Newly minted 2nd Lt. Twanda “Tia” Young stood in awe as she watched soldiers rappelling from a training tower at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Standing next to her was the superior officer, who would have a say in Young’s next career move. Young, wanting to impress the lieutenant colonel, rattled off all the information she’d been studying as she prepared to take command of the battalion of soldiers they were watching.
He wasn’t impressed.
“That lieutenant colonel kind of gave me a gut punch of telling me that I had no right to be in the military and that he was going to do everything within his power to make sure I didn’t make it to the next rank of first lieutenant,” Young said, recalling the moment from 30 years ago. She didn’t notice at first, but she was the only woman officer in that brigade.
Calmly, Young turned her focus to the lieutenant colonel.
“Sir, I’ll be here when you retire,” she said.
That interaction ignited a fire inside Young to devote herself to developing leaders who would support all of their soldiers.
After 32 years of service, Young retired in December 2020 as the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Human Resources Command. Hundreds of soldiers touched by her service watched her virtual retirement ceremony to offer their well wishes.
Young made a point to mentor young officers, especially women, to encourage them as they began careers in the Army. She knew not a lot of women were in leadership positions and was determined to change that to more accurately reflect the diversity of the country.
“I was shocked when I first got promoted to (general officer). I was for a period of time the only female African-American general officer in the Army Reserve out of 199,000 soldiers. That was just ludicrous,” Young said. “We have to create more opportunities to grow and water our women to be able to serve in those capacities.”
Young was the first in her family to go to college and hadn’t given the military much thought, but she completed the ROTC program. Her first duty station was Fort Jackson, where she thought she would be the adjutant, but learned she was assigned as the executive officer for a basic training company.
That’s where the lieutenant colonel first challenged her desire to serve in the military. When she moved to her seventh duty station at Fort Benning, Ga., she was again the only woman battalion commander of 22 battalion commanders on post.
She recalls interactions that weren’t always pleasant, and sometimes derogatory words were hurled. She blocked out the animosity and focused on her mission to assist soldiers and their families.
“I attest that to my family unit,” Young said. “My sister and brother have always been there for me to have some candid conversations and be able to talk about, ‘How do I handle this?’ And the NCOs that I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve with were sounding boards for me. I was very fortunate in that respect. I guess that’s why my passion is fueled to be able to be there for … be accessible for junior soldiers to have someone they could talk to.”
Her efforts came full circle just before she retired when she hosted a human resources discussion over Facebook live for leaders to use as training in their units. A soldier who had tuned in sent her an email to thank her for being so transparent about her experiences in the military.
The soldier told Young her video helped open dialogue in her battalion that helped soldiers walk away with a better understanding of each other.
“That to me is powerful because when I was coming up through the ranks, I definitely never felt I could go up to general officer and just have a conversation,” Young said. “It’s just not the norm. It is more so now than before. That to me, just warms my heart to know that what I’m sharing and being accessible has helped someone become a better leader. I think that, at the end of the day, we raised our right hand to go to war, to fight, to die if necessary, but in between that, it doesn’t hurt for us to get to know each other so that when we’re out on the battlefield, we know the other has our six covered.”
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