Susan spent 6 years in the Army, touring the country and the world. And though she learned what she could about South Korea while she was there and visited Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia during her 3-year tour of duty in Italy, she never learned Italian.
“I think any career is the same,” Shoe observes. “You get out of it what you put into it. And I, luckily, I have a wonderful husband who is very patient with me, but this is what I do. I’m at work at night, on weekends and the same in Italy.”
It’s that dedication to her job through the years that brought Susan to where she is today – the senior enlisted soldier in the state of South Dakota, And though life is much easier for women in the Army than it used to be, Susan says it wasn’t that way when she first enlisted.
“They did look at you different,” Shoe explains. “Like…kind of like almost a ‘Why aren’t you going to college and having babies and getting married? Why would you want to go play army?’ I mean, that…they did look down on you. Absolutely. But when I was going in they were just starting to integrate the male-female training together, and so it was…they were accepting females in the military as actually wanting to be soldiers.”
Still, there were holdouts and few people to go to in those early years if a female soldier had a problem with a male soldier’s attitude.
“I had a boss…a Vietnam vet guy,” Shoe recalls. “He was a sergeant major, you know. And he was looked at…I mean, this guy was an icon and everybody loved him. But he…he was…a pig…and by today…any standard, really. But it was accepted back then, especially if you were a war hero. And so anybody that I tried to talk to about the issues I was having…’Oh, he’s okay, you know.’ Nobody would have the guts enough to say ‘Hey, buddy…(laughs)…you can’t do that anymore.’ I mean, they held these guys to a different standard almost.”
But, says Susan Shoe…that was then.
“Nowadays, oh my gosh, there are so many avenues of anybody…guy or girl…to be able to report on unwanted behavior or comments,” says Shoe. “Back then, they looked at you like you were the problem.”
Susan Shoe realized that she wasn’t the problem and carried on with her career. After 6 years in the Army she returned home, tried nursing school to appease her mother, decided the civilian world wasn’t for her and re-enlisted in the South Dakota Army National Guard. And she’s never looked back.
Susan’s time in the guard eventually saw her deployed to Iraq, in the heart of a combat zone. In typical fashion, Susan considered it just another part of her duties.
“I was on the running track,” Shoe explains. “I had just stopped running.., and you see this rocket come over and it…it hit about 200 yards for me. And there was a lot of…there was a lot of vehicles in the way, thankfully. ‘Cause a lot of shrapnel went…we…we lost of a lot of windshields.”
But not the future State Command Sergeant Major for the South Dakota Army National Guard, a position Susan Shoe was promoted to in February of this year. In her role as the top enlisted soldier in South Dakota, the State Command Sergeant Major is there for all enlisted men and women…both full-time Army and part-time National Guard, whether they’re home or deployed overseas.
Susan Shoe says there may be some men in the Guard who aren’t pleased with a woman being in her position, but Chief Warrant Officer Brett Anderson isn’t one of them.
“I like it,” says Anderson. “I’m all for it. But the caveat to that is…is that…it’s the right person for the job.”
And in today’s Army, says Anderson, “person” not “gender” is the key.
Susan Shoe stresses that though she is there for all of her troops, there’s no discounting the fact that she’s a role model for young female soldiers. Her advice to those women comes from the classic World War Two poster in her office of Rosie the Riveter: “Roll up your sleeves, ladies. We Can Do It!”.