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NEWS | April 9, 2020

Col. Cynthia Cook: Unscripted Journey

By Courtesy Story 364th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)

By joining the Army at the age of 19, my life took a very usual and unscripted journey. It was unheard of for a woman in my family to even consider joining the military. Joining the military was an honor and privilege reserved for only the men in my family like my father, my brother and my uncles who served in the Korean War and Vietnam War. For me, it was not a draft; it was bigger than that for me. I needed more money to fulfill my dream of becoming a college graduate. So, how did I get here? It really was a strange sequence of events.

It all started with an advertisement/commercial on television on the Army about “Be All You Can Be," join the Army for a minimum of two years, and we will give you money for college. To be exact, the Army said we would give you $17,500 for college. This advertisement immediately piqued my interest. However, there was one caveat to fulfill before deciding to join the Army.

I am naturally inquisitive, so I ventured out on my own to check in with military recruiters from the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Coast Guard. The Army won for this reason – I said to my father, the recruiter and myself, I can do anything for two years. It was the first time in history the Army would reduce their requirement to serve on active for less than 2 years and receive with a reserve obligation.

This was not my dream, desire or ambition to serve in the military; let alone the Army. I stumbled into this career based upon my own human logic and a desire to pay for my undergraduate education to reduce the financial burden and woes it would place upon my family.

Prior to joining the Army, I grew in small placed named, Dunedin – also known as the sister city to Sterling, Scotland. My parents bought land just short of an acre and built a modest 3-bedroom home with one bathroom to raise my brother, my sister and myself. We were very close and still are close. My oldest brother Freddie was the one we all thought would make a career with the Navy since he spent four years of high school in the Navy JROTC program. I was definitely the most unlikely of all to give into a career with the military. Too feminine, definitely a girly girl!

Nevertheless, this new career just meant making a few minor adjustments to a new culture and way of thinking. But out of all places and choices, I chose the Army, a place where inevitably I would spend time in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, assigned to Charlie Company on Tank Hill, low crawling through mud some days when it rained without ceasing, crawling in the dirt (like I would in kindergarten because I thought it was cool to hang out in the sandbox; at least that’s where I though all your real friends hung-out — in the sand box) under barb wire at Fort Jackson — yelling to my squad as a squad leader — shoot, move, communicate. Moreover, more importantly, learning what kitchen patrol (KP) duty was and meant. After you did KP duty, it was like a rite of passage. you could say I have arrived — been there and done that to never return to those menial duties, tasks and responsibilities. A humbling experience.

After basic training, I transitioned to advanced individual training, the Adjutant General School, to become a 71L (Lima) School to become an administrative assistant. Upon graduation from AIT, I PCS'd to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (aka, Fort Lost in the Woods). After serving in a personnel action center for a combat arms battalion, I returned home to finish college and transferred from active duty to the Florida Army National Guard to complete the remainder of my enlisted obligation.

Less than a year after returning home and returning to college, Master Sgt. Wesley Lawson, the NCOIC of the S3 Section of the 53rd Support Battalion in the Florida National Guard, decided to recommend me for Officer Candidate School (OCS). Well, I did not know what OCS was let alone what would come next for me. Although I did not recognize the magnitude of his recommendation along with others to send me to OCS at 21 years of age, the opportunity to OCS was a critical turning point for a surreal moment and me. I was transitioned from being an enlisted soldier to a commissioned officer.

After attending the Florida National Guard Military Academy OCS, I was commissioned by both the state of Florida and my federal commission. During my career as an officer, I have served as a platoon leader, executive officer, company commander, a plethora of staff officer positions, battalion commander, brigade commander, and now as a chief of staff within the United States Army Reserve and within the National Guard.

My career in the Army was fulfilling and rewarding. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that my long military career definitely came with a lot sacrifices and many challenges along the way in which I had to overcome as a woman and as an African-American.

Through it all, the hills and the valleys, the trials and tribulations, the periods of disparate treatment because of my race and my gender or mere jealousy in the journey of my military career, the positive rewards of my career far outweighed any of my negative experiences. No matter what I endured personally and professionally, the many tears no one knows about shed on my pillow case late at midnight because of rejection by individuals who did not look like me or because of my faith in Jesus Christ, I still honored above all the Soldier's Creed, the Commissioned Officer's Creed, and I made it my personal mission no matter what to continue to coach, teach and mentor the next generation of Soldiers within the Army.

For the men and women who may have an opportunity to read this blog or article someday, I think the best advice I could give you is this: "Pursue and refine the authentic you, never ever waiver on what you believe in an attempt to fit in or conform – your diverse background allows organizations to thrive through a different lens and perspective. Always set aside time for self-care and self-reflections for personal growth and development, purposely make a decision everyday to serve others selflessly. And finally do not allow fear of failure to keep you from pursuing your personal dreams and goals in your life journey." 

This advice is for anyone. Choosing to serve in the military is for a greater cause and not just for a salary or money for a college education. If you choose to join the military someday, I would encourage you to find a mentor early on in your career who will help you develop and grow personally and professionally. If you are contemplating whether to join, JOIN! You can do anything for 2-4 years or even longer – to serve in the armed forces is always a selfless act no matter what path you choose in your life journey.

For my precious family, my husband, our beautiful daughter, and our friends, none of my success would be possible without their unwavering support. During my military career, there were many days, weeks, months my daughter did not understand why I was gone or why I was on so many conference calls or why I had to be away, but she persevered through it all. I am so proud of her resilience over the years. Also, I am grateful for the many village supporters – you know who you are and way too many to name here-- who helped my husband (also in the Army, a retired lieutenant colonel) and I along the way so we could have successful military careers.

As my daughter continues to blossoms into the beautiful, intelligent, incredibly gifted, anointed singer and talented young woman God has called her to be, as she reflects on these moments in time perhaps she will see it was only a temporary season of her life and give me some grace and forgive us (my husband and I) for the times we were away serving in the miitary. I know we cannot make up for the time away, but I do pray she will continue to be the BEST original version of who God created her to be, a woman of character who does what is right even when others do not. Maintain a moral compass, honor what is good in all humans, continue to flourish and grow in her walk with the Lord. Always remain teachable and coachable, and make a difference in the world based upon her unique qualities and persona.

My prayer and hope is that somewhere along my unscripted military journey, the mentorship, the coaching, the teaching, my leadership, and my selfless service to others and our nation have made a difference for the current and next generation. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to serve in the military; something so few people have an opportunity to be a part of in their lifetime.

Finally and most important of all, I am grateful to have a loving God who has graced me to do what I do and I am forever grateful for my amazingly tenacious and imperfect parents, Edmond and Beaulah White (in heaven smiling), who encouraged me and showed me by example that imperfect people can achieve whatever they can imagine and dream of with excellence. -Ephesians 3:20-

Note: Col. Cynthia Cook’s inspiring story was originally published in "Jenn McIntyre Portraits'" blog as part of the Military Women’s Project.