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Face of Defense: Guard Soldier Sets Milestone as Female Engineer

By Army Staff Sgt. Michael Williams, Joint Force Headquarters Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss., Sept. 2, 2016 — Army Lt. Col. Joy Alexander is making a name for herself as she exceeds her own expectations in the Mississippi Army National Guard.

Alexander, who hails from Wiggins, Mississippi, is the commander of the 223rd Engineer Battalion, headquartered in West Point, Mississippi. She is the first female Mississippi Army National Guard engineer officer to command the battalion.

Alexander said a sense of joy overwhelmed her last year when the announcement was made that she would command the battalion.

‘Honor, Privilege’ to Command

“Having the honor and privilege to be selected to command any unit is quite spectacular,” Alexander said. “As far as being the first female to command the 223rd, all I can say is that I hope it motivates and encourages more females to give the engineer branch more consideration for their military career choice.”

Alexander said her responsibility as a battalion commander is to provide vision and guidance, and to mentor, coach and train subordinate company commanders and staff officers.

“My No. 1 career goal upon becoming a commissioned officer was to be a battalion commander,” Alexander said. “Honestly, I could hardly contain my excitement and disbelief. Once I realized I had achieved my career goal, I now focus my efforts on ‘leading leaders,’ and now I’m making preparations to do just that.”

Twenty-six years ago, Alexander enlisted into the U.S. Army Reserve’s 304th Field Hospital, in Gulfport, Mississippi, as an X-ray specialist. It didn’t take her long to realize that there was something special about being commissioned in the military. After joining the University of Southern Mississippi’s ROTC program, she narrowed her desired branch opportunities down to two: logistics or engineers.

Alexander said engineering provided an interesting career path.

Choosing the Corps of Engineers

“When I decided to become a commissioned officer, engineers had a better career progression path,” she said. “Fortunately, all the units around the area in which I live just so happen to be engineer units that belong to the Mississippi National Guard.”

Army Col. Trent Kelly, 168th Engineer Brigade commander, said he’s known Alexander for nearly 14 years and he knows she’s a great leader.

“I’ve known Joy since she was my battalion S-3 [operations officer] before we deployed to Iraq in 2009 with a different unit,” Kelly said. “Joy is a fine example of what an officer should be.”

Kelly said Alexander places her soldiers and her unit first. And nothing, he added, can be better than that.

More Women in Senior Leadership

The number of women in senior leadership positions across the U.S. military has increased in recent years.

More than 200,000 women are in the military. Among the top ranks, 69 of the 976 generals and admirals,or 7 percent, are women: 28 female generals in the Air Force, 19 in the Army, one in the Marine Corps, and 21 female admirals in the Navy, according to Pentagon figures.

Enlisted women make up 2.7 percent of the military’s front-line units. Until recently, women were barred from the infantry, but were allowed to serve on gun and air crews. Among officers, women represented 5.4 percent of those involved in tactical operations.

Despite the restrictions, women made up 67 of nearly 3,500 Americans lost in hostile fire in Iraq and 33 of the 1,700-plus killed in combat in Afghanistan. Additionally, more than 600 others in Iraq and 300 in Afghanistan were wounded.

“I am frequently asked about my opinion of women in the military, in combat roles, in key leadership positions and in other nontraditional assignments,” Alexander said.

Living Army Values

“What type of soldiers do leaders want in their formations? We want soldiers who have a desire for military service,” she continued. “A soldier motivated to achieve success. A soldier willing to do what is necessary to complete the mission. A soldier proud to serve. A soldier who lives the Army values. A soldier determined to be their personal best. A soldier who understands the often-difficult requirements to do the job, yet chooses to try anyway.”

She added: “If we have soldiers like this in our formations, does it really matter what gender or race they are? I don’t think so. There are so many women out there who are true trailblazers, not in an effort to prove themselves better than their male counterpart, but the effort is to prove they can achieve things they had been told they couldn’t.”

Alexander thanked the Army leaders who influenced and mentored her throughout her career. She also spoke of her father, who steered her toward an Army career.

“I have had some of Mississippi’s finest leaders in my chain of command. They were able to instill in me a desire to achieve the next level of education, of leadership, of promotion and of assignment,” said Alexander, who in civilian life is a biology teacher at West Harrison High School.

“Their influence is an integral part of my leadership development and style,” she said.

Trials, Tribulations, Triumph

Alexander said the only experience during her 26-year military career that made her consider departing the military was when she experienced motherhood.

“Nothing I have ever experienced prepared me for the overwhelming responsibility of motherhood,” Alexander said. “All I can say is that the reason I have enjoyed the successes I have is because of my mother, my sisters, my brothers, and my family and friends who helped my children, Victoria and Nicholas, live stable, grounded and routine lives.”

From 1998 to 2005, several life-changing events took place in Alexander’s life. Becoming a mother in 1998, a second child in 2001, a divorce in 2002 and mobilizing to Iraq in 2003. Then there was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. All that  might make some people feel as if their life was spiraling out of control, but Alexander gives credit to her family for support.

“My children had been through enough turmoil in their young lives,” Alexander said. “I didn’t have the heart to keep making their life so difficult, because being a single mom during that extremely trying period was the most difficult and most challenging thing I have ever endured.”

It was a struggle, the children admitted, but it also helped to shape them, Alexander said.

“Growing up with a single parent living in the household is hard, but having that parent serve in the military is even harder,” said Victoria, who is a freshman at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Perkinston campus. “She has to spend so much of her time away from us for training, or even worse, on long deployments. Aside from the bad, it has done nothing but make our entire family so much closer and stronger. I’ve never been more proud of my mom … my hero.”

Nicholas, who is a sophomore at Stone High School, said he is the person he is today because of his mother, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Distribution channels: Military