FORT PICKETT, Va. –
A life serving in or connected to the military always seemed to be in the cards for Michelle Claiborne, the Human Resources manager for the Virginia Department of Military Affairs.
“I’m a military brat of course,” said Claiborne. “For me, I always wanted to be in the military. My father and my step-dad both served. One was in the Marines, one was in the Army. So, it was in my blood.”
Claiborne joined the Virginia National Guard in 1990 and served for 10 years. She served as a food service specialist before making the transition to personnel. At the same time, she started applying for full-time jobs in the organization, eventually being hired into the HRO’s department. As a single mom trying to balance Guard service and full-time employment, Claiborne eventually applied for the Human Resources manager position.
“I applied for this position, though I wasn’t the first choice,” said Claiborne. “The first candidate didn’t want to relocate to Fort Pickett. So, I was the second choice. That was back in 1998. I’ve been here ever since.”
Although she left the uniform behind in 2000, staying connected to the Guard community seemed like a no-brainer.
“Even though I’m not in the Guard any longer, I’m still affiliated with it,” said Claiborne. “Again, it’s a taste of both worlds.”
As HR manager, Claiborne’s career now focuses on helping people. She explained the rewarding part of working in HR is the ability to help other DMA employees solve problems, something she excels at, even in difficult circumstances.
“Seeing an employee who’s going through a lot, and being able to get something resolved, and just to see how appreciative they are,” Claiborne said about the things that gratify her about the job. “Of course one of the downsides is when there’s a death. It’s the most difficult part of the time, especially when it’s a co-worker. You’re feeling that hurt, but you’e trying to be strong and make sure that all the benefits they’re entitled to that they get.
“I want to make sure I’m giving everybody an opportunity,” she added. “Whatever the issue is, you’re welcome to come talk and I’m going to try and help you the best way that I can.”
Helping people succeed also ties in to what Claiborne sees as the most important part of Black History Month.
“It’s important to me to remember the heritage, and learning about the different things our ancestors have gone through, and seeing some of the changes,” said Claiborne, who serves as vice-president of her local NAACP chapter. “It’s always important to remember where we came from and how we started. And for me, for those that are coming up with me now, just to make sure that they’re aware, educated and know that hey, you can be or go wherever you want to go. You just have to have that motivation.”
For Claiborne, working in the DMA provides those opportunities for personnel to succeed professionally.
“I love the people,” she said. “We’re a family-oriented organization. Of course, just like any other organization we have days where we don’t all play well in the sandbox, but at the end of the day we still come together. We’re a team. When I lost my husband, the support I received from the organization - I can’t put it into words. It’s a great place to work.”
Her success is also rooted in her upbringing. She credits her family, including a brother and sister who also works for the Virginia National Guard, and in particular her mother as a driving force for her success personally and professionally.
“My biggest supporter and motivator is my mother. She raised two young ladies,” said Claiborne. “As a matter of fact my sister works in a federal HR office. We talk constantly about how we had some tough times, and I kook at where we are now. You’re always going to have people pushing the negative. Keep your faith and stay positive and you can succeed. You’re gonna get knocked down, but you have to get up.”
She also credits her mentors in the DMA family for her successes.
“I’ve had some great leaders. Mr. Huxtable, General Holmes, and right now, Mr. Mercer,” she added, referring to retired Brig. Gen. Bert Holmes, a former VNG assistant Adjutant General, retired Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Huxtable, the former DMA Director of Personnel and Administration, and retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer, the current DMA Chief Operations Officer. “It’s nice to have someone you can go to and talk to and keep you on the right track and give you good advice.”
It’s a lesson she’s passing down to the next generations too, as her 26-year-old daughter prepares to graduate from nursing school, something for which Claiborne can’t contain her excitement.
“This is one mother who’s going to be doing the happy dance,” she said. “My future son-in-law is also in the Guard. They have a three-year-old daughter and she’s my inspiration right now. I’m trying to be a positive figure and role model for her.”
Whether it’s her granddaughter or personnel in the DMA family, Claiborne’s calling is to help put others in a position to succeed.
“My motto is - I try to treat everybody the way I want to be treated,” said Claiborne. “Always put yourself in that individual’s shoes. You never know what somebody else is dealing with. Sometimes when I ask questions people think I’m being negative Nancy, but no, I’m just trying to understand the big picture so I can try to get you the best result I possibly can.”