BAGHDAD - The bright beams of Iraqi sun cast shadows onto an alley just outside the 11-story Iraqi Ministry of Interior headquarters in central Baghdad. The shadows briefly provide shade for a group of Soldiers, weighed down by at least 60 pounds of Army-issued individual protective gear, as they move about in 110-degree-plus heat.
The Soldiers form a Personal Security Detachment team working primarily with Master Sgt. Lourdes James, an advisor to Iraqi Police directorates. James travels frequently to the MoI Information Fusion Cell to meet with her Iraqi counterpart.
James gestures with her hands as if she is signing; her fingernails short and well-manicured. An American Soldier interprets back and forth from accented English into Arabic and plain English, since it is not the first language of those deliberating.
After everything is said, James places her right hand over her heart, "Shukran," as a gesture of genuine thankfulness. Her small hands then disappear into tactical gloves. James dawns her advanced combat helmet and polarized shades, walks through the door frame into a whitewash of sunlight; her weapon is now resting against her protective vest, and ready to engage any potential threat.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States James, an Army reservist with the 75th Battle Command Training Division out of Houston, mobilized with her division to train Soldiers and military leaders for deployment as a certified, advanced observer-controller-trainer.
Since March 2010, James has been assigned to Joint Security Station Shield, where she serves as the noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of a National Information and Investigation Agency Advisory Team as part of the Iraq Training and Advisory Mission-Police.
As the sun settles into the west, the atmosphere fills with prayers to Allah, which are commonly broadcasted from prayer towers through public-address speakers in Iraq, a country that is predominantly Muslim. James takes a break for a late-afternoon tea, and orders an iced brew.
Most members of the Shield community know James, a master sergeant who is "so proficient in her job" she is said to be intimidating.
"She is the epitome of leadership competencies: be, know, do," said JSS Shield's Senior Enlisted Advisor Sgt. Maj. David Hammond. The "Be, Know, Do" model emphasizes character-based leadership, in which leaders are to adhere to the organization's core values, and know what is expected and have the skills to adequately perform a mission. Lastly, "Do" encompasses the ability to empower and prepare others to also model leadership competencies.
James is a natural-born leader; her preparation began as a child in Camuy, Puerto Rico, her birth place. Her parents, Ernesto Gaytan and Carmen Gaytan Perez met in Puerto Rico while serving as missionaries. When she was six, her family moved to Houston so her father could practice amnesty law as her mother continued her teaching career.
As a pastor's daughter, James filled many roles in the church. She said being a leader in her congregation has been the hardest position she has ever filled.
James also took on other responsibilities to support her immediate family. She describes her role as liaison between divorced mother and father at age 15, "It was my duty to make sure my dad stayed in the picture, for my sisters."
Despite her parents' separation, she and her sisters had support. Education was what mattered more to her parents. "Early on, my parents instilled in us that if you want to attain anything in life it would be through education," James said.
A graduate of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, James earned a bachelor's degree in Science Biology. Furthermore, she is qualified in four military occupational specialties, including her current profession as chief intelligence sergeant, in which she supervises intelligence operations and training.
Prior to being a reservist, James began her military career with the Texas Army National Guard. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, was worried about her. James' mother also had concerns for her oldest daughter's safety, but encouraged James to follow her dream.
"My mother wanted to enlist," James said, adding that she did not because at that time it wasn't considered proper for a woman to join the military.
Throughout her 15-year career, James has deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina, twice to Germany, and is currently here, where she conducts the duties of unit intelligence NCO and security manager in addition to her role advising and training Iraqi Police.
While she has received numerous awards throughout her career, James is most proud of the Joint Service Commendation Medal she earned while supporting the British Army in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Being Latina does not supersede being a woman when it comes to competing with men in the Army, James said. Her first duty station in Houston was largely composed of minorities, due to its geographical location.
"My seniors were Vietnam vets, and most of them had a mentality that females did not belong in the military," said James, who's physique is like that of a warrior, short, yet stocky. "I was always out to prove myself."
James' first military occupation was a wire systems installer, more commonly referred to by Soldiers as a "cable dog."
It was as a cable dog with the 136th Signal Battalion, a Texas Army National Guard unit, that James built the successful foundation for advancing her military career. After all, obtaining the rank of command sergeant major, the Army's highest enlisted rank, is obtainable before reaching retirement, she said.
Charles Sullivent, a native of Austin, Texas, and a mentor to James dedicated 10 years of his life to serving in the Army. He was a platoon sergeant when James first joined his unit as a young private; with no chevrons sewn onto her battle-dress uniform, a uniform that in itself has been out of the Army's inventory for a number of years.
"I can attribute much of my work ethic to him," James said of Sullivent, who currently works in Iraq in a non-military capacity.
"She definitely felt she had to prove herself - always wanted to meet the standard," Sullivent said recalling James as a private. "Usually she out-performed most - even males."
In 2003, James competed in the 75th Division's Opposing Force Competition, which is traditionally only open to men. Due to a technicality, a loop hole in regulations, James joined a four-man team from her unit. Her team placed third among nearly 60 teams. She scored best over-all competitor in the physical fitness test, and is still the only woman to have ever competed in the OPFOR competition.
Soldiers who serve with her agree, "she doesn't need protection," said Spc. Naser Zaitawi, a linguist-translator with ITAM-Police, and member of James' team.
Her leadership approach is strong, yet maternal, Zaitawi said, nestling a smile under his cheek bones. The linguist nailed James' personality with precision.
"Prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Zaitawi, a native of Winston Salem, N.C., said echoing James' motto.
He learned this lesson first-hand in March when his boots hit the ground at JSS Shield.
"My wife was pregnant when I arrived here, and she (James) told me to prepare," he said, recalling how James helped him to understand his medical benefits.
Caring for her Soldiers is clearly a priority for James, who personally gathered Zaitawi's insurance and contact information and sent it by e-mail it to his wife - Ranah Ayyad - with instructions to provide the documentation to her obstetrician in case he needed to contact Zaitawi during the pregnancy.
"My wife had a c-section March 23; she almost died," said Zaitawi, who has been married for 11 years. The couple has three children, including Layan who was born March 23.
Zaitawi said his youngest daughter's birth was his personal wake-up call to be prepared in all aspects of life - not just the Army.
A mother of three - daughters Lauren Taylor, 10; Brooke Madison, 11; and son John Austin, 4 - herself, James strives to do for her own children what her mom has done for her.
"My mother has been mother, father and friend; she made sacrifices to raise me and my three sisters," James said of the strongest relationship in her life.
As the oldest of four daughters, when it comes to pampering her mother, she takes the lead, "I owe her everything. We treat her like a queen, because she deserves it."
James and her husband, of 12 years, John C. James are both Army veterans. John served for eight years with the Army Signal Corps.
Reluctantly, James describes her family as adrenaline junkies. "It's become a family affair," she said adding that together, they participate in hiking, hang gliding and motor sports.
Her nature of seeking new challenges to conquer even led James to climb the top of Mount Timpanogos, the second-tallest mountain in Utah.
"We signed the book in the little white shack at the top of the mountain," she said referring to fellow intelligence analysts that made the climb with her, and whom she considers a second family.
"Mentoring Soldiers is next best to being a mother," James said. "Ultimately, the goal is to take care of your Soldiers. Which means you'll make sacrifices."
The major difference between mentoring Soldiers and being a mother is "as a parent, I'm able to do it my way," she said. "As a senior NCO, I have to do things according to the Army standard."
Working late into the evening now, James sits at an organized desk in the center of a large office with ceramic tiles and at least four more empty, less-organized desks. Her dark hair has managed to remain gelled in a tightly, upright bun throughout her routinely busy workday and now she is finalizing notes on meetings with directors and such before hitting the gym.
James pauses for a moment, contemplating the five adjectives that describe her best. Her eyebrows scrunch together, forming ridges on her forehead. Her right index finger meets her lips.
James' response is not formulaic. She defines herself, not only as a leader, but also as a follower.
Humble, she begins, "believe in God, walk with God." Dedicated - from start to finish. And, of course, prepared made her list of more-or-less than five adjectives, and finally ... "The quality that has helped [get me] through everything is willpower."
Editor's note: Alicea Valentin is a member of the Ohio Army National Guard's 196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment attached to the U.S. Forces-Iraq Deputy Commanding General for Advising and Training Public Affairs Office.