‘Always forward; never back’ Missouri National Guard soldier becomes the first female commander of an infantry rifle unit

By Capt. Jeremy Idleman | Missouri National Guard | Aug. 25, 2020

Joint Force Headquarters — JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Capt. April Bruner is the first female commander of a rifle company in the Missouri National Guard as part of the evolution of female integration into combat arms established three years ago by the Department of Defense.
 
Bruner, who enlisted in 2010, said her aspirations to serve as a commissioned officer began during her time as a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear specialist as an enlisted soldier while deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Little did she know at the time, that she would not only accomplish this goal but would also become the first female combat arms rifle company commander in the Missouri Army National Guard. 
 
As a lieutenant, Bruner started her officer career in 2013 with the Military Police. There she served in several state emergency duties, such as flood relief and support to civil authorities in Ferguson, but also did several overseas training missions with the MPs. When she was considering future assignments, someone suggested she look into combat arms, and for her, the engineers were the obvious choice.

Shortly thereafter, she became the Operations Officer of the 1141st Sapper Co. in Kansas City, Mo., and eventually the commander of the 1138th Sapper Co. in Farmington, Mo. While there, and after attending Sapper school, she developed a Sapper train-up program for her unit that is still in use today.
 
In December 2019, she left the Sappers to command the 1-138th Inf. Bn. Headquarters and Headquarters Company, where she commanded a diverse group of infantry soldiers such as scout / sniper teams, mortars and fire teams and a medical platoon. Although she commanded the infantry headquarters company, she still must spend a year commanding an infantry line company in order to reclassify as an infantry officer. On Aug. 1, she took command of Charlie Co., 1-138th Inf. Bn. in order to meet the pre-requisite to re-class. Bruner will attend the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course at Fort Benning, Ga. in October to expand upon her knowledge as an infantry officer.
 
“This job is very physically demanding and being in the light infantry is not easy; we don’t have trucks to move everyone around. If you have to go anywhere, you are putting your ruck on your back and you are walking there,” said Bruner.
 
Bruner realized that her new assignment would not be easy amidst a male-dominated culture undergoing a transition that was only in its third year.  She became aware of the challenges she faced during a command climate survey with the Sappers.

“During my first command climate survey, my first sergeant approached me and told me there were some concerning comments about females being in a Sapper unit, but they were written before the soldiers really knew who I was.”  Bruner understood, “some thought the standards would not be the same. But once I became integrated with the unit, the soldiers realized I was out doing the same thing as they were doing and there were no exceptions for anyone, even other females in the unit. So I think just setting that standard and precedence shows that we’re all here doing the same job. It’s the person that is qualified, not the gender,” said Bruner.
 
Bruner’s transition to infantry and assumption of command comes at an important time. This month also marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment ratification giving women the right to vote. When asked about how the 19th amendment fit into female integration of combat arms, Bruner said, “The 19th Amendment was the initial push for female integration across the board. We were finally recognized for our value, ability and our potential. The passing was an important small step toward gender equality and is responsible for the foundation for every subsequent milestone in the last 100 years. Without that first step, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
 
When asked what she’s most proud of, she responded, “Honestly, my soldiers. Seeing their drive, determination and accomplishments are what make me most proud.”
 
Bruner’s personal motto is “Always forward; never back,” and her beliefs are the reason why she is now an even more valuable asset to the Missouri Army National Guard and is the epitome of an American soldier.

The first Missouri National Guard female infantry heavy weapons company commander was Capt. Marie Watkins who commanded Delta Co., 1-138th Inf. Bn., Dec. 2016 to Nov. 2019.
 
Watkins spoke about her role as the first combat arms heavy weapons company commander in the MONG. “Being given the opportunity to command Delta, Co. was critical in the adaptation and influencing of how female soldiers/leaders in combat arms would be perceived in a male dominated field. We didn’t focus on my gender as a commander, we focused on the mission and we excelled as a company,” said Watkins.
 
“It’s simplistic, good leaders inspire good command climates regardless of gender. I did not make the decision to go combat arms to be a transformational leader or a visionary. I did it because actions inspire others to be more, do more and become more than they are,” she said. I’m happy to see other female soldiers/leaders were able to join combat arms. “That’s what started this whole journey,” she added.
 
Watkins is now assigned to the 110th Maneuver Enhancement Bde. as the brigade operations officer and is still an infantry officer. She continues her role in in the evolution of women in the military with the additional duty as the MONG integration officer where she works with the Recruiting and Retention Bn. and the combat arms battalions, companies and batteries. She helps ensure they have avenues for female leader compliance measures, throughput on enlistments and targeted approaches for prior service transfers who can help build continuity within the Military Occupational Specialties and Branches.