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A Soldier’s Exit Interview

Another in Understanding Government’s “Public Service Announcement” series profiling the careers and challenges of notable government employees

By Norman Kelley

The United States Army is one of largest organizational components of the federal government, and even older than the Republic itself and its Constitution, which it is pledged to protect and defend. The Army joins the Navy, Marines and the Air Force to make up the U.S. Armed Forces, headquartered in the iconic Pentagon.

The Army has often been seen as the most democratic of the armed services – a melting-pot of sorts, bringing in people from different walks of life and training them to work as a team for the common defense of the nation.

Lt. Col. Jennifer Sirois

With the end of the military draft in 1972, the Army maintained this reputation, but its makeup changed most markedly with the decision, in 1978, to allow women to join this all-volunteer force, integrating female soldiers into all services (except combat units).  So the untold story of the contemporary modern army is the inclusion of another pool of talent: women. Women now serve in 91 percent of all Army occupations and make up 14 percent of the active Army (see also WITA) and it is already hard to imagine the U.S. Army without a strong female contingent.

The Making of an Officer

No better example of this is Lt. Col. Jennifer Sirois, U.S. Army Reserve, who because of a mandatory Congressional policy, called “up or out” by Army officers, will be required to leave the service since she hasn’t moved up in rank in the proscribed time. Despite that, Sirois treasures her time in the Army and the privilege to serve her country. Her career has been a dramatic illustration of what a woman can do in her nation’s defense.

Sirois’ army career began with a recruiting letter she received as a college student at Temple University ROTC in the early eighties.

“It offered me six weeks of all expenses paid basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky,” says Sirois. “Upon return, I could choose to join the ROTC program or not. There were truly no strings attached.”

The boot camp regimen was integrated, meaning women and men trained together. The Women Army Corps (WACs) had been dismantled by the late seventies and integrated, much like black army units were disbanded and integrated by President Truman in 1948.

Boot camp “was very strenuous and tough, but not nearly as tough and strenuous as enlisted basic training,” says Sirois. “We had our weekends off, pretty much.”

The “long day” began at 0500, doing physical training (“PT”). “I loved learning how to shoot a weapon and place a Claymore mine, develop squad tactics and execute them. It just all worked for me,” remarked Sirois.

She was so much in her element that when she came back from Kentucky, she signed up. For Sirois, it was easy to make that decision as a self-described “tomboy.”

“The happiest place for me is playing in the woods,” she says with a chuckle. “I got the opportunity to combine playing in the woods with leadership and patriotism, which was a thread in my young life as a child.”

In school, Sirois was fascinated with government and politics. She “excelled in civics and history,” leading her to complete her B.A. in Political Science at Temple in 1983.

Sirois was commissioned as an officer in 1984 after she completed an “advanced camp” training program for ROTC cadets at Ft. Bragg, Georgia, which was designed to evaluate cadets for their leadership potential. All cadets were rotated into different leadership positions: squad leader, platoon sergeant, platoon leader, company commander, all within the training environment.

“Everyday training exercises would see different cadets rotating into these leadership positions and we would be evaluated upon our performance,” says Sirois. “Essentially we were going to become commissioned officers. Your entire skill set is leadership ability.”

In a civilian society where the word “leadership” has become little more than a buzzword, Sirois broke it down into its most essential meaning: “motivating people to do something they would not want to do.” Backing this motivation in the military, of course, is the threat of a sanction if a soldier does not follow orders. According to Sirois, effective leadership is the ability to get people to do what they don’t want to do without the obvious threat of a sanction.

From Military Police to Military Intelligence

Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Sirois married and elected to serve in the military police corps. Previously she had been selected for military intelligence but turned it down because it was an active duty billet in Germany. She wanted to stay stateside because of her marriage and the opportunity to raise a family while being in the Reserve.

“The only specialty available to me in the geographic region I wanted to stay in was the military police. That being said, the military police was and is near and dear to my heart.”

She enjoyed the officers’ basic MP training course that she and her fellow officers underwent.  “We trained under infantry tactics, which is something that I excelled at. That is something I have a gift for.”

As a woman, Sirois, cannot serve in combat units such as Infantry, Armory or Artillery of the Army. This is a restriction mandated by Congress. Female soldiers can, nevertheless, serve at the battalion level of command in administrative positions in those combat services, or in their logistical or supply units, or, as Sirois did, as a leader in the military police.

As a second lieutenant, serving stateside on active duty, in a MP thirty-man platoon she commanded, Sirois and her troops were a combat support unit that was an “infantry-type of first responder” used to repel “probes of logistical perimeter.”  In laymen’s terms, this meant Sirois and her fellow MPs job was to ensure that enemy forces didn’t enter into their unit’s security area.

“Our first mission is rear battle combat support,” says Sirois. Her team, located away from the front lines, would have been required to protect logistical support services, supply, and operational command and control (i.e., senior officers directing field officers and their troops).  But Sirois and her subordinates also performed “typical cop” military police operations, which included investigating petty crime in the unit they serviced.

Serving in the military police for four years, Sirois then transferred to military intelligence (MI) as a reserve officer in 1989 and has been in MI since. In that tactical position, her unit was intelligence support to an infantry division.

The main purpose of MI is to “identify the enemy’s forward deploy echelon” upon which it “can be determined what larger forces are behind those forward deployed enemy components.”

Military intelligence, Sirois explains, identifies, conducts surveillance, and collects intelligence. “You’re collecting against a set of requirements that are issued down to you from the commander; he want to you to look for X, Y and Z. So, you look for X, Y and Z, and report back up.”

Despite being deprived of the ability to serve under fire, for Sirois there has been no greater reward than training and leading soldiers.

“I was so fortunate to have that opportunity, as a military police platoon leader and during my several company commands. You’re the closest to your soldiers when you’re in company grade ranks, when you’re a lieutenant or captain. Those are very, very rewarding ranks which to serve, and command certainly is a privilege.”

Moving up the ladder, Sirois served in a staff position in Europe. In a healthy career, one goes back and forth between command and staff positions. If not, one risks “becoming one-dimensional,” losing the chance for further command and upgrade in rank.”

In Europe, Sirois deployed in Stuttgart, Germany, serving in the US European Command (one of seven Army commands across the globe), charged with “conduct[ing] military operations and build[ing] partner capacity to enhance transatlantic security and defend the homeland forward.”

As a lieutenant colonel with a staff position on EUCOM, Sirois conducted assessments and made recommendations on the military capabilities of America’s European partners. As a security organization, EUCOM was populated with many U.S. civilian agencies and contractors, attesting to its vision of a “whole of government” approach.

“I’m fairly certain I saw every single one of the U.S. government’s intelligence agencies represented there,” confirms Sirois. “Every component of the military was represented—army, navy, air force, marines. So, it is, as we say in the military, a purple organization; many elements under one umbrella.”

Who Says it’s a Man’s World?

Col. Sirois takes umbrage, as she has in the past, when asked what is like to be a female in a male-dominated environment.  The question was posed to her once before, in 1984, when she and five other female officers were pulled from a class of fifty and questioned.

“‘You have the wrong audience,’” she recalls telling an Army official who was trying to assess the mood of female cadets. “‘We volunteered to be here, so we have no issue with that.’” Sirois informed the officer, “‘The audience that you need to be asking that question are the men. They have just had their world order, as they knew it, turned upside down with the introduction of females into an otherwise all-male environment.’”

Despite excelling at leadership, Sirois learned the hard way that being a can-do woman officer comes with a price. At Ft. Bragg during her cadet days, she placed number one in a company of 230 cadets in a tactical application exercise. The mission: to lead one’s troops through enemy territory, facing various situations.

“I naively thought,” remembers Sirois, “that my platoon would be happy for me, that one of their own won a prestigious reward.” But instead “the men were hostile. The women loved it; the women were very supportive and congratulatory.”

Sirois reports that brother cadets also felt “threatened” and “envious,” and surmised that she “hadn’t militarily performed but had done something else to earn” the reward. Not retreating one inch, Sirois became more “aware of the dynamic of operating within a male-dominated environment.”

Despite being in the military, Sirois had to address the same demands that face many contemporary women: working and being a mother. “I was in a very fortunate position that not many women are, in that my ex-husband was able to provide for a family with a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “Of course there’s homework almost every day; when you’re in command you go into your unit a lot.”  She also ran her family’s 140-year old bed-and-breakfast on the Jersey Shore, and is now preparing to begin work as a private investigator for a company in her area.

Working full-time or part-time, all mothers are essentially on the job 24/7. Sirois reminisces about the “sweetest comment” that her son, then five years old, made about her years ago when she took him on base – something she did regularly. Seeing his mother’s world, one day something occurred to her little man who looked around, then turned and said to her: “Mommy, I didn’t know that they let men into the Army.”

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