FORT LEE, Va. (Nov. 19, 2020) -- More than five months into her tenure as Chief of Ordnance and commandant of the Ord. School, Brig. Gen. Michelle M.T. Letcher has well-established the fact she is a hard-charger.
“First and foremost, I’m really passionate about my service,” said the Illinois native who took over her duties June 16.
“I love serving in the United States Army,” she continued, “and I really do believe the work all of us do collectively contributes to our national security and a world that is safer, more stable and secure. I feel like I have to drive really hard because I want to leave my children a world that is more secure and safe. My service is very personal to me. I probably push pretty hard because there are so many things we can do to make many things so much better.”
Although Letcher’s assertion is an upfront declaration about who she is as a Soldier, it only provides snippets about her methods of operation, her values and how she views her role as CoO.
“It’s an honor and a privilege (to be a part of the Ordnance Corps), but I don’t know if I see myself as the head of the organization, but rather a teammate with responsibilities inside the organization,” she said. “I’ve always found Ordnance Corps Soldiers and leaders to be innovative and very passionate about their skillsets. The thing that excites me is being a part of the team here and the changes I already see in place to constantly move our Army forward. It’s truly inspiring.”
Letcher heads an organization chiefly responsible for training personnel and developing doctrine. The Ordnance Corps is the third largest branch in the Army, comprised of more than 100,000 active and reserve component Soldiers trained in the mechanical and maintenance career fields as well as explosive ordnance disposal, ammunition and explosives safety. The ordnance schoolhouses – located here and at various locations throughout the country – trained more than 175,000 personnel last year.
As diverse and complicated the mission is for the corps and schoolhouse, Letcher said she approaches her duties and responsibilities with consideration to four fundamental questions: “What do we want to accomplish this year? What do we want to accomplish in developing the corps? Where do we see the design of the corps in the future? How do we care for our people?”
The latter is an issue monumentally important to Letcher.
“Obviously, across the Army we’re conducting listening sessions as we try to get after sexual harassment/sexual assault, suicide awareness and extremism,” she said. “So, communicating with Soldiers at all levels and understanding each other (is important). … We can help build the Army they want to serve in. It’s a reflection of all of us in society. It can’t be a reflection of a few in society. For me, the ‘People First’ aspect is really where leaders apply themselves.”
Gen. James McConville used the “People First” term in speeches and interviews upon being named Army Chief of Staff in 2019. It became part of a broader strategy emphasizing the requirements to attract and retain Soldiers and civilians and focusing on the human element as the basis for all successes.
Letcher said she has long-believed Soldiers and civilians are the strength of an organization and aspires to build a culture of trust serving as a foundation for empowerment and innovation within the Ordnance Corps.
“I want people in the organization to help me shape where we take it, then help me measure where we want the organization to go,” she said. “What I hope we’ll see gets away from ‘the way we’ve always done something’ to building a transformational force.”
Complacency and outdated convention, added Letcher, are among the impediments to thriving workplaces. What’s important is providing challenge and opportunity as a means to motivate and excite people so they can “feel real positive about transformational change and get us out of our comfort zone and (away from the idea of) saying ‘that’s the way it’s always been.’”
Letcher also said she encourages a diversity of “skillsets and attributes people bring to the team and harnessing all of those positive attributes to drive change.”
Mindful of how much progress the Army has made in the area of diversity over the course of her 25-year career, Letcher commended Project Inclusion – a recent service-wide initiative – for promoting acceptance and expanding opportunities for all who choose to serve.
Tying this to her personal experience, she said, “When I came in the Army, women couldn’t serve in combat roles. I’ve watched the Army transform quite a bit since I became a second lieutenant in many positive ways. It’s really just opening that aperture so people feel empowered to communicate.”
As an experienced leader, Letcher said she values listening just as much and endeavors to teach others to do it well.
“One of the discussions I have with lieutenants and at the (59th Ordnance) Brigade is, after 25 years in the Army, I can have a conversation with you and tell if something is off. … Our young captains and lieutenants don’t have that experience. One thing I help leaders do is help them identify risk. In the past, if Soldiers did something wrong, we’d just write them up as bad Soldiers. Today, we ask ourselves ‘why did that Soldier miss a formation?’ Is something going on at home? … How do we teach people to understand the next layer of what a problem is? It’s all about getting involved. It’s what Gen. (Paul Funk, TRADOC commander) would say is being ‘positively intrusive.’ Leaders have to figure out what’s the right time to ask the right questions and help people get on the other side of what they’re going through.”
When making decisions, Letcher said she is first and foremost informed by policies and regulation but also by gut feeling.
“One thing I think leaders sometimes underestimate – and you have to know yourself – is intuition. As you become more experienced, your intuition becomes more informative. It guides me to paying more attention to something. I call that friction on the battlefield. If I intuitively pick up there might be a problem somewhere, I’ll try to figure out if it’s something I need to solve. I also go back to Army doctrine, regulations and policies, to determine if something systemic is causing the problem or hindering its solution.”
At the leader level, problem-solving is essential, but the ability is useful to all ranks, said Letcher.
“If you come up on a problem – whether you’re in the Ordnance Corps or not – the first thing you should do is ask, ‘What can I do to help solve the problem?’ Can I solve this at my level? Sometimes you come across people who pass the problem along (and some problems have to be brought up the chain of command), but empowering people to solve problems at the lowest levels is really, really important. And as a leader, empowering them to do it without undercutting their ability to take ownership is even more so.”
Due to her quarter century of service, Letcher can list a number of experiences that have made it easier to empathize with troops. She enlisted as a quartermaster, training as a 57E laundry and bath specialist here prior to commissioning as an air defense artillery officer in 1995. She became an ordnance officer in 1997, and since then, has completed numerous assignments to include deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the domestic front, Letcher is married to another Soldier, Col. Kenneth W. Letcher. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, she was commanding general of the Joint Munitions Command at Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., and suddenly found herself fulfilling roles of mother and father following the deployment of her husband.
“I had three boys to raise and educate at home,” she said. “I had the same challenges as others and tried to balance it all while working fulltime – not teleworking – as a single mother. I think these challenges are important to share because I don’t think they come off the table with the position held.”
As the mother of boys 11, 14 and 16 years of age, Letcher said it is a difficult challenge for many to strike the correct balance between work and family life. She and her husband received a bit of advice on the subject from her husband’s former boss, then - Lt. Col. and now - Gen. Stephen Lyons: “It’s about quality time and not quantity time.
“So, what we do is that when we’re present, we’re present,” said Letcher, noting they try to reframe from work preoccupations. “For me, I don’t bring my computer home at night. If I’m going to work, I stay at work, but if I’m going home – I mean I have my phone – but I don’t bring work home. My husband does the same thing. We are very present.”
Letcher, the 42nd Chief of Ordnance, is only the third woman to hold the position in the organization’s 208-year history.