Before the thought of joining the U.S. Army ever crossed her mind, Lt. Col. Tilisha Lockley learned to deal with adversity and leading in uncertain environments.
When she started college, she was paying out of her own pocket and helping her grandmother, mother, and two sisters make a living around the Outer Banks of northeastern North Carolina. During her junior year of college, Lockley made the decision to join the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. That decision would put her on the path to becoming an officer in the U.S. Army. The lessons she learned balancing work, going to school, and helping her family continue to inform her as a battalion commander in the U.S. Army.
Fast-forward to a few decades later, the 5-foot-4-inch-tall lieutenant colonel commands the 41st Strategic Signal Battalion in the Republic of Korea (ROK). The 41st Strategic Signal Battalion is the largest operational signal battalion in the U.S. Army. Lockley is responsible for all communications, to include the transport of network circuits, satellite communications, voice and data security for the entire South Korean Peninsula. She commands over 900 Soldiers, Department of the Army Civilians, Local Nationals, Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) and Contractors dispersed across the entire Korean Peninsula.
For Lockley, a career signal officer, inheriting an organization of this size came with new challenges.
“We faced a new set of challenges commanding a geographically dispersed organization with a small battalion staff in an uncertain environment, supporting the communications requirements of a four-star, three-star, and two-star command,” Lockley said.
However, Lockley attributes the success of her organization to the balance of command and control, requirement prioritization and the technical expertise of the Korean and U.S. military and civilian workforce - which ensured that the entire organization had the same strategic understanding and scope of the mission.
According to Lockley, the blended workforce comprised of American Soldiers, Department of the Army Civilians, Contractors, and KATUSAs added a certain level complexity to the mission. Over 200 members of the 41st Strategic Signal Battalion are local Korean Nationals, many of whom have worked within the organization for 20-plus years. Most of the Korean workforce followed clear traditions and rarely interacted with a female battalion commander. So, one of the first objectives was to establish mutual trust and understanding amongst the Korean leadership and Korean Union members within the battalion.
Lockley continued to command a battalion and provide communication services during the COVID-19 pandemic with her personnel working remotely and 40% of her workforce (over 2,000 years of collective service within the battalion) being furloughed and not allowed to work until a new Special Measures Agreement was signed.
“This is by-far, the most challenging mission I have encountered since being in the Army,” Lockley said.
She was challenged with balancing the safety and health of older individuals, mission and emergency essential workforce, and ensuring the network was sustained for warfighter support. Despite these challenges, Lockley and her reduced workforce still accomplished the mission during COVID-19 operations. Lockley attributes mission accomplishment to amazing leadership from every member of the organization and by building trust with the workforce early on. Lockley made it clear that she provided the intent and direction and the 41st team rose to the challenge to make the mission happen though it was not easy.
Lockley was recently selected, to the rank of colonel and will soon move on to be the Military Assistant to the Secretary of the Army in Washington D.C. In retrospect, an Army career was not something Lockley saw herself doing, even though she came from a military family.
Lockley is the second of three daughters, born to a single mother. She and her older sister grew up living mostly with her grandparents. Her great grandfather, grandfather, and uncles all served in the military. Though she admired the uniform and even found curiosity in what her uncles did during Operation Desert Storm, she still did not think joining the military was in her future. Dreaming about the future was difficult when she felt she did not know who she was as a person.
“Growing up, life was about the essentials and not luxuries, things like food and clothes, which is why my sister and I lived with our grandparents,” Lockley said. “We were poor and I just didn’t want to struggle and I wanted to go to college and take care of myself, my family, my grandmother and my mother who took care of me.”
As Lockley departs for her new position, she reflects on her time in Korea with a smile and clear pride in discussing the work the battalion did to reshape its current operational/business climate.