FORT LEE, Va. (March 31, 2021) – At her 5-foot-1-inch height, Command Sgt. Maj. Marissa M. Cisneros may not have the physical stature to command a room’s attention.
Her typically stoic persona and monotone manner of speaking similarly puts her at the opposite end of someone making every effort to stand out in a crowd.
Instead, this 40-year-old’s body of work is her voice – metaphorically, a mighty lion’s roar hailing such achievements as promotion to CSM in a blazing-fast 18 years of service and earning installment seven months ago as commandant of the world’s largest noncommissioned officer academy.
She has every reason to boast but doesn’t make a habit of doing so, acknowledged CSM Jamie K. Price, Cisneros’ battle buddy and Sergeants Major Academy classmate. He is serving as the NCO academy commandant at Fort Stewart, Ga.
“Regardless of her rank or position, she doesn’t let it go to her head,” Price said. “She’s so humble, and when she speaks, it’s at the right time with the right words (that) can move a room. Most of the time, though, she speaks with her actions.”
Cisneros somewhat agrees with her classmate, noting her competence is primarily rooted in demonstration.
“I’ve never been the loud, yelling type,” she said. “That’s never been my style.”
It is the fashion Cisneros has favored since enlisting in 1998 – entering the service as the daughter of divorced parents residing in Edinburg, Texas.
“I always took the hard jobs,” Cisneros said. “It was the first sergeant saying, ‘You know what, you’re going to come and sit in for me,’ or the sergeant major saying, ‘You’re going to be the platoon sergeant over here because I’ve been watching you operate and make missions happen.’
“I never said ‘no’ to a job.”
Although the 89B ammunition specialist had a great capacity for work as a young Soldier, Cisneros said she did not have a compass pointing toward purpose until leaders recognized her ethic.
“One of my platoon sergeants said, ‘Sergeant major talked to me about you. He said you’re on the right path. You just need to be molded.’ At that time as a young E-5, I remembered saying, ‘I don’t even know what that means.’
“All I knew was getting the job done – the right way – but getting it done,” she continued. “With additional reading, doing homework, taking care of Soldiers … and I’m like, ‘What else?’ I’m peeling back the onion. I just grew over time.”
The Cisneros leadership-skills-portfolio was greatly expanded when she deployed to Southwest Asia with an element of the 27th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Bliss, Texas.
“I was in (Support Operations) when I deployed to Mosul, Iraq, the first time,” she recalled. “I had sergeants first class and master sergeants I worked with. They shared their experiences with me and what it truly means to take care of Soldiers, know them as people and how all of it fits into mission accomplishment.”
The biggest vote of confidence in Cisneros’ abilities came in 2012 when she was moved up from a first sergeant’s position under the 123rd BSB to an equivalent brigade-level Headquarters and Headquarters Company assignment while serving with the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss.
Cisneros said she was taken aback because it exceeded her expectations. The slot was coded as a combat arms military occupational specialty and had been traditionally filled by males who were cavalry scouts (combat arms MOSs were not open to women at the time).
Thus, she was standing on new ground and that would subject her to another level of scrutiny. She doubled down on the opportunity by not just working hard but doing so strategically and using available resources.
“You read, learn and apply yourself the best you can,” Cisneros said. “Also, I had a sergeant major who – if I had any off-the wall questions – would provide answers.”
Most noteworthy, Cisneros did not dwell on the clearly evident inequities in the system, dismissing them as convention.
“I didn’t let it consume me,” she said. “People were going to judge me whether I’m good, bad or indifferent. It’s going to happen, wherever you find yourself.”
That kind of sentiment suggests Cisneros had weathered a few storms in her lifetime. Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, she was the oldest of three in a single-parent household that was subject to bad weather at times.
“Humble beginnings … grew up with government help … apartment lifestyle,” she summarized. “Didn’t have too much to show for ourselves. Nonetheless, we were brought up with values – work hard for whatever you want to achieve.”
Although her parents were divorced, Cisneros visited her father and stepmother on a regular basis, learning much from the latter.
“My stepmother was a great model as a mother figure,” she said, noting the manner in which she espoused traditional beliefs and worked hard to care for a busy household. “She came from Mexico and always instilled values in us.”
Those values are still with Cisneros today and have served as the force behind a career full of successes.
“It’s not an accident,” she said of her rise up the ranks, “and its motivation to work even harder.”
Price is quite familiar with Cisneros’ “work-even-harder” approach. He witnessed it firsthand when they trained together for their SMA follow-on assignments.
“We found out we were going to the 101st (Airborne Division) together, but neither one of us was air-assault qualified,” he said. “We came up with a workout plan to prepare us for that training school. It was amazing to see her grind and work ethic. At the obstacle course, I saw her try obstacles over and over and over again despite getting bruised and exhausted. It was amazing for me to see that from someone. I think that’s one reason we became super friends.”
Cisneros’ job at the academy entails training and developing more than 6,000 logistics noncoms on a yearly basis while juggling the requirements of the Ordnance, Quartermaster and Transportation schools, all of which are headquartered at Fort Lee.
Although the commandant’s position is the epitome of NCO leadership and is looked upon with heaping measures of reverence, Cisneros said it requires equal amounts of dedication and commitment.
“It’s been a challenge, this being my first time in the TRADOC universe,” she said. “I’ve never been at Fort Lee … never in my life. It’s been a huge learning curve.”
Cisneros, who received formal NCO training at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., has spent much of her time in Forces Command units. She has five deployments and two operational rotations under her belt and has logged five consecutive years as a first sergeant in deployable units. For her, being in a Training and Doctrine Command administrative position is like being on another planet – one that has her yearning for meaningful connections with troops.
“The challenge of being here in a schoolhouse environment is that I’m not accustomed to it,” she said. “My joy day in and day out – I get wrapped up in meetings and stuff because I’m here for a reason – is going into the classrooms and out to training events to talk to NCOs. I engage through MS Teams as well.”
Predictably, when Cisneros talks with students and others, the messages are mostly motivational and aspirational in tone.
“I always tell them that you have to open your aperture,” she said. “You have to ask yourself in any situation, ‘Why not me?’ … I’m here, it’s all possible (and) it’s going to take a lot of hard work. It’s not just going to show up and come to you overnight. If you’re doing the hard work day in and day out, it’s going to take you over the hump because you can’t learn just by walking around and expecting others to do things.
“It’s those times late at night when you’re reading and you’re tired, or the weekends when you’re investing time in doing that extra stuff. The results may not be immediate, but you will eventually see them – if you’re willing to go that extra mile.”
Considering her record, no one can tell Cisneros she hasn’t.