Ohio National Guard News

Celebrating Women's Equality Day Aug. 26:

Passion drives only female firefighter
at Northern Strike 18 exercise

Story and photos by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Clark, 110th Attack Wing

Staff Sgt. Andrea Villegas (left), a fire protection specialist with the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, Ohio, joined other firefighters from the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Ohio National Guard, Tennessee National Guard, Latvia, Estonia and Bulgaria in a night burn training exercise during Northern Strike '18 in Alpena, Mich. Villegas was the only woman firefighter to participate in the exercise, conducted during the first three weeks of August 2018.

Staff Sgt. Andrea Villegas (right), a fire protection specialist with the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, connects a hose from a fire hydrant to a Stryker fire truck.

Staff Sgt. Andrea Villegas (right), a fire protection specialist with the 180th Fighter Wing in Swanton, drives the Stryker fire truck.

ALPENA, Mich.(08/14/18) — Across the U.S. military, there are extraordinary women fighting for the freedom of their friends and family. In various roles, women carry out the same job as their male counterparts.

In 1948, when President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, it allowed women to serve directly in the military. This paved the way for women like Staff Sgt. Andrea Villegas, a fire protection specialist with the 180th Fighter Wing, based in Swanton, Ohio, to be the only female firefighter who executed training missions during Northern Strike 18, a National Guard Bureau-sponsored exercise uniting service members from several states, multiple service branches and a number of coalition countries during the first three weeks of August at the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, both located in northern Michigan.

Humble and hard-working, Villegas knew from a young age that she would serve her country in whatever capacity she could. After considering active-duty Air Force, she decided it wasn’t the right time to leave her family, so with high hopes, she pursued her education and discovered the Ohio Air National Guard.

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just knew I wanted it to be in the military,” Villegas said through a shy smile, her fingers folded politely in her lap as she collected her thoughts. “When you think of the military, it’s so honorable and such a cool thing, I knew I had to be part of it and it could help me further my education too.”

Villegas said she knew she wanted to help people, so when she was provided with the options for a career path, it became clear that fire protection was the only way for her to go.

“You know when you’re a kid and you see fire trucks speeding past you? There is this excited feeling, like, ‘they are saving someone,’ so when they called with all of the options of what I could do, I had to go with fire because I wanted to be the one saving people,” Villegas said, her shy smile turning into a wide grin as a passionate fire sparked in her eyes. Her hands became expressive as she described making her decision and not looking back.

“My favorite part about being a firefighter is the excitement of not knowing what we are running into when those tones drop — along with the medical aspect,” Villegas said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, besides being a mom.”

Villegas set her sights high: even throughout her 68-day technical school training to become a firefighter with the 180th FW, she pushed herself passed her limits to prove she had what it took to “hang with the boys.”

“It is definitely difficult being a woman in this career field. In tech school, I actually had people pull me aside and say, ‘You might want to consider a different career path,’ because they didn’t think I could do it,” Villegas said. “I thought to myself, ‘the hell I can’t.’ I felt like I had something to prove, so I gave it my all and ended up beating the Marines’ fastest times.”

With her current goals, high motivation, and follow-through, Villegas is not done yet. She is setting herself up to move through the ranks and come out on top.

“I am studying fire administration at school. My main goal when I got into firefighting was to become our base’s fire chief, but then I got to know our chief and how many responsibilities he has; he makes it all look effortless,” Villegas said. “It’s inspiring, but it is also going to take a lot of hard work to get there.”

Villegas is a stay-at-home mom on the civilian side and loves being able to raise her children. Setting an example for them is her top priority.

“My current job is just being a mom to my babies, but once they are old enough I would love to work at the fire department, whether it’s on-base or on the city department,” Villegas said, her eyes shining at the possibilities of her future. “Right now, I think of my Guard duty as a side gig to my being a mom, so when people usually ask me what I do I say, ‘I’m a mom, AND I am a firefighter.’”

Villegas arrived in Alpena for Northern Strike 18 in early August, only to find out she would be the only female for the entire training mission. Senior Master Sgt. Jeremy Wohlford, fire chief at Alpena CRTC, worked closely with Villegas during NS18 to assist her in getting prepared for real-life scenarios.

“During the vehicle extrication exercise, she was the Rapid Intervention Vehicle (RIV) driver, and helped put out the live fire for the exercise at the calcite quarry during the coalition training,” Wohlford said.  “She was in charge of the three coalition Latvian partners during one part of the exercise, which was difficult because they don’t speak English that well, and (later she drove) the big Stryker truck during our live-fire exercise.”

The fire chief raved about Villegas and how she handled being the only woman firefighter in the training exercise. He commended her on her abilities as a firefighter with a giant smile and acknowledged the change in culture that has occurred since women were allowed to join the career field.

“It has to be challenging at times, especially with the way this career field is. The guys can be rough, and they aren’t very politically correct, but it is still a brotherhood and she holds her own as (a) sister in that brotherhood,” Wohlford said. “They keep a protective stance around her, in situations when they could just leave her behind. (But) they don’t, because at the end of the day we are still a team with one mission, so we do everything we can to make sure everyone comes home.”

Women’s Equality Day is celebrated annually on Aug. 26, to mark the adoption of the 19th Amendment. In a broader sense, it is a day to honor women like Villegas, who overcome challenges, earn respect and are an inspiration to others who serve, and those that will serve after her.

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