COLCHESTER — A few days after two women became the first female soldiers to pass the Army's grueling Ranger School, a college junior in Vermont became a military pathfinder in her own right. And at first, she didn't even know it.
With no fanfare, Vermont National Guard Spc. Skylar Anderson became the first woman certified as a combat engineer — a battlefield job that, like many others, was once held exclusively by men.
"I knew I was going to be one of the first, but I didn't know I was going to be THE first," said Anderson, a University of Vermont student.
Anderson, 20, said it was a "big eye-opener" when her instructors told her that she was the first woman to complete the course allowing her to work alongside combat troops to solve battlefield challenges as varied — and dangerous — as clearing minefields, building bridges under fire or destroying structures to block the enemy's advance.
Such an opportunity comes with responsibility, Anderson said.
"It's time to step up and not hide in the shadows," she said.
The U.S. military has been grappling for years with how best to integrate women in the services into combat; gradually over the last several decades, more and more military roles once reserved for men have been opened to women.
In early 2013, the military announced it was ending its ban on women in combat, opening many, but not all, combat jobs to women. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter ordered the services to open all combat jobs to servicewomen.
Anderson, of Derry, New Hampshire, said her interest in the military was sparked by her grandfather. She began talking to a recruiter in high school and took the oath on her 18th birthday, while still a senior in high school, and left for training days after graduation. She first joined the New Hampshire National Guard and transferred to the Vermont National Guard after enrolling at the University of Vermont.
But in the Vermont guard, she didn't have a well-defined job. It was one of her superiors who first suggested she attend the school in Devils Lake, North Dakota, to be certified as a combat engineer.
The combat engineer school opened up to women on Aug. 1, said Command Sgt. Major Alan Grinsteinner, the commandant of the 164th Regional Training Institute run by the North Dakota guard. While Anderson didn't know she was the first woman to attend, the instructors did — though they told none of the trainees until the 16-day course was almost over.
"She's a tremendous soldier," Grinsteinner said of Anderson. "She came up here, she did what she was supposed to, she passed every test, she was not granted any specialties, she did exactly what all her male counterparts did."
After more than 14 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, the most common chores for combat engineers has been keeping roadways open, Grinsteinner said. They also frequently clear roadside bombs.
In civilian life, Anderson hopes to become an equine veterinarian, but she plans to stay with the National Guard, never knowing when her unit could be called to active duty.
"The opportunity to actually go overseas and fight for what we're supposed to in the Army, it would be an honor, it would be something that I'd really look forward to," Anderson said.