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Deer Park woman first in state to join Army as combat engineer

Deer Park native McKenzie Griffin poses for a recent family photo in California.
Deer Park native McKenzie Griffin poses for a recent family photo in California.

McKenzie Griffin didn’t want a desk job.

The 20-year-old from Deer Park is an avid weightlifter and self-described exercise fanatic. She’s worked in gyms for several years and enjoys the great outdoors. Her late father ingrained in her a deep appreciation for military service.

So, when Griffin learned a tough job in the U.S. Army Reserve had recently opened to women, she jumped at the opportunity.

Griffin was recruited last month in Spokane to become Washington’s first female Army combat engineer. She’s one of thousands of women to assume military roles that were off-limits until 2013, when top military leaders rescinded a 1994 rule that technically barred women from serving in ground combat units.

The Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force have since opened more than 91,000 positions to women. Nearly a quarter-million other positions are expected to open up by next year, unless military leaders call for exceptions.

So far, 125 women have been recruited nationwide for combat engineer positions since the job opened to women in April. Only one other woman, from Oregon, has been recruited out of 10 Western states.

Griffin said she’s ready for a challenge.

“I’m excited, and I hope to set the bar high,” she said. “It’s great that women have this opportunity. I’m a little nervous, but I think everyone is.”

Griffin grew up with her father, Ken Griffin, in Deer Park, and with her mother in Southern California. She credits her father, who died last year of congestive heart failure at age 49, with stoking her interest in joining the military. Her father wasn’t a veteran, but his father was, she said.

“I’ve kind of always, growing up, wanted to be in the military,” she said. “My father was very service-oriented, and he always taught us to respect veterans, people who do service for the community. I couldn’t think of a more service-oriented job.”

Combat engineers, also called sappers, are tasked with clearing roads, building bridges and digging trenches for fighting battalions.

“We’ll do anything from construction to working with mines and artillery,” Griffin said.

For now, Griffin is living with family in Lake Forest, California, maintaining a strict fitness regimen at the gym where she works; previously, she worked at MUV Fitness in Spokane. She’s hired a personal trainer to help her prepare for boot camp in October in Missouri.

“I’m very good at lifting weights, but cardio is not my strong suit, so he pushes me to the limits,” she said.

Upon completing basic training, Griffin will officially become a soldier in the Reserve and work out of San Diego. She plans to take active duty within a few years, but if that doesn’t happen, she’ll enroll in a police academy. She said she’s drawn toward detective work.

“I plan on staying in the military for the full 20 years, if not longer,” she said. “I’ll probably stay in until they force me out.”

Her recruiter, Sgt. 1st Class James Coy, said he has no doubts about Griffin’s capability.

“She’s a go-getter, always looking to improve herself. She was definitely looking for something more physical,” he said.

“She didn’t want a clerical job.”

Correction and clarification, Aug. 9, 2015: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated McKenzie Griffin’s next rank. She will be an enlisted soldier upon completing basic training. It also did not specify where she will be stationed. She was recruited last month out of Spokane.