Combs: 'Blessed' with opportunity
February 21, 2012
FORT KNOX, Ky. -- Colonel Peggy Combs makes no apologies for the way she carries herself.
She walks with bounce in her step. She smiles constantly. And she genuinely believes in being nice to people, regardless of whether they're bosses, colleagues or subordinates.
But early in her career, someone tried to change her into something she wasn't: A hardened leader with a surly demeanor.
A tactical officer in her basic officer's course recommended that she put a rock in her boot and walk around. His thinking was that Combs would develop the look of pain in her face and then, maybe, others would take her seriously.
Combs reluctantly gave it a try. Until three weeks into her first permanent assignment, some senior non-commissioned officers called her aside. They could see through the veil.
"They said, 'We don't know who you think you're fooling, but you ain't fooling us,'" she said. "'You're not this person you're trying to be, and you're wasting too much energy trying to be that person.'"
Combs considers that the greatest lesson she learned as a lieutenant.
"For three weeks, I was miserable," she said. "It takes a lot of energy to be someone you're not."
These days, Combs continues to be herself. And she carries that message -- know yourself, be yourself, be authentic -- to the scores of Cadets with whom she speaks regularly.
You have been Cadet Command's deputy commander for six months. In that time, what has stood out to you most from a positive standpoint?
Seeing firsthand the quality of our young people -- the future leaders of America's Army in our senior ROTC programs and the future leaders of America in our JROTC programs, has been an incredibly inspirational learning experience for me. These developing leaders inspire and motivate me and others around them. The media today highlights all of our nation's economic troubles, but I have the opportunity to see what America's true treasure is, and that's our youth. You see the best of America's youth in our programs, and our future is bright. I truly am blessed to have this job.
AREL: Where do you see opportunities for improvement?
COMBS: We have to continually access -- and we do continually access -- our program and our curriculum to ensure we're educating our ROTC cadets to best meet the needs of the Army in the contemporary operating environment. Of course, the Army's environment changes on a day-to-day basis. We have to try to stay ahead of that change. That's hard to do in education with getting curriculum vetted, written and back out again. So we're relying on our professors of military science to really interject those contemporary issues and concerns into the curriculum. They're doing a good job of that.
Another area of improvement for our program overall is precision recruiting. We are doing well with quality, but we have a high attrition rate which indicates that we probably need to do a better job on precision recruiting in order to get the right folks in the program. I liken it to firing one shot from a 9mm pistol, vice a shotgun-shell approach.
I know our professors of military science and our brigade commanders are focused that way. With declining budgets and fiscal constraints, we can no longer afford high attrition rates. We need to be a bit more selective in our offers and a bit more selective in the entrance into our programs.
AREL: With proposals to downsize the Army -- and ultimately the size of the fighting force -- how does that change the role of those recruiting the Army's future leaders?
COMBS: Regardless of end strength numbers, the Army is always going to have a need for high-quality people. I don't see end strength numbers particularly affecting how we recruit quality people. It goes to the notion of precision recruiting for the needs of the Army.
AREL: The military as a whole has been faced with a prospect pool in recent years that, for one reason or another, isn't qualified to serve. Can the Army, and particularly Cadet Command, help turn things around?
COMBS: Yes, it is an unfortunate fact that only one in four of America's youth are fully qualified to serve in the U.S. Army. Many are disqualified due to medical, and moral/legal issues, but what is that many are disqualified because they fail to graduate high school.
The partnership the Army has with America in Junior ROTC is an influencer of that generation to be healthy and disciplined and focused during high school, so that they can contribute to their communities when they graduate. We've shown it be a very successful program with over a 97 percent high school graduation rate. Whether those students choose to enter military service, go onto college, or just enter their local job market, these focused and disciplined graduates are going on to serve their communities in better ways.
So, yes, our Army is committed to assisting society with this problem through JROTC. JROTC allows us to reach into and partner with over 1,700 communities across the nation to better prepare our youth for the challenges of tomorrow.
AREL: From an ROTC prospect's standpoint, what will they have to do differently to set themselves apart from others competing for scholarships and opportunities to serve through Army ROTC?
COMBS: Our new scholarship model is exciting. It's designed to increase the flexibility and opportunities for our professors of military science and our brigade commanders to award scholarships to students they have seen prove themselves, or they have seen potential in, within their programs.
Going from a centralized national process we had in the past where we only knew a student by their applicant folder and a couple of exposures to a professor of military science through interviews or the physical training test, I think the new model is much more flexible -- three-year dependent, vice the four-year dependent model, will assist in better precision recruitment.
I tell all future applicants, apply for the four-year. But realize we're going to be highly selective, and there are going to be very few of those given out. I always tell them that if they don't get that four-year scholarship and in their heart they want to serve, go join a four-year program and allow the professor of military science to see your potential so you can possibly be very competitive for that three-year on-campus scholarship. This new system will allow us to recruit and retain the highest quality Cadets possible.
AREL: The All-American Bowl is the Army's largest outreach event. At the January All-American Bowl, there was significant dialogue between Army leaders and community leaders and educators from around the country. How critical is that group of people in the effort to inform America's youth about opportunities to serve in uniform, and how big a difference can they make?
COMBS: Through these advocates, we are able to spread the word about ROTC opportunities in areas we cannot reach. As you know, our professors of military science have one recruiting officer who works for them. They're limited on their reach. Their reach is primarily campus-based, and that's all we can reasonably expect from a recruiting officer -- to get the best and brightest from the campus.
If we want to reach out beyond the campuses, we have to have those community leaders and educators who are influential within their communities, armed with what our standards are and what the opportunities are that we provide. When our advocates see and interact with elite students, who may not know about our opportunity because they're not near an Army post or a recruiting station, they are able to refer the students to us.
Advertisers will tell you the greatest form of advertisement is word-of-mouth advertising. We have these community leaders and educators that know about our program, appreciate our program and can go out and talk about the opportunities we have. That's priceless. You can't buy that kind of advertising.
It's not so much, in my mind, advocating for the Army as it is advocating for the opportunity being presented to these students of high potential. It's not just out there saying, "Join the Army." It's saying, "You're a student of high potential. Let me show you all of your opportunities that are out there, and Army ROTC is one of those opportunities."
A lot of kids don't know of the opportunity until you talk to them about it.
Unfortunately, most of America only knows what they see on TV, like the depictions of guys with guns. It's not necessarily the full spectrum of opportunity the Army has to offer in service and in improving one's potential. The education opportunities in particular are very misunderstood by the public regarding what we do to educate and develop the potential of each and every Soldier - one at a time. One at a time rather than mass production is what we try to do with our Cadets -- develop that future leader, each and every one of them one at a time so they can achieve their highest potential. It's all about potential, in my mind.
AREL: Cadet Command reached a significant milestone in 2011 -- its silver anniversary. You are the first female DCG in the command's 25-year history. What does that distinction mean to you?
COMBS: It was timing. It is now time where a lot more women leaders are reaching the general officer level. It's frankly because we really didn't start this integration until the late-'70s. If you really think about how we have been integrated and the opportunities presented with the disestablishment of the Women's Army Corps, that's not that long ago. My assignment here is really just a sign of the times, I believe. I don't think it's anything historic.
I am thrilled to have been selected to come do this job. This is like coming home for me because Army ROTC is where I got my start. I absolutely love what we do, and I believe in ROTC as a commissioning source for our Army, but more importantly, as an outreach to America -- as the connection to America in academia.
Our ability to have a presence across 1,300 campuses either through hosts or partnerships -- you can't replace that connection with America. We have a very valuable mission in commissioning officers, but we also have a lot more value added to the Army with our connection to our communities. Community service isn't only limited to Junior ROTC. Our senior programs are very involved in community service. It's very exciting to see.
When you see our young leaders out there in uniforms speaking to rotary clubs and speaking to different community organizations about what they're doing in the ROTC program and about what the Army is doing -- and these are communities that may have never been touched by a person in uniform. What we do is incredibly important, not just in our primary mission of commissioning officers but in keeping that tie with America. ROTC is invaluable.
Cadet Command has so much reach into the communities of America. That's why I find this job so exciting. We go out and see America. It's inspiring.
Me being here, it's exciting to come home. For Cadet Command to have its silver anniversary and start a new chapter at a new place at Fort Knox is just wonderful. It's really ironic that we celebrated our silver anniversary at the home of the nation's gold.
AREL: Major Gen. Marcia Anderson, an ROTC grad herself from Creighton University, this fall became the first African American female to attain that rank. And the Cadet of the Year for 2011 is a female, the first time that has happened since 2006. What message do those achievements send about opportunities for everyone in the Army?
COMBS: I'm often asked about being a female in the Army and what you have to overcome to succeed. The bottom line is that the strength of our Army is that it has never denied anyone opportunity. I truly believe that, and Major General Anderson is indeed a shining example of that. In our Army, talent creates opportunity. You have to cultivate your talents so folks present you the opportunity to further that talent. It really is all about talent management, and our Army does an exceptional job at talent management.
I have never been pigeonholed to say, "You're a woman, so you can only do this," or "You're a chemical officer, so you can only do these jobs." I have done jobs outside of my branch most of my career, and it's because folks said, "There's a person who has some talent, who's a team player, who really wants to help, and I think I could use that person on my team."
When you have that initiative and the will to create your own opportunity, it happens. That's why you see diversity rising through the ranks. It's not because we have to promote specific kinds of people." It's that the Army doesn't discriminate among great folks and among great talent. It promotes talent.
Talent and greatness to me isn't based on your gender or your color. I believe the good Lord gives everybody a seed of greatness, and it's how you cultivate that greatness that opens other doors. It's all about your attitude and how you contribute to team success.
When Cadets ask about the key to success, I say it's your attitude. I know it's a one-word answer, and they look at me like, "You're kidding me. After 26 years of service, that's all you got for me is one word?" Attitude determines altitude, and I'm telling you it does. It's not a cliché. You go in there and do you best every day, and you're a team player, people appreciate that. Doors of opportunity will open for you.
Talent gets identified. Only you can stop yourself from going any higher.
AREL: From a personal standpoint, you soon will be promoted to general officer. What does that mean to you?
COMBS: I've been told I'll be promoted sometime within the next year. For me, I wouldn't be here without Army ROTC. The Army gave me the opportunity to go to college. I was the first person on both sides of my family to go to college. If it weren't for Army ROTC, I wouldn't have gone to college.
The Army gave me the opportunity to develop my potential that would not have been there any other way. For me to have this opportunity to serve at the next higher level is a tremendous blessing. Service every day is a blessing when you see ordinary people do extraordinary things. It is a career you can't put a price tag on.
When I was informed I had been selected for promotion, I looked at it as the opportunity to continue to serve. It's a blessing to serve for a few more years and keep these boots warm. I love to serve.
AREL: In your position, you get a chance to regularly interact with Cadets from around the country. What is your impression of the next generation of officers Cadet Command is producing today?
COMBS: Wow, I see a lot of great talent. We are very fortunate.
I primarily interact with the juniors and seniors when I go to the campuses. I'll tell you I have seen briefings from some of them that are better than some Captains I've seen on active duty today. We are developing their skills and putting them in the best positions to develop their potential as leaders.
We're doing a great job with character development and their maturity coming out of college. They're much better Cadets than I ever was. The future of our officer corps is bright and talented.
AREL: What sort of lessons do you try to pass on to Cadets, and are they teaching you anything?
COMBS: What I have learned from these Cadets is first of all, they have a tremendous desire to serve. Frankly, it's something I don't think I had as a Cadet. It took me much longer in my career to develop that passion. They have that passion as college students.
What I'm learning is they're coming into the Army much better equipped to deal with the issues our Army faces today. It is a much more complex Army today than when I entered in 1985. I believe these Cadets are equipped to deal with that as junior officers. Just their awareness of social issues … they are more well-rounded on what is going on in the world and in our Army than I ever was as a Cadet.
Our professors of military science are doing an exceptional job of bringing relevant contemporary issues and concerns into their daily discussions and lesson plans.
AREL: There are a number of changes on the horizon that will impact Cadet Command, from shrinking budgets to restructuring to changing technology. The Army teaches Soldiers to be adaptable. How critical will that trait be in the coming years?
I believe we're shortsighted in saying we're adaptable. Adaptable means to me we are reactive, in that the enemy or the environment is causing us to change. They're drawing first blood, and we have to adapt and overcome.
To me, a better goal is innovative. We should be developing leaders and encouraging leaders to lead change and be innovative in how they lead change, as opposed to being forced to change by an environment or an enemy. Our Army now requires innovative leaders, and the Army of the future is going to continue to require innovative leaders.
It's a little bit of a different thinking skill we have to have, and we have to do a better job of not only encouraging critical thinking and systems thinking, but we must value and cultivate creative thinking skills so we can grow strategic leaders in the future. Our young generation is full of innovative leaders. They've shown it on the battlefield, whether you want to call it adaptability or innovation.
I always encourage our Cadets to have contemporary forums amongst themselves, and I offer articles -- some of them are intentionally controversial. Talk about it from different perspectives and share what you might do. These Cadets are not going to solve any of these problems today, but we need to get that other side of their brains working, that creative side, that challenges the status quo and allows free thinking. Let's not think about it the same way we always thought about it.
I love the diversity of majors, which brings with it diversity of thought and perspective. When you bring those together on a leadership team or to any team trying to work a problem, what you find is you get 10 times better solutions.
If you have folks who all think in the same way, you may not get a bad solution, but it's going to be limited. You're not going to have perhaps that innovative idea that comes in from left field, just to chew on. You may not go with it, but it may shape some of the outcomes you have.
AREL: Any advice for those Cadets who recently commissioned and for those who will commission a few months from now?
COMBS: My challenge always to Cadets is to begin their leadership development program by truly knowing who they are. Be who you are. Be confident in who you are, but you've got to know who that is.
That's why I ask them, in the academic environment they're in, to reflect in thought of who they are. All Soldiers want a confident leader. They know in many cases our 2LTs fresh out of college haven't been to combat. They know these leaders don't have the experience they have. But they do know confidence and authenticity. I tell our Cadets that if you are confident in who you are, and you're willing to learn from your folks, you will be successful.
You can't try to be General Patton or General Powell in a can. Cadets are always looking for this magical formula of what makes a great leader. To me the great leader is in each and every one of them. It's how it gets developed and emerges.
The best officers are those who know themselves, who know who they are and are confident in themselves. It's not those who put on the uniform and become somebody else.
If you have a façade, what happens at the first point of stress? That façade's going to crumble. And whoever it was you thought you were is no longer making decisions. It's who you really are. So now you've become inconsistent and toxic.
All Soldiers want is an authentic leader who's confident in themselves. You use your God-given talent. Then you recognize your weaknesses, and you have people help you with those weaknesses. You've got to shape the edges, but you're never going to change the core of who you are.
I tell Cadets, if you were awful people, we wouldn't commission you. If you didn't have the potential to lead, you wouldn't be sitting here. Take what you have, nurture it, feed it with different ideas. But you're not going to change who that person is. You have to be true to yourself.