Stephanie Rivers

This is my story: a soldier story, a female story. Like private sector female CEO’s, female officers will find silver linings inside all the sacrifices they make as they find their way to the top. Storytelling is a great way to share these reminders. Young females in the Army do not need a lot of advice, just reminders of what those before them have done so they can find strength in it. My story has a few things I did right – with help along the way.

I was serving as the mobilized Chief of Staff and G-3 for the 143d Expeditionary Sustainment Command (ARMC) in April 2014 when Major General P. Lennon, commander of the 377th Theater Sustainment Command (TSC), called to ask me to command the 3rd Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary), a unit being activated at Fort Belvoir, Va. Honored at the offer to be the first commander of the Brigade, I asked, “When do you need me to report?”Stephanie Rivers

Now that I am retired, I realized I often eagerly said, “Send me.”  

Reminder #1: Do what fits you, not what someone else recommends. More than two decades earlier, I had attended the University of Florida on a National Scholarship. Traditionally that requires a graduating soldier to serve on active duty.  I was commissioned an active duty lieutenant and asked to have it converted to an Army Reserve commission. The Army was downsizing again so it was granted, contrary to what everyone said I should do, or what was allowed.

Immediately after graduation from our Officer Basic Courses, at the beginning of our careers, my husband was stationed in West Germany, on active duty, and I held an amazing civilian job on the Kaserne and was also in a reserve unit. I pushed to be a part of this unit because it was activating a new logistics concept to support the Big Red One, in Stuttgart. The Army downsizing continued. My husband was not selected for Captain, I was.

Reminder #2: When the fork in the road is a shiny new road to the right and a dirt road to the left, the dirt road is a good option. Moving back to the U.S., unfortunately, my husband and I divorced and I moved to New Jersey. Continuing to serve in the Reserves, I was so excited when the Brigade commander came to the Company to interview the platoon leaders to be the next Company commander. After all of the interviews, the Brigade commander called me in first. I was speechless when he completed the review by saying, “You are the most qualified for the position but I cannot give it to you because you are female.” It was 1992.

The Battalion commander heard of the situation and within a few months, I was transferred to the Battalion staff and I would serve as the Battalion Maintenance Officer (BMO). To this day, it was the most rewarding, fun, and impactful non-command position I have held. The truckmasters, truck drivers and mechanics didn’t mind a female leader in their midst. The companies I was supporting had just come home from Iraq. We were rebuilding the team, receiving new equipment, salvaging what we could and still training. I found I led best in an operational and training environment, helping create solid Soldiers.

Reminder #3: Look around – there are fellow travelers willing to lend a hand. Within a few years, I was offered an HHC command with a dynamic, assertive and more broad-minded Brigade. I was the only girl in the room for commander meetings, yes, but more important was that the room was full of colonels or lieutenant colonels and I was a captain. Gender was irrelevant in my first command. The colonels were willing to be mentors. It was 1995. This Brigade trained units and reported to the active Army the readiness of the units. It was both an operational and training environment. I was serving in my strong suit.

My personal life had taken a back seat since I had both a civilian job and a challenging command in the Army Reserve. I considered leaving the service at the 10-year mark. But again, the silver lining of doing your job well – I was asked to serve as a Battalion S3. The situation was a good one; this new unit was nearer my home, and it was a key position on my military resume if I were to stay in. I was promoted to major while serving in this position, eventually became the Battalion XO, and then left there to become a Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) instructor and trained Soldiers using simulations. A highlight while I was the Battalion XO was that a sister Battalion had a new commander; she was a great example to me of what was possible as I was still considering leaving the military before the 20-year mark. It was then that I decided that I wanted to command a Battalion before I retired.

9/11. I considered leaving my unit to deploy, and I submitted the paperwork, but admittedly, I felt that the unit where I was assigned had an important mission and I didn’t push for the Army to “send me.” When I was a platoon leader, we were alerted for Desert Shield/ Storm but were ultimately stood down. I would let fate run its course. The instructor unit where I was currently assigned was ramping up its mission to train more units. In 2005 I was mobilized. The timing was right. I was glad I didn’t push my way into any other situation.

Reminder #4: Keep your end in mind. By 2008 I had been a LTC for a while, had finished my Master’s Degree and was deciding if I should push for general. Here is a piece of advice, if you want to be a general, start working toward it as a lieutenant. For me, I decided not to apply to the War College thus sticking to my previous decision to head toward retirement. I still wanted to command a battalion, and set my sights on command. I was selected for two commands and chose the one that would combine logistics, operations and training. I would be in a reserve unit assigned to First U. S. Army.

Reminder #5: Lead. Command. Battalion command was for three years and I was good at it. Everyone knew it and I was a crucial cog within the band of brothers (no longer the only girl in the room), as the coach, mentor, and problem solver in many situations. It was a tight knit group led by an amazing Brigade commander. We were the training cadre for deploying troops and we took that responsibility seriously. One day I found myself telling my XO that I had been diagnosed with stage III cancer. For nine months I stayed in command of my Battalion working from home on those occasions when my treatment would not allow me to be physically with my unit. I had a great team in place and we received many accolades during that year. The division commander, Brigade commander and my unit knew I was not going to stop leading from the front.

I was selected for colonel on my first look. No one was more surprised than me. Within the next year, I was pinned by a female general, contacted by a peer to come work at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and then would be heading to Afghanistan as a commandant. The female general who pinned my promotion was the same officer who was the female Battalion commander who encouraged me 12 years earlier.

Cancer was not stopping my career and I was cleared to deploy to Afghanistan. Home from deployment, retirement loomed. But the phone rang and I said, “Send me.” My achievements would eventually exceed my goals; I would serve as a Brigade commander.

In 2012, as I deployed to Afghanistan, female soldiers had publicly held the hard jobs, female lieutenant generals were in key warfighting positions at the Pentagon, many women had given the ultimate sacrifice, and many female soldiers were being recognized on equal footing for their talents. Things had truly changed in twenty years.

Reminder #6: Find silver linings inside all the sacrifices as you make your way to the top. The Army has led the way, in my opinion, for equal opportunity. When there was an obstacle, I found another way to go forward. How do you ensure you are seen as equal? I have believed that you do not whine, always pull your own weight, do not take any special treatment (carry your own bags, pass the Army physical fitness test, wear your uniform correctly), do your job well, and take the hard positions. When the leader, ensure your leadership team is diverse in background and experience. Your Soldiers watch your actions more than what you write in your vision statement.

And to repeat the first reminder - do what fits you, not what someone else recommends. Look at yourself in the mirror. Are you a support and administrative guru or are you a commander? The Army needs both. Know yourself and pursue positions where your soldiers will most benefit. I am retired, but I am still contacted by soldiers to work through their options. As a result, I am still able to lend a helping hand. A soldier was selected as a warrant officer candidate and received a promotion to master sergeant in the same week. Together, we reviewed her strengths and created a plan for her upward mobility. Today, she is a chief warrant officer 3 and serving as an amazing human resources technician on general staffs.

My story has a few things I did right – mostly, I often eagerly said, “Send me.”  


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