In December, 1st Brigade Combat Team welcomed the installation’s newest recipients of the Expert Infantry and Expert Soldier Badges. Among the Soldiers to successfully complete training and testing was 1st Lt. Nikole Hairston, support operations transportation officer-in-charge, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st BCT, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).
Hairston made history being one of the first three women in the division to earn the ESB.
“That’s probably my proudest accomplishment in life, because I’ve never been one of the first to do anything before,” she said. “When I signed up for it I had no idea how difficult it was going to be. There was such a learning curve because all of the tasks are geared toward the infantry. I assumed that because it was a badge separate from the Expert Infantry Badge that it would be different.”
Hairston had to rise to the challenge physically and mentally, battling feelings of self-doubt along the way, said the Newport News, Virginia native.
“Once I was already in it and I saw what I had to do, I wanted to quit so many times,” she said. “I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to be able to pass and that would be embarrassing. Actually, graduating and completing every single task was a major confidence boost for me. I’m earning my seat at the table – wearing this badge makes me feel like a force to be reckoned with.”
Throughout the ESB process, Hairston said other women rallied around her to give and receive inspiration. Social media served as a platform to let others join in and create a conversation about her journey.
“While I was going through it, I was documenting it on my Instagram story and I received an overwhelming amount of messages from women I know and women I don’t know in the Army, asking questions, encouraging me and asking if I could vlog it so they could see if they would be able to do it,” she said. “That motivated me because I wanted to be able to tell them at the end, ‘Hey I did it, and you can do it too.’ I wanted to be able to set an example, not just for other females, but all my Soldiers at the time as well.”
As a woman in the Army, Hairston said she feels an obligation to prove herself as a worthy and equal member among the ranks, despite the progress and contributions women have made in and for the military.
“There are a lot of challenges that I face as a woman in the Army,” she said. “A major challenge is combating stereotypes. Because I’m a logistician, if you’re in a forward support company and you’re embedded within an infantry battalion, there are many times where you’ll be the only woman in the room. It’s certainly not all men, but there are many men that still have an issue with women in this male dominated industry. It’s apparent – not just a rumor. You can feel it in the way that they talk over you, dismiss your ideas or just try to make you feel inferior.”
Hairston said she goes above and beyond to dispel that stereotypes. She is intentional about ensuring her efforts match and sometimes exceed those of her male counterparts. This level of commitment validates and makes her feel good about the work she does.
“I just try to overcompensate,” she said. “I make sure that I know what’s going on at all times. I’m constantly pushing my limits. A lot of times I’m the last person leaving the office. I also put in extra time with my workouts. I’ll work out twice a day just to make sure that I’m still competitive against these males, so they understand that I earned my spot. I’m not just here; we’re equal.”
As a young woman, Hairston said she was very different from the image she thought of people in the military, but life circumstances led her to give the Army a chance.
“Growing up I was very girly,” she said. “I was varsity cheer captain at Menchville High School, and I was really into fashion. I was voted best dressed at my high school in 2012. I worked a lot though. From the day I turned 16, I had two to three jobs at a time. I had to pay for my own college. That’s what made me look at the military – the benefits. I knew I wanted to continue my education without accruing more student debt, so I thought I’d join the military.”
After graduating from Old Dominion University, Hairston took a job working as a client associate at an investment bank. Soon, feelings of professional unfulfillment made her consider other career options.
“I joined the Army because I didn’t like my civilian job,” she said. “I was tired of corporate America. I just wanted something more exciting, something more physically demanding as opposed to just sitting at a desk, and something where overall I felt like I served a greater purpose.
Hairston said the Army definitely provides the change of pace she was looking for, and she is lucky she didn’t have to look far for a mentor to seek guidance and keep her grounded as she navigates her military career.
“My boyfriend’s mother, Donna President, is a retired CW2 and she served for over 20 years,” she said. “She inspires me. Whenever I have a work question or a general Army question, I can call her and she’ll talk me through what she recommends. She always tells me about her experiences as a black woman in the Army as well, so I look up to her.”
Hairston hopes her Army service is an example to other women. She said she knows there are plenty of women who have an interest in the armed forces, but don’t think they’re a proper fit.
“I don’t want women to be discouraged,” Hairston said. “Before I joined the military I had all of these ideas about what a Soldier looked like and I didn’t fit any of those ideas. I’m very feminine. I like make up and baking pies and I don’t like anything outdoorsy or anything I thought you had to like to be a Soldier. I think that a lot of women get discouraged when they look at the armed forces and it’s so much more difficult than it really is. Do your research before you sign up, and make sure you pick a job that actually interests you because that’s going to be the game changer.”
Hairston said she plans to do 20 years in the Army, and thinks it very important to take advantage of every opportunity available on an installation. Her next goals are to complete Pathfinder School and compete in weightlifting competitions in her spare time.
“I love being in the Army,” she said. “The benefits of serving our country are unmatched. There’s an enormous sense of pride that comes with being a Soldier – a female Soldier – a black female Soldier, and I want to continue showing the world that I have what it takes.”