431 hours. 9 weeks. 10 hour days. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for soldiers at the U.S. Army’s Drill Sergeant School in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. For the first time since its inception in 1964, its top dog does not look or act like a typical drill sergeant.
Her name is Command Sergeant Major Teresa King and she’s the first woman commandant of this school. Incredibly fit, 48-years-old and a 29-year Army vet, King oversees 78 drill instructors and is responsible for training every Army drill sergeant. Nearly 2,000 sergeants graduate from the drill sergeant school each year.
King says the program's rigorous nature isn’t to be take lightly. “It is very horrendous day after day to come out here and demonstrate the same level of competence and willingness. To take on this mission – it's very tough.”
Most of the school’s students are hand-picked sergeants, who average 10 to 15 years in the Army before entering this grueling course. According to King, only a small percentage of students don’t have what it takes to finish. And King should know – she went through it early on in her career.
Teresa King grew up in rural North Carolina. “I thought about college for about an hour,” she says. As a teenager, she spent time at nearby Ft. Bragg. On one particular day, it was there that she found direction. “I saw a woman in a red beret. We looked at each other … and didn’t speak. But at that moment, I knew I would be a soldier.” That’s all it took. Her future was solidified. King enlisted on August 19, 1980 and left for basic training the next day.
She worked her way up the Army ranks. Her first “first” came in 1997 – becoming the first female First Sergeant for the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, NC. Since then, her career has taken her across the globe: to Europe, Korea, the Pentagon and most recently NATO headquarters. However, King has never been in combat, and, in fact, has never been deployed to a war zone.
Only a few months ago King thought about retiring. That is until the Army came knocking once again. “I was very, very shocked. I considered a lot of jobs, but being the commandant of the drill sergeant school, I had never considered it.”
King had a lingering determination to help usher the Army into its next phase. “I believe I can cause people to do some things that they thought they could never do.”
Commandant King took the helm of the drill sergeant school last month, but insists there is no added pressure because she’s the first woman to take on this role. “I'm doing what I've always done. It's just now; people are paying attention to it.”
Soldiers at Fort Jackson are also quick to point out that her ability to get and perform this job has nothing to do with her gender. King’s Deputy Commandant Robert Maggard says, “She’s a soldier, Command Sgt. Maj. She's got more experience in training than most of the commissioned officers that I know.”
From the daily physical training to the simulation exercises, King tries to lead by example. “I believe if I am going to ask somebody to do something I need to be able to do it myself. You know as leaders we got to be able to walk the walk, you know rather than just talk the talk,” says King.
Her efforts don’t go unnoticed by her drill sergeant leaders. Sgt. First Class James Hughes says, “Rather than just go out there and tell the sergeants “Hey, go out here run to the top of the hill, five and half miles”, and go back in your office, no. She gets out there and runs with us, it’s good for us.” Sgt. First Class Michael Childs adds, “There’s a lot of motivation for the younger guys. If they fall out, and she's still running, that's – I mean that's personal. You feel kind of bad. You fell out. You, 19 – 25-years-old, and she's still pushing hard.”
King’s appointment does mark another toppled barrier for women in the male-dominated military world. Of the nearly 550,000 active-duty Army soldiers, women only represent about 14%.
Despite the minimal emphasis put on her milestone by both King and her comrades, it does represent the changing face, direction and attitude of the Army towards women.
Operations Sergeant Angela Andrews has known King for 8 years and believes this is just the beginning. “I wouldn't say it opens the door, but it may you know crack it somewhat.”
But, the Army still has a long way to go. Only 9.6 % of the Army’s top three enlisted positions are held by females and Department of Defense policy does not allow women to join front-line, direct-combat units.
The fact that King is a woman doesn’t define her or her career. She idolizes General George Patton. “Here is this very firm man, who in my opinion is eight feet tall and bullet proof. You would think that he had a lot of ego, but no. He goes from one extreme to another in doing what he had to do. I admire that of him.”
And her focus remains reshaping the Army. “I'm growing myself in the army. See I'm duplicating myself. I'm growing first sergeants and first sergeant majors. So I'm building them at their youth so they will go into the Army and then in 10 years they will be running the Army.”
In the day we spent with Command Sergeant Major Teresa King, there are several things that are indisputable. She’s tenacious, compelling, intense, athletic, driven and loud. But, beneath that tough-as-nails exterior, King is also thoughtful, approachable and like most other American women; she enjoys spending down time with friends and looks forward to her bi-weekly manicure/pedicure.
This is a woman who cherishes her Army family and looks forward to seeing what the future holds. “As long as the Army needs me I’ll be here and as long as there are soldiers that need that leadership I’ll be here. It’s about selfless service now. It’s not about me. It’s about that sergeant who needs to see a leader who will encourage them and support them and provide that example for them. I believe that I am in a good position to do that now so I'll stay a little longer.”