The Army had just allowed women to go into combat as part of the infantry.
For Lakota Lancaster, it was almost a no-brainer. She killed her first deer at the age of 5 on the family farm in Oakland, Mississippi. And her father encouraged her to be tough and take care of herself.
It just seemed like the right fit, she said.
At 17, college didn’t appeal to her and she knew she wanted to join the military. The Army recruiter offered her a brand new option: combat in the infantry.
It was 2016, and it was a surprise. She and her father had to step outside in the hall and put their heads together, but in the end, her answer was, “yes.”
And she became the first female in Mississippi sign up for combat training as part of the infantry.
She was in 11th grade at the time and signed up with a 14-month lead time to allow her to finish at Ocean Springs High School.
She was set to leave for basic training in June, but that was delayed a month, she said, because they were still making adjustments to accommodate women in the ranks.
She graduated Dec. 15 and is home for the holidays.
Her father, Rodney Lancaster of Lancaster’s restaurant on Washington Avenue, is one proud man. He wears a shirt that has the silhouette of a woman in combat gear kneeling, surrounded by the words, “My Daughter Has Your Back.”
Something about her confident smile makes you believe she does.
She walks taller
She’s 5-foot-3 according to her paperwork and her father. But she claims she’s 5-foot-4.
Maybe basic training added an inch.
She said it certainly changed the way she looks at herself, the world and her abilities. And it changed the way she holds herself, she said. It makes her stand proud.
She has the word “infidel” tattooed on her front shoulder in Arabic, because she knows the enemy doesn’t like that. On her back is a statement: Peace is not my profession. It’s yours. War is my profession. Should you fail at your job, I will not fail at mine.
Still, there’s a teenager in there somewhere, because she made her father check to see if there was lipstick on her teeth, before she smiled for the camera.
Combat training was tough and took longer than expected because of an injury she had to push through. Her company started with several dozen women at basic and only a handful finished.
She finished. And in good form, as an expert marksman (or markswoman) with an M-4 carbine.
She will head to Airborne training with the 82nd early next year, and is expected to ship out to Afghanistan or Syria after that.
‘It makes you grow up’
There was the thought of killing or being killed. Then there was the rigors of training that included crawling across an open mine field at night with live bullets fired overhead and live hand grenades set off nearby. And there was the physical requirements of carrying a 200-pound man over her shoulder for 100 yards.
“It definitely does make you grow up a lot,” Lakota Lancaster says.
Hearing the stories, “makes mommas grow up too,” said Tansy Lancaster, her proud stepmother.
Lakota — named after a native American tribe, because she has American Indian in her heritage — signed up for the GI Bill to serve three years active and five years in the reserves.
She came to Ocean Springs from rural Mississippi and graduated with 400 fellow students, which was a culture shock at first. She loved barrel racing, karate and riding ATVs at a young age.
“I was always a little rowdy,” she says. Now she says she believes women can do anything a man can. She said she saw some “badass women” in basic.
Her father wrote to her every day in basic training.
She’s glad to be back with her dogs, her jeans and her family for the holidays. She missed wearing fun clothes, make up and T-shirts.
Her favorite gift is a flag from U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, 1st Congressional District, that he had flown over Washington for a day. It’s certified, she said.
The Army ring her parents bought her is dainty.
But the hand that wears it is a good shot, and she’s proven that with an M-4, a .50 caliber machine gun, a BDM rocket launcher, the MK-19 grenade launcher, the M249 automatic weapon (a SAW), M240 Bravo machine gun, an AT-4 rocket launcher, an M320 grenade launcher mounted to her M-4 and live grenades.
Her father, two uncles, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the military.
Her stepmother said, “She’s just carrying on the tradition, girl-style.”