Coming full circle: Hispanic junior officer shares her story of going from mentee to mentor

By Brian Hill, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs OfficeMarch 31, 2022

Capt. Sonia Buher, the executive officer to the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School commandant, who recently leveraged her lessons learned in the Army so far, along with her experiences growing up in a Hispanic household, to be a positive example to a female Hispanic high school student.
Capt. Sonia Buher, the executive officer to the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School commandant, who recently leveraged her lessons learned in the Army so far, along with her experiences growing up in a Hispanic household, to be a positive example to a female Hispanic high school student. (Photo Credit: Photo by Angi Betran, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — Prior to 2015, when she was an undergraduate at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Sonia Buher would not have thought she would one day be a captain in the U.S. Army. She had some extended family who had been in the military, but none of her immediate family had served — and there wasn’t a lot of military affiliation in the small town of Oberlin, Louisiana, where she grew up. That’s when a friend invited her to check out the ROTC program.

“I was thinking about going to law school, but I had a friend who was about to commission,” she said. “We had been chatting, and he said, ‘Hey, come by the ROTC program. Take a class if you want. If you’re interested, you can do it. If not, you just drop the class.’ I walked in there in January of 2015, and never left. For me, not having a lot of military affiliation, just the concept of learning how to be a leader through a profession such as the military really was so interesting to me.”

When Buher, who currently serves as the executive officer to the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School commandant, initially told her parents she wanted to join the ROTC program at the university she was attending, and possibly become an Army officer, they were very surprised.

Growing up in a Hispanic family, Buher said her parents were also initially skeptical about her decision.

“That was fun,” she joked, thinking back to that first conversation. “I have a Colombian mother and a Puerto Rican father, so it’s a very Hispanic household, where we still kind of have those gender roles. The males typically go out and work — do the hard labor — and the women are the educated ones who go to school. I have two younger brothers, and my parents had been kind of pushing them a little to join the military — they were pretty surprised when I said I was thinking of joining.”

While the ROTC program at her university was small in comparison to other schools, one thing she noted was the female Professor of Military Science in charge there, Lt. Col. Katherine Carlson.

“It was the first time I had met a senior female officer, so to not only have her as our PMS, but have the opportunity to learn from her was amazing,” Buher said. “She provided me so much insight as to being not only a female officer in the Army, but being a leader in general.”

While in ROTC, during cadet summer training the year before she commissioned, Buher said she decided her first choice of careers in the Army would be in the Chemical Corps.

“We had the opportunity to meet with officers and NCOs from the different branches, and I had just such a great impression of the Chemical Corps,” she said. “But I also looked at it from a practical sense. The Chemical Corps is one of the handful of Army branches that gives you qualifications and certifications that can be used on the civilian side. At the time, I didn’t know how long I’d be in the military, so I was, like, ‘Hey, if I have the opportunity to be able to use any of these certifications on the outside, it’s a no-brainer to join a branch like that.’”

After commissioning in 2017, Buher’s first assignment took her to Fort Hood, Texas, where she served as a squadron chemical officer for 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. One of the first people Buher met at the central Texas installation was Maj. Carolina Cruz, who was serving as the brigade S-1 — the lead officer for personnel-related issues in the unit.

“We just started talking,” Buher said. “She’s Colombian, so we immediately hit if off on the fact of our heritage and we’ve been able to stay in touch over the years. Having someone there, who is genuinely interested in my career and not just that, but my overall wellbeing — she’s been amazing. Every time I have a question, she’s been there to give guidance and mentorship.”

Now a lieutenant colonel working at the Pentagon, Cruz said she remembers first meeting Buher when she was, “a brand-new second lieutenant at a field training exercise.”

“What caught my attention was her energy and enthusiasm,” Cruz recalled. “She was determined to take advantage of the training to learn and maximize her contributions to mission accomplishment.”

Also while at Fort Hood, Buher was given the opportunity to take a temporary assignment in Europe, in support of Atlantic Resolve — a U.S.-led effort in Eastern Europe that demonstrates U.S. commitment to the collective security of NATO, and dedication to the enduring peace and stability in the region.

“I got to work with a lot of host nation partners — Lithuanians, Slovakians, Hungarians,” she said. “It was a great experience, especially as a second lieutenant, to see some of the opportunities that there are in the Army.”

Buher then served as a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive Response Team leader with the 68th CBRNE Company (Technical Escort).

“I think the biggest thing I learned was the type of leader I want to be,” she said. “I was extremely fortunate that I had a lot of positive interactions with leaders — officers and NCOs — and really learn what right looks like. You really have to then figure out what works best for you and your personality.”

It was at this time as well that Buher took on the role of executive officer for the same company.

“That was a great experience because you get to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes action,” she said. “You play a big role in making sure that not only is the commander and the first sergeant prepared to do what they need to do as leaders, you still have to make sure the rest of the company is good to go. I learned what it takes to run a company. It was eye opening. It was a lot of work, but it was definitely rewarding to be able to see the teams being able to successfully complete their missions.”

One day, Buher said she received an email asking if she wanted to interview for the job of executive officer to the incoming CBRNS Commandant Col. Sean Crockett.

“My company commander had actually been a lieutenant in 3rd Chemical Brigade, when Col. Crockett was the commander there,” she said. “He told me, ‘Sonia, you need to do this. You’re going to do well. He’s an amazing leader.’ So, I interviewed. It was only supposed to be a 30-minute interview, and it lasted an hour — just because I had so many questions. As a junior officer, you don’t get that many interactions with the senior leaders of your corps, and there’s so much you can learn from someone who has been doing this for 25 years.”

Coming full circle

At a recent community outreach event at a high school, Buher said she, “had a flashback” after sharing her story of joining the military — a Hispanic female said she had been going through the exact same issue with her family.

“She came up to me after I told my Army story, and that my parents were not the most supportive initially,” Buher said. “She told me her parents were very opposed to her joining because they didn’t think she would be able to go to school. I was able to tell her, ‘I understand what your parents’ concerns are, because, ultimately, they’re looking out for what they consider is the best for you.’ I was able to tell her that I’m a testament to that, that I was able to gain their support and be able to have a prosperous Army career up to this point. My parents are now my No. 1 fans. They come to every single graduation. They’ve been to every promotion — they’ve been some of the most supportive people I have.”

Buher called it, “a humbling experience.”

“I got really emotional,” she said. “I still do, just thinking about it. I never expected — seven years after that moment when I said I was joining ROTC — to be in that position and to hear how much my story meant to someone who needed to hear it. Being a Hispanic female officer, it made me realize that I’m in a position to become a mentor and the representation that we want to see in our military.”

Buher leaves her position in June to attend the Captains Career Course here. She said one of the things she’ll miss about the job is also something that will hopefully help her in the future.

“You learn so much,” she said. “It’s such an amazing opportunity to gain so much insight into the inner workings of the Chemical Corps. I know that after leaving this position, I’ll be able to be a better leader for my Soldiers. Fingers crossed — if I get to be a company commander, I’ll be able to use everything that I’ve learned here. Not just from simple administration, but being able to communicate with senior leaders effectively and confidently.”

Cruz called Buher, “a competent and caring leader,” who understands and supports the Army’s top priority — its people.

“Sonia is an incredible coach and mentor to peers and subordinates,” Cruz said. “She is not only receptive to learning opportunities, but she also pushes those around her to do the same.”

Buher said, “the sky’s the limit” for women in the military.

“We have so many opportunities, so much potential,” she said. “For women who started in combat arms, they’re company commanders now; they’re instructors — we have a female commandant here at the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence (Brig. Gen. Niave Knell is the U.S. Army Military Police School commandant). There are so many people who have come before me, and I know there are many more people who will come after me — I want to be able to help show them that you can do it, one way or another.”