Football, pom-poms, guns and war—these things are no stranger to Rachel Washburn, a 25-year-old who gave up NFL cheerleading to serve the U.S. military in Afghanistan.
Washburn spent three seasons (2007-09) as a cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the military in 2010, according to Gary Mihoces of USA Today (h/t Nina Mandell of For The Win). She’s since served two tours in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer in a special ops combat unit.
As a soldier, Washburn's job involved pioneering relations between Afghan women and the U.S. military. Her ability to approach and relate to local women allowed her intelligence unit to bridge the communication gap between soldiers and female civilians in Afghanistan, a nation where cultural norms dictate that women should not converse with men they don't know.
Washburn returned from her second round of duty last month and will be receiving recognition Sunday as a “Hometown Hero” by the Eagles.
Washburn is now listed as a first lieutenant stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. The USA Today article lists the Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Combat Action Badge, Airborne Badge and Air Assault Badge among her military decorations.
The cheerleader-turned-soldier gave a phone interview to USA Today on Thursday and explained how people in the Army were surprised by her former job.
“Initially, it was kind of a novelty to people I met if they ever found out,” Washburn said. “It’s kind of a bit of a shock. You don’t expect those two things to go hand in hand with one person.”
Indeed, you don’t often hear of someone going from shaking pom-poms on NFL sidelines to delivering an Afghan baby in a snowstorm—one of the many experiences Washburn had while overseas.
Joining the Army wasn’t a flight of fancy, however. Her father flew Army helicopters and piloted fighter planes for the Air Force. Washburn was enrolled in Army ROTC and studied history at Drexel University while cheerleading for the Eagles. In 2008, she also went on a military goodwill tour of Iraq and Kuwait with several other cheerleaders.
Washburn has about a year left in the military but says she might sign up for another stint.
“There are some opportunities that are enticing me,” she said.
And thus is the life of Rachel Washburn—cheerleader, child deliverer and soldier. You have a real hometown hero in this one, Philadelphia.
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