First Lt. Rachel Washburn is like any other Army officer. She’s well-educated, well-trained and hard-charging with two combat tours in Afghanistan already behind her. She’s slightly different, though, in that prior to being commissioned in 2010, she spent three years as a cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“There’s definitely a difference between being a cheerleader and being a soldier,” Washburn said. “But they’re a lot alike, because cheerleaders are also ambitious, motivated and hard-working. The women I worked with on the Eagles’ (cheerleading squad) have very similar values and character as the female soldiers I work with now.”
Washburn said she tried out for the Eagles’ cheerleading team at the end of her freshman year at Drexel University, where she was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. Even though she enjoyed being a cheerleader, she said the Army remained her first choice.
The military-intelligence officer said the physical-fitness requirements to be a cheerleader also are comparable to those associated with being a soldier. She described her cheerleading squad as an organization that pushes its members to perform for up to four hours on the sidelines during a football game. The hours she works as a soldier are even longer.
During Washburn’s first deployment to Afghanistan, she was assigned to the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. She explained that only female soldiers are allowed to search female civilians. As an military-intelligence officer, she said she was given basic language training for her job but worked primarily with a native interpreter for human-intelligence gathering.
It was exciting work that sometimes could be dangerous, Washburn said. She paused briefly and expressed sorrow over the loss of two female team members who were killed in action during her first combat tour.
Following her recent redeployment as a platoon leader with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Washburn was awarded the Bronze Star Medal. Her other awards and badges include a combat-action badge, parachutist wings and air-assault badge.
Washburn’s father has been an inspiration to her. He was a helicopter pilot for the Army and fighter pilot for the Air Force, she said. Her dad flew the UH-1 Huey and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for the Army and the F-4 Phantom and F-16 Falcon for the Air Force. He is retired from the Indiana Army National Guard.
It was her father who recently nominated her as the “Hometown Hero” for the Philadelphia Eagles. She said her friends encouraged her to go the Bears vs. Eagles game, where she was honored, and to do the media interviews. Washburn said they wanted her to help dispel some public misconceptions about what women soldiers do.
“A lot of people just don’t know,” Washburn said. “There have been a lot of changes in the military. Women are doing a lot more now.
“The women I’ve served with want to serve their country. They want to be challenged. The Army offers opportunities and experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. I think women join the Army for the same reasons men do,” she said.
She said her mother and father are both proud of her and support what she’s doing. However, she admitted they’re concerned about her. She grinned when she pointed out that her two sisters were not interested in joining her in the military.
Washburn said she hasn’t yet decided to make the Army a career. She’d like to go to law school and one day work in the human-rights field with a specific goal of working on international legislation for human rights.