FORT BENNING, Ga. — On Feb. 1, 2019, 1st Lt. Candice Bowen graduated from the U.S. Army’s Infantry Basic Officer Course and became the Virginia National Guard’s first female infantry officer. She joins a small group of other women who have successfully completed training at Fort Benning to become infantry Soldiers and officers since the career field was opened to women in 2016.
“This isn’t really for me,” Bowen said. “This is important for the people who are coming after me.”
Bowen graduated from IBOLC alongside 187 of her peers at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia. During the ceremony, her father, a retired Army sergeant major, pinned a blue infantry cord to her uniform, signifying her new career field.
“My dad has been there with me through this whole journey,” Bowen said, explaining that her father had been there for her first Junior ROTC parade and every military milestone since. But, she said, she hadn’t planned to follow in the military footsteps of her father and grandfather.
“I wanted to do TV production,” Bowen explained, but by the time she got around to picking electives, Junior ROTC was the only option left. She said it allowed her and her father to bond, that she ended up getting a national scholarship and, “it snowballed from there.”
Bowen, a self-proclaimed military brat born in Germany, graduated and earned her commission from Penn State. Her dad was there for that, too, rendering the final salute of his active duty military career to his daughter on the day of her commissioning.
“There’s nothing better than seeing your child achieve,” said retired Sgt. Maj. Robert Bowen. “I had an awesome career, but to me my daughter wears a cape.”
For Lt. Bowen, the road to becoming an infantry officer started a few years ago. She’d originally branched military police, but a drawn down of military police forces in Virginia left her looking for other opportunities. She deployed to Qatar with 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, and thought about her options.
“I wanted to stay in Virginia because I really like the Virginia National Guard,” she said, explaining that her command let her explore other career fields. “Ultimately, I just felt like the infantry fit my personality.”
Bowen said in making the decision to become an infantry officer, she’d thought about the leaders she looked up to for inspiration.
“The highest ranking, most influential Soldiers in the military, they’re going to be infantry Soldiers,” Bowen said. “That doesn’t mean support doesn’t matter, because obviously there’s no movement without support, but I wanted to learn the tactics that made those officers, the ones who mentored me in my career, great.”
To prepare herself for IBOLC, Bowen underwent a two-week crash course on infantry tactics and physical fitness at the 183rd Regiment, Regional Training Institute. Sgt. 1st Class Tony Pagliei led the training for Bowen and Capt. Mariya Goloytuk, slated to become the Virginia National Guard’s second female infantry officer later this year.
“Sgt. 1st Class P did a great job with us,” Bowen said. “Day one we had to do a ruck march with him and, I’m not going to lie, that thing was rough.”
At the end of her training with Pagliei, he gave her a blue cord to help motivate her through IBOLC.
“I pinned it up in my room so I saw it every day when I woke up,” Bowen said.
For 19 weeks, Bowen trained at Fort Benning. She learned how to lead and train an infantry platoon and how to shoot, move and communicate as an infantry leader. She learned how to sustain, support and care for Soldiers and their families, how to care for and maintain equipment and to adapt and innovate in a complex environment. She participated in field training exercises, live fire exercises and road marches, took exams and developed herself as infantry leader and a member of a team.
When it was hard, and it often was, Bowen said her faith helped motivate her, along with knowing success required a collective effort.
“When you’re really tired and really hungry and it’s super late and you still have more missions to go, looking to my left and looking to my right at my battle buddies and knowing they’re also in that same moment with me and that we all have to get through it together was huge,” she said. “I knew if I were to leave, it would make it worse for them. It took all of us, together.”
She kept Pagliei updated on her training, letting him know when she completed the 12-mile ruck and, later, the 16 miler that culminated no Honor Hill where Bowen and her peers were given their blue cords.
“The cord we got on Honor Hill, I’m going to frame that one, but the one I’m wearing today, that’s the one [Pagliei] gave me,” Bowen said on the cord her father pinned on during her graduation.
Bowen will begin the Ranger Training Assessment Course this month and then, if successful, will continue on to Ranger School. After that, she’ll be assigned as a platoon leader in Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
With Bowen’s assignment to Bravo Company, the unit will meet the conditions to accept additional female infantry Soldiers, which stipulate that a unit must have one infantry-qualified female leader, either a noncommissioned officer or officer, and one other female leader in any career field assigned to the unit, according to Col. E. Scott Smith, directer of operations for the Virginia Army National Guard.
“Virginia has a plan to assign another female to the unit which will allow the Virginia Guard to start recruiting female infantry Soldiers,” he said, explaining that this change will initially be limited to Bowen’s unit, but, “as we gain additional female NCOs and officers this will allow us to accept females in any unit where there are at least one female infantry leader and another female leader.”
When asked what advice she would give to other women considering an infantry career, Bowen said, “You’ve got to want this. It’s hard. You’ve got to want it and you can’t give up."