CAMP ZAMA, Japan — As a competitive person, Staff Sgt. Sharonica White doesn’t like to be told she can’t do something.
She had learned some of that mindset a decade ago while attending basic training. At the time, a Black female drill sergeant planted a seed in her after she advised White she would need to prove herself throughout her Army career.
“I think because I had gotten that [advice] at such a young rank that I’m always trying to compete with my male counterparts,” White said.
White, 31, of San Antonio and a religious affairs specialist assigned to U.S. Army Garrison Japan, said she seeks to lead from the front when given the opportunity.
In an Army birthday event in 2020, she was the sole woman in an Army Combat Fitness Test competition. A photo of her performing a deadlift was placed on posters and shared on military websites. While embarrassed at first, she said she hopes the photo at least helped motivate someone.
White’s name can also be seen on a wall inside Yano Fitness Center for completing the 500-pound weightlifting challenge. And there are trophies in her office that she has earned in other sporting events on post.
Last month, she was chosen for her next challenge — Officer Candidate School. But her selection almost didn’t happen.
White had initially applied for OCS in 2017, but was denied due to medical reasons. She said she had previously been seen for behavioral health and was later medically cleared after the denial.
White then moved to Japan, settled into a new role and eventually decided to apply again. Her second packet was denied for the same reason.
Determined, she reached out to Army Medical Command, which noticed it was a glitch in its system and her paperwork was quickly fixed and she was cleared.
With help from her chain of command, her packet was resubmitted and finally approved.
Despite the delay, White still encourages other Soldiers to seek behavioral health options when needed, so that they can become stronger.
“Fight for what you want,” she said. “You have to fight for it, because no one is going to fight besides yourself. You have your supporters, your leaders, your family, but it takes you. You have to be resilient to bounce back.”
White, a single mother of two who is also pursuing a master’s degree in business administration, looks forward to the chance to lead as an officer.
She considers herself a “change agent,” a person who can help transform their organization by inspiring and influencing others.
“I try my best to be a change agent, because I don’t like being a stereotype — a female Soldier, a Black Soldier or Soldier in general,” she said. “When I walk into the door, I want them to see me as an individual and the wealth of knowledge that I bring to the table.”
While the term “melting pot” is often synonymous with diversity, White believes “stew” may be a better term. People should not be melted, or changed, to form something, she said, but rather stewed to bring out the best parts in them.
“You want to keep people however they were brought up, whatever culture [or] tradition they have,” she said. “You want to bring that into your organization, so you can learn from everybody.”
One challenge she expects as a new officer will be to gain the trust of everyone in her unit. As a noncommissioned officer, she has acquired tools to help her do that, but she is ready to learn more in her upcoming training.
“As leaders, when you take care of your people, your people will take care of you,” she said. “You don’t want people to just respect your rank; you want them to respect you as a whole.”
Maj. Doug Ochner, deputy chaplain for USAG Japan, believes White has the right attitude and intellectual abilities to someday become an effective officer.
“She is tenacious and persistent,” said Ochner, who is also her supervisor. “We have been faced with a lot of new systems pushed down on us from [Army Installation Management Command] since COVID started, and she has navigated those systems in order to continue paying contractors and basically continue religious support operations here at our chapels.”
The road ahead for White will not be easy, but Ochner said her mindset of always seeking self-improvement will help her along the way.
“Officers are made; they’re not born, so it’ll be a process,” he said. “She’ll have to go through three months of OCS, and then followed on by a basic course. That will definitely shape and guide her in what is expected of an officer.”
One of White’s role models who has inspired her to do well is former Lt. Gen. Nadja West, the first Black woman to be a lieutenant general in the Army.
“When you see a female of color in a position that she was able to obtain, it just motivates you,” White said. “You can realize that you can do it, too.”
She has also admired former Gen. Colin Powell, the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for his leadership philosophy, which she has incorporated into her own approach, she said.
Today, more than 190,000 Soldiers who identify as African American or Black serve in the Army, which is about 19% of the total force, according to Army officials.
Among them, there could be the next trailblazer for the Army.
“We can do whatever we set our heart to do like anybody else,” White said. “We’re no different. We all breathe the same air at the end of the day.”