COMMAND/ORGANIZATION: U.S. Army Special Operations Command
TITLE: Contract specialist
ACQUISITION CAREER FIELD: Contracting
YEARS OF SERVICE IN WORKFORCE: 3
MILITARY OR CIVILIAN: Military
YEARS OF MILITARY SERVICE: 12
DAWIA CERTIFICATIONS: Level II in contracting
EDUCATION: MBA, American Military University; B.A. in military management and program acquisition, American Military University
AWARDS: Army Commendation Medal (8th award), Army Achievement Medal (5th award), Army Good Conduct Medal (4th award), National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terror Service Medal, NCO Professional Development Ribbon (2nd award), Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon (4th award) Armed Forces Reserve Component Medal (M Device)
HOMETOWN: Beavercreek, Ohio
STAFF SGT. DEBRA STOKES
“I was like 18 and I wanted to be tough.” Without context, those words strike fear in the hearts of parents everywhere. But for Staff Sgt. Debra Stokes, that moment was the start of a fascinating, unexpected and impressive Army career. Recently selected to conduct contracting with special operations units, she is the 2020 Army Contracting Command Best Warrior of the Year and the Army Materiel Command Noncommissioned Officer of the Year—and she’s not done yet. For the Air Force brat from Beavercreek, Ohio, enlisting in the Army was the first step. “My parents were Air Force, my Dad retired from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and we lived nearby from 3rd grade on,” she said. It wasn’t just about being tough, though. She saw more opportunities for herself in the Army, and had her grandfather’s example to follow.
And so far, her path has been anything but predictable. Stokes began her Army enlistment as a chaplain’s assistant. “That role is very different than what I do now in contracting,” she said, “but I gained a lot of people skills and learned to listen.” The experience helped to shape her character and equip her to handle difficult situations, she said.
She applied to the Army Acquisition Workforce after finishing graduate school. “I was eager to use my education and found this MOS [military occupational specialty],” she said. “It fit well with my fields of study.” In her first acquisition job, she worked as a contract specialist for the Mission and Installation Contracting Command (MICC) at Fort Riley, Kansas. “The challenge and the variety of contracting appealed to me,” she said. “The civilian workforce at the MICC became like family and taught me the ins and outs of basic contracting.”
Just a year later, she deployed to Jordan. “I was able to obtain a warrant so I could serve my team as a contracting officer.” The deployment was an important milestone in her career, because she gained experience with contracting in a contingency environment and learned to perform civilian employee reviews and appraisals. “And I went to air assault school.” A former chaplain’s assistant, turned contract specialist, jumping out of helicopters in the desert? Sure, why not.
“It was pretty cool,” she said. “My brigade was allowed to send one person to the school, and I was selected.” She was nervous to represent her team and wanted to perform well, which was quite a difficult task. “It was one of the most intense things you can imagine,” she said. Of 270 Soldiers who started the course, only 190 were able to finish; 182 of them were men. “There were only eight females in the entire course and all eight of us made it,” she said. “Just that fact that half of us were moms and we held our own—it was such a rare opportunity.” She’s proud, and rightfully so.
So, what would come next for Stokes? More competition. “I most recently competed in the Army Contracting Command and Army Materiel Command Best Warrior competitions,” she said. And she won. “It was a lot of studying and training.” Naturally, things were a bit different this year during the coronavirus pandemic. “We ended up doing a virtual board,” she said “and submitting our physical fitness test scores” rather than competing in person. Again, her unit came to her aid. “The MICC supported me and helped me practice for the competition.” She made and studied hundreds of flashcards, and her teammates at the MICC held mock interviews to help her practice her presence and confidence with public speaking. “Their support was instrumental to my success,” she said.
Stokes shared the most valuable lesson she has learned in her career so far. “Just have the courage to show up and try,” she said. “Most of the time, it will work out and if it doesn’t, at least you know you gave it your best shot.” She advises junior acquisition personnel to always ask “Why?” when completing contracting tasks. “When people first switch to contracting, we jump into a fast-paced environment with no experience,” she said. “It’s like drinking from a firehose.” Rather than just copying what was done before, she encourages everyone to learn by asking questions. “You have to know why to really understand the process.”
Today, her biggest challenge at work is trying to find a way to yes when acquisition challenges arise. “It can be hard to meet customer expectations while still following contracting rules and the FAR [Federal Acquisition Regulation],” she said. “We try to solve problems instead of just saying, ‘We can’t do that.’ A better way is to figure out how you can do it.” She feels it is important to help customers understand the acquisition process through proactive and clear communication, and she strives to create mutually beneficial solutions. Apt advice from the Soldier who says to just “show up and try.”
For her next challenge, Stokes is taking on the world of special operations. “My unit at Fort Riley encouraged me to apply for a contracting position with a special operations unit,” she said. She was accepted and is now in the middle of moving to her new duty assignment with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. If this new challenge is anything like her last, Stokes is sure to succeed. At least she’ll show up and try.
“Faces of the Force” is an online series highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce through the power of individual stories. Profiles are produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication and Support Branch, working closely with public affairs officers to feature Soldiers and civilians serving in various AL&T disciplines. For more information, or to nominate someone, please go to https://asc.army.mil/web/publications/army-alt-submissions/.
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