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Gene Holden: Veteran of History

A COBRA helicopter.
(Image courtesy of the U.S. Army.)

Before Gene Holden came to SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, she helped change history. In 1974, Holden became the first female mechanic to work on COBRA helicopters in the field in the U.S. Army. The army offered Holden a teaching position after she received her certification, but instead she followed her adventurous spirit and went to Savannah, Georgia to work on an otherwise all-male base. "I'd do it again in heartbeat," she says.

In the mid-1970s, female army members were few and far between. Holden worked on high-profile machines, and says some of the older soldiers viewed the job as "men's work." But for the most part, she says, her fellow mechanics were supportive and made her feel at home on the base. "I worked with some really great guys," she says. "They expected me to do everything they did and that was just fine with me."

While Holden may have stood out from her unit members in person, on paper she blended in a little too well. "I didn't know my name was legally spelled G-E-N-E until I joined the army. I had always spelled it J-E-A-N," she says. Assuming she was male, the army initially placed Holden in a combat unit, from which women are barred.

After graduating in first place from Advanced Individual Training, she received a letter from the General of the Army congratulating her on this accomplishment and her subsequent promotion. It stated, "Thank you, the Army needs men like you." Holden sent the letter back with the words "Yes, you do" written at the bottom. She laughs a little and shakes her head, wishing she had kept it. "I was young," she says smiling. She never received a response.

After two years of service, Holden's male comrades were given a $10,000 bonus for re-enlisting. At the time, female members were not offered any compensation. Although Holden says she would have liked to continue, she wouldn't accept the double standard, and left the army.

Nearly 30 years later, Holden went back to school to earn her master’s degree in Educational Technology from Pepperdine University. One day, she and a classmate started an online discussion about the Vietnam War. In 1974, the two friends stood on opposite sides of a heated national scene, and both experienced hostility from the other side. Once, while Holden walked down the street in her army uniform, a protestor threw a full can of soda at her head. Thankfully for Holden, it missed its target. A protestor himself, Holden's friend was beaten by the Chicago police during a demonstration. "It was amazing to get this glimpse of history," says Holden. "Now we can look back and understand each other. I understand what he was protesting, and he understands that I believed I was serving my country. We're such different people now, but it's incredible to look back. Back at where we were, who we were, and what we were doing."

After leaving the Army, Holden completed an apprenticeship and became a Utility Mechanic in SLAC's Plant Engineering Department, which has since become the Facilities Department. Although she never expected to, she stayed on as a mechanic for 17 years. Holden then joined the Environment, Safety and Health Division as a Reports Editor, then became a trainer, teaching General Employee Radiological Training and Employee Orientation to Environment, Safety, and Health. She then went on to become an Instructional Designer and created several courses.

After 12 years with ES&H, she rejoined Facilities as a Facilities Coordinator, using her experience in mechanics, writing and safety planning to create procedures and work plans. She says, "I've come full circle, and being in Facilities is like coming home. This place is amazing. Every day there's something new and exciting. You just never know."

—Calla Cofield
SLAC Today, November 12, 2008