WASHINGTON -- Julie Guerra didn’t choose to become a leader. Rather, life thrust the role upon her.
Before she reached the sixth grade, she already had become an example for her four younger siblings growing up on the east side of Tucson, Arizona.
Her father, Antonio Morales, raised his family in a poor neighborhood of the city and had to work long hours as a plumber and pastor. That left Julie at home to help her mother care for her younger siblings.
Her older brother joined a gang and had early brushes with the law. Tucson authorities sent him to juvenile detention at age 13.
The household responsibilities fell on Julie, the eldest daughter who shared a two-bedroom house with her three brothers and two sisters.
She cooked and cleaned. She helped her younger siblings with their homework and made sure they went to bed on time. Guerra didn’t know it then, but her childhood experience prepared her for her Army career.
“A lot of responsibility was put on me within our family because of our culture,” said Guerra, now the Army G-2 sergeant major and the senior NCO of Army intelligence. “And that really from a very young age put me in a leadership role that was very traditional to how we lead in the Army. That was unknown to me at the time, [but] it was setting a path for me to be where I am today.”
In Tucson, which lies about 65 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in the colorful Sonoran Desert, about 40 percent of the city identifies as Hispanic. In many Latino cultures, household duties are delegated to the most senior child.
Tucson has one of the highest poverty rates among large cities in the Southwest. On days when her chores and caring for her siblings overwhelmed her, she’d pick up her violin and play classical music. As a youth she earned a spot in the city’s youth orchestra, performing before large audiences by age 10.
“[Playing violin] really made me appreciate Tucson in a different way. Because what I saw was poverty,” said Guerra, who has served 26 years in the Army. “What I experienced was food insecurity, and almost everybody that I was friends with and grew up with, they were in the same boat.”
Although they lived in hardship, Guerra and her parents found strength by turning to neighboring families for support in desperate times. At one point her family became homeless. Guerra said her father gave her hope that she could work toward a better life.
One summer night in 1985, Antonio took his eldest daughter to the top of Sentinel Peak, a 2,897-foot mountain in the Sonoran Desert overlooking Tucson. They looked out at the city huddled underneath the clear dark sky.
“All this can be yours,” he said to Julie. “Don't ever let people tell you that you can’t do anything. Don't ever let people tell you that you're not qualified for something just because you're a girl.”
When Guerra turned 13, her father received a job to become pastor of a Christian church in Terre Haute, Indiana. Guerra had to move from a city rich with her family’s culture, to a Midwestern town that had few Hispanic Americans. She had to leave behind her friends and the families they had bonded with in Arizona.
For the first time Guerra experienced an environment far different from her own living among mostly white and Black students. To add to her troubles, her older brother’s gang activity continued in Terre Haute and eventually landed him in jail.
It took Guerra months to become herself again, and she turned to strenuous physical fitness to battle her anxiety. She eventually adjusted and resumed playing the violin. But to help her family with additional income, she took an afterschool job working as a babysitter at the local gym.
After her high school graduation in 1993, Guerra returned to Arizona and enrolled in college hoping to major in pre-law. She joined the Army to pay for her tuition with the G.I. Bill. By the time she finished her first four years in service, the Army had become a second family to her, similar to her Tucson neighbors, and chose to pursue a military career.
Although she had some mixed experiences with the Army leaders as a young Soldier, she didn’t let them faze her.
She learned to value mentorship, knowing the impact good leadership could have on a Soldier’s career. She led with a fair but direct style -- something she carried with her during her 18 months at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, as a drill sergeant.
“She’s very driven, goal oriented and straightforward,” said close friend Tonja Martin who Guerra met working part-time while stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Her upbringing provided her the ability to empathize with Soldiers from certain socioeconomic backgrounds and from different walks of life.
As she climbed the Army’s ranks, Guerra heard the whispers. Occasionally, her peers pulled her aside saying that certain Soldiers didn’t care for her leadership style.
“They would tell me, ‘you’re very aggressive in the way that you come across,’” said Guerra, who earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Excelsior College in 2011. “After doing this for 26 years, it's hilarious to me. Because they would never say that to a man.”
While she admits she endured obstacles common for females within the Army, early obstacles prepared her. And she always had her father to lean on.
“He was my No. 1 supporter,” Guerra said. “He had an amazing impact on me as a daughter and that really shaped me into the mother and the woman that I am today.”
In 2018, her father passed away at age 69.
Before he passed he watched his daughter reach the upper echelon of the Army’s enlisted force. His example still influences Guerra today.
“He showed her a lot of tenacity and that struggles are temporary,” Martin said.
Guerra said working as a drill sergeant further molded her as a leader after seeing the impact she made on recruits at Leonard Wood. As a first sergeant at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, she learned the importance of shifting a unit’s culture and has spoken against incidents of sexism and racism.
As the 501st Military Intelligence Brigade command sergeant major at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan, South Korea, she created a reward card program that recognized outstanding achievements of Soldiers, who excel in their duties or in physical fitness.
Now as the most senior NCO for Soldiers in Army intelligence she helps facilitate training and resources for Soldiers within the career field.
And Guerra said the discipline she needed to ascend in the Army began as a 9-year-old, when her father first asked her help.
“He saw that I had the discipline and the responsibility to be the one that he could put in charge and he entrusted me with a lot of things because of that,” she said.