8th TSC Soldier finds belonging in the US Army
Warrant Officer 1 Ashely Fortson, mobility warrant officer, 8th Theater Sustainment Command, sits for a photo while wearing the Audie Murphy medal Nov. 15, 2023, on Fort Shafter, Hawaii. Fortson’s story from foster care to finding her place in the Army is one she hopes inspires others to explore opportunities in the U.S. Army. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Warrant Officer Ashley Fortson has something to say to young Americans contemplating military service; “the U.S. Army is full of opportunities and a place to find belonging for those willing to join.”

Fortson grew up in foster care after her biological mom gave her up at six weeks old. At eight years old her foster mom died of cancer and she returned to live with her birth mother. After a short time of being together, her mom could no longer care for her and Ashley was sent to live in a group home for girls. Fortson spent the next five years watching potential parents come and go, which was an eternity for a child whose only want was to feel wanted.

Fortson’s journey of being in and out of foster care is her childhood story, a chapter where she was limited in writing the narrative. But as she pens the ensuing ones, she’s writing her redemption story, one where she’s wanted — one where she belongs.

The road to enlistment

Fortson’s second foster mom, Leorie Mallory, arrived later in her life, but just at the right time. Fortson was starting high school; a challenging time for any teen, particularly one that was growing more rebellious by the month in a group home full of girls.

“I think the hardest part of living in a group home is you see adults come and go and wonder if anyone is going to come for you, if anyone is going to want you," said Fortson. "After a while you start asking yourself, what’s wrong with me?"

Mallory worked as a school psychologist for the Brunswick County School District in Virginia, so everywhere Fortson went, she was known by teachers and faculty alike. Although the two butted heads at times with the occasional "you’re not my mom" outburst, Mallory was always there for Fortson.

“No matter where I went, I was always being watched. People would say, ‘aren’t you Leorie’s daughter,’ and I’d just smile and nod," said Fortson. "So, even if I wanted to get in trouble in high school, I couldn’t without my mom finding out.”

The support and structure Mallory provided paid off as Fortson earned an academic scholarship to Virginia State University; a major detour from the path she was on while living in the group home.

During her freshman year at Virginia State University, Fortson admits she allowed herself to go down a road she was never allowed to wander while living with Mallory. However, without someone reining her in and the network of proxy parents watching over her, she lacked the discipline to benefit from the scholarship she worked so hard to earn.

“After my first year of school, I knew I messed up," said Fortson. "I wasn’t focused and I was just partying way too much. I didn’t have the best grades and so I looked into the military. I saw my sister do well in the Army, and I figured it could work for me too.”

Fortson’s oldest sister from her first family, Sophia Carter, had joined the Army when she turned 18, and Fortson watched her become independent and succeed in her own right. She would often visit while on leave from the Army and take Fortson around town. A welcomed distraction from the life she was living.

“I think Ashley saw me with a car and I would take her places and buy her things, which was a big deal where we came from,” said Carter. “She may have been inspired by me to join, but she’s far exceeded what I’ve done. The Army gave her stability, money, and a sense of accomplishment."

Fortson knew she needed to make a change, and in 2011 she departed for basic training.

8th TSC Soldier finds belonging in the US Army
Warrant Officer 1 Ashley Fortson, mobility warrant officer, 8th Theater Sustainment Command, right, marches in the color guard during a change of command ceremony while serving as a drill instructor June 9, 2017 on Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fortson’s story from foster care to finding her place in the Army is one she hopes inspires others to explore opportunities in the U.S. Army. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
Through the ranks

Fortson enlisted as a parachute rigger, but after a few years of jumping out of completely serviceable airplanes she had a change of heart and found a more grounded job; one that provided a bit more stability for her legs.

"After three years of jumping out of planes I was ready for a change. I think one of the best parts of the Army is that you can switch jobs. I think when Soldiers say they don’t like the Army, they probably mean they don’t like their current situation, but you can change that. It’s all about finding what works for you," said Fortson.

Fortson changed her military occupational specialty to transportation management coordinator, and after stops at Fort Gregg-Adams and Fort Johnson, she received assignment orders for drill instructor duty. At the time, she was reluctant about the long days with a young son at home, but she was ready for the opportunity to make a positive change in others’ lives.

“I didn’t know what to think at first, but after a while, I accepted it and felt that I could be a positive influence for some of the young Soldiers joining the Army," she said.

For Fortson, she understood that people in the Army join from all walks of life. She was exhibit A of how joining the Army can lift people up, give them a sense of purpose, and ultimately a feeling of belonging. Not every recruit would fit that stereotype, but she was prepared to help those that joined with the same void she harbored years earlier when she arrived at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

When recruits come to us, their life experiences vary greatly. Some recruits are already adults looking for a career change, others were like me that needed an opportunity and a place to belong. We are prepared to teach them everything, from how to do their laundry to how to throw a grenade, said Fortson.

8th TSC Soldier finds belonging in the US Army
Warrant Officer 1 Ashely Fortson poses with her son Miloh during a mother-son dance at his elementary school in Virgina, Dec. 17, 2022. Fortson’s story from foster care to finding her place in the Army is one she hopes inspires others to explore opportunities in the U.S. Army. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

After two years as a drill instructor, Fortson was given the opportunity to serve in Germany, a dream assignment for those looking for adventure and travel. However, it came with the cost of leaving her son with his father in the U.S., a feeling of emptiness she was scared to place on him. In an effort to give her son Miloh a better life, she accepted the assignment and it turned out to be a pivotal stop in her career.

“When I was with the 39th Movement Control Battalion, my supervisor at the time said I was doing 80 percent of what a mobility warrant officer does, so I should submit my packet,” said Fortson. “I think one thing in the Army that doesn’t get talked about enough, is that when people see something in you, they encourage you and want you to succeed. People are constantly trying to lift you up if you work hard.”

In 2021, upon returning to the U.S. and being reunited with her son, she submitted her warrant officer candidate packet.

Winning in life

Filling a position two grades senior, Fortson is known for being a technical expert in the 8th Theater Sustainment Command on Fort Shafter, Hawaii. During operational meetings where she discusses the litany of Operation Pathways exercises, she confidently briefs key dates and requirements for flights and vessel movements; an essential part of the success to the 8th TSC.

For Lt. Col. Steven Taylor, chief of future plans, 8th TSC, and Fortson’s supervisor, having Ashley on his team means mobility and movement timelines are one less thing he needs to worry about.

“Warrant officers 1 don’t rate the title chief; but in Ashley’s case, I’ve always called her chief because she performs with the experience, poise and professionalism of a more senior warrant officer,” said Taylor. “Chief Fortson earned my trust early, and she is a tremendous factor in the success of the 8th TSC and G35.”
Warrant Officer 1 Ashley Fortson.
Warrant Officer 1 Ashley Fortson. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

Whether her duties require midnight trips to the airfield for critical transportation missions, or long days processing equipment for an Operation Pathways rotation, she always gets the job done.

There’s a saying that goes, "when you get to the top of the mountain throw the rope down." As a warrant officer, Fortson is far from the top of the mountain; but that hasn’t stopped her from bringing others up with her.

Last summer, during a routine meeting for a major Operation Pathways exercise, Fortson met Staff Sgt. Elmina Ficklin, the mobility noncommissioned officer-in-charge for 25th Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade. Fortson recognized her hard work and saw qualities in her that would make her a great fit as a warrant officer. She wasted no time encouraging Ficklin to submit her packet.

"When I met Chief Fortson, I saw her being successful," said Ficklin. "She was able to balance her professional and personal life, it gave me pause, like I could do this. It’s nice to have someone believe and encourage you to be more and Chief Fortson is doing that for me."

Fortson’s growth in the Army has not only given her a sense of belonging, but also a level of peace and maturity. Despite being turned away two times by her biological mom, she maintains a relationship with her to this day. Fortson is busy looking through the windshield for opportunities to grow, and only checks the rearview mirror when she needs a reminder of how far she’s come.

“When I think about Ashley, life has thrown every obstacle at her and she has overcome everything,” said Carter. “She’s bubbly, sweet and kind. If you meet her, you wouldn’t know her background, you wouldn’t know her struggle, she doesn't wear it on her sleeve.”

Fortson found purpose in the Army. She felt wanted and turned that emotion into hard work. Now she’s committed to giving her son the life she never had, and encouraging others to explore the Army for all its benefits, and for some, a sense of belonging.