When it comes to making it in the infantry, Sgt. Serita Unin’s advice boils down to four letters: YOLO.
“You only live once,” said Unin, the first female infantryman in the Alaska National Guard, in a recent press release. “The standards are physically demanding, but if that’s what you really want to do, all you have to do is work hard, work out, be mentally fit, and just go for it.”
Specifically, Unin offered her advice to other women considering the grunt life. She should know, since she followed that advice herself two years ago when she decided to transfer to the infantry. It took a while to get to that point, though: when Unin first joined the Alaska National Guard in 2009, women were still banned from combat units.
“I came in as a generator mechanic and did that job for about 10 years,” said Unin, a Cup’ik Eskimo from the Kashunamiut Tribe who grew up in Bethel, Alaska, a city of just over 6,000 people.
Then, in 2015, President Barack Obama lifted the ban on women serving in combat units, but Unin didn’t consider switching into one until her commander volunteered her for it.
“I got a call from my squad leader asking if I wanted to go infantry, and I thought ‘I don’t know,’” she said. “Then I went to drill, and my unit told me I was going 11 Charlie (infantry mortarman), and I got to thinking, ‘it wouldn’t be a bad idea.’”
Unin was already in the habit of working out twice a day, so she was well-prepared for the physical demands of infantry life. Plus, she was already thinking about changing her job at the time, because she was in a position that maxed out at the E-4 rank of specialist. So, in October 2019, Unin transferred into Bison Company, 1st Battalion, 297th Infantry Regiment. However, it still took more than a year for her to attend a three-week infantry reclassification course in Arkansas. Unin just graduated from the course last month, marking a new milestone for her home state.
“At first it was amazing being the first female infantry soldier in the Alaska Guard,” she said, “but then I realized that this was bigger than myself. I realized that me being a noncommissioned officer in the infantry will give other females a chance to become infantry if they wanted.”
She means that last part literally. For five years after the ban on women in combat units was lifted, Army policy put a wrench in the flow of new female recruits joining those units. The reason was because the Army had a “leaders first” policy which required two female officers or NCOs of the same military occupational specialty to be in each combat arms company that accepted women straight from basic training.
The policy was well-intentioned and meant to “develop the culture change of historically all-male organizations,” as Maj. Melissa Comiskey, chief of command policy for the Army’s personnel department, explained last June. But it ended up slowing down the influx of junior enlisted women into combat units since there were too few female leaders to go around.
“The inventory of infantry and armor women leaders is not as high as we have junior soldiers,” Comiskey said. “And their training pipeline is longer.”
By June 2020, only 2 percent of the Army infantry and armor corps were women, with 601 in the infantry and 568 in the armor corps. With such low numbers, the “leader’s first” rule was modified last March so that only one female officer or NCO needs to be in a combat arms company before junior enlisted women can join it. Going one step further, the director of the Army National Guard also lifted the policy for battalions that have successfully integrated junior enlisted women into at least one of their companies for 12 to 15 months.
All this is to say that Unin, as a female NCO in an Army combat unit, literally opens the door for junior enlisted women who want to follow in her footsteps. She seems like the perfect person to play that role: the press release described Unin as “soft-spoken and thoughtful,” which shows when she talks about her responsibilities as a noncommissioned officer. Unin explained that being an NCO in the National Guard is different from active duty because her subordinates have civilian lives that are just as important as their military duties.
“We’re only here a couple of days out of the month, so I have to ensure that my soldiers have a good life outside the military as well, because if they’re not taken care of on the civilian side, they’re not going to be good in military life either,” Unin said. “It’s really about the soldiers’ welfare and ensuring they have everything they need to be successful all-around.”
It helps that the Alaskan has come to genuinely enjoy the people she serves with.
“Being infantry in an infantry unit, people take care of each other,” she said. “It’s one big melting pot of amazing people who love infantry.”
With that kind of attitude and with the ‘YOLO’ mentality that got her into this, other women who want to go infantry have a good role model to look up to in the form of Unin.
“It is awesome being a part of something historical,” she said, “not just about me, it’s about the whole unit, it’s about all females that want to go infantry, and it’s about the battalion itself.”