By Maj. Michelle Lunato
98th Training Division -Initial Entry Training
She joined the Army as a Chemical Operations Specialist and with movie-like expectations, this 17-year-old Soldier figured she’d “come up with some type of formula that was going to be amazing.”
After 25 years of service in the U.S. Army Reserve, Sgt. Maj. Lynei Woodard may not have developed that chemical formula she envisioned as a young private, but she came up with something even better: a formula for endurance and success in both her Reserve and civilian careers.
Of course, Woodard, who is now the Operations Sergeant Major for the 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training) Headquarters at Fort Benning, Georgia, admits that at 17, she did not really have a grand, detailed plan for two careers at the time. She just saw an opportunity and seized it.
“I thought [joining the Army Reserve] was a good opportunity, because at the time, there were two of us graduating from high school at the same time, me and my sister. So I wanted to be able to afford college without putting an extra debt on my parents,” said the Queens, New York native who now calls Atlanta, Georgia home.
So in 1996, the young Riverdale High School senior signed the dotted line and became a Soldier. As Woodard worked her way through the ranks on the Reserve side, she put the Army’s college money benefit to use on the civilian side. Over the years, she managed to not only earn one degree, but three: an Associate’s Degree in Health and Physical Education from Georgia Perimeter College; a Bachelor’s of Science Nursing from Emory University; and then a Master’s of Science Nursing as a Family Nurse Practitioner from Samford University.
As a civilian, Woodard had slowly worked her way up from a pharmacy technician to her current role as family nurse practitioner for Kaiser Permanente, directly under the Director of Medicine for the Georgia Region. This was all while managing her growing responsibilities as a Reserve Soldier.
After the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, there was a surge of Americans stepping forward to join the fight against terrorism. Woodard was one of two chemical staff sergeants who were mobilized in support of Operation Noble Eagle. In this role, she helped conduct all inspections, certifications, and chemical chamber trainings for more than twenty-five thousand trainees at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Quickly into that assignment, the magnitude of this responsibility touched her.
“I felt very compelled during that time because I began to realize, that even though I was doing a job and I was training people—that I was sending over human lives. So looking in their eyes became more and more important.”
Staff Sgt. Woodard had performed so honorably on this mission that she achieved one of the highest accolades of the NCO Corps, by being inducted into the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club, in 2002.
By 2006, Woodard had earned the rank of sergeant first class and was selected by the Department of the Army to step up and become a drill sergeant. Naturally, her first personal thought was, ‘What do you need with me? I am a [sergeant first class],’ recalled the sergeant major. However, Woodard was never one to turn down an opportunity to learn and felt the urgency of the mission.
“I was obedient to the call…and it was one of the best decisions of my career,” said Woodard.
Being a great decision did not mean it was easy though. But the sergeant major explained that the hardest part of the job was probably not what most people expected.
“The most challenging part of being a drill sergeant was going to the Drill Sergeant Academy,” said Woodard. As a sergeant first class, Drill Sergeant Candidate Woodard, was instructed by different noncommissioned officers of lower ranks. Woodard may have outranked some of the drill sergeant instructors, but they outranked her in terms of title, training and experience in this area. So real quick, Sgt. 1st Class Woodard had to realize that she was the trainee and needed to act accordingly, recalled the sergeant major.
“The fact of the matter was, that I wanted what they had. So if I wanted what they had, I had to do what they had already done, and subject myself to what they were trying to teach me.”
After accepting that reality, Woodard completed the Drill Sergeant Academy and hit the trail. It didn’t take long before Woodard discovered the rewards of being a drill sergeant.
“Being a drill sergeant in and of itself is a joy. It is hard work. It. Is. Hard. Work. But the reward is when you see the faces of your new Soldiers, and their families are there, and the pride in their families, and the pride in their faces, and them thanking you for making a difference in their lives.”
Woodard took to heart the drill sergeant motto of ‘This We’ll Defend’ and realized the vital role of that job in the Army.
“Whether it be officer, or whether it be enlisted, drill sergeants are the start for everyone, and drill sergeants will forever be the start for everyone. The NCO Corps is the backbone of the military, and nothing moves without a backbone. The backbone is the absolute support. So from before, to now, and into the future, the drill sergeant is, and will always be, viable to the military.”
Before and after her drill sergeant time, Woodard moved through various stages of her Army Reserve career and filled a variety of positions, everything from observer controller to first sergeant.
With each and every role this Soldier filled, she learned more and added that knowledge to her toolkit. When asked what advice she would give to up and coming leaders, the sergeant major said, it is important to never stop asking questions.
“When you stop learning as a leader—when you feel like your title somehow makes you the know-all of everything—you have failed.”
Another way to fail as a leader is to have no compassion, said Woodard. People under you, Soldier or civilian, need to know you have empathy and sympathy—that you care about them, explained the sergeant major. Because if they don’t see a leader’s compassion, their actions will not hold a lot of weight.
“They may do what you say, but they will not follow you. And you want people who will follow you.”
To motivate people to really follow you, the sergeant major suggests that leaders get involved with their people, get to know who they are and figure out what motivates them.
“You have to understand your people,” emphasized Woodard. “To lead is to serve. You are not the leader to simply tell people what to do.”
A good leader is there to develop others, to lay seeds, and to make the people under them better, explained the sergeant major.
Over her 25 years in service, Woodard has seen a number of changes and progress. As a female sergeant major, she herself has been personally excited to see the roles available to women in the Army expanded. As a medical professional, Woodard says that bringing women to the table is just a smart thing to do from a biological standpoint.
“It is important that diversity is maintained, especially in terms of the female counterpart. I think we bring something very different to the table. I think we bring a thought process of using two sides of the brain in order to make decisions, which will complement the one-side use of the male.”
The biological factors are not the only benefit of bringing women to forefront, said sergeant major. Women have a lot to say and offer an organization, and not just in the military world, but the civilian world as well.
“Seeing [women] grow and climb up the ladder is important because, in terms of the civilian world, you find more and more females in those high-ranking positions, so it’s important that the military world compliment that, and I see it coming.”
When it comes to ethnic diversity though, Woodard says the Army is already leaps and bounds past the civilian workforce.
“I think that in terms of diversity, we are eons beyond our civilian counterparts. Everything in the military in terms of diversity is not perfect, but you can go to our local units, you can go to our dining facilities, and you will see people from different ethnic backgrounds, different cultures, different genders, different faiths, all sitting together, eating and laughing as one.”
Over the years, the Army has developed an ability to see people and character, in addition to seeing people’s color, and that is a good thing, said Woodard.
“I don’t think God intended for us to ignore the beauty of what we see every day and in human beings, but [the Army] has learned to see the color, explore the color and the culture that comes with it, and embrace it.”
Woodard says the proof of racial and ethnic diversity is easy to see in relationships: work, marriages, and friendships.
“If only the world around us would take a look at us, there would be so many things that we could fix in just learning how to see it, explore it and embrace it. [When I retire,] I am going to definitely miss that. It will be the thing that I miss the most.”
That’s right, with all that she has done and the change she has witnessed, Woodard has decided to move on to the next season of her career: retirement.
The 98th Training Division Operations Section has consistently joked with Woodard, encouraging her to change her retirement plans, claiming her paperwork has been lost or the Army has modified some rules that would delay her plans, but the honor of these jokes has not changed the sergeant major’s plans to move on.
“It is all very much a compliment, but I think there is a season for everything. And when your season is over, it is always appropriate to move out of the way so it can be someone else’s season.”
When Woodard retires in 2021, she has big plans. As a self-proclaimed lover of the arts, this soon-to-be retired Soldier wants to eventually create a community center. Over the years, and through her dual careers, Woodard has dabbled in a number of roles in the community. From serving as an on-air personality for a hip hop radio station to producing plays for her church, Woodard has learned the art of production and how to connect with people. From being a nursing instructor at Emory University to coordinating over a 100 weddings, the sergeant major has found joy in helping people transition from one point in their lives to another. And she thinks, after retiring from her nurse practitioner job, she would like to create a place where she can do all of that full time.
“I would like to open up a facility that can be utilized for events.” A place that offers a comfortable and affordable option to people, where they can make it their own, said Woodard.
People who know the sergeant major have no doubts that if creating a community center is her goal, she will accomplish it. What people don’t know is what has motivated this 42-year-old veteran to accomplish so much. Woodard says her drive to keep moving forward is personal, very personal, and goes back a few generations.
“What motivates me in terms of endurance is the fact that, as most people know, as African Americans, we…for lack of a better terms, we don’t have a place. And what I mean, is that I cannot trace my family lineage back to Africa. I mean, I know that is the continent from which I came from. But the furthest I can go is to my great grandmother and her parents who were slaves,” explained Woodard.
The sergeant major said, that in speaking with her great grandmother, she knew she had worked on a sharecropper’s farm, and had her first child at 15 years old.
“She sacrificed through life so that she could raise up a generation of people to eventually become successful.”
It wasn’t just the women in her family who sacrificed. Woodard had two uncles who served in the military, one in World War II and another in Vietnam. Both were never the same after their service, according to Woodard. And she said, it wasn’t just that they sacrificed for their Nation, they were not even treated with respect after that sacrifice.
In fact, her uncle who served in Vietnam, “came back to be called ‘boy’ and the ‘N-word.’ So when I see the endurance of people like that, and my mother, who was bussed to an all-white neighborhood in order to expand diversity—when I see the contributions that they made, when they exhaled—I inhaled their endurance,” Woodard explained.
After an emotional pause, she continued, “I inhaled their endurance. They crawled. They walked so I can run, and my children are going to soar.”
After having the opportunity to really get to know four other generations of family members, Woodard says she embraced their stories, their sacrifice and their contributions. And all of that has been the fuel for her drive all these years.
“It was absolutely important that everything that I did in my life paid homage to the sacrifices of those men and women who endured—just a multitude of things in order to one day see the success of their generation. And I am happy and honored to have been able to contribute in my life, to their success. I wish my great grandmother’s parents could see their great, great granddaughter going from private to sergeant major, going from zero degrees to three, with a wonderful family, but it was because of them, that I am.”
Though Woodard is planning on retiring, she said she still has plenty to do. In fact, she is only half way through her allotted time in life, according to a secret-formula-for-life adage she was once told.
“A very wise person once told me, ‘Everyone gets a dollar in life. Everyone gets four quarters. You determine how you spend those quarters.’ And I think I have spent my first 50 cents very well. I believe I have accomplished a lot,” said Woodard.
With 25 years of service to her Nation completed and three degrees earned, Woodard knows she is ready for the next season, that third quarter.
“I think I have done well in trying to foster myself, and it is now time for me to foster my family. So I am going to spend time with my wonderful children and my fantastic husband, through all of this, have all be very patient with me in trying to both serve my Country and also trying to do my best in school and trying to do my best as a civilian worker. So this third quarter is for them. And that fourth quarter is for me and my husband and we are going to ride and ride until we fade out.”