When Darla Sanders was deciding what to do after high school, there weren’t a lot of options, so she worked as a clerk. Not wanting to continue down that career path, she joined the military.
“I didn’t go to college, so I didn’t have a degree. I was getting really tired of clerking,” she said.
Then she learned the Air Force needed mechanics, it sounded interesting so she learned how to turn a wrench. She served for 23 years in aircraft maintenance before retiring in 1999.
At the time, many women were turning to careers in the military, driven by an increase in positions open to women, a trend that has continued over the last 25 years.
The more options there are, the more likely women are to join, said Sanders, now the commander of the local Disabled American Veterans and director of project outreach for the Cortez group. Until 1993, only about 60 percent of occupations in the military were open to women; today, 97 percent of military positions are available to women. While many women pursued nursing or clerical positions in the military, Cortez’s Nancy Nelligan went down a very different path. She enlisted in 1982 when the Army was recruiting for their flight program. She served as a helicopter pilot for 10 years active duty, then for 14 in the reserves.
“I always wanted to be a pilot,” Nelligan said. “There were just not a lot of opportunities in the civilian world for women.”
Nelligan said that as women’s roles in the workplace shifted in the civilian world, the military followed.
“It didn’t matter anymore, whether it was a man or woman,” she said. “It’s the skills. Because of the equipment, especially, getting more technical, it didn’t matter who was behind it doing the job.”
Today, women account for about 16 percent of the military. The Air Force and the Navy have the highest percentages of women serving, at 19 percent each, while the Marines have the lowest, at 8 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
The military is well known for building confidence and helping develop skillsets at an early age.
When Sandi Valencia of Cortez had her grandmother pass away her sophomore year of high school, she felt lost. During her senior year, she participated in one semester of ROTC. She then signed up for the Colorado National Guard, and served in an administrative role for 23 years.
“I wasn’t so scattered anymore,” Valencia said. “I used to be a very meek, quiet person.”
All three women credit the military with assisting their professional and personal growth.
“They teach you how to be the best you can be,” Sanders said.