As a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader, Rachel Washburn toted pom-poms. As an Army intelligence officer with a special ops combat unit in Afghanistan, she carried an assault rifle and pistol. She was a pioneer on a special mission to relate to local women in ways that would be culturally inappropriate for male troops — including helping deliver an Afghan baby in a snowstorm.
Washburn, 25, who recently returned from her second tour in Afghanistan, was honored Sunday night as a "Hometown Hero" by the Eagles at their home game against the Chicago Bears.
Cheerleader turned soldier? Did that turn heads when she was in military training or living in a mud hut with Green Berets in a village in Afghanistan?
"Initially, it was kind of a novelty to people I met if they ever found out," Washburn said Thursday in a phone interview from Savannah, Ga., where she was on the first day of her post-deployment leave.
"It's kind of a bit of a shock. You don't expect those two things to go hand in hand with one person."
She didn't join the Army on a whim. During her three seasons with the Eagles, Washburn was an Army ROTC student and history major at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Her father was an Army helicopter pilot and an Air Force fighter pilot. She figures she moved 17 or 18 times growing up, but she calls Philadelphia home even though she just attended college there.
"I am so proud of Rachel and all of her extraordinary accomplishments. She has tremendous courage and has made an amazing impact on the lives of others," said Barbara Zaun, Eagles director of cheerleading.
During Washburn's freshman year at Drexel in 2006, she had a friend who was a basketball cheerleader with the Philadelphia 76ers. Washburn loved dancing and thought that would be a "cool experience." With her fondness for football, she tried out for the Eagles squad in the spring of her freshman year.
"I knew it was kind of a long shot with all those beautiful, talented women that try out every year," she said. "I just thought, why not? Go big or go home."
She made the team and cheered for the Eagles from 2007 to 2009. In 2008, she went on a military goodwill tour with the cheerleaders to Iraq and Kuwait. In her case, it also was a military internship.
"ROTC is a very canned version of what the military is going to be. So getting to actually talk to people who are in the military and doing their jobs day in and day out … was very eye-opening," she said. "It was kind of what re-lit the fire and my passion for the military."
After graduation, she was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army (she's now a 1st lieutenant stationed in Fort Stewart, Ga.). She went through paratrooper training, but her role was military intelligence.
Prior to her first eight-month tour in Afghanistan in 2011-12, she became part of a new "Cultural Support Team" program to attach women to special ops units to relate to Afghan women.
"I was always seen as somebody they could relate to and not this American imposter who brings my values to that country," said Washburn, who wore a head scarf when amongst the Afghans.
"We kind of noticed that women everywhere share certain similarities. They obviously care about their home, their children. Women everywhere love pretty things. So if we wore a pretty head scarf, it would be like an icebreaker."
Near the end of her first deployment, on the day her unit was supposed to leave a village, a snowstorm hit. She and her partner learned a local woman had gone into labor. Her husband was unable to get her to a midwife. The husband did not want male troops to see her.
Washburn and her partner took the woman in a military vehicle to their unit's mud hut. On an Army radio, a special ops medic helped them deliver the baby.
"Everything was successful," Washburn said. "Her husband gave us a little trinket. He was so grateful to have a boy."
Washburn returned from her second tour in Afghanistan on Nov. 17. In those nine months, she had a different role as a platoon leader of an Army intelligence unit.
She and other women who participated in the Army program in Afghanistan have considered a book. Some kept journals. One is a writer. "We were the first to ever do anything like that. We bonded so much," said Washburn.
According to Washburn, her military awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Combat Action Badge, Airborne Badge and Air Assault Badge.
Washburn said she has about a year left in the Army, but she is considering signing on for a few more years. "There are some opportunities that are enticing me."
There are issues surrounding women in the military, including opportunities for advancement and sexual harassment
"My eyes have been opened to those issues," said Washburn. "Considering the communities that I have been working in, those issues exist, and I think they're ever present in the media these days with all the changes that the military is pursuing as far as gender equality.
"But with the program that I did in my first deployment, we were part of that change, and nothing motivates me more than being an example of what motivated females can be in the military. I just hope the military continues to progress and that skilled individuals are afforded the opportunities available to them."
Washburn and the other woman assigned with her the Cultural Support Team with their unit in Afghanistan lived in a mud hut with the males.
The two women had a separate living area. "It was a pretty big hut," said Washburn. "So we had our own female quarters, which was nice."
It would be incorrect to say Washburn traded her white cheerleader boots for combat boots. The Eagles cheerleaders wear uniforms designed by Vera Wang. But for dancing purposes they wear designer Gant sneakers.
"I like to think it's because we were more athletic and did more complicated routines," said Washburn.
She added that cheerleaders – like women in the military – should not be labeled with stereotypes.
"The woman I met in cheerleading were all incredibly intelligent, ambitious women," she said.