• Athena Ives

Grappling Warrior Queen Sergeant First Class Laree Callihan

“Laree ‘Cali’ Callihan belongs to an elite class of warriors driven by love that live by loyalty and are humbly fueled by a constant desire to serve the greater good and it has been my honor to call her my sister for over a decade” -Sheldon Carpenter retired Army Special Operations and MMA fighter.

Sergeant First Class Callihan started her services in the US Army in 1996 and transitioned to the National Guard in 2006. She currently holds Signals Intelligence Analyst as her primary job title, but actually works for the Special Security Office of the Army National Guard G-2. Callihan deployed to Iraq from 2006-2007 under detainee operations and then from 2008-2009 under convoy security. She is no stranger to being one of the only females in her unit, and during her 08 deployment, she advanced from one of the only female Truck Commanders to the only female Alternate Convoy Commander in her male unit. I had the honor of interviewing Callihan as our first female Warrior.

Athena Ives: What is one of the most difficult things about serving in the military?

Callihan: Being a female in a male-dominated environment fitting in is out of the question, you will never “fit in” or have the same comradery as the males, there are lines there. The lines are taught, learned and psychological. Despite professionalism, strength, and ability to perform my job at a higher level than most, I was rarely seen as an equal while serving in a line unit. Many women in the military face this issue. “I was afraid to make any mistakes because of the constant scrutiny.”

Athena: How did this constant pressure impact you?

Callihan: I made the best out of a situation that could have caused me to give up, but that is not in my vocabulary. There are eyes on you constantly just waiting for you to slip up. It made me work harder but it also made me take on a lot of responsibility, sometimes more than I felt I could. Fortunately, I did have a Platoon Sergeant who saw my potential and held me to it. You have to make the best of bad situations. There are men who will never be okay with taking orders from a female. One of the most challenging times of my life was being deployed with an all-male unit in a leadership position. There were times I dreaded going to work but I had my troops to take care of and I would never let them down.

Even if some didn’t want me there, it was my job and I would make sure they were safe and that they came home alive.

Athena: The military is often a very lonely place for women! Men are hesitant to be your friend due to past false sexual assault allegations that have most male service members walking on eggshells. If you outperform a man you are disliked for outdoing them. If you underperform you don’t deserve to be there. If you perform equally, well that’s what you’re supposed to do so why should you get recognized. Most of us aren’t seen as a service member we are seen as a female.

Athena: According to the DOD’s fiscal 2018 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, around 21 thousand service members were sexually assaulted and the male assaults are climbing. Did you experience any MST (Military Sexual Trauma)?

Callihan: Yes, I've experienced several assaults during my career.

While she still struggles with the trauma she experienced, not only in the service but growing up in a very challenging home (or lack thereof), she is a stoic example of resilience and strength. One of Callihan’s main coping methods is grappling. She started back in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. She took 2nd in No-Gi and 3rd in Gee in when she competed at World’s in 2016 for the US World Grappling Team. She qualified in 2017 but did not compete due to being pregnant with her daughter. In 2019 she qualified and competed again. Not only does she feel safer due to her abilities, but it is also an amazing form of mental health therapy. Callihan, as well as close friends and co-workers, notice a significant change in her mental health when she is unable to get in the gym.

Athena: Who are your favorite female Warriors?

Callihan: Xena was one of the few I knew about and admired along with the Greek Goddess of War and Wisdom Athena. Oh, and Annie Oakley, not sure she is considered a warrior but her.

Athena: Women were only recently allowed to serve in combat positions but we have been fighting in wars for centuries. You don’t have to be a Veteran to be a Warrior.

Athena: What does the word Warrior mean to you?

Callihan: A warrior is a person that goes forward and does the right thing. Goes forward and fights to the death for integrity and is honest, loyal, and demonstrates unwavering perseverance. Someone that makes the world a better place. Oh, and someone that takes responsibility for their actions and doesn’t hide behind excuses.

Athena: Time to brag, what is something you did that you are proud of?

Callihan: I was part of the Sustainer Challenge Team in 2009. I not only trained the team in some of the events but I was the only female to beat a male during the combatives tournament. Army combatives is co-ed, as it should be. You do not get to choose your opponent on the battlefield. During the tournament, I ended up beating an active duty male Soldier which was a very proud moment for me because I was a National Guard female and he was an active-duty male Soldier! That guy is still hearing about that match, guaranteed! For the challenge, we had several tasks and events to complete on the first day of the event to include a ruck march, first aid and a litter carry, PT test, shooting, changing a HUMVEE tire, whatever one may encounter during combat. Then after getting all beat up on the first day of the event, they held the combatives tournament on the second day. We were already beat up so it really just boiled down to who really wanted to win.

Athena: Who inspires you?

Callihan: Marie Dickinson, she is a dear friend who helped me get through many challenging times in my life. Someone that wasn’t my family but acted more like one than some of my own. She believed in me and supported me when I needed it the most.

Athena: What are your goals?

Callihan: My career goals changed when I became a mother. To me being a Mother and giving my daughter everything she deserves that I never had, that is my goal. To teach her to have a voice when people try and silence her, teach her confidence and proved her with a secure family. I would love to buy a ranch up in the mountains somewhere and have my family together in one place.

Athena: What is some advice you can give those dealing with trauma?

Callihan: To get the help they need. Everyone is different and not all treatments work for everyone. Be honest with yourself, admit your failures, take responsibility and MOVE ON. Don’t let it control you.

Athena: Who are some female Warriors you feel should be recognized?

Callihan: There are so many but, Lisa Ellis, she is a UFC fighter who is one of the strongest women I know. She struggled in a male-dominated field and came out on top with strength and beauty. Sergeant Major Amy Patterson is one of the most professional, stoic, and incredible servicewomen I have the honor of knowing.

“Sergeant First Class Callihan is a Warrior, loving Mother, Grappling World Medalist, loyal Friend, fierce Defender of freedom, and she kept reminding me that she is just a regular person trying to do her best. “Laree has always been an amazing kid. She is proof that sheer determination will always win. If she wanted to do something, there was nothing and no one that would be able to dissuade her. There was never any gray in her world. Things were always black or white. She taught me much more than I ever taught her, and she is an AMAZING woman” -Marie Dickinson.