By Amy Guckeen TolsonMarch 24, 2017
It was a simple question that prompted Command Sgt. Maj. Melissa Judkins to throw her retirement packet in the trash.
"How do I get to where you're at?
The year was 2013, and Judkins was one of five female command sergeant majors out of more than 200 CSMs serving at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. With 20-plus years in service to her country, and the price of being a geographical bachelorette weighing on her, Judkins had her retirement packet all ready to go, just waiting for her commander's signature.
Bouncing her idea of hanging up the uniform for good to a fellow Soldier, Judkins was greeted with an unexpected response.
"He said to me, 'Are you crazy?'" Judkins, now the command sergeant major for the Installation Management Command, recalled in a phone interview Friday. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'You're one of five of 200 on post. You have no idea how many young females look up to you.'"
For the next two weeks, that Soldier ensured that Judkins met some of those female Soldiers, who all came bearing the same question.
"How do I get to where you're at?"
It was enough for Judkins to pull her retirement packet.
"I threw it all in the trash, and I made a promise to myself that I would do everything in my power from that point forward to pay my debt back to the people who followed me," she said. "Meaning, not just Soldiers and females, but the future of the Army relies on us mentoring, and teaching, and coaching younger people. That's the only reason I'm still in today."
Growing up in small town Louisiana, Judkins had the perseverance to be the first child in her family to go to college, but not the funds. When she realized how much her parents would have to sacrifice to help get her that college degree -- no vacations, cutting back on driving the car -- she turned to the Army.
"I wanted to come in to get a college degree. I was going to do four years and get out. It'll be 30 years this summer. I don't know what happened," Judkins said with a laugh.
Those nearly 30 years include a variety of assignments and leadership positions, including squad leader, platoon sergeant, Combat Development Directorate sergeant major, Aviation Branch and Maneuver and Fires Division sergeant major, battalion command sergeant major, Garrison command sergeant major and Central Region command sergeant major, according to her IMCOM biography.
Throughout those three decades, Judkins has not only seen herself change, but also the Army. Her assignment today, as IMCOM's highest ranking noncommissioned officer, is a far cry from her first duty station, Fort Polk, Louisiana, in 1987, when her supervisor, a master sergeant, would often say, "Sugar, I need you to make me a cup of coffee." With not many female leaders to look to, Judkins didn't think to challenge him, but now uses it as a teaching tool.
"When young Soldiers today talk about how difficult it is to be a woman in the Army, I chuckle and say, 'You have no concept of where we came from. If you only knew where we came from, you would be the most ecstatic person in the world,'" Judkins said.
To further prove her point, Judkins always keeps two links ready and available on her iPhone -- the history of the Women's Army Corps, and a story about Yzetta Nelson, who became the Army's first female command sergeant major in 1968.
"We had a long road to hoe to get to where we are. Don't look at the past, look at the future -- there are female Rangers in the Army," Judkins said. "I got to meet two of the three. I used to be called 'Sugar.' How exciting is this?"
While exciting, the fact is not lost on Judkins that she one of few females pictured on many Chain of Command boards at installations across the country and the world, including at Redstone Arsenal's Garrison headquarters.
"When I was growing up as a young Soldier there weren't a lot of female leaders," Judkins said. "Throughout my entire career I haven't had that luxury of looking up to another female leader and saying, 'How did you do this?' and, 'How did you do that?' I've always had to go to male leaders and figure out just how to follow them through the breach. For me, it's not something I even think of, but I've been forced to think of it more the longer I stay in the Army."
A trailblazer in her own right, Judkins doesn't point to her gender as being the most challenging aspect of her Army career, but rather, finding the appropriate work-life balance for her husband, two sons and daughter, now grown, and the guilt she felt for not always being there. It's a task, she admits, she "did not do as well" as she would like, although her children are quick to point out all the things they were able to do together as a family. When she was deployed to Bosnia, each night she would read a chapter of a book aloud into a tape recorder. When the book was finished she sent the recorder to her sister so her kids could listen to a bedtime story read by their mom each night.
"I think, for women, the guilt that we have for being a parent and not being around is different from the guilt that a man carries from being a parent and not being around," Judkins said. "Because of that, we have to work hard to figure it out. It's a balance you have to find."
It's a balance she encourages the future leaders of the Army to find as she mentors them.
"I ask them what their hobbies are," Judkins said. "If they can't tell me a hobby right away, I tell them to go find one. I ask them what they love to do, and if it's the Army then I say, 'What else do you love to do,' because you have to have a turn off point."
As the nation pauses this March to recognize Women's History Month, Judkins offered two pieces of advice to women everywhere.
"You shouldn't let anything, but mostly yourself, get in the way of succeeding," she said. "Sometimes we doubt ourselves so much that we are the reason we don't succeed.
"Second, we should look to our left and right, and the other women around us, and pull them with us. There's a tendency for us as women to be competitive against other women. What that does is that causes us to not be united, and it causes us to not share experiences and help the others around us along. Granted, not everybody wants help, but we all should help one another. Our struggles are very different from men's struggles, and they're very similar to one another's."