Women’s History Month: Medical development a passion for USAMMDA deputy commander

By T. T. ParishMarch 20, 2024

Women’s History Month: Medical development a passion for USAMMDA deputy commander
If you are searching for U.S. Army Lt. Col. Sara Harmon, she’s probably in a meeting. Or training. Or taking time to mentor Soldiers under her charge or offering advice to a colleague. If none of those, she’s likely with her husband and children after sending and responding to hundreds of emails each day while working as deputy commander of the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity at Fort Detrick, Md. Life may not have always been so hectic, but these days, Harmon wears about a dozen different hats at any point throughout the week. But, when you find her, she will always give you her full attention – she is a leader with the heart of a servant, and in a world with so few hours, she has all the time in the world to help. (Photo Credit: Cameron Parks) VIEW ORIGINAL

Women have a rich history in the U.S. military since before the nation’s founding. During Women’s History Month, we are highlighting women across the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity (USAMMDA) and the contributions they make each day to the Army’s medical development and sustainment missions.

Some people are born to follow, some are born to lead. Let there be no doubt, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Sara Harmon is decidedly not one to follow behind the pack.

“Well behaved women rarely make history,” is her favorite quote. Attributed to a variety of historic women, it fits Harmon’s perspective, if not her conduct. After all, it is hard to rise through the ranks of the Army without following a few orders. It does, however, fit a strategy of leadership that has taken her from rural northern Indiana to her current role as deputy commander of the Department of Defense’s premier medical development enterprise, the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

“I wanted to serve my country. I originally wanted to work with infectious diseases, but I found my calling in managing facilities for the Army and working in research and development,” said Harmon, who has made a career as a top-flight administrator after educational pursuits at both Tulane University in New Orleans and Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “The day-to-day work, leading, and the immediate impact you make working in a medical treatment facility is amazing – but what [the USAMMDA team does] right now will make a difference for way longer. I love the ability to influence military medicine 20 years into the future.”

It is that stance – projecting and planning and coordinating to effect change – that gives Harmon an edge as one of USAMMDA’s principal executives. As deputy, she is responsible for a wide range of organizational and administrative tasks and directly manages the support staff who enable USAMMDA’s medical development mission. The weighty responsibility of administration in a complex organization like USAMMDA fits snugly on her shoulders, but she is well equipped given the 22 years of experience she has gained since commissioning as an Army officer in 2002, not to mention her roles as wife and mother. Balancing mission with home life might not be easy, but it is always an adventure, Harmon said.

“[I’m] married with three kids, and my husband has been in the Army, or Army Reserve, since he was 18,” said Harmon, who deployed twice to Iraq in frontline medical roles in 2003 and 2005. “I love translating leadership lessons to my kids, who are all incredible. They are so much fun. I grew up in a large Irish Catholic and Italian family, so spending time and being together is fun.”

During her deployments to Iraq, Harmon saw and experienced modern combat casualty treatment up-close and personal. Women comprise roughly 17.5% of the active-duty force, and 21.6% of the reserves, according to Department of Defense data. Harmon is one of a very select group of American women who deployed in uniform as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The experience shapes how she approaches medical development, and her perspective as a woman leader gives her an intuitive understanding of how to inspire those she leads, “with curiosity and empathy and a keen eye and ear to my leader instincts.

“Not everyone runs, thinks, or operates at the same speed or in the same ways,” said Harmon. “As a leader…I need to understand and respect that. It’s also how I make sure I encourage the best performance out of everyone.”

Harmon’s experiences as a Soldier are varied, and while not wholly unique, do set her on a career path that is not typical compared to some in Army medicine. She earned a bachelor’s degree in American and Middle Eastern History from Tulane before earning a Master of Health Administration degree from Baylor. Experience plus education plus hard work have taken Harmon across the globe, with duty stations in Washington, D.C.; Landstuhl, Germany; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Fort Detrick. She has been part of military teams facing a global crisis, serving as deputy director for administration with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center during the COVID-19 pandemic. Harmon also helped to improve cooperation between the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs while assigned as military deputy with the DoD/VA Collaboration Office (DVCO).

While not typical duties for administrators in Army medicine at her rank, these valuable assignments have earned her a reputation for excellence in the face of adversity.

The depth of her experiences gives Harmon a perspective that few women leaders have. Her tenure as an Army officer has overlapped with key milestones in the DoD that have increased diversity and leveled the playing field for women in uniform, and Harmon knows it is her responsibility to encourage the next generation of women servicemembers through leadership by example.

“I think it’s important that the military is reflective of society as a whole. I think seeing strong women leaders gives girls and young women the leaders and models to emulate as they achieve their own successes,” said Harmon. “I think understanding and being able to capitalize on the advantages and opportunities of the Army, from education to parachuting to firearms training, gives women more confidence and sets them ahead of their peers, both now and in the future.”

Today, Harmon is driven by the impact she and the USAMMDA team are making. She is a key integer in a complex equation with stakeholders across both public and private medical development. Mission focus keeps her donning her uniform each day – and equips her to keep the development train on the right track.

“I know that the projects we are working on will impact Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines for years to come,” said Harmon. “I know that someday, one of these products will make the difference in getting a servicemember home to their family, and that’s a very satisfying thought.”