U.S. Army Reserve

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Taking a knee, standing up stronger to win

By Sgt. 1st Class Sun Vega | 200th Military Police Command | June 16, 2017

FORT MEADE, Md. -- “I took a knee. It wasn’t a long knee, but I took a knee. I needed it, and I came back stronger,” said Jennifer Pace.

Today, Pace is a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, and a recent winner of the MacArthur Leadership Award. Yet, six years ago, her military career was almost derailed by the unexpected death of her younger brother, Danny Ray Gamez.

It was during this time that her warrant officer packet was due. She felt defeated because she couldn’t think about anything but her brother.

“I feel numb. I feel dead, and I don’t want to do anything,” were the thoughts that came through her head back in 2011. Numbness shrouded her, making her senseless and detached from the physical world around.

It was the support she received from the Army and behavioral health that eventually taught her how to persevere. It brought her back to focus on her own career. But that healing journey did not take a straight line.
After her brother’s death, Pace went to a career workshop and met Chief Warrant Officer 5 Candace Martin, a warrant officer proponent at the time. Pace told Martin what happened and showed her the unfinished application packet.

Martin walked away, reviewed the packet came back to Pace and said, “I want your packet, and I am willing to accept it late. You give your sponsor my card, and you finish this packet. I want this packet.”

Pace went back to her sponsor more determined than ever to become a warrant officer.

“He said to me, ‘Look, you got this. Just follow my lead. How do you want to proceed?’ … I followed everything he told me to do … and here I am. Here I am,” said Pace.

In part, Pace gives credit to the mentors who guided her throughout her career but there was a certain group of professionals who helped her stand up from the ground. It was the behavioral health care she received in the darkest days, while grieving the death of her brother that helped her the most.

Nearly a year later, she was selected for warrant officer candidate school (WOCS). It was year of shock, pain and therapy for her. She again questioned whether or not she would be mentally and physically ready to attend and complete school.

Two weeks before reporting to WOCS, her family held a memorial service on the year anniversary of Danny’s death. The Baltimore Ravens granted her family’s request to stay on the field for a few hours on both goal lines to commemorate his life.

She told her therapist it felt like she was letting go of her brother during that ceremony, which felt wrong. Her therapist told her to not look at it that way. Instead she suggested, “You are celebrating his life. Bring him with you.”

Then she reported to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for WOCS, a training experience she described as “something else.”

“In the long run, it was beneficial. It helped me regain my strength, my inner strength, my middle strength, and get back to being myself, being stronger,” she said.

A few months ago, Pace was notified she won the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. She was in disbelief, floored and humbled not only to be nominated but also to win, she said.

After the rush of the news began to absorb into her mind, she kept reflecting on her mother who passed away when she was 23 years old and her younger brother.

“I wish they were here to see this,” she said.

Her brother Danny loved the fact that she was in the Army. He was so proud of her. He would always point out with pride in his eyes like, “Hey look at my sister.”

Just one warrant officer is selected every year from the U.S. Army Reserve to win this prestigious award. Only 28 company grade commissioned officers and junior warrant officers from the Active Army, National Guard and Army Reserve combined, who demonstrate and epitomize the ideals for which General MacArthur stood: duty, honor and country.

If she had not given up her career prior to the Army Reserve, Pace may not be here today to accept this award.

Pace wasn’t just a supply sergeant who went on to become a warrant officer. In reality, she gave up a 10-year career as a police officer with the Baltimore City Police while serving part time in the U.S. Army Reserve.

A deployment to Iraq in 2004-2005 caused her to have a fonder appreciation for the Army. When Pace returned home, she could not readjust back to the streets of police work.

“I missed being supply. I missed being in the Army every day. I just missed that life,” she said.

She asked herself what she wanted to do: Continue working the night shift in Baltimore City or do this job.

Ultimately, Pace made the decision to commit herself fully to the Army Reserve, becoming an Active Guard Reserve (AGR) Soldier.

At first it was an easy transition, but three years into the AGR she started to miss her old life as a police officer. Pace still lived in Baltimore. She kept friends with the police downtown, and she would listen for the sirens, as if beacons beckoning her to come back to the police force.

She second-guessed her choice and wondered if she had made a mistake.

“I’m like, ‘Man, did I screw up? Did I make the right decision?’”

Of course, everybody goes through that self-doubt when they experience a life-changing event, she said. She admitted that once she got over second-guessing her decision, her career began to flourish.

Senior warrant officers saw something in her and began mentoring her not only a sergeant but then as a promotable staff sergeant. They reminded her of what a great warrant officer she would make.

Pace, who most recently served as the property book officer for the 290th Military Police Brigade was originally assigned to the 304th MP Battalion. Upon her arrival, she noticed the battalion was deficient in accountability and property management due to years of things being set aside for other priorities.

She made an offer to her brigade commander.

Pace told Col. Peter A. Vanderland, 290th MP Brigade commander at the time, “This is how I can help you: I can get the brigade’s head above water and improve readiness ratings. I can do this for you.”

Vanderland was taken aback and impressed by the confident young warrant officer. He agreed to bring her on, cleared it through the human resources channels, and Pace began reporting to his brigade.

“I took the initiative, rolled up my sleeves and went to town as far as property redistribution and helping out the subordinate battalions,” she said.

The size of the workload became a confidence booster for her, even as it continued to expand. She set up a schedule and made a strategy to help her knock it out day-by-day. Pace is quick to remind others she was not doing this alone. There was a team of four noncommissioned officers, and without them she would not have been able to tackle the tasks. Her team took this on as an additional duty, which at times became their full time jobs.

Pace worked to redistribute $500,000 worth of equipment and maintained accountability of more than 12,000 items valued at $50 million. The brigade hadn’t had a property book officer for several years, and she devoted herself to bring down the delinquency rate from 100 percent down to zero.

She initiated and distributed equipment transfers that had been backlogged for years. Because of this, the brigade’s readiness rating improves from the lowest grade of S4 to the highest, S1.

“Ready to go. Ready to go to war. Ready to fight. That is our mission: To have combat ready Soldiers and combat ready (units),” she said.

Although that heavy work gave her purpose and drive, trying to cope with her brother’s death at the same time put her in a mental and emotional standstill. She buried herself in 12-hour work days, going to the supply cages and dress-right-dressing them for the hundredth time, often remembering to eat only once a day.

The workload became routine for her. She didn’t realize the impact it was having until someone took her photo on her birthday. The stress, depression and 20-pound weight gain was causing her to spiral downward. She finally went to her commander and admitted she needed help.

“I’m staring at the walls. I’m gaining weight. I’m not the person I used to be,” she said.

With the support of her command, she sought out and received grief counseling at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Pace continued going to therapy at her new assignment in Nashville, Tennessee, as a personal check-up and to maintain overall well-being.

There are annual events like his birthday and the anniversary of his death that still bring her pain, but there are other moments that reminds of her of the good times they had together.

“I think about him specifically during Ravens games, especially when the Ravens won the Super Bowl a few years ago, it was like, ‘Dude you are missing this. You are really missing this.’”

She has since rebounded from her pain, and now Pace uses her experience to connect with the needs of her fellow Soldiers.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, you are a human being with feelings and thoughts, and I think the primary goal for every individual Soldiers is make sure they recognize self-first. You have to take care of yourself first, or you won’t be efficient to other people. I know the stigma of seeking help is still there, and whenever I hear anyone getting backlash for seeking help, I am their strongest advocate,” she said.

Pace also once related her close-guarded grievances with a Soldier who attempted suicide. By confiding in her, he was able to seek help.

“I told him what happened with me, how I felt, and needed to know to look at what he was going through, and that he is not the only one,” she said.

“For a while he was concerned about members from his unit hassling him about having so many appointments.” She told him, “Don’t worry about what others think. What matters is you. It’s you taking care of you.”

Now this Soldier calls her every other day, having a quick run-down of what is going on in his life.

“I like the fact he is able to open up to me, especially if he is having a hard day. I like that.”

“I like to share my story. There are other people that have the same experience of loss or other issues that’s going on in their life. And some people tend to think it’s a sentence, like they are never going to come back above the water. I felt like that, a dog paddling just gasping for air. But I took the knee. It wasn’t a long a knee. I needed it, and I came back stronger.”

Pace said she believes every leader should open themselves up and make themselves available and know their Soldiers beyond their uniform or their equipment.

“You never know what’s really going on when they drive off the parking lot.”
MacArthur Leadership Award

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