I will never forget the moment when I was told I wouldn’t do much in my life.
I was in high school in the Bronx, where I grew up, and one of my grades had dipped to a C. I was called into a counselor’s office. She was on the phone with my parents.
“With these grades,” I remember her saying, “she’ll only be a secretary.”
Before that moment, I had wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to do something good and help people. Maybe it was the color of my skin, maybe it was the expectations of women back then. Whatever it was, after that moment, I knew that I would have to fight harder to get what I wanted.
I went to nursing school right after high school. And though I had never considered a career in the armed forces, serving people has always been a part of what I do — it’s part of the job, being a nurse. You care for people. You do no harm.
So when, at 30 years old, I was recruited to be a nurse for the Army, I didn’t think much of it. It was another opportunity to serve. The recruiter came to the hospital I was working at and, along with my friend, we were sworn in — right in front of our patients.
From there, we were sent off to basic training at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. From the moment we arrived to the moment we left, we were all told the same thing: You are not different. As a woman, it was actually refreshing to hear, because it was the opposite of degrading. If a man had to run this long, so did you. If a man had to do this work, so did you. We were equals in that camp.
But that’s not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist in the military, despite how diverse it is.
In 2012, when I was deployed to Kuwait, I was brought into a base camp as chief nurse to help oversee soldier health. When I met the officer — a white man from Alabama — he looked at me, then looked down at my résumé. He couldn’t put the two together. He seemed unable to equate a black woman with the well-polished and extremely qualified person on paper.
“Sir,” I told him. “What you see on that résumé is me. I’ve worked hard for what’s on my résumé.”
After working together for quite a long time, he eventually came to trust me. After all, he kind of needed to, if he wanted to know what was going on medically with our soldiers.
And then, out in the desert, there were some young service members who don’t want to salute you. I’d stop a few every now and then, asking if they could see my rank as an Army colonel.
After I retired from the service, I was approached by the National Association of Black Military Women, a national organization dedicated to providing support and visibility for women just like me.
As the president of the Brooklyn chapter, which has only been around for a year, I’ve already seen tremendous success in our effort to get the word out to other women that they are not alone. There is a place for them in the military, as well as afterward. We aim to make the point to young women of color, just like it was made to me back in basic, that you are not different. You are just as strong. Continue to persevere and know your goals.
Take it from me: No one can tell you what you can and can’t be in your future.