As a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader, Rachel Washburn toted pom-poms. As an Army intelligence officer with a special ops combat unit in Afghanistan, she carried an assault rifle and pistol. She was a pioneer on a special mission to relate to local women in ways that would be culturally inappropriate for male troops — including helping deliver an Afghan baby in a snowstorm.
Washburn, 25, who recently returned from her second tour in Afghanistan, will be honored Sunday night as a "Hometown Hero" by the Eagles at their home game against the Chicago Bears.
Cheerleader turned soldier? Did that turn heads when she was in military training or living in a mud hut with Green Berets in a village in Afghanistan?
"Initially, it was kind of a novelty to people I met if they ever found out," Washburn said Thursday in a phone interview from Savannah, Ga., where she was on the first day of her post-deployment leave.
"It's kind of a bit of a shock. You don't expect those two things to go hand in hand with one person."
She didn't join the Army on a whim. During her three seasons with the Eagles, Washburn was an Army ROTC student and history major at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Her father was an Army helicopter pilot and an Air Force fighter pilot. She figures she moved 17 or 18 times growing up, but she calls Philadelphia home even though she just attended college there.
"I am so proud of Rachel and all of her extraordinary accomplishments. She has tremendous courage and has made an amazing impact on the lives of others," said Barbara Zaun, Eagles director of cheerleading.
During Washburn's freshman year at Drexel in 2006, she had a friend who was a basketball cheerleader with the Philadelphia 76ers. Washburn loved dancing and thought that would be a "cool experience." With her fondness for football, she tried out for the Eagles squad in the spring of her freshman year.
"I knew it was kind of a long shot with all those beautiful, talented women that try out every year," she said. "I just thought, why not? Go big or go home."