FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Sapper Leader Course instructor Staff Sgt. Ariana Sanchez never set out to make history or be the example she is today.
Originally from Ecuador, she moved to New Jersey when she was 17. As high school ended, Sanchez was interested in the Army but was unsure of her future. After speaking with Army recruiters, she joined the New Jersey National Guard, setting her off on an unexpected path.
She completed Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and Advanced Individual Training at Fort Lee, Virginia, in 2014, to become a Water Purification Specialist. During Initial Entry Training, Sanchez realized she not only loved the Army life — she was good at it.
Her two-year transition from the Army National Guard to active-duty status began after arriving at her first unit at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. To become a full-time Soldier, she was required to reclass to a different military occupational specialty, she said. Having spent most of her short career on the quartermaster side of the Army, she couldn’t picture herself sitting in an office.
“They asked me what I wanted to be, and I told them I wanted to be in a combat MOS,” she said.
She had various jobs to choose from, including the combat engineer MOS, 12B, which had opened to females in 2015.
“I had a combat engineer friend, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “They showed me a video, and I thought it looked interesting, so I wanted to try it to see what it was about.”
Her new MOS took her to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where she completed Army Engineer One Station Unit Training in June 2016.
Despite a fear of heights, Sanchez volunteered for Airborne School during her training here and earned the Air Assault Badge in February 2017, at Fort Bragg.
Sanchez said she does not regret her decision to enter the male-dominated career field.
“I like it a lot,” she said. “It’s an interesting life because we aren’t solely focused on combat — we are a combination of many different MOSs. You can learn so much from talking to combat engineers. They can build anything or solve any problem.”
For her, Sanchez said being a female has no bearing on her skills as a Soldier in any capacity. Still, for some throughout her career, her gender cast doubt upon her abilities to achieve her goals. She found motivation in their skepticism.
“Some said I wouldn’t make it or accomplish what I was setting out to do,” she said. “That’s what motivated me the most.”
Many were supportive, however, including her squad at Fort Bragg; she said they offered support and positive drive while she prepared for the Sapper Leader Course, or SLC.
“They gave me all the push I needed,” she said. “They were there for me, and they trained with me. If I wanted to go on a 10-mile ruck, my squad was going with me.”
The training and support paid off. Sanchez completed the course in February 2019 — only three months after the Sapper Training Company graduated their first female enlisted Soldier.
Of the almost 200 female Soldiers who have completed the notoriously difficult 28-day SLC since it opened its doors to females in 1999, only nine have been in the enlisted ranks.
Of those nine, Sanchez is the only one who has led future Sappers as an instructor.
Becoming the first
The Army Engineer Regiment began its search for the first female SLC instructor — a position reserved for staff sergeants and sergeants first class who have completed the SLC — in 2021. According to Engineer Regimental Command Sgt. Maj. John Brennan, the hope was to find a Soldier to serve as a relatable example to encourage enlisted females to come to the course.
“The 12 series MOS was one of the first combat MOSs to open to women,” he said. “We were trying to figure out how to reach that portion of the population in the Army Engineer community.”
The selection pool was small, with only four enlisted females Army-wide qualified for the position. Based on location and availability, they could only target a couple of those individuals, Brennan said.
One of them was Sanchez.
She had just received orders for Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, the day before — a move she was looking forward to making because of the unique training opportunities offered there — when the Sapper Training Company first sergeant called. He asked her if she was interested in becoming the first female SLC instructor. The first sergeant gave her the weekend to consider the offer.
“They all saw me at the Sapper Leader Course more than I saw myself at it,” she said. “They knew what I would be for the regiment more than I did.”
The initial call was followed by one from Brennan a few days later.
“We asked her quite a few questions, but the big questions were if she wanted to do it and why,” Brennan said.
Her skills and achievements on paper were impressive, but it was her overall demeanor toward, and understanding of, the importance of the role that led Brennan to select her, he said.
“She was mature for her years of experience and had a positive attitude and outlook,” he said. “She understood the significance of what we were asking her to do and that, in being the first, she would be a model for others.”
Her heart was set on Hawaii, but Sanchez decided to accept the opportunity. After that, things moved quickly, she said. She had orders to Fort Leonard Wood within the week and was on her way to make Army history, something that had never crossed her mind.
“I joined the Army for stability and to push myself,” she said. “I didn’t expect or set out to do this.”
Since arriving at the Sapper Training Company in 2021, Sanchez has risen to the position’s challenges. Her presence as an instructor has inspired others and dispelled pre-conceived notions about females in combat roles, not only among the students, but her peers.
“Some haven’t trained or worked with a lot of females because they joined before females were allowed to be combat engineers,” said Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Medders, another instructor for the course. “Seeing her, and how she upholds the standards, both with herself and the female students, invalidates the idea that females cannot meet the same standards as their male counterparts.”
Sometimes students are surprised to see a female instructor when they arrive, but it’s always a positive reaction, Sanchez said.
“It makes them realize that, although we are different, we are also the same,” she said. “Then they go back to their unit and encourage their female Soldiers to come here by telling them, ‘If she can do it, you can do it.’”
That was precisely the impact Brennan hoped her presence at the course would have.
“That’s why it was important for her to come here,” he said. “If other enlisted female Soldiers see her having success, the idea that they can have the same type of success and accomplishments becomes very real to them.”
Sanchez does more than inspire other females to come to the course, though, said 1st Lt. Cam Kirvan, Sapper Training Company commander.
“She also takes a mentorship role toward the female support Soldiers we have here,” he said. “She continuously supports their development and encourages them in their personal and professional lives.”
His support of Sanchez’s goals has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with her willingness to volunteer for new experiences, Kirvan said.
“We put the opportunities out to all of the instructors, and she’s normally one of the first to bite,” he said. “That ambition alone is enough for me to support any NCO or Soldier who wants to better their career and improve how they train Soldiers.”
Brennan said Sanchez has continued to seek new opportunities since becoming an instructor. She was recently inducted into the Sgt. Audie Murphy Association and earned her Expert Soldier Badge.
“She strives for excellence,” he said. “When I see her, I think of the many others who could be great examples for others because they are the epitome of what a junior noncommissioned officer should be.”
She may have been first, but Brennan said he has no intention of her being the last. There is a desire to continue to have at least one female instructor in the course moving forward, he said
A replacement for Sanchez — she is slotted in her position until 2024 — has not been found. Both the company and regiment encourage anyone interested in following in her footsteps — regardless of gender — to attend the SLC.
“I think there are plenty of female Soldiers who could go out there and be just as successful as any male Soldier in the course,” Brennan said. “I would encourage Soldiers to challenge their leadership to allow them to come out here, and the leadership to support those Soldiers in what they want to do.”
Sanchez plans to stay in the Army as long as she is physically able. She is scheduled to attend the Fast Rope Insertion and Extractions and Special Insertion and Extraction System Master Course at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, later this year. She has her sights set on attending Pathfinder School, also at Fort Campbell, and Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2023.
When her time at Fort Leonard Wood is complete, she would like to go to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy, or maybe back to where it all started.
“I would love to try for Hawaii again,” she said.