Breaking down gender barriers as WU’s first female ROTC battalion commander

| Scene Assignment Editor

Then junior Rachel Atkins (left) runs toward the finish of the 10k road march at Ranger Challenge last year. Matt Mitgang | Student Life

Then junior Rachel Atkins (left) runs toward the finish of the 10k road march event at Ranger Challenge last year.

Atkins speaks with other cadets during land navigation training at Fort Leonard Wood on Sept. 25.Matt Mitgang | Student Life

Atkins speaks with other cadets during land navigation training at Fort Leonard Wood on Sept. 25.


In an era of gender equality, the military remains a male dominated industry, with many individuals believing that a woman cannot outperform a man, at least not physically.

Senior Rachel Atkins has challenged this misconception over the past three-plus years as a member of the Gateway Battalion, the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) battalion hosted by Washington University. This year, Atkins was appointed cadet battalion commander, and she is the first female to attain the rank at Wash. U.

The position of cadet battalion commander is considered a great honor and is the highest post that a student cadet can hold. Atkins was chosen based on a multitude of factors: peer reviews; her level of participation; knowledge of the battalion; leadership potential; and the national cadet ranking earned during an extended evaluation given during a cadet’s junior year.

Atkins is responsible for the entire Gateway Battalion, which consists of students from Wash. U. and Saint Louis University, as well as nine other colleges in the St. Louis region. She has high hopes for the battalion and wishes to work closely with all of the cadets under her command.

“In [the] ROTC battalion, I think that my duties are a little bit more than they would be in just a general unit because we have a lot of people that are really busy with school work and things like that,” Atkins said. “I do a lot of information dissemination and keeping track of people that I probably wouldn’t have to keep track of in a normal battalion.”

Atkins is able to interact with cadets of all levels and help them through the program due to the nature of her position.

“I have to know every in and out of the unit,” she said. “Over the years, participating in every event [ROTC] had to offer, I have gotten an expansive knowledge on how the program works and what we offer.”

As the job description implies, being a cadet battalion commander takes a lot of talent, time and dedication. Fortunately for Atkins, she hasn’t had many issues gaining the respect that her position deserves.

“It’s been interesting,” Atkins said. “I feel that everyone respects me just as much as they would a guy, except [for cadets from] some of the schools we work with, but you just have to deal with [it on] a case by case basis. You learn how to handle those kinds of issues as a female in the military from the beginning; there’s always going to be a little bit more adversity.”

Sexual harassment is potential concern. “My mom was in the military in the ’70s, and she was sexually harassed a lot,” Atkins said. “She was really worried about me joining [the army] because it happened to her. It has been an issue, but very minimally. It’s definitely policed up, and I don’t really see any big issues with it, so I’m really happy about that.”

According to Atkins, her family’s history in the military played a big part in her desire to enlist in the army. As a fourth generation member of the military, she was surrounded by the culture from a very young age. The decision to join ROTC, however, was entirely her own, and she is satisfied that joining was the right course of action.

“Wash. U.’s been a great experience. If I just went straight to enlist, I don’t think I would have gotten half as much out of the military as I have this way, and I can’t wait to get into it and work with people who didn’t go to college or just to see different sides of the military,” Atkins said.

After graduating, Atkins plans on studying to enter the explosives ordinance disposal unit of the army. This section of the army does not include many females, according to Atkins, because of its heavy lifting requirement.

“I’m trying to bulk up right now…we’ll see where that goes,” she joked.

Despite Atkins’ success, ROTC hasn’t always been a breeze. Getting to graduation, she admits, wouldn’t have been possible without her extensive support system.

“I couldn’t have done it without my best friends in ROTC and at Wash. U.,” Atkins said, specifically citing her freshman year roommate as someone who helped her overcome adversity. “Friends and family have really helped push me through this.”

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