The following story originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine - Ed.
Emily Bessler’s ’14 parents like to tell their daughter that as a student at William & Mary, she squeezed more into 24 hours than they thought possible.
According to Bessler, William & Mary is, and always has been, family. Her parents, Marjorie ’85 and John ’85, met and fell in love at the university. They both experienced the fast-paced environment of the Public Ivy, so they were familiar with the caliber of the students, yet remained surprised at their daughter’s academic success and extracurricular involvement with everything from service activities to music to student government.
Bessler sang in Reveille a cappella and directed the Christopher Wren Singers. She was a member and eventual chair of the Student Conduct Council and a Parent and Family orientation aide. She also was a member of the ROTC program.
After her ROTC career, Bessler moved through the ranks to become a M777A2 platoon leader in C Battery, 2-319 Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division Artillery for the United States Army. In this constantly busy role, Bessler continues to make her parents proud and fits way more in a day than she, or her parents, ever thought possible.
“I manage upwards of 40 artillerymen, three 155-millimeter howitzers [cannons], and all the associated equipment, vehicles and problems that come with that,” Bessler said. “The 82nd has a very specific mission set — we train to be deployable on short notice, within 18 hours, anywhere in the world. And we do it by dropping howitzers and paratroopers from aircraft. My soldiers and I are constantly training, prepping to train, prepping to deploy and live-firing rounds. It’s very fast-paced, and requires quite a bit of multitasking, but is incredibly rewarding work.”
While she finds her job extremely fulfilling, Bessler’s entry into the ROTC program at W&M wasn’t necessarily a career path she or her parents expected.
“I was a part of the ROTC program, starting my sophomore year,” she said. “I didn’t tell my parents beforehand, and when I finally told them over the summer that I had signed up for ROTC, they were floored.”
They were especially proud that their daughter was choosing to follow in their footsteps to serve the Army, the same branch they’d both served in after training at W&M.
“They never expected their a cappella-singing, musical-performing, student-council member daughter to have any interest in the Army,” Bessler said.
But after her first week of ROTC, she was hooked.
“I fell in love with the camaraderie, PT and small arms tactics. It was through the ROTC program that I met my lifelong friends, and had the opportunity to learn from and be mentored by some incredible officers and non-commissioned officers that I stay in contact with today,” she said.
Bessler even had the chance to travel as being part of ROTC. During the course of her three years in the program, she attended training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Fort Lewis, Washington.
“I grew as a leader, a student, a teacher and eventually, was commissioned as a lieutenant,” she said.
Last year, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opened all combat jobs to women, an unprecedented move for the U.S. military. Bessler is familiar with being one of a few women in her field.
“I was the first female fire direction officer and now the first female platoon leader in my battalion," she said. "I’m surrounded by men 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are only a few other females in the battalion at all, none of whom I work with on a daily basis.”
Despite being one of few women in the workplace, Bessler knows her performance matches the level of her male teammates.
“I would like to think that my female peers and I performing well in the artillery, a previously closed branch, may have contributed to this shift in policy. I love my job, I work hard, and I know other women that also chose artillery and want to be here who are doing extremely well," Bessler said. "There is nothing about my job that I can’t do because I’m a woman. I hope that with the policy change, people will stop asking me what it’s like to be the only girl around, or how hard it is to be the only female, because integrating women will become so commonplace.”
Bessler hopes for gender equality in the military, in that she wants females to be treated the same as any male soldier, especially since they do the same work.
“I told my guys from the get-go, 'I’m just another lieutenant — don’t change your vernacular or behavior on my account,'" she said. I want them to treat me the way they would any man, and the fact that they do is the greatest compliment they could give me, and affirmation that I’m doing my job the best way I know how.”
Without her experience at W&M, Bessler is positive her training experience would have been different.
“Since graduation, I’ve affirmed my belief that I received not only a world-class education at W&M, but also a phenomenal military education," she said. "I was creating products and doing work as a senior in the ROTC program that I still use today on the job.”
Outside of training, Bessler’s personal life could have been very different, too.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t understand that sanctity of a Cheese Shop sandwich with extra house dressing, or taking pictures on the Wren steps, or going to the Yule Log ceremony to hear ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas,’" she said. "I made my best friends in college, some of which I work with today in the Army at Fort Bragg. I wouldn’t trade my time at William & Mary for the world.”