Perhaps Chilean Army Captain Gabriela Valdivia had an atypical military career path: she said she didn’t have any close relatives in the Armed Forces, and her first vocation was astronomy. But her interest in judo, a sport she chose during her studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, in Santiago, brought her each time closer to her military colleagues.
“The professor invited me to train with the Army’s judo team. I began to get familiar with service members of different ranks and to train with them,” says Capt. Valdivia, 39. “I thought I could become a service member. So, without my family knowing, I submitted my application and they accepted me.”
Her change of heart also had to do with the conditions in which most astronomers work: long hours confined inside an office, while Capt. Valdivia dreamed of working in the open air. She never imagined that after 15 years as an engineer in the military she would start working outdoors and become a pioneer in the Army as the first woman to lead a demining company.
“Although there have been women in the company, it’s the first time a woman assumes the role of commander. I’m honored that they give me this mission,” said Capt. Valdivia, who leads the Humanitarian Demining Company 4th Motor Brigade Rancagua.
Since May 2018, the officer serves as a commander in the Quebrada Escritos area of Arica city, among other areas, in northern Chile, 12 miles from the Peruvian border. Capt. Valdivia leads more than 100 service members and civilians in a demining effort that covers an area of more than 93,000 square-miles, where, according to the officer, about 4,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines remain.
Her duties entail a great deal of responsibilities: updating and checking the minefields’ maps, as well as leading and verifying mine clearance, and making sure that members of her brigade are mentally and physically up to the task. Physical exhaustion and a lack of focus are dangers that might cause accidents, the officer says.
“If one of your company members has an accident, if someone fails, it’s my responsibility. You need to know how to manage enormous pressure,” Capt. Valdivia says.
“Planning and risk assessment, coupled with empathy and teamwork capabilities, are the main traits that make Capt. Valdivia one of the many leaders that we have in the Chilean Army,” Lieutenant Colonel Cristián Sarah, Chilean Army’s chief of Communications, told Diálogo.
In the 1970s, the government of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) planted about 180,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in Chilean territory, along the borders with Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. In 2002, Chile signed the Ottawa Treaty, also known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction.
In early 2019, the Chilean government began to implement a system of reparations — financial and medical assistance and rehabilitation — for the victims of anti-personnel mines. According to the government, as of January 2020, about 150 people were severely injured, and 46 had died from explosions.
As of mid-January 2020, 94 percent of the mines planted in Chilean territory have been removed, says Capt. Valdivia. The officer expects that the country will successfully honor its promise to conclude the demining process in March.