AUSTIN, Texas – Alex Vermooten and Leah Lucio both feel lucky to have joined U.S. Army Futures Command headquarters as newly minted civil servants in early 2020.
Despite the tumultuous timing — they became members of AFC at the time that COVID-19 was altering in-person operations around the globe — and the initial moments of uncertainty about stepping into brand-new roles, their experiences of joining the Commander’s Action Group at AFC were remarkably pleasant.
“I’ve been blown away by the people that I’ve been able to work with,” Vermooten said. “Everyone is so dedicated and so present for the modernization mission, even in the face of a lot of challenges.”
“The people are just so nice, they’re amazing,” Lucio agreed. “Their service is to the command and to the mission, but it’s also to just being good people; you see that in spades here at AFC.”
As Vermooten and Lucio settled into their work and got to better know their teammates as well as each other, they found they shared similar passions for public service that extended beyond the confines of their inboxes and virtual conference rooms.
“I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in public service,” Vermooten said, adding that “at the end of the day, I want to serve a community, and I feel like I’m only going to be satisfied if I’m doing that.”
Vermooten, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa, grew up apart from their blood relatives and extended family. As a result, they resonated in many ways with the concept of found family — they explain, "not being tied so much to a place geographically but by the communities you develop and fall into.”
When Vermooten was attending college at the University of Texas, where they majored in government and minored in history and Middle Eastern studies, they saw how the idea of found family also applied to military veteran and LGBTQ communities.
When they later worked in national security research at the University of Texas, they observed through interactions with undergraduate students how important finding a sense of identity and belonging can be to so many.
Helping others to feel comfortable, authentic and connected, in part through their own openness, is something Vermooten now strives to do at work and outside of work.
“I feel like there is something very powerful about showing up in a space exactly as you are,” they said.
Lucio is also familiar with the complexities of exploring and expressing identity.
Growing up as a member of a Mexican American family in Harlingen, Texas, near the U.S.–Mexico border, she was surrounded by people who knew and understood her.
When she arrived at the University of Houston to study journalism, however, her lack of Spanish fluency was perceived by certain students as somewhat of a curiosity.
“There was a different understanding of who I was because I was no longer surrounded by people who just accepted who I was,” she said.
As a result, she sometimes felt like she was stuck somewhere between belonging and not belonging.
Lucio was able to navigate the experience, and in the process became inspired to help others engage in advocacy and awareness of different backgrounds, viewpoints and lifestyles.
As a residential assistant, for example, she completed an LGBTQ ally training, putting the designation on her dorm room door to let other students know she was a resource, and that they weren’t alone.
When she later accepted a position as a public librarian, after obtaining a master’s degree in library science, she was able to leverage the role to learn more about — and promote — diversity and inclusivity.
“Working in a library, you see how many books are written about [cisgender] white people,” she said.
Through library diversity trainings, she realized that many novels geared toward young people in the LGBTQ community focused on romance. As a result, there was often a sense among readers of “Why can’t we be heroes in an adventure or sci-fi?”
“I want to keep furthering the conversation,” Lucio said.
She added that she loves seeing members of the LGBTQ community represented in books as well as in the Army, which she described as having an “exquisite — and devastating to some degree — history of LGBTQ Soldiers who wanted to serve, even when ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was in place.”
It came as a somewhat natural step then that Vermooten and Lucio would feel inspired in the spring of 2021 to help spearhead AFC’s first-ever Pride Month observance.
“We had been tracking a lot of these cultural celebration events [at AFC], which were phenomenal,” Vermooten said.
After inquiring whether anything was being planned at AFC headquarters for Pride Month and realizing an event had yet to be planned, Vermooten and Lucio decided to lend their support to the effort.
“We just put our heads together and said ‘let’s do this, let’s find a way to make this happen,’” Vermooten said.
The two went on to coordinate with the command’s support battalion and diversity office to plan the program.
They felt drawn to engaging in the effort to bring “not just visibility but celebration” — a cornerstone of many Pride activities.
“I love the love, I love the glitter, I love the colors, I love seeing the joy,” Lucio said of her past experiences participating in Pride parades. “It is so ecstatic; it is just energy,”
“If you’re going in Texas, it’s going to be hot. You’re going to need water, and you’re going to feel like you’re fainting, but you’re also going to feel such enthusiasm and exuberance, and you’re going to feel so much pride at seeing that in your community,” she said.
Lucio and Vermooten wanted to instill AFC’s inaugural Pride Month event with similar energy and positivity.
The program, for which they served as emcees, featured retired Maj. Gen. Randy S. Taylor, who spoke about his own experiences as a member of the LGBTQ community serving in the Army; retired Gen. John M. Murray, then-Commanding General of AFC; and Dr. Victoria Dixon, Director of the EEO and Diversity Office at AFC headquarters.
“It was just stunning to see the kind of leadership he embodied, both as a Soldier and as a husband, as a gay man living in the Army,” Vermooten said of Taylor’s participation in the event.
“We were really, really grateful that he was able to speak with us, and Dr. Dixon was absolutely instrumental and incredible in pulling all that together,” they added.
“We got really lucky to be involved and be in that process and to see the support,” Lucio said. “It was a really good turnout.”
Vermooten explained that events like Pride are ultimately about honoring the history of the LGBTQ community and recognizing and appreciating each other’s differences, not reducing people to a label.
Similarly, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts function to build work environments that are welcoming and supportive of all people and all types of families, not just to diversify the makeup of the workforce.
“For the Army and generally for any workspace, people are willing to give you their best if you let them,” Vermooten said. “But I think accepting someone’s best means accepting all of them. If you’re creating a space that is welcoming and is safe and is respectful to all types, how could you not get the best they have to offer?”
AFC headquarters held its second annual Pride observance on June 24, 2022.