She joined the Army as a Chemical Operations Specialist and with movie-like expectations, this 17-year-old soldier figured she would "come up with some type of formula that was going to be amazing."
After 25 years of service in the Army Reserve, Sgt. Maj. Lynei Woodard may not have developed that chemical formula she envisioned as a young private, but she came up with something even better: a formula for endurance and success in both her Reserve and civilian careers.
Army Sgt. Maj. Lynei Woodard
Job Title: Operations Sergeant Major
Hometown: Queens, New York
Stationed: Fort Benning, Georgia
Unit: 98th Training Division
Of course, Woodard, who is now the operations sergeant major for the 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training) Headquarters at Fort Benning, Georgia, admits that at 17, she did not really have a grand, detailed plan for two careers at the time. She just saw an opportunity and seized it.
Why did you decide to join the Army at 17 years old?
"I thought [joining the Army Reserve] was a good opportunity, because at the time, there were two of us graduating from high school at the same time, me and my sister. So I wanted to be able to afford college without putting an extra debt on my parents."
You were mobilized after 9/11 to prepare deploying soldiers for chemical operations. What was going through your mind then?
"I felt very compelled during that time, because I began to realize that even though I was doing a job, and I was training people—that I was sending over human lives. So looking in their eyes became more and more important."
When and how did you decide to become a drill sergeant, after serving as a chemical operations soldier?
"I was selected by the Department of the Army to step up and become a drill sergeant. I was a sergeant first class at the time, and I thought, 'what do you need with me?' But, I've never been one to turn down an opportunity, so I was obedient to the call…and it was one of the best decisions of my career."
What was the most challenging part of being a drill sergeant?
"To be perfectly honest, the most challenging part of being a drill sergeant was going to the Drill Sergeant Academy. And it was because I was a sergeant first class, and I had to be under, and learn from people who were at a different rank and be obedient to pushups and standing at parade rest. But the fact of the matter is, that I wanted what they had. So if I wanted what they had, I had to do what they had already done and subject myself to what they were trying to teach me."
Looking back as a sergeant major, what is the role and value of the drill sergeant today?
"The role and value of the drill sergeant has not changed. We are vital to creating the armed forces. Whether it be officer, or whether it be enlisted, drill sergeants are the start for everyone, and drill sergeants will forever be the start for everyone. The NCO Corps is the backbone of the military, and nothing moves without a backbone. The backbone is the absolute support. So from before, to now, and into the future, the drill sergeant is, and will always be, viable to the military."
While you were advancing through the ranks in the Army Reserve, you were busy on the civilian side as well. Tell us about that.
"I put the Army's college money benefit to use on the civilian side. Over the years, I managed to not only earn one degree, but three: an associate degree in Health and Physical Education from Georgia Perimeter College; a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Emory University; and then a Master of Science in Nursing as a Family Nurse Practitioner from Samford University."
As you progressed in both your Army and civilian roles, what have you learned about leadership?
"When you stop learning as a leader—when you feel like your title somehow makes you the know-all of everything—you have failed. You also have to have compassion for people. People under you, soldier or civilian, need to know you have empathy and sympathy—that you care about them, because if they don't see a leader's compassion, their actions will not hold a lot of weight."
We heard you were a radio DJ at some point. Tell us about that.
"For those who do not know, for a period of time, I was an on-air personality for Hot 107.9 that had a Sunday morning show called Crunk for Christ. That was a great experience to be able to bring Christ into the hearts of young people through the type of music that young people listen to. I think that God can transform in many, many ways to the needs of his people."
What else have you done that people don't know about?
"I was an instructor at Emory University. I taught new nurses. So that's another thing I did in my career, or multiple careers, I guess."
You've accomplished a lot in these past 20 years. What has kept you motivated and driven to do so many things?
"What motivates me in terms of endurance is the fact that, as most people know, as African Americans, we…for lack of a better terms, we don't have a place. And what I mean, is that I cannot trace my family lineage back to Africa. I mean, I know that is the continent from which I came from, but the furthest I can go is to my great-grandmother and her parents who were slaves. My great-grandmother had her first child at 15 years old and sacrificed through life so that she could raise up a generation of people to eventually become successful.
I also had two uncles serve in the military, one in World War I and another in Vietnam. Both of them were never the same and came home different people and were not even treated with respect. In fact, my uncle who served in Vietnam, came back to be called 'boy' and the 'N-word.' So when I see the endurance of people like that, and my mother, who was bussed to an all-white neighborhood in order to expand diversity—when I see the contributions that they made, when they exhaled—I inhaled their endurance. I inhaled their endurance. They crawled. They walked so I can run, and my children are going to soar."
In terms of diversity, how have you seen the Army transform?
"I think that in terms of diversity, we are eons beyond our civilian counterparts. Everything in the military in terms of diversity is not perfect, but you can go to our local units, you can go to our dining facilities, and you will see people from different ethnic backgrounds, different cultures, different genders, different faiths, all sitting together, eating and laughing as one.
The Army has developed an ability to see people and character, in addition to seeing people's color, and that is a good thing. I don't think God intended for us to ignore the beauty of what we see every day and in human beings, but the Army has learned to see the color, explore the color and the culture that comes with it, and embrace it.
If only the world around us would take a look at us, there would be so many things that we could fix in just learning how to see it, explore it and embrace it. [When I retire,] I am going to definitely miss that. It will be the thing that I miss the most when I retire."