FORT PICKETT, Va. — The Virginia National Guard hosted their inaugural Women’s Summit June 19, 2019, at Fort Pickett, Virginia. Women from across the force attended the event, which this year focused on balancing the demands of women’s personal and professional lives.
“Women are far more likely to leave the military after their initial service obligation,” explained 1st Lt. Lindsey Otto, special programs officer for the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, citing a recent Department of Defense study. “Overwhelmingly, the number one reason why they left was tension between work and life.”
Balancing a National Guard career, in a full-time or traditional status, can be challenging, especially for women as they manage the demands of life outside the military, from attending college or starting a civilian career to starting a family and becoming a mother.
“We want to demonstrate to our younger leaders and our younger Soldiers that the senior leaders at the state level and at their unit are invested in finding out if there’s more we can do to help these Soldiers continue serving,” Otto said. “We’ve already invested so much and geared them up to be professionals and we want to retain that as best we can.”
Plans for the event started with Brig. Gen. Lapthe Flora, Virginia Army National Guard assistant adjutant general, and Lt. Col. Jennifer Martin, Virginia National Guard special projects officer. Both sat on the Virginia National Guard’s diversity council and Martin had attended several women-focused events hosted by other agencies and wanted to bring a similar event to the Virginia National Guard. In her former role as the commander of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, she hired Otto and set her to work on making the summit a reality for women of the Virginia National Guard.
At the summit, women gathered in small groups for breakout sessions that focused on a variety of topics including fitness, nutrition, personal finance, women’s history, leadership skills and working out the conflicts that sometimes arise between work demands and personal demands.
Master Sgt. Jessica Dickenson, an area section chief for the Recruiting and Retention Battalion, led a workshop titled, “Explore My Why,” that focused on why women choose to serve in the military. Dickenson shared her own reasons for serving and then opened up the floor for others to share their own stories.
“We had a very emotionally charged exchange,” she said. “There was a specialist who shared a story of being a 16-year-old living with grandparents when she had a baby. She didn’t want to be a young mom working at McDonald’s, so she joined the National Guard. Now, at 28, she’s [full-time with the Guard]. She has a house, a college degree, a second child, a car, health insurance. She can take care of her kids and herself.”
During the same session, Sgt. Mary Soliday, a chaplain’s assistant with the 229th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, shared her story, telling the group that she served in the Marines when she was younger then had a 17-year break in service before joining the National Guard. During the break, she became a mother to six children and said she came back into the military because, “I just want to show my six kids that their mom is more than just their mom.”
A panel discussion included the event’s keynote speaker, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Michele S. Jones, currently the vice chair of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services; Capt. Candice Bowen, the Virginia National Guard’s first female infantry officer; and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Canada, assigned to the 237th Engineer Company, 276th Engineer Battalion, 329th Regional Support Group as a readiness NCO; and Martin. Their discussion, led by Otto, focused on finding balance.
“Very early on I exposed my children to the real-world of the military,” Jones said during the panel discussion. “I also taught them how important it is that we have a military and there were going to be times when mommy couldn’t be there.”
The panel also discussed the importance of setting boundaries between personal and professional lives. Jones said she made it very clear in her various roles that her time at home with her kids during off-duty hours was her time to be a mother and that she tried to be diligent about leaving work at the office.
Canada noted how challenging disconnecting from work can be in today’s world of increased connectivity and the growing expectation that Soldiers will be available all the time, even after-hours. Boundaries, he said, are important, but, “as leaders, we need to be respectful of our own boundaries,” explaining that it’s important to lead by example and set the standard for junior Soldiers.
“These aren’t just women’s issues, these are Soldier issues,” Canada said.
Jones delivered her keynote address in the final hour of the summit and talked about her leadership style. During her 25-year military career, she was the first female to hold a number of positions and became the first woman to take responsibility of an Army component, serving as the command sergeant major for the U.S. Army Reserve. She achieved the rank of sergeant major in just 14 years. As a woman who broke barriers and who often found herself being questioned by her peers, she learned to stop justifying her seat at the table.
“You still have to prove yourself, you still have to exhibit certain things that other people don’t have to exhibit,” Jones said. “It’s the challenges that make us the strong individuals that we are, and the best leaders.”
Jones split the attendees into small groups and told them they had 10 minutes to come up with a one minute dance routine. Beyond that, she gave no guidance and, following the presentation of the dance routines, she said, “You all met mission. You all did it. And that’s what it’s all about.”
In addition to the break-out session, the discussion panel and the keynote address, partner organizations were also in attendance and provided additional information to summit attendees on programs including Citizen-Soldier for Life, Family Programs, the State-Sponsored Life Insurance Program and the Virginia National Guard’s Officer Candidate School. Representatives from the U.S. Army Women’s Museum and the Women’s Memorial were also there to talk about the history of women’s military service.
“The event was amazing,” Martin said. “It was a lot of fun, I learned so much and I was able to share my experience with others.” She said one of the best parts was having junior Soldiers in attendance and that, “this is important to me because building bonds with other females that have the same type of struggles juggling the work/life balance, especially traditional National Guard Soldiers, is important. Being there for each other, having the opportunity to share our stories and to talk about how we overcame difficult times in our lives and in our careers.”
In the future, Otto said she’d like to see the event expand to include more participants, both male and female, as well as more senior leaders.
“If we can show the leaders that these are the issues that matter to our Soldiers, then those are the ones who can carry the issues outside the summit and make real change,” she said. She’s hopeful the success of the inaugural event will motivate more people to attend next year. “Now we have some cheerleaders who can go and spread the word and advertise it.”