Rachel Washburn used to watch football games from the sidelines as an NFL cheerleader but an instrumental event in her life made her change occupations and enlist for the U.S army. Did she make the right decision or did she go running back to her Philadelphia home?
Rachel Washburn grew up in a military family and from birth, Rachel moved around the country over 12 times. The instability of her upbringing led Rachel turning to cheerleading to keep her in one place. What was it that made her enlist to the forces which took her childhood?
Despite moving all over the United States for her father’s job serving as an Army helicopter pilot and an Air Force fighter pilot, Rachel said she wasn’t affected by her situation and said “I always thought that my dad had a pretty cool job and that certainly helped push me in that direction.” Growing up in a military family, it was all Rachel knew as a child so her parents wondered whether she would want to fight for her country.
When it was time for Rachel to start looking at options for colleges, she was certain that she wanted to live in Philadelphia, even though she had never resided there previously. From this, her first choice of college was Drexel and her father said “She really, really wanted to live in Philadelphia, she’s a serious history buff. She had visited there and had done some other things with her high school class out in the eastern Pennsylvania area.”
Her father explained how Rachel applied for a ROTC scholarship, which she was awarded. Her father assumed she would go into the Air Force but Rachel’s decision to apply came from a different place. She said “I thought, ‘Oh, I like camping and I like athletic things,’with that very naïve outlook of what ROTC was, I went ahead and applied for the scholarship, received it and it turned out to be one of the best decisions that I had ever made.”
However, when Rachel arrived at Drexel in 2006, she wanted to take up some extra curricular activities and branch out. As a child, she was a gymnast so she joined the school’s dance team. However, things turned around for Washburn when she found out that one of her friends had become an NFL cheerleader. Despite having never taken a cheer lesson in her life, she said “I just thought, why not? Go big or go home.” And that she did.
To Rachel’s complete surprise, she made the team and cheered for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2007 until 2010, giving her all on the sidelines of every game. However, the opportunities that being on the cheer squad gave Rachel changed her outlook on life. Rachel and the Eagles cheer squad regularly visited VA hospitals around the Philadelphia area and greatest of all, she was able to travel to Iraq and Kuwait on a USO tour with the squad, which she called one of the greatest honors of her life.
More Than Cheering
Washburn insisted that there is so much more to cheerleading than the fans realize. She said it’s something she “always try to verbalize because the women I worked with at the Eagles were some of the most talented and most intelligent people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” She continued in saying “We’re all beautiful women who are there to be entertaining at games, but also, we are incredibly involved in the community, which is something that I am incredibly proud of.”
In addition to her cheer tours, Rachel was a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps after gaining a scholarship with them. Rachel added that it was an eye opening experience, saying “ROTC is a very canned version of what the military is. 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.”
It was the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps which inspired Rachel to go down the military route and exercise her interest. Following her graduation, she became a member of the Army’s Cultural Support team, a role that suited her and her needs perfectly. Washburn said the team’s “initiative created by the military to fulfill a tactical gap in Afghanistan, given the cultural restrictions.” Rachel’s new role was niched and not many were skilled enough to work on her chosen program.
Becoming The Voice
Rachel had a passion for the work that she was doing. She found her place in the army and her cheerleading days began to look like they were long gone. She noted that “The Special Operations operators are not able to engage the female population, so they recruited females in the military to fill that gap.” She added,”We could be their voice during missions for engagement to ensure security on objectives, and we could help search and secure the females and the children during missions.”
A Friendly Face
Rachel took care to be respectful to the women she was working with in Afghanistan. She said,”I was always seen as somebody they could relate to and not this American imposter who brings my values to that country.” She continued,”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.”
However, when Washburn was deployed on her second tour of Afghanistan, she undertook many different roles during her nine months. Along with her cultural position working with women and bridging the gap, she also took on a role as a platoon leader of an Army intelligence unit. Rachel’s determination and commitment to her service has made her a highly respected military member with many people looking up to her. But when Washburn revealed her past, no one could believe it.
Ever since Rachel joined the military, she was amongst the most motivated and exceptional young recruits. At the young age of 25, Rachel had already been awarded the prestigious Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal and the Combat, Airborne and Air Assault Badges. Washburn even went the extra mile and was commended for delivering a baby during a snow storm through taking instructions from military medics over the radio. But when her fellow servicemen and women found out about her past, they couldn’t believe it.
While most of her fellow military members found it funny that Rachel was a previously an NFL cheerleader, she explained that her cheer background had been an important component in preparing her for the army. Not only did the USO tours she did with her Eagles squad push her that much more towards joining the army, but the mental exercises they taught her in cheering were integral for army training. In tough situations, Rachel would think back to her first game, saying she remembered it “incredibly vividly.”
Washburn explained how much cheering and the army were intertwined. She said,”When I was going through the Cultural Support Team training, we had to do mental toughness training every couple of days. One of the things that they taught us was how to kind of tune into your happy place to remain mentally calm in stressful situations. My happy place just so happened to be what I remember my first game being like.”
In addition, the sisterhood of her close knit cheer squad was surprisingly replicated in the army. While most servicemen and women abroad find common ground and develop a bond, Washburn and some of the other women participating in the Army program in Afghanistan decided to take their experience and turn it into something. With a couple of writers in her unit, the women considered writing a book, documenting their experiences. Washburn added “We were the first to ever do anything like that. We bonded so much.”
No Giving Up
Washburn’s experiences in the army shaped her as a person and gave her a genuine purpose in life. Currently, Rachel only has one year left on her existing contract with the Army but the former cheerleader hinted that she can’t see herself going back to her former life. She said “There are some opportunities that are enticing me.” Rachel found her place within the Army and she knew she could continue to help people around the world, all while representing her country.
There was one project within the Army that Rachel was particularly passionate about. Within the armed forces, there have been a number of issues surrounding women, whether it is harassment or the lack of opportunities for advancement. She admitted, “My eyes have been opened to those issues, 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.”
However, Washburn can be noted as one of the few servicewomen who made significant steps in her service to prevent further issues. She noted that “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.”
Despite her awards within the army and moving up in the rankings, there was no one more proud of Rachel than her father, Lon. The former air force pilot was bursting with pride that his daughter has followed in his footsteps and surpassed all expectations. Many people did not expect Washburn to reach the success she did. Her dedication and work was admirable. She was a true role model and American hero, which led her father to nominate her for the ‘Hometown Hero” award.
Like Father, Like Daughter
Putting aside his pride of watching his daughter be an asset to her country, Lon was understandably nervous about his daughter traveling to war torn countries. He said,”I watched her go through two tours in Afghanistan and all of the things that she sacrificed. It was not a very easy couple of tours and I just really kind of thought, ‘Man, what a homecoming that would be if they recognized her for that.'”
A Special Girl
Her father continued in paying homage to his daughter, saying “All of my kids are extremely talented and I’m so proud of them, but there’s something about Rachel that we noticed from an early age. There’s something about her nature, and people who have gotten to know her pretty well will attest to that. She’s very much a driven person, and I think she’s driven by virtue.” He finally added, “she has an extremely good heart and an extremely strong ambition to do what’s right.”
When Rachel’s father, Lon nominated her for the ‘Hometown Hero’ award, the Philadelphia Eagles executives couldn’t think of a better person to give it to. Rachel had given her all to the Eagles and it was time they gave back to her. On December 22nd 2013, 1st Lt. Rachel Washburn returned to her former workplace, forgoing the midnight green Vera Wang-designed cheerleading uniform in favor of army fatigues and combat boots, to be presented as the ‘Hometown Hero’. Washburn was humbled.
The Eagles’ director of cheerleading, Barbara Zaun, acknowledged Washburn’s achievements and said, “Rachel really is the epitome of an American hero, which is why we are looking forward to Sunday night’s game when we will have the opportunity to acknowledge her bravery and thank her for the sacrifices she has made to serve and protect.” She added, “it will be very special for me to see her honored as our Hometown Hero after working so closely with her during her time as a cheerleader.”
Zaun finally added that Washburn “has tremendous courage and has made an amazing impact on the lives of others.” In response to receiving the award, Rachel exclaimed “I’m incredibly excited and humbled by it, I always thought that was such a wonderful thing that the Eagles did – that every game they chose somebody to showcase what they had done for every single person in that stadium.” It was a moment that the former cheerleading will certainly cherish forever.
Rachel has often mentioned her upbringing and how she moved around over 17 times throughout her younger years because of her father’s career in the Air Force, and now her own with the military. Regardless of her instability, Rachel has maintained that Philadelphia is her home and will always be the place she returns to. She said “I’m so honored because I call Philadelphia home, I love the Eagles so much and I’m just excited to be home in Philadelphia and watch the Eagles win.”
After receiving her honor, Rachel couldn’t help but think back to her former days of being a cheerleader for the Eagles. Washburn hoped that through people hearing her story, she would redefine stereotypes of both women in the military, and cheerleaders. She insisted,”The woman I met in cheerleading were all incredibly intelligent, ambitious women.” There is no doubt that through her courage and strength, Washburn is a true American Hero, with her sacrifice to fight for her country proving respectable and admirable.