Women used to enter the military through the health and administrative professions. Thousands of women served at field hospitals and assisted with military support operations. For Colonel Irma Azucena Baquedano de Maldonado, a health officer, nursing was her gateway to the Armed Forces of Honduras.
“In 1981 our family doctor, who was also a colonel on active duty, mentioned to my father the possibility of a scholarship to enter the military through the nursing profession. I applied and gained admission to the Mexican Army and Air Force University,” Col. Baquedano told Diálogo.
Upon graduation from nursing school, she returned to Honduras, where she earned the rank of second lieutenant and enrolled in the nursing bachelor’s program at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras. It was then that she set her sights on her first mission – to earn the respect of the 33 men in her class, the university’s 22nd class, through respect and honesty.
“In every course that I took, I made sure that I was a good student, very hardworking and disciplined, as well as being honest and respectful towards my classmates. I made an effort to pass the physical evaluations as well as the exercises on commanding posts because the slots you deserve must be earned,” she said.
That attitude and character, which she self-identifies as strong, helped her to keep her classmates from seeing her as a delicate lady, but rather as just another officer in the course. She did not seek special treatment as a woman.
Military career and technical profession
Even though Col. Baquedano was not the first female officer in the Honduran military, she was the first to serve in a technical field. “I had the opportunity to get both a military and a technical education. I served for 22 years as a specialist in intensive care, and I was also head nurse at the military hospital for five years. I retired because on attaining the rank of colonel, other military duties kicked in that didn’t allow me to continue in the health area,” she explained to Diálogo.
Her path was not easy. At the time there were no restrooms adapted for women. So the young officer threw herself at her studies, passed all her courses and graduated with honors. She went on to get a Command and Staff diploma and enrolled at the National Defense Institute, earning a master’s degree in Central American Defense and Security.
First female unit commander
“My husband, who is also a service member, was assigned to a diplomatic mission in 2014. We requested permission from the chief of the Armed Forces for me to accompany him…” Col. Baquedano told Diálogo. “To my surprise, they replied that there would be no problem with that but that I needed to make a decision since I was assigned as commander of my unit. Without thinking it twice, my husband replied that I had my own military career and that I should continue it. So I stayed in Honduras and assumed the commander position.”
The Humanitarian Rescue Unit (UHR, per its Spanish acronym), had previously been led by men. Col. Baquedano was the first servicewoman in Honduras and in Central American to lead the 272-person unit.
UHR was created in 1997 as the result of an accord between the Dominican Republic and the High Council of the Central American Armed Forces Conference (CFAC, per its Spanish acronym), in order to promote activities for trust-building, transparency, and mutual cooperation among the militaries of the Central American isthmus. “In that unit I wore two hats, as they say. Meaning that in addition to being UHR commander — which implied being the only female commander in CFAC — I was also director of the Regional Training and Humanitarian Aid Center (CARAH, per its Spanish acronym) in 2014 and 2015,” she remarked.
At CARAH, CFAC member states’ UHRs receive induction, education, training, and qualification for officers and outstanding enlisted soldiers who will serve in support roles in the event of natural disasters or humanitarian crises. “The center’s purpose is for these countries to have the strength and the capacity to respond at the same level. During my time as director, three classes graduated in two years, and each year, 35 people received instruction in three courses,” she said.
In January 2016, she was assigned to the Joint Staff of the Honduran Armed Forces as chief of the Honduran Army’s Department of Planning, Policy, and Programs for Civilian and Army Affairs. Being a member of the Joint Staff is the highest position that a military commander can hold, as it is that entity which plans, coordinates, and monitors the work of the military service. In that role Col. Baquedano carried out highly important duties, such as planning training, seminars, and courses for army officers, and planning medical brigades (public health fairs), the Guardians of the Homeland program, and training workshops for the Mission Character program whose purpose, among other things, is to professionalize the military.
Wife and mother
Her military career did not keep her from also developing her “family career,” as she defines it. She is married to an Infantry colonel whom she considers her lifelong mentor and the person who has also shown tremendous respect for her career. Together, they are the parents of a daughter who has a degree in industrial engineering and business administration and a son who is a lawyer.
“The discipline in our home was not repressive but there were rules that had to be followed. I also had to balance my studies with my duties as a mother. My husband was always a huge support. He was both an instructor at home and my military instructor. My marriage is based on respect and openness. I’m the same person to my husband as I am to my superiors, or abroad, representing my country.”
Role model for a new generation
This is a new era. Many young Honduran women join the military each year. Air Defense Second Lieutenant Faythe Mishelle Franco Guardiola sees Col. Baquedano as an inspiration. “When she took command of UHR, I told her that it was a great challenge and that her work as commander would open doors for all female subordinates, that she was our guide and motivation for achieving command positions,” 2nd Lt. Franco told Diálogo.
She is clear that it is a tough road but that her predecessor’s work, example, and advice have pushed her to think that she can achieve that as well. “She has always fought for gender equity and also for the unity of all military servicewomen. She has been a role model to us and has given us good advice on how to get ahead, as opportunities for women in the military are increasingly opening up,” she stated.
“I don’t see gender equity as a fight. It’s shown through hard work and discipline, where you rise to the station you merit,” said Col. Baquedano. “What you achieve through your abilities is not a favor or a concession. I didn’t become a commander because I was a woman and they were trying to fill a slot to comply with a gender equality law. I became a commander because I have the ability to lead.”