HEIDELBERG, Germany -- As a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., Leah R. Fuller-Friel became her battalion's first female commander.
Now, 25 years later and a colonel, she's the first female commander of the U.S. Army NATO Brigade, headquartered at Tompkins Barracks in Schwetzingen.
She said it all started back in high school when a "diligent recruiter" told her of the opportunities the Army could offer her through ROTC. Back then, she admits she didn't even really know what the letters 'ROTC' stood for.
Today, she's the commander of all Soldiers serving in three NATO battalions and 10 companies scattered throughout 33 locations in 13 countries.
"My husband and I served in NATO as majors and we really didn't know this opportunity was there," she said. "We were at (Training and Doctrine Command) ... as the G1 (Adjutant General), and they said 'we want you to come and take the NATO Brigade' and I thought 'there's no such thing.'"
Sgt. 1st Class Larry Gray, USANATO Brigade's Equal Opportunity advisor, said having Fuller-Friel take command as the first female in that role is noteworthy not only for the women in the brigade, but for the Army as a whole.
"I think it's really good that other nations know that in our country, females are getting the opportunity to lead troops and can do it just as well as the men," he said. "They get those opportunities to train and lead, and having her in that role is very significant."
Fuller-Friel and her husband, retired Maj. Jack Friel, a field artilleryman, met and married at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and have three sons; John, a company commander at Fort Hood, Texas, who is currently serving his third tour in Iraq; Mark, a captain in the Indiana National Guard; and Matthew, a sixth-grader, whom she says "can't wait to be in uniform."
Jack now serves as the senior family readiness advisor for the brigade, and according to his wife, is "working harder than he ever has worked. He's a very busy man."
"We always do a command team charter, my husband and I, what expectations we are going to do - we are going to balance faith, profession and family," she said. "That trio, and are we in sync, and usually the kids or the Soldiers will let us know if we are not."
The couple has served five tours overall in Europe - 12 of the 25 years of service so far for Fuller-Friel. She's held all of her levels of command in Europe as well.
Fuller-Friel said her favorite job so far as a Soldier has been being a company commander, a job that allowed her to get to know each Soldier and spouse in her company on a much more personal level. In her current role, it's a little harder to get to know every Soldier, though she tries.
"Going to see the Soldiers, in their environment, with their issues, and letting them show us what they actually do in support of NATO," she said about her favorite part of her job. "We try to get into their element as opposed to them coming here."
With March being Women's History Month, Fuller-Friel reflected on some of the women of her past who have made an impact on her life and helped her get to where she is today.
"First, my mother," she said. "She just instilled a great work ethic, and (encouraged me to) give everything that you do 110 percent and it will show; people will notice and you'll go far.
"And then I got over here in Europe and worked for Maj. Gen. Pat Hickerson and Maj. Gen. Dee Anne McWilliams, and basically those two (made me think) 'wow, women can be general officers'' They were just absolutely professional subject matter experts in their field, and they're in my field, too.
"As they retired, they just passed on the torch and said 'you need to go on and do the jobs that we were never able to do.'"
She also mentioned Gen. Ann Dunwoody, commander of Army Materiel Command, who she worked with when Dunwoody was a two-star general at Fort Lee, Va.
"She's absolutely a master logistician," Fuller-Friel said. "She just said 'know your field, know your Army, and you'll go far' and kept that philosophy."
The military's diversity is something Fuller-Friel said is unique and should be celebrated.
"I think that's one of the reasons why the Armed Forces is considered to be one of the most prestigious institutions - because of the diversity," she said. "We need the diversity. I don't see that in the civilian life, I don't see it in my hometowns, I didn't see it in college, but the Army absolutely gives everyone the opportunity. You just have to seize it, become experts in your field and go from there, whether you are a man or woman."
(Editor's Note: Kristen Marquez works in the USAG Baden-Wuerttemberg Public Affairs Office).