Richmond, Virginia - Pvt. Ana-Alicia Bennett, the Virginia Army National Guard’s first female infantry enlistment, made history July 17, 2020, when she graduated from the U.S. Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. With successful completion of training, Bennett becomes one of only a few female infantry Soldiers to serve in the Virginia National Guard and the first to initially enlist and successfully complete training as an 11B.
Bennett, a resident of Mechanicsville, Virginia, arrived at Fort Benning in early February. In the months prior, she tried to prepare herself for the challenges she’d face during her training.
“When I got to Fort Benning, I went through all the emotions,” Bennett said. Despite working to improve her physical fitness level, she said she still couldn’t complete a leg tuck or climb a rope upon her arrival to Fort Benning. She said the training was nonstop and the physicality of the course was more challenging than she anticipated. “You don’t have time to recover from the previous days’ exercises, Your muscles ache and you have to keep pushing forward, pushing yourself.”
“I just kept telling myself ‘I can do this,’” Bennett said. “I would remind myself why I was here.”
Bennett said knowing she was part of a team also helped get her through some of the course’s most challenging moments.
“It totally feels like it’s just you, but it’s not; I look around, and I see my battle buddies and I’m thinking, ‘We’re all in this together,” she said. “It kept me going; it pushed me to strive more and to be better.”
While Bennett’s training covered a broad spectrum of topics, weapons systems and training tasks, she said her favorite weapon was the M320 grenade launcher and that urban operations training was her all-time favorite part of the course.
“Urban operations was my favorite because I got to work side-by-side with my teammates clearing the rooms,” she said. “You’re trusting your battles to have your back and that is critical.”
Among the least enjoyable moments of her time at Fort Benning was the tear gas chamber, Bennett said. This sinus-clearing basic training event aims to build Soldiers’ confidence in their chemical defense equipment.
“The gas chamber was not too bad until the drill sergeants made me sound off with the Soldier’s Creed,” she said. “I died a little inside.”
Another challenge for Bennett was being assigned to a leadership role during training. For 11 weeks, Bennett served as a team leader and was responsible for ensuring her team had the necessary gear required for the day’s training tasks. During that time, she also led missions and made sure everyone assigned to her team knew what was expected of them.
“It wasn’t frustrating until you got smoked for someone missing equipment or gear,” she said. “If anyone on the team messed up, it came back on you. Luckily, I only got smoked twice.”
Then, there were the challenges presented by COVID-19. Bennett’s training started just as news of the virus began to spread across the nation and after just a few weeks of training, much of the country was shut down due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. Bennett said she and her peers were required to wear masks and practice social distancing measures and they headed to the field much earlier than anticipated.
“We weren’t prepared to go out into the field for another month,” Bennett said. “But suddenly, we were being told to pack our gear, and we left for the field the next morning.”
With COVID-19 concerns rising, Bennett said it was scary not knowing what was happening at home or what was going on with the outside world. She said keeping up with current events was a struggle for her and the other Soldiers as cell phone use was extremely limited and they had little access to outside sources of information.
In addition to altering Soldiers’ training plans and increasing the distance they kept from one another during meals and training, the Coronavirus also limited attendance at their graduation. Unfortunately, family members were not allowed to attend.
Bennett’s father, John Howard, who served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army, said he was disappointed he could not attend his daughter’s graduation, but he’s extremely proud of her accomplishments.
“I went into the Army at 21-years-old, in the best shape of my life, and I struggled,” he said. “Ana’s 30-years-old and did what she needed to do and succeeded.”
With training behind her, Bennett will be assigned to Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. There, she will fall under the command of Capt. Candice Bowen, who took command just a few days after Bennett’s completion of training and who is the Virginia National Guard’s first female infantry company commander.
Bennett said she’d also like to get involved in the ROTC program and would like to someday earn her commission.
“I’m very proud of her,” said Staff Sgt. Cameron Casey, Bennett’s recruiter. Casey first started working to get Bennett into the National Guard back in November 2019 and kept in touch with her throughout the duration of her training. “She is definitely an inspiration. She has already inspired other females in Virginia to enlist infantry.”
When asked what guidance she would give others interested in joining, Bennett said it’s vital for new recruits to have the right mindset and the desire to succeed.
“I wanted a MOS that was always moving forward,” Bennett said. “Infantry is highspeed; I love it. If I could do the training all over again, I would.”
Just a few weeks after her graduation, Bennett received an American Flag flown over the U.S. Capitol in her honor at the request of Sen. Tim Kaine.
“I had tears in my eyes, it was awesome,” Bennett said of receiving the flag. “Looking back on graduation day and knowing now that a flag was flown over the capital is crazy to think about. It’s an honor to serve my state and country and I look forward to what is to come.”