Interview: Ilze Žilde, first woman ranked colonel in Latvian army

Recently, Ilze Žilde, Head of the United Staff of the National Armed Forces, became the first woman ever to be assigned the rank of colonel in the Latvian army, the National Armed Forces. 

Women make up 16% of Latvia's military personnel, but Žilde's assignment might be seen as symptomatic of changing gender mores in the military. She has been serving in the army for more than 25 years and thinks that what makes a military professional is practice and knowledge, regardless of one's sex. As Žilde sees it, females seldom choose to enlist due to aged stereotypes, which have little to do with present-day reality.  

Here is Žilde in conversation with Latvian Radio's Sintija Ambote.

Latvian Radio: Please tell us about yourself, in particular about how you came to serve in the army. When and how did you join the ranks of soldiers?

I have to be honest – my getting involved in the army was not the result of single-minded planning. I was looking for a job, and a fellow student was working in the National Guard Headquarters. She was about to leave Latvia and was looking desperately for a replacement. So I ended up at the National Guard as a contract employee. At first it was paperwork. You had to have computer skills, but before starting I had only seen a computer at a distance, it was 1994. But this fellow student said, hey, you can play the piano, and computers are similar, so you can apply for the job. That's how I began, and I learned to work with the computer on my own.

Later on they made an offer to join the National Guard, and in the summer I decided to join this organization. By the time I was finishing my studies a few years later, I had to make a decision whether I'll stay in the army. I didn't have to think twice about staying.

Before enlisting, did you consider the stereotypes, i.e., that it's a man's profession?

Not so much at that time as later on, during my service. But the people who set up the National Guard were a positive-minded circle, and I didn't have to ponder anything like that there.

Besides, at the early beginnings there were many women serving there, and it didn't seem frightening.

The only thing I remember is that I thought everyone was old, as I was just a 20-something. But the people with this great life experience were positive, they brought their own furniture and developed this organization. As the environment was so supportive, it wasn't a tough decision. 

You have just become the first woman to be ranked colonel in the history of the Latvian army. What does this rank mean in the army system and what are your duties and obligations? 

These ranks are related to the job you do. Since 2017 I am the head of United Staff of the National Armed Forces, that is, about 6,000 professional soldiers, national guard, civil employees and reserve troops who are very active at this moment. This is my job as a colonel, a job I have been doing for three years. My decisions and any advice I give to the [army] leadership has great accountability. Every mistake I make has very serious consequences.

As concerns the first part of the question, for the past few days I have considered very seriously both my inner emotions and the question of who I am right now. First of all, it's a great honor to me, one that has been shown from the leadership and the government, which granted this rank to me. 

Indeed, it's a great responsibility to be the first colonel in the history of Latvia. 

Do women face many challenges in ascending the ranks in military service?

Perhaps there are some stereotypes about the environment that have come from the past. Yes, it is a manly profession, but a woman doesn't have to sort of contradict their essence to be there. This work has not demanded I change anything substantial about myself.

As concerns professional life, I would like to do away with the aspect of sex. What's important here is training, knowledge, ability to argue, prove, and think.

And it doesn't matter whether you're a man or a woman. I think it will became more equal, as in Latvia the percentage of women in the Armed Forces is relatively high at 16%. And our society is not as strict in separating the sexes, concerning the work they do as well.

I think that any of my women colleagues serving here have opportunities to ascend the ladder.

The Commander of the Armed Forces has said that "the first rank of colonel in the history of the Latvian army is a response to those women who still doubt that they would be able to make accomplishments in military service and contribute to the development of Latvia's defense system". Do you think it's important for new recruits to have a predecessor in trying to reach a particular rank?  

I would be very happy if I could become an example, and that my life-story or current situation could encourage women to join us. We can't promise it's an easy road, but you can't find one anywhere. 

What's your daily life like?

Training is the most difficult time of all, especially if you choose to become an officer. The longest time I spent training was a year away from home. Indeed, it's emotionally difficult then and you're torn away from your family. But you can overcome this, and afterwards the satisfaction that I was able to do it is even greater.

The military environment is very dynamic, but that's a good thing as it prevents you from growing too comfortable. You have to muster up on the inside, and you have to follow what's new. If you have subordinates you have to be able to both ask them to do their job and be responsible for them. Spending a lot of time in this environment, you start learning what you want from yourself and the others.  

After becoming a colonel, has anything changed in the uniform you wear every day? 

The uniform is a frame that sort of makes me muster up, as when I don my uniform I have this complete feeling of being a soldier. In the eyes of the public, too, the uniform symbolizes the army and singles out me as one of its representatives. But my military rank is evidenced by the stripes that have the diamond shape that's recognizable in the military. Now I have a colonel's shape that testifies to my experience and the practice I've underwent.

What qualities should a person have aside from the official requirements and norms needed to become colonel? What has helped you arrive to where you are now?

The main thing to have is complete responsibility about oneself, one's actions and one's decisions – which you also have to be able to justify.

And if you have a such-like mental framework, you can get to this level. The rank of colonel marks the framework and the responsibility you acknowledge every day. The responsibility can even work to bring you yourself back to your senses at times when it's hard, when you want to whine and leave this situation for good. 

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