This is the seventh installment in the weekly Honored Role Series.
Her packing list includes body armor, a Kevlar helmet, a M-16 rifle, 3 pairs of desert tan boots, and 4 sets of camouflage uniforms; wrapping up the list are a set of pink, plaid flannel pajamas, a “Pride & Prejudice” DVD, Hello Kitty office supplies, and a stock of Aveda Salon hair and beauty products. 1st Liet. Aubrey McCary is not packing for a holiday vacation; this list is what she needs and wants as she deploys to Iraq Sunday, December 20, 2009.
1st Lt. Aubrey McCary is both a third generation soldier and Army wife. Her late paternal grandfather served in World War II in Japan, and her maternal grandfather served in the Korean Military. Kenny Williams, Aubrey’s father, is a West Point graduate and retired Armor officer who served in Korea, Germany and stateside at the West Point Preparatory School, where Aubrey was born.
Kenny rarely spoke of his cadet experiences, but Aubrey was inherently influenced by his military service and love of the Army. After attending West Point‘s Summer Leadership Seminar, a selective program for 1,000 high school juniors nationally, she knew she wanted to attend the college. Aubrey said, “During that week, I was truly just inspired by the campus and the magnitude of the Long Gray Line. It was that feeling that made me want to attend.”
Aubrey entered West Point July 2003 just a few months after the US entered Iraq. Less than a month into summer training, she and her classmates were introduced to the sacrifices of those in the profession of arms. Three times a day, cadets file quickly, en masse into the West Point Mess. It is a strange combination of order and chaos as cadets enter the building from varied locations and hurriedly scatter to its four wings in four minutes. One wing of the Mess Hall is painted with a massive mural depicting the history of warfare, a place where the past is always present and the bridge to the future is perpetually under construction with revolving cadet classes. The high arched ceilings subdue cadet’s voices to a muffled chatter. Near the conclusion of each twenty-minute meal echoes the powerful voice of the Cadet Adjutant responsible for delivering a concise litany of important announcements, events, and athletic team scores. On this basic training day, the adjutant requested, “Please give your attention to the Commander of Cadet Basic Training.” The rumble fell silent and all froze in place as the commander approached the microphone:
I regret to inform you of the death Captain Joshua Byers, Class of 1996. Captain Byers was killed in action on 25 July 2003 when his convoy hit an explosive device in Iraq. Captain Byers was Commander of Fox Troop, 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, in Fort Carson, Co. Please join me in a moment of silence for this fallen graduate.
The Class of 2007 heard similar announcements nine more times before the end of their plebe year. Although they did not personally know any of the fallen graduates, they would in the coming years. Aubrey reflected, “It was during our cadets years that these announcements of graduates killed in action became people we knew. There were days in the Mess Hall when you looked around and saw tables of cadets in tears, mourning the loss of graduates who were their mentors, teammates and friends.“ Aubrey knows it is this shared bond among cadets that defines and reinforces the Long Gray Line.
As a plebe, Aubrey joined The Margaret Corbin Forum, a group that discusses gender issues in the Corps of Cadets and within the Army. Many cadets, including women, thought the forum was a collection “male-bashing-militant feminists.” Aubrey explained, “Women did not want to join, fearing that stigma would be attached to them, and because they didn’t want to set themselves apart from the men. It is a similar reason why few women wore the cadet issued gray skirt. You don’t want to stand out.” In 2003 and 2004, few female faculty members existed, and the forum believed it valuable to provide role models from among the staff and upper-class cadets. With Aubrey’s involvement and eventual leadership as the cadet-in-charge, the group shifted its focus to mentorship and away from gender inequity. This shift marks a transition for female cadets at large. Aubrey shares, “At West Point, I really did embrace my femininity. Pink is my favorite color. I wore makeup for the first time. I had Hello Kitty computer speakers, I watched chick flicks in the dayroom, time permitting. I felt free to be myself, a luxury the first women graduates did not have. If anyone gave me a hard time, I shrugged it off.”
As a French language major, Aubrey spent a semester aboard studying at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. “Being able to connect with someone else in another language is incredibly rewarding, and it doesn’t feel like work to me. I love travel, so it just made sense. I must also admit that I struggled in Physics, Chemistry, and Calculus.”
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Approaching the selection of her military specialty, the Adjutant General’s Corps, Aubrey quickly points to the influence of three professors, all officers and unique women. One was a single Airborne qualified Jumpmaster with limitless energy; the second a West Point graduate and dual-military mother who had lived in Bloomington, Indiana, Aubrey’s hometown; and the third, a ROTC graduate who Aubrey described as creative, scholarly and a feminist. “Each one of them embodied the officer I wanted to be: a “hooah, intelligent, family-oriented, creative and energetic. I am still in contact with two of them.“ When Aubrey graduated and received her commission in the AG branch Maj. Jenn Minus ’93, Aubrey’s history professor gave Aubrey her second lieutenant epaulets for her officer dress blue uniform. This year, Aubrey will pass those same shoulder boards to another graduating woman in the AG Corps.
Capt. Jon McCary, a 2005 West Point graduate helped his wife pack for her deployment. Aubrey emphasized he has been extremely supportive. She shared, “He is taking care of everything in the household and took leave to help her prepare. “Having someone who understands exactly what I’m going through is invaluable to me. As an infantryman, he is great at packing and helping with my gear. He is steadfast and loyal and a perfect partner.” Jon and Aubrey were married shortly after Aubrey’s graduation during his mid-tour leave from a 15-month deployment to Iraq based in Al-Anbar province.
Jon recommended Aubrey pack fleece and cold weather gear for the cold nights, canned air to blow dust off a laptop and a neck pillow for the plane. An ipod and Kindle topped his essential “comfort” items list. As for the pink flannel pajamas, chick flicks and Hello Kitty items, Aubrey laughed, “ Jon says ‘its cute. It is who you are.’ He likes the fact that I’m feminine, and he knows I’ve been attached to Hello Kitty since I was younger. I don’t think he would like it if I were completely serious all the time.“
West Point helped Aubrey learn to multi-task. “When ever I start to feel overwhelmed, I am able to take a step back and regroup. The stress and pressure on cadets is tremendous, and our ability to adapt and overcome is one of the greatest lessons we learn while at the Academy.” Engraved in her West Point class ring are the words “la vie en rose” – seeing life through rose-colored glasses. To Aubrey it is about optimism and making the best of all things no matter what. “General Colin Powell said that optimism is a force multiplier. I believe that.”
The Military Movement
Lt. Aubrey McCary and the soldiers of 1st of the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion fly to Iraq Sunday Dec. 20, 2009. The unit will serve in an advisory and support role to Iraqi security and military forces, providing training, mentoring and various services to enable their independence. As resources manager for her Army battalion, Aubrey is responsible for handling issues from promotions, evaluations, financial, mail, awards, and general personnel services. They will be part of the last 50,000 US soldiers remaining in Iraq.
In one of the four duffel bags permitted, packed next to her military issued uniforms, socks, body armor, fleece and cold weather gear are her pink and plaid flannel pajamas, and her West Point ring with a pink stone – her own reminder of the power of her femininity.
You can follow Aubrey on her blog, “Aubrey in Iraq”.
If you would like to share your story or that of another veteran women, please contact me. Part 8 of the Honored Role series will feature a former Army officer who teaches high school physics.