I always knew I wanted to join the military back when I was 18 years old. Originally, my intent was to get military experience and then apply to the Central Intelligence Agency. Earlier in my senior year of high school, I had attended a weeklong conference down in Washington D.C. and received advice from those in the government service that military experience would help put me above other candidates applying to the CIA. Thus, during my college research, Reserve Officer Training Corps programs were part of my evaluation criteria. I didn't pick a school without the program. My parents always wanted me to go to college so I knew that I would go and then commission as an officer in the U.S. Army.
In my sophomore year, 2001, I watched the chaos unfold in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. I witnessed the entire University at Buffalo, New York campus empty out in a matter of hours, college students trying valiantly to get home to NYC. Most of the campus seemed to have come from NYC - it was so quiet by nightfall. Little did they know what was really going on because they were on the road. I was one of the few students who showed up to a Political Science class that day only to find out what was going on from a very solemn professor. I rushed back to my room in time to watch the second plane hit the Twin Towers and subsequently watched the crumbling of the towers wondering where my father was. No phone calls were getting through and I was stuck up in Buffalo.
That day changed me. You could say I was a product of 9/11.
Later on, I left to participate in the US Marines Officer Candidate School program in the summer of my sophomore year completing successfully with a lot of pain and newfound knowledge of the rigors of military training. Ultimately, I returned to the Army ROTC program and confirmed my intent to commission upon graduation. We were 22 students strong; one of the largest ROTC classes to commission into newly minted officers in 2004. I didn’t even go to my college graduation ceremony. The only ceremony I attended was my commissioning ceremony. My family members came to see the ceremony and were very proud of me but also dismayed that I was entering this new world order. Deployments were guaranteed and the threat was real based on the nightly news reports. Their first-born child willingly going towards the fire is probably not what they envisioned for my future. It's ok though. I never actually wanted a typical life so I guess we should have known that I would not go along with the usual plan of life.
By November 2004, my career would take a newly minted Second Lieutenant to Korea where I quickly became a Detachment Commander of the 138th Port Movement Control Team learning the ins-and-outs of leadership and mission accomplishment at a very junior rank in a very foreign country. My first “thank you” goes to COL Doug Vallejo (then MAJ Vallejo) who chose me to lead the detachment over another Lieutenant with more years in service than I. We had a frank conversation about where the leadership position resides and that was with me at Osan Air Base. It was my first real leadership role at one of the most demanding port of entries into the Korean Peninsula. Munitions, food, cargo, deployments, exercises - you name it, it all came through Osan Air Base. I also had a dispersed team based in Camp Humphreys and Kunsan AB - mainly responsible for movement control and transportation on the west coast of the peninsula. In those following months I would learn how to lead subordinates and peers, with some trial and a lot of errors. Those lessons learned in Korea prepared me for my next position as an Executive Officer of F Company, 2-12 Cavalry Regiment.
By the end of 2005, I was on a plane to Fort Bliss, Texas assigned to 1st Cavalry Division. I showed up to the desert-like, austere environment called Biggs Army Airfield when there was literally nothing but some old National Guard and Army Reserve buildings crumbling. I came with the hope of becoming a Platoon Leader and was told by the Brigade Support Battalion Executive Officer that I was a First Lieutenant (I pinned myself enroute) and I wasn’t going to get a platoon. Instead, I was going to be a Executive Officer of a 233-man company supporting 2-12 Cavalry. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I felt incredibly unqualified as I was never a platoon leader and the most I ever led was a 20-man detachment. In my head, in order to be a good company commander, you needed to do platoon leader time. But I didn't get it and I was a bit upset. I didn’t know anything about a multi-functional logistics company. You don't get taught that in Officer Basic Course. But you roll with the punches and you do what’s asked of you to the best of your ability.
I learned everything from maintenance operations to food service to ammunition operations at the tactical level – everything in between that made it all work. My motor sergeant and maintenance tech became my best friends. I read every PS Magazine to learn all I could (you find a lot of cool NSNs in there) and hung out a lot in the motor pool with the tanks, M88s, and Bradleys. The heart of being an XO of a Forward Support Company is combat power and maintenance operations ranked high on my priority list. You would find me walking in between the motorpool and FSC headquarters building often, bugging the maintenance teams for status updates on equipment. I’m sure the maintenance guys had a few nicknames for me that I won’t repeat here.
As an XO, I became a synchronizer and a planner along multiple lines of operation. I knew everything and had a solution for everything, or at least I thought I did. Some days were better than others. You win some and you lose some. I learned to have foresight and to think 2-3 steps ahead of my supported units and what was literally happening in real time. This is where I learned to "plan." Six combat units relying on one company for life support was stressful and tested everyone's sanity in the FSC. We were moving fast and hard on our road to war. Here I have to thank MAJ Linwood Hilton for always maintaining a level of dark humor and sarcasm only understood in the Army, despite the odds. I don't know how he did it, but he did.
One lesson to be learned here is that you can’t do it all without an outstanding team of Soldiers behind you and you have to trust that the Soldiers are here to support each other and the mission. The bar was set high from this point on. A company like this is like a family – they’re going to bicker and fight, but at the end of the day, the organization (family) won’t be whole without each other. All Soldiers – supply, maintenance, trans/distro platoon, administrative office clerks – were critical to the organization’s success as well as my own. I would not be successful later in life without the lessons I learned from these Soldiers.
One of the most significant lessons I learned in 2-12 CAV is what I was capable of achieving. I also learned to not have any fear of being a woman in a man’s world. I didn’t have a choice to fear it, as I was the only female officer in the battalion. I’m competitive by nature and I was competing with male counterparts under leadership that always leveled the playing field. COL John Pirog pulled no punches (literally - my promotion pinning in Iraq; figuratively... long nights and XO meetings). He maintained the highest level of expectations and expected all of us to rise to the occasion. I experienced no bias or ill will, not that I had any expectation of encountering this sentiment. I "embraced the suck" along with six other XOs. I wasn’t on guard as I heard some other females were in other units, whether the stories were true or not. I learned by following senior male officer counterparts and trusting in their leadership; I learned from AAR sessions and the harsh realities of combat as well as observing successes and triumphs.
Later on during OIF 06-08, I would be “volun-told” to be their Battalion S4 in combat, the only female officer in a 900-man strong combined arms battalion holding a primary staff officer position. I would later call this to be my favorite experience of my entire career because I was challenged to excel and succeed as the lives of men were depending on me to do my job well.
2-12 Cavalry taught me how to become a tactically and technically proficient leader and would later set me up for success leading my own company of Soldiers into combat. I wish every female officer had the opportunity that I did to experience amazing leadership at all levels from a unit like 2-12 CAV. I don’t think I would be the same person without having this once in a lifetime opportunity. I have to thank my commander, COL James Nickolas, for this opportunity because he believed in me to execute this critical position to the best of my abilities in a wartime environment. In that combat environment, that was a rare opportunity for a female.
My final “thank yous” go to all the 2-12 CAV Commanders, First Sergeants, staff officers/NCOs, and Soldiers. Without this tight knit family of true professionals, I would not be the person I am today. It’s hard to explain this unit and where it resides in my heart.
My experience up to this point led me to successfully lead 47th Transportation Company for 27 months both to Iraq and home. I originally never wanted to command but it is a necessary position in order to progress as an Army officer. I took on the company knowing I was understrength and without military assets and knowing full well I had a date to be in Iraq by. It was not easy building a company from scratch and displaced from my parent organization. Training and operating budgets were scarce and I had no military equipment to train Soldiers on. It didn’t matter. I had a mission to accomplish – I had to train the Soldiers, many of them new to the Army, to conduct transportation operations and deploy them to a combat zone. There were many days and nights I questioned my capability and fortitude to succeed with such odds against me. I was not an easy commander and I had incredibly high expectations as I recently came off a deployment with 2-12 CAV and knew what it was like to experience the loss of Soldiers. I was tough and demanding, maybe even in times when I didn’t really need to be. The difficulty of trying to provide for your Soldiers while hitting every roadblock possible (budget, equipment, manning, administration, leadership) was taxing. I learned to leverage my networks I built as an S4, my former leadership for guidance, and place trust and faith in my Non-Commissioned Officers to accomplish the tasks I asked of them. We went to Iraq 64% strength and crossed the berm at the required 85% with fresh new recruits straight out of AIT. We did amazing work from Al Asad to COB Adder and everywhere in between. All my officers and NCOs learned to lead the way, plan ahead, and hold the highest standards and expectations. The most proud "Mom" moment I have is knowing that my company produced outstanding officers and NCOs out there leading their own troops and succeeding. They are the next generation.
After 27 months in command, I truly understood the art of leadership. I also learned what every other former commander would tell me when I was a young officer - that they loved every second of command and would never trade it for anything in the world.
As time moved on, things change. The environment changes, the next generation is new, and there are a host of challenges to compete with. In the very beginning during my cadet days, I remember telling my ROTC Instructor, MAJ Terry Crowe (killed in Iraq in 2005), that I would make it to the rank of Major or complete 10 years. If I did more, great. But nothing less. That was my goal.
I did both and kept one of the few promises I ever made to myself.