October 14, 2016 –
“Never let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do. Never.”
Sgt. Maj. Frances Culpepper grew up on the south side of Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Amidst negative activity and riots, Culpepper attributes the discipline that led her to a successful military career to the early lessons she learned while taking care of five sisters.
“I grew up in an environment where you saw drugs [and you saw] teenagers having babies,” said Culpepper. “That’s not what I wanted.”
She recalls her mother’s motivating words when she began a 40-year military career, “You have a choice. You can be anything that you want to be.”
Culpepper joined the Army Reserve in September, 1975 as a member of the Women’s Army Corps under the civilian acquired skills program following graduation from Jones Commercial High School. Once she completed basic and advanced individual training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, Culpepper earned the rank of specialist and was assigned duties as a secretary stenographer.
Basic trainees were still segregated by gender. “During a night fire exercise, a male Drill Sergeant would walk past the foxholes and toss something in,” she described. She heard the other girls yelling and screaming. When the Drill Sergeant tossed something into her foxhole, she picked it up and threw it back at him.
“It was a rubber snake,” she chuckled.
The opportunities for female Soldiers today only exist because of women like Culpepper, who worked and proved themselves constantly to break through glass ceilings. “Being a female, African American, and growing up in the Army?” Culpepper echoed. “I had to be the best.” She continued, “[I had to] shoot my butt off [and] I out ran my Sergeant Major.” She said she could not let herself be average. She had to work harder than the men to stand out, so she was not looked over. Culpepper said, “In the Bible it says that if you take one step, God would take two.”
Policies and procedures fascinated Culpepper from the very beginning so she chose the secretarial and administrative arena. She has a gift for remembering and quoting military regulations, policies, and procedures, which proved to be invaluable for both her military and civilian careers. As Culpepper progressed through the ranks, she was assigned as instructor for the Administrative Specialist Military Occupation Specialty course and mail functions. She took the Chief Writer Instructor position upon earning the rank of Master Sergeant.
Culpepper’s commander made the promotion to sergeant major memorable in 1998 by conducting the ceremony in front of her students. She then transferred to the 85th Training Division.
In 2004, Culpepper took a Military Technician position at a Drill Sergeant unit in Illinois. She earned the respect of her new Soldiers by exceeding their expectations as she completed a long road march that they did not think should would finish.
She loves to talk about and take care of all of the heroes and the “Sheroes” she has known through the decades. Culpepper empowers women. She is passionate for the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault and Prevention (SHARP) and Suicide Prevention programs. She readily embraces and values the good and bad experiences with leadership. Culpepper said it is a good habit to recognize when people exhibit poor leadership as an example of what not to do. Good leadership, she remarked, is easy to pick up.
“I can just look at her and use her as an example because she’s been through a lot of stuff. She knows what she’s talking about.” said Spc. Kayla Jackson, 653rd Regional Support Group. Jackson is just one of the many Soldiers Culpepper mentored through her long career. Culpepper has long been viewed as a mother figure in many of the units she served.
She is completing her doctorate about the Military Technician Program in Organizational Management and Leadership at the University of Phoenix. As Culpepper retires from her military career, she plans to continue helping Soldiers and hopes to eventually work for the Veterans Affairs office. She wants to use her background in policies and procedures, training, leadership, and administration to help better the current system and make a difference in someone’s life.
“Being a good leader is being a good Soldier. Being a good Soldier is being a good leader. Leadership is like anything, it’s always a two-way street. It’s not black or white, it’s not all gray, it’s not up, down, left or right, it’s the environment,” described Culpepper.
Culpepper is also interested in teaching at the college level like she did during her deployment to Kosovo in 2002, when she taught business classes for the University of Maryland.