MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – 113.
That’s how many years it took before the Uruguayan Army accepted women into its Military Academy.
“We broke every barrier,” said Capt. Andrea de los Santos, 31, one of the first two women to graduate from the Military Academy after entering in1998. “All eyes were on us. We had the task of showing that women could do the same things that men do and become members of the military. In the beginning it was difficult, but today I can say that I am at ease.”
From 1998 until the first months of 2011, a total of 885 men and 154 women enlisted in the Uruguayan National Army, according to the army.
Women represented 22.7% of enlistees in 2010, a marked increase compared to 2009 (21.9%) and 2008 (14.3%), according to the army.
“[This] is part of a global transformation,” said Maj. Jesús Aires, director of the Press Office of the Social Communications Office of the Uruguayan Army, about the increase in the number of women entering the Uruguayan National Army. “The participation of women is on the rise in every profession, and the military profession is no exception.”
“In the beginning, women would do [only] administrative work, but not anymore,” de los Santos said, referring to the increasing number of women assigned to combat units. “We have parity with men, and we take courses that are much more challenging in terms of military content.”
She added: “The army’s mission is not just to be at war, but it is to safeguard the country in peacetime. A country without an army is not a nation. One enters the army to be ready in the event of a war, or if we are needed, to be able to act [in times of peace].”
De los Santos, who has had several relatives serve in the armed forces, entered the Military School – an institution that prepares soldiers who are minors who intend to apply to the Military Academy – in 1996. Two years later, de los Santos was accepted into the Military Academy, becoming part of the first female class at both institutions.
Four years later, she graduated with the rank of Second Lt. of the Infantry, ready to serve her country on the battlefield.
Her first job was as director of the Heavy Weapons Section of the Infantry Battalion No. 12, where she was in charge of 24 male soldiers. She was then promoted to be an instructor in the Preparatory Course at the Military Academy, where she taught classes comprised of 80 students.
Two years later, she was assigned to Infantry Battalion No. 13.
“I was able to return to the infantry unit, which is what I really like,” she said.
She took courses in Brazil, Argentina and the United States to learn how to teach canines and soldiers to search for explosives and victims.
Four years later, she was deployed to Haiti to assist in rescue efforts after the impoverished nation was rocked by a massive earthquake in January 2010.
“It has been proven that a woman can do the same work as a man, in battlefield missions and in peace missions,” she said.
Women represent 3% of the troops deployed by Uruguay on peace missions, leading the country to be recognized several times by the United Nations.
De los Santos currently serves as the commander of the Commandos and Services Company and Operations Officer with the Infantry Battalion No. 15. She works with two male captains to lead about 270 soldiers.
“In order to be in the military, you have to have a special temperament and you really have to like it, since you are risking your life to defend the country,” she said.
Fernando Cánepa, Andrea de los Santos’ husband, is supportive of her career.
“It gives me great pride [that she’s in the military],” said Cánepa, who owns a business that trains dogs. “When she goes away, I wait for her as if it were a normal day at the office. But in reality you know it’s not like that, [because] she’s putting her life at risk. But I think every job has its risk, and she is prepared.”
De los Santos added: “I feel indebted to my homeland, to uphold the basic pillars of the nation, which are the Constitution, laws and sovereignty.”