WASHINGTON -- As the Army's first active-duty African-American female chaplain to pin on colonel rank, Monica Lawson had a message to the naysayers during her promotion ceremony Wednesday.
Even after several leadership roles in her Army career, as well as earning two master’s degrees and being an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, some may think her promotion was only affirmative action.
Monica, who serves as the chief of recruiting for the Army chaplaincy, sought to nip any of those thoughts in the bud.
“What it was, it was an affirming action,” she said, as a small crowd gathered for the ceremony cheered her on.
“Because God affirmed me so that I could be here. When God calls you, he will open doors for you that no man can close,” she added. “Not only did God open the door, but he provided a seat for me at the table.”
With Lawson’s assistance, Maj. Gen. Thomas L. Solhjem, the Army chief of chaplains, hopes to bring more women to that table.
As women only make up about 5% of the active-duty Army Chaplain Corps, Solhjem said the newest colonel has been charged with increasing its recruiting mission for female candidates.
“We need healers in our Army,” he said. “We need practitioners of the faith in our Army. We need people who have right relationship with God to bring people in direct relationship with God in our Army. They come in all shapes, sizes and colors.”
While the ceremony was for Lawson, she made it a point to speak of those who came before her.
She recognized five different chaplains who helped pave the way for her and others: Capt. Ella Gibson Hobart, the first woman to serve as a military chaplain, and Henry McNeal Turner, the first African-American chaplain in the Army, who both served in the late 1800s. Col. Louis Augustus Carter, the first African-American chaplain to be promoted to colonel in 1936. Maj. Alice Henderson, the first woman of any race to serve as an Army chaplain in 1974, followed years later by Col. Janet Horton, the first female Army chaplain to be promoted to colonel.
“You’ve seen too many times when people write history, we tend to leave out the history of those who made it possible for us to achieve our historic moments,” Lawson said. “I wanted to allow the world to see that you can make history and still embrace the history of other people.”
Acknowledging the accomplishments of others, regardless of race, religion or gender, does not diminish your own accomplishments, she added.
As a woman of color, she said she understands what it feels like when people try to discount her work.
“I know what it is like to have your contributions for the greater good not count and make you feel like it doesn’t matter,” she said. “But I am here to tell you that they do matter. My belief and my life, and what I do in this world, matters.”
She went to thank those in the Chaplain Corps who let her be herself. “You never asked me to tone it down,” she said. “You always allowed me to just be me.”
To her, the promotion was not a tick in a box, but part of the “heart-changing dialogue” currently underway across the nation to end racism.
“I know and I understand there were and are still women of color who served before me and are serving today,” she said. “And I acknowledge their sacrifice, their hard work and their tears.”
Before he administered the Oath of Commissioned Officers to Lawson, Solhjem made it clear that she was not being recognized due to her race or gender, but because she exhibited to a board that she has the potential to lead.
The general then asked her not to let the historic accomplishment define her.
“You make the definition of what that means,” he said. “Because what we don’t need, Monica, is someone with a singular lane. We need somebody with a big canopy, arms wide open -- willing to sacrifice, willing to selflessly serve others and to empower those who are beneath you to succeed.
“That’s what comes with the rank of that eagle.”