Skylar Anderson On Being The Nation's First Female Combat Engineer

Dec 8, 2015

At the end of November, the Vermont Army National Guard announced that one of its own had been awarded the specialty of combat engineer. This was notable because the specialist in question, Skylar Anderson, became the first woman in the nation to attain that distinction.

Anderson spoke with Vermont Edition about her journey, her position and her plans for the future. 

What is a combat engineer?

Anderson says her work focuses on “mobility, counter mobility, and survivability.”

“Survivability deals with explosives. Mobility, counter mobility; it depends,” she explained. “For mobility we're moving from one place to the next so we're building bridges. For counter mobility, we're breaking down those bridges.”

On what drew her to the specialty

Safety was never a real concern for Anderson, who said the real draw was the adrenalin.

“I never really decided to join the army to be safe. My original, MOS [military occupational specialty] was fired directional specialist for rocket systems. So I was field artillery. When this [position] came about for a combat engineer; I decided it's probably the best way to go for me.”

The position requires a tremendous amount of focus, but Anderson says that’s part of the appeal.

“You really have to pay a lot of attention to detail and that's something that I've always really loved to be doing. I love just to go out there and make sure, no matter what, I know what I'm doing and I can really do well.”

“Just to know that one wrong [move] and anything could happen: you could lose a limb or you can lose your life. Or if you don't pay attention to detail, someone else could lose their life because of you.”

That responsibility, which would terrify most, doesn’t seem to faze Anderson.

“If you do find something and you are the one that moves it out of the way, it's more of a rush [then terrifying.]”

On the process of becoming the first woman certified as a combat engineer

When Anderson took the certification course to become a combat engineer, the combat exclusion policy hadn't been completely lifted. Defense Secretary Ash Carter only lifted it last week.

Anderson says the course for her role opens up to women in August.

“Most of the MOSs that were defined as ‘combat,’ were not [open] to women, but some were allowed … kind of like a trial, before [Defense Secretary Carter] opened it up.”

Anderson says she was drawn to the responsibilities and detail-oriented nature of being a combat engineer.
Credit Wilson Ring / AP

On being the first female combat engineer

“It is important to me. I always want to be a role model. It doesn't matter who I'm a role model for,” Anderson explained. “My little sisters, they look up to me. I want them to feel like they can do anything. They don’t have to follow my footsteps, but if they put their minds to it, they can overcome anything.”

Anderson says the announcement that the combat exclusion policy had been lifted allowed women serving to come out of the shadows.

“I feel like some [women] were hiding and feeling that they could not overcome some boundaries that were placed on them.”

“Standards — if you can meet them, then you should be able to do [the job]. For me I did not want to be treated any differently when I was [training for the combat engineer position]… I was treated just like any other guy that was there.”

On her future plans

“I just want to keep pushing forward. I am not really sure where I want to go yet. But hopefully it lives up to where I am now.”

In addition to her military career, Anderson is pursing a degree in animal science as part of a pre-vet program at UVM.

“I do want to eventually become an equine vet … So working on a racetrack or working on a rodeo side or something like that. But also, maybe being an oncologist? I'm working with the bones of animals as well.”

Anderson says her military and civilian career plans don’t “tie together” at the moment, but she’s pretty happy with both. 

“I like having the best of both worlds. I love going to the military and being in uniform and serving the way I want to serve. But then on the other side, I can come back and be a kid. I can be a college student, I can be a daughter. So I like the fact that I can do both, instead of having one life and living it that way.”