Getting your degree without obtaining debt is really difficult. Naomi was able to graduate debt-free with the help of an ROTC scholarship. She joined the Army through an ROTC scholarship which turned into a career where the military also paid for her masters and doctorate. Check out her story this week on the Women of the Military Podcast!
This episode was made possible by Foundation For Women Warriors. Foundation for Women Warriors (FFWW) is a unique support organization created exclusively for the women veteran community. They provide essential programs to enhance the economic and personal wellbeing ofwomen veterans and their families. Originally established in 1920 to serve widows, war nurses, and mothers of fallen service members, Foundation for Women Warriors is celebrating their 100 year anniversary. FFWW honors the service of women veterans by empowering their future through financial assistance, childcare assistance and professional development. If you want to learn more about Foundation for Women Warriors and how to get involved head to their website foundationforwomenwarriors.org
In this episode we covered all of Naomi’s career. She served in the Army and joined via ROTC which she learned about while she was in college. It allowed her to graduate debt free and she headed into active duty in 1994. She moved around the country and the world. Serving overseas in Japan and Kuwait.
She was given the opportunity to get her masters and then work at West Point, which later led to her getting her PhD with a three year follow on to teach at West Point.
She was married to another service member for a brief period and they found dual military challenging as they were not able to be stationed together. They had a daughter and because he was not with them, she was essentially as single parent.
When she deployed her ex-husband was already deployed and her best friend took in her daughter and her daughter remembers spending a year with her cousins and had the support she needed. She is grateful her daughter was so young and didn’t notice that her mom was gone.
Lastly, we covered her transition out the of the military. She was remarried and her husband needed to be in a big city for his remote job. Her daughter was in high school and didn’t want to transfer schools again. So, they wanted to stay in the DC area. With two years of planning and focusing on discovering herself and finding the right job, not just a job she was able to make a successful transition out of the military.
She has so much advice for those looking to join the military or for those planning to leave the military behind.
Bio: Naomi Mercer (she/her, they/them) is Senior Vice President, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion for the American Bankers Association. She recently transitioned from military career where she served as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Philosophy at the United States Military Academy and in the Pentagon running the Army’s gender integration and religious accommodation programs. She is the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal for her service in a combat theater of war and the Legion of Merit for her 25 years of service to the nation. Her educational background includes a doctorate in Literary Studies with a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an Executive Certificate in Strategic Diversity and Inclusion from Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership. She is the author of the academic monograph, Toward Utopia (2015).
Connect with Naomi:
Mentioned in this Episode:
Solider for Life Program
Reserve Officer Training Corps Program (need to create a blog post offering information about ROTC)
Challenges Face By Single Moms in the Army – Episode 46
Being a Single Mother in the Army – Episode 35
From the Halls of West Point to Iraq – Episode 38
Read the full transcript here.
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Amanda Huffman 00:00
Welcome to Episode 89 of the Women of the Military podcast. This week, my guest is Naomi Mercer. In this episode we covered all of Naomi's career. She served in the Army and joined via ROTC, which she learned about while she was in college. It allowed her to graduate debt-free. She headed on to active duty in 1994. She moved across the country in the world serving overseas in both Japan and Kuwait. She was given the opportunity to get her master's and then work at West Point, which later led to her getting her PhD was a three year follow on to teach at West Point. It's another great episode. So, let's get started. You're listening to the Women of the Military podcast where we share the stories of female servicemembers and how the military touch their lives. I'm Amanda Huffman. I'm an Air Force veteran author of Women of the Military and a collaborative author of Brave Women, Strong Faith. I am also a military spouse and Mom. I created Women of the Military podcast as a place to share stories of military women past and present with the goal of finding the heart of the story while uncovering the triumphs and challenges women face while serving in the military. If you want to be encouraged by the stories of military woman and be inspired to change the world, keep tuned for this latest episode of women of the military. Hi, Naomi. I'm so excited for you to be at the show today.
Naomi Mercer 01:33
Hi, Amanda. How are you?
Amanda Huffman 01:35
I'm great. I'm excited to do this interview. I was reading your bio. And I was like, Wow, she's done a lot.
Naomi Mercer 01:41
I've had a lot of time. Yeah.
Amanda Huffman 01:42
So let's start with why did you decide to join the military?
Naomi Mercer 01:46
Well, when I was in college, I could see the writing on the wall that after my first year, even though I had a very generous academic scholarship from my school, it wasn't going to be enough especially not with the way that tuition was rising and the amount of the school fellowship was finite. So I decided to pursue an ROTC scholarship and I got a three year scholarship to help me finish off. I ended up being on the five year plan. But that's because I took a year as an exchange student, but during that time that was fully funded by a different scholarship. So ROTC paid for the rest. And I was immediately put on active duty once I graduated with my commission.
Amanda Huffman 02:21
And how did you find out about ROTC?
Naomi Mercer 02:23
So at my school, they had a tradition of all the male students, it was very gendered, had to take a semester or two semesters of ROTC in their first year of college. It was optional for the ladies and this was a very, it was a liberal arts college, but it was very conservative. It was in the south. They were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. So you know, no dancing, that sort of thing. But during that time, I actually because of the the classes were the ROTC classes were, you know, such a part of the curriculum, that's kind of how I found out about it. And so I ended ended up taking an ROTC class, my second semester of my first year of college, and that's how I, you know, I started doing physical training with them in the morning. And I was like, Oh, I can do this. And they were like, apply for a scholarship. We have plenty. And they did.
Amanda Huffman 03:13
Wow, that's kind of cool. So it was something that all the males at your college had to do. And then you because so many people were doing it, it was pretty well known program.
Naomi Mercer 03:22
Amanda Huffman 03:23
That's cool. So you said that you did a year abroad and you then you graduated and you went active duty or a commission into the Army. So where did you go first?
Naomi Mercer 03:34
So I was one of the last officer basic classes to go through Adjutant General Corps training at Fort Ben Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana. So it was really great actually going to a city for my basic course right out of college. We had a lot of fun.
Amanda Huffman 03:50
Yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun. I went to Alabama for my like Second Lieutenant school and it's not a big city.
Naomi Mercer 04:00
Were you in Montgomery? Yeah, I was I did a year at Maxwell when I was in the Air Command and Staff College much later. But yeah, I'm very familiar with Montgomery.
Amanda Huffman 04:09
After you finished yours, we'll call it Second Lieutenant school just to make it easier. Where did you go next?
Naomi Mercer 04:16
So my first duty station was Fort Hood, Texas, you know, and that's, that's a big post. So I think it's important for lieutenants to go to large pose, because then there are other people more likely to be in the same situation situation that they are in whether they are single officers and they need to find roommates or whether they're, you know, young married couples, there's just larger population groups to find friends and affiliate with.
Amanda Huffman 04:39
Yeah, that makes sense. I was at kind of the opposite. I was at a really small base, but it was kind of nice because all the officers hung out together. And so my husband's squadron was made up mainly of like young lieutenants. And so we had a lot of people, I think finding like the right people, and sometimes you can find that a large base, sometimes a small base. Just depends on the first base you go to is always really special I feel like.
Naomi Mercer 05:05
yeah, it is
Amanda Huffman 05:06
and you were in during the mid 90s. What was the atmosphere like cuz the first Gulf War was over and no one knew September 11 was gonna happen.
Naomi Mercer 05:17
Yeah, well, I would say that there was some of the reductions in force had happened by the time I came on active duty, but the year that I was commissioned, no one went reserve forces, unless in ROTC unless you had a guaranteed reserve forces duty contract. So everyone who is scholarship or who'd gone through ROTC, we were all sucked into active duty, because they didn't have enough lieutenants that year. So you know, the army tends to go through these cycles where they reduce and then they reduced too much and then they have to scramble a little but I would say that a lot of the Majors and Lieutenant Colonel's these were the ones who had survived that reduction in force, but a lot of them were still very afraid and it had resulted in this kind of zero tolerance mentality and a lot of micromanagement because, you know, this was a group that had survived. People don't understand that a reduction in force is not personal, you know, you get rid of your, your low lying people, you keep your your high performers. Most everybody's that big bell curve in the middle. And really when they're doing a reduction in force, and I've seen this over and over again, they're just throwing darts. And sometimes you get the Dart and sometimes you don't, and it wasn't anything you did or did not do in your career or, you know, one line that someone wrote in an evaluation somewhere, it just happens, but it developed it had developed this mentality among the people who survived that, that they could not make any mistakes. And so they were really micromanaging the their subordinates. And so in some situations that was it was pretty toxic and could be really intolerable. I felt that I was lucky because my first assignment as a second lieutenant, I landed on a defense Staff. So I was working in a G one and G ones are not authorized lieutenants, so I was an overage. But that's because they didn't, they had the work. And they didn't have enough of the upper grade officers to do that work. So I was in plants and operations first. And then I moved over to officer management. And eventually I was doing the personnel readiness. So I was doing, I was running the ufR for the entire division, at least the personnel piece of it. And I would say, though, that the HR officers I worked with most of them were less inclined to have that micromanaging mentality, because it just wasn't feasible in our situation with all the reports that we were doing and everything like that. They had to be able to trust that people were going to do their job, but I saw it with a lot of my peers in other units at Fort Hood quite often.
Amanda Huffman 07:43
Yeah, that makes sense. And that's true. Like when you go through a reduction of force. It is kind of just random, and then they always seem to over cut and like you said you were in that job because they didn't have enough ranking people because they had cut too many people So then they needed I've been through a rif before. So I know what you're talking about how long were you at Fort Hood?
Naomi Mercer 08:06
So I was there about two and a half years. Yeah. And then they were at that time. By the time that I was rolling out of Fort Hood, I actually left about a year six months early. They were planning to keep me there until I went to the captain's career course. However, what had happened in the meantime was Aberdeen Proving Ground and the scandals with sexual assault and sexual harassment and these rings, you know, that the drill sergeants have had. So as part of the plan to kind of mitigate those situations and not have drill sergeants are getting into these like sex Rings and Things that they were doing when they were putting lieutenants in basic training units of exos. So there was a scramble for lieutenants. So the officer manager at Fort Hood had called me and Fort Hood had to give up a certain number of lieutenants for these xo slot, and at that point, I was ready to move on to my next adventure in the army. So I said I would go and so I was sent to Fort Jackson to a basic training company there. And that was my second assignment.
Amanda Huffman 09:07
And how long were you there?
Naomi Mercer 09:09
So I actually only was in basic training land for about four months, because you know, I moved there in March. And in July, they needed to fill a captain's career course class. And by then I was the first lieutenant, I was going to be coming out on the captain's list in another month or two, you know, I wasn't supposed to know that. But you know how that goes. And so the branch manager said, I need you to fill this class and the basic training brigade was willing to let me go,
Amanda Huffman 09:35
Wow, that's a lot. Yeah, and then you went to Captain career course. And is that at...
Naomi Mercer 09:43
well, I was still at Fort Jackson? So that's why jobs. Right, the AG school had moved to Fort Jackson from Fort Ben Harrison. So that's why I could go to the career course with like, less than a week's notice. And so I was there about nine months total. Because if course was another six or six months, I guess five or six months.
Amanda Huffman 10:05
And then after that, where did you go?
Naomi Mercer 10:08
My next assignment I did a quick stint at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas just for the what used to be called cast cube the combined armed services staff School, which has now gone away, but I did a six week in Resident there on my way to Okinawa, Japan, where I was with a Signal Battalion. We were on a little compound kind of surrounded by camp Foster, which is a Marine Corps Base. And I lived out in town because I had pets so I wasn't allowed in the Air Force barracks. The housing situation was very fluid there, you know, it didn't matter what service you were in, they just put you in housing someplace. But I was out in an apartment and I was on Okay, now are for two years as the s one and the headquarters commander for the 58 Signal Battalion.
Amanda Huffman 10:50
Wow, that sounds really cool. How many years you had only been out of the college for like three or so years.
Naomi Mercer 10:56
Let's see I went in 98. So um, Not quite four years. Yeah,
Amanda Huffman 11:02
yeah. So what was it like to be in Japan young single, and then living in the community?
Naomi Mercer 11:09
It was really great. But when I'd been an exchange student in college, I'd lived in Japan. Oh, so I already spoke Japanese. So that made it very easy for me to live out on the economy. And I could get around because I knew that I could stop for directions and people didn't speak English. That was not a problem for me. So I had a great time. You know, there were two squadrons of very single Air Force officers. There are Marines. There's Navy, I dated a lot. Let's just put it that way.
Amanda Huffman 11:35
Yeah. That's so cool that you had gone there during college. So you like had that the language and you had been there before? So that's kind of cool.
Naomi Mercer 11:45
Yeah, it's really great.
Amanda Huffman 11:46
Do you have any like stories from your time in Japan that you think people would be interested to hear?
Naomi Mercer 11:52
Oh, I don't know. Well, I did survive. You know, supertyphoon Bart, a couple other typhoons as well. So I've been in this You know, work from home situation where we didn't necessarily have I think I had access to the internet. But that was about it. You know, and you didn't talk to anybody for three days. So it was similar to what we were going through with people working from home right now with the COVID-19.
Amanda Huffman 12:15
Yeah, that's kind of crazy. I didn't think about like there have been natural disasters that have forced people to be stuck at home.
Naomi Mercer 12:22
Amanda Huffman 12:23
You were in Japan. You said for two years, right? Yes. And then where did you go after that? I went to Fort Lee Virginia.
Naomi Mercer 12:30
I was at CAST COMM And I was running a, an experiment and research program for the Army, mostly logistics. So we would provide the funding for some of the, the branches to run experiments about for equipment that could improve, you know, the jobs they were doing. So I was managing that budget and getting all the proposed experiments kind of through the process, and then getting the funding to them so that they can conduct the experiment and then decide whether we were going to adapt that piece of equipment into the Army's inventory.
And now word from our sponsor. Foundation for Women Warriors is a unique support organization created exclusively for the women veteran community. They provide essential programs to enhance the economic and personal well being of women veterans and their families originally established in 1920. To serve widows, war nurses and mothers have fallen service members foundation for women warriors is celebrating their 100 year anniversary foundation for women warriors honors the service of women veterans by empowering their future through financial assistance, childcare assistance and professional development. If you want to learn more about foundation for women warriors and how to get involved head to their website foundation for women warriors.org. And now let's get back to the show.
Amanda Huffman 13:55
If I'm doing the math in my head, right, is that where you were when September 11 happened?
Naomi Mercer 14:00
No. So I was only at Fort Lee, about 13 months. I left there in June 2001 to start graduate school at the University of Massachusetts. And so I was doing actually doing French over the summer to meet a language requirement. And then in the fall, all my graduate student classes had started and that's when 911 started. But at that point, I was locked into two years in graduate school, and then three years that then stretched to four at West Point as an assistant professor in the Department of English and philosophy.
Amanda Huffman 14:35
You were in Boston, Massachusetts,
Naomi Mercer 14:38
I was in I was actually in Amherst with the flagship school.
Amanda Huffman 14:41
And so you were there going to school. I was going to school when that happened to so I was in high school, so I hadn't started ROTC or my military stuff. So that kind of took you out of like the operational side of the Army and you are going to school and then you are going to be at West Point. So what was it like to be in the military, but kind of like, out of the military at the same time? It's like, all these things are happening.
Naomi Mercer 15:08
Right? Well, I really enjoyed my time in graduate school, maybe that's why I kept going back. It was a really great experience for me. But I also met with the other army people there were usually about four of us there. At the same time, during that two year period, let's just say there was a lot of survivor's guilt. That, you know, here we are kind of fenced off from the operational army. And what we were doing was important, because then we all went on to utilization tours at West Point where we were teaching cadets and training them to be leaders of character, but you know, a lot of us had friends and colleagues and other units and we're watching the deployments and the news. And, you know, it could be really hard because we didn't feel like we were, you know, contributing as tangibly.
Amanda Huffman 15:56
Yeah, that makes sense. I can I can see that. I mean, the military has so many different jobs and people have to fill them and not everyone could be overseas because then you know, the mission back home can't happen. But I said I can see how sometimes like that would make you feel that way. So you went off to West Point after you graduated and what was the atmosphere with like the cadets? Because it was, I mean, it was very different than like what had been just a few years ago when you know, war wasn't impending and like, right,
Naomi Mercer 16:26
So the, the younger classes of cadets volunteered after 9/11. And mostly I taught plebes the first year two, because those are the general education classes and plebes just in general are really excited to be at West Point. If they made it through the summer. They're happy to be there. You know, they have varying degrees in their attitudes toward academic but they're they're usually pretty enthusiastic. They don't become cynical until the next year, their second year when they're yearlings, and that's when they actually take the philosophy class, which I never taught because I wasn't a philosopher, I was an English teacher. And so the philosophy teachers were the ones that benefited from all that, you know, cynicism that seemed to develop. But then when they would come back for their junior year, their cow year, that's when they actually had to sign their contract when they came back for that. And that's when they were, you know, actually making the commitment. And so usually by then they, you know, sloughed off some of that cynicism and become a little more realistic and pragmatic, but you know, most of them finish out their four years.
Amanda Huffman 17:29
Yeah. It's kind of interesting how like, each year, the class has like a different overall like attitude and that it follows each like classes. Yeah, like, Oh, this class was like that. It's like a similar structure. Yeah. But it makes sense. They go through such a similar program where they're like, beat down and that's interesting. So you were at West Point for you said for four years. Yes.
Naomi Mercer 17:53
I ended up being there for four years. The cohort that I came in with, I was like the most junior person And really when I'd gone to Fort Lee, originally, I was supposed to start, you know, I should have been applying for graduate school and going but because I was so Junior ag branch wouldn't let me go. So I had to go to Fort Lee and fill a slot there first. And so while I was there, I was applying for graduate school. And then when I actually did go to West Point, I was still like one of the youngest officers in the cohort. And so they needed someone to extend and so I extended for another year, but then I was married and I also had a baby So,
Amanda Huffman 18:28
okay, and when did you meet your boys, your ex husband, when did you meet?
Naomi Mercer 18:33
we actually knew each other. When we were younger. We met at the Nevada State spelling bee. When I was in seventh grade, we did not meet again until we were in our basic course together. He was also an Adjutant General Corps officer and that proved to be very problematic. We kind of reconnected when I was at when I was in Okinawa and then you know, more so when I was at Fort Lee and ended up getting married during my time at Fort Lee, but as to AG Officers and a low density branch, we were never going to be stationed together. And so that was really problematic. So when two officers are dual military, one of the officers really needs to be in a high density branch like armor or infantry that has a lot of people, because there's a lot more flexibility and assignment for officers and low density branches like human resources. There's an ag slot everywhere, but there's only one. And so you can't put two officers on the same post, especially when they're, you know, about the same rank. So my ex husband and I were never going to be stationed together.
Amanda Huffman 19:36
Yeah, that makes it really challenging. Yeah. And with you going to school, did you like have a commitment to stay in the Army and then he was staying in the Army. So it wasn't like one of you was going to be able to get out because you both had commitments tying you.
Naomi Mercer 19:52
Well, I had a commitment he no longer did when I was in graduate school in Massachusetts. He was in Syracuse at a recruiting battalion. So I saw him on weekends, and then when I went to West Point for the first part of that he was in Egypt, because he took an overseas tour thinking that that would help him get a better assignment when he came back, but that was not the case. But a lot of that was his own fault.
Amanda Huffman 20:14
So even though you are dual military, you guys weren't living together. So you're pretty much a single mom, that sounds really challenging. What was that like?
Naomi Mercer 20:25
It was challenging. I'm very grateful that I was in the financial position to have a nanny for my daughter's first year. So we had a nanny that lived with us by that time. I was so it was my my ex husband was down in New Jersey at Fort Dix working with a reserve unit down there. He was one of the active duty people that worked with them in an acrc slot. So I had a nanny that lived with me for a year and took care of our daughter while I was at work, but I was also grateful that you know, a teaching schedule is actually a little more flexible than A day to day Army job usually is. And so that was great. And then she went into the daycare at West Point. And they were fantastic. I think it was great that she was socialized at such a young age. And she did really well. She just really thrived in that environment.
Amanda Huffman 21:16
That's great to hear that you had the nanny support and then you could afford it. And then that when you made the switch to the childcare that it was such a good experience. That's awesome.
Naomi Mercer 21:25
Yeah, it was really good.
Amanda Huffman 21:26
So then after West Point, where did you guys go next?
Naomi Mercer 21:31
So leaving West Point, I was getting divorced and it was finalized, you know, so that's kind of nice to like, move to the next duty station and I had hyphenated my name, I'd also made him hyphenate his name because I was not going to you know, lose my identity in that way. And also that way, our daughter has a hyphenated name. Now she's the only one stuck with it. Because I went back to my name, he went back to his name, but it was nice to kind of do that, you know, PCS or change of duty and Then you're with a new group of people and they only know you by one name. So that was really that worked really well. So we were in Alabama, the Air Command and Staff College there, instead of Fort Leavenworth, I'd applied to go to the, you know, the school for field grade officers in Ireland, and I didn't get it. So I think the Air Command and Staff College was my consolation prize, but I thoroughly enjoyed it because I got to learn about the Air Force culture. And you know, there was a certain amount of if I'd gone to Fort Leavenworth, there's a certain amount of Army bs that I would have had to deal with, you know, and with the Air Force, they had their own amount of bs, but I could ignore it. Yeah. So we had a good time there. And we were on the same court for housing. Yeah, they put all the students in condemned housing at Maxwell. Yeah, so all the airmen had better you know, they had nicer houses and all these majors who were in the Air Force too, but I was on the same court with another single mom. She was married but her husband was still in Alaska and she had an infant Daughter and so we were able to trade off childcare and you know, do share babysitters and do social things together. And, you know, I'm still very much connected to that family today. Right now they're in Dusseldorf, Germany and my daughter. She was on an exchange program to Israel this past semester. And she was supposed to go to Dusseldorf to spend like a week of spring break, until, you know, of course, the COVID-19 stuff happened and then she was deported from Israel. So she's back in the United States, but she was gonna go see that family and you know, because she knows the kids and, and we were also stationed here in the DC area together for a few years.
Amanda Huffman 23:37
That's so cool that you guys built that friendship and that you guys stayed connected and were able to spend time together even today. That's kind of what the military is called out your friends become like your family. Yeah, it is. That's kind of cool that you had that relationship. And then that was only a year right and then you went on to your next assignment.
Naomi Mercer 23:59
Right. My next assignment was Fort Bliss. I knew that I was going to a deploying unit because I had not deployed, you know, because I had been stuck in that pipeline was school in West Point. And I basically my branch manager gave me the choice of Fort Drum or Fort Bliss. And I chose Fort Bliss because I didn't want to be cold. So I went to Fort Bliss, Texas, and I was with the fourth brigade for the first Armored Division. So this is during the middle of first Armored Division re flagging from its location in Germany, to units at Fort Bliss, and we were the first unit on Fort Bliss to be reflagged. I had been part of the first Cavalry Division and connected with Fort Hood, but then we were reflagged to first armored and I was on Fort Bliss for the nine months or so that was the run up to deployment. We did you know, our our six weeks at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, and then I deployed at the very beginning of May for 2009. And I was there almost, you know, it was pretty close to 365 days I came back a day or two after in May 2010 and since I was the brigade s one, I was always on the last plane out. So I was on the last plane leaving Fort Bliss pushing out all the rest of the units. And then I was on the last plane from Kuwait coming back to Fort Bliss after we pushed everybody else back home.
Amanda Huffman 25:16
And what did your daughter do and that year?
Naomi Mercer 25:20
So my ex-husband had he had been non promoted out of the Army by this time and had gone into the reserves, did spend some time in Iraq working for a civilian company, as a contractor decided he didn't like that came back to the United States joined a reserve unit re branched into civil affairs. And so he as soon as he did that, they deployed him. So he deployed in December 2008, I deployed in May of 2009. So he was not going to be around to take care of her. So my family care plan. My Long Term Care Provider was my best friend in South Carolina. She had three kids, she wanted four kids. After three kids, her husband got a vasectomy because it couldn't take it. So my daughter going to live with them for a year was the fulfillment of her dream before kids, but actually her her middle child, her second child was born three weeks before my daughter. So we had been pregnant almost the whole time together and had, you know, my daughter had we stopped and stayed with them on our way to Alabama from New York and, you know, had various other visits and everything. So my daughter was familiar with their family. And so she went there for a year to South Carolina, and we call it her men. Her memory cliff, you know, she just remembers that she had this great year with her cousins, you know, living in South Carolina. She doesn't really remember that I was gone. So I'm actually very thankful to have deployed when my daughter was so young, because she didn't miss my absence because she had all the care and all the concern. If I were to have deployed when she was older, I think she would have been much more cognizant of missing Me personally, as her mom and that might have been more of an emotional adjustment for her so had to be done. You know, you go to Kuwait and everybody's depressed because we're all missing our families and Kuwait is the black hole of time, you know, where you're, you're just been put through all these little training things before you push into Iraq, and so everybody's depressed. And that's when all the suicides started happening. But if you can get past that, you know, you can actually do what you need to do, and everything but you know, my daughter was well taken care of, she was great. USA was amazing with their book reading program where you read the book, they record the record, you're reading the book and video recording to your kid so they can read the book, you know, projected onto the screen or on a computer, you know, so that was really great. I took advantage of a lot of those programs.
Amanda Huffman 27:49
Yeah, that's cool that you had such a good friend who like took your daughter in and like that she felt that security that she that's what she needed. The most was the security Having like a family and she kind of has like built in cousins, brothers and sisters in a way that that's so cool that you had that. And that's the use mentioned Family Care probably and everybody who has kids especially I don't use it. Everybody are just doing military to military.
Naomi Mercer 28:16
But then also I was a single mother. And so I had one, you know, because of that as well.
Amanda Huffman 28:22
Yeah. And so that's something the military makes you do. So that when if something like that happens, you have a plan and a ready to go where So you came back and you went back to Fort Bliss and you got reintegrated back into the military. And then that was 2009 to 2010. Right?
Naomi Mercer 28:40
I came back to Fort Bliss. I was only there for a couple of months just to kind of wind down from the deployment I had found out or I was offered almost as soon as I got to Iraq, you know, toward the end of May in my deployment in 2009. WestPoint called me and said, Hey, can you apply to graduate school this year and go to graduate It's called next fall and then come back with a PhD. So my whole time in Iraq I was also studying to take the GRE I took the general test I took the literature subject exam I had to go to Baghdad twice to do that that's the only time I was ever shot at you know, quote unquote shot at was flying to Baghdad. So you know, I was the bada** in grad school had been shot at on the way to the to applying to colleges, you know, doing all that you needed to do and trying to figure out what my dissertation topic would be where he would study. So I knew coming back to Fort Bliss, I would only be there for a couple of months, you know, just to kind of wind down the deployment and then I would be leaving to go to graduate school for the fall.
Amanda Huffman 29:41
Okay. And so then you went to grad school and then on to West Point, right.
Naomi Mercer 29:46
So a PhD program is three years at least for an English PhD. So I was at the University of Wisconsin Madison from about august of 2010 through May of 2013. And then after that in May of 2013. May June move to West Point again. And this time I had a fiance a boyfriend. The whole time I was in Wisconsin who became my fiance who lived in California, but he moved to West Point with me and my daughter and we got married within the next year.
Amanda Huffman 30:18
And he was civilian, right?
Naomi Mercer 30:19
Yeah, he's a civilian. His only affiliation with the military was his dad. His parents were a little bit older and my dad was also older. My mother was much younger than my father. So both of our dads had served in World War Two. My father was on a boat in the Navy in the South Pacific and his father within the for 40 seconds, which is the most decorated battalion in the United States Army. It was the Japanese segregated battalion. Yeah, his daughter and his dad. My husband's dad was a second generation Japanese so his parents had immigrated he was born here in the United States. So my husband is third generation Japanese except his mom who came over from Japan in the late 60s to marry my head. And she'd worked for the other side during World War II, she packed parachutes for the Japanese paratroopers, but then she came to the United States. They got married, had my husband and I also grew up in town. So we knew each other as children. He was a year older than me in school. But he also did not talk to girls. So we did not know of each other and I was family. His dad worked for the post office, they own the laundry and dry cleaning business. And his mom ran that time and his grandma, but so I knew him, but I didn't know him until later.
Amanda Huffman 31:36
Yeah. And so you guys got married, and he moved out to West Point, just in New York, right?
Naomi Mercer 31:43
Yes. With his company in California, it was a computer startup. So you know, technology and so
Amanda Huffman 31:52
Did you stay at West Point for the end of your career?
Naomi Mercer 31:55
No. So I was at West Point from 2013 to 2016. Because I was only a rotating PhD. And so my last assignment was actually in the Pentagon. And I went back to the army GE one. So it was kind of interesting bookending my careers with GE one as a lieutenant, you know, at the division level, but then as a lieutenant colonel and I also had to finish my, my active duty service obligation, which was three years beyond the West Point utilization to work, but I ended up in the G one I came in as the ethics and character integration officer. So I was working with the, as a liaison for the army to the special assistant for the military profession and ethic, the Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for the military profession ethic working with that office under Admiral Klein, but that office was shutting down that had been a temporary military over strength because there seemed to be a crisis of ethics and professionalism and that's why that office was created, but it was reaching the end of its tenure. So you know, the G one new and I was in the Directorate of military personnel management meant that that would not occupy all of my time. So I was immediately assigned as the CO lead with another Lieutenant Colonel for the Army's gender integration program. And so she and I did that together for a year and she left after a year because she was going to a J, one slot in Savannah. But three months into that also, we had another coworker who was the chaplain that ran the religious accommodation program, but he was going to be gone and another three months, so I took over the religious accommodation as well, I took over that program, but it almost was like this perfect storm of talent management. My dissertation when I was in graduate school, I've always looked at literature through a feminist lens. And so I had a minor as required by my program in Gender and Women's Studies, but my dissertation topic specifically was religious fundamentalism and feminist dystopian writing. So I actually had done a lot of research into major world religions. So that I could identify what was going on in some of the books that I was using for my dissertation and how they were treating religion, how they were reacting to it. So I had, you know, in some, in some ways I have more education on religion than most chaplains, because it's much more broad than single denomination. But then I also had the Gender and Women's Studies background for the gender and write ration program. So it actually worked out really well. And that was my last assignment. And I retired from the army in May of 2019.
Amanda Huffman 34:28
Yeah, so you were like, perfectly qualified to be doing all those things. And it's kind of cool. And it was probably something you were like, passionate and interested, since that's what you picked your dissertation on. So it's like it really was like the perfect storm of everything.
Naomi Mercer 34:43
Yeah, it was really great. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Amanda Huffman 34:45
And you had a pretty seamless transition out of the military. So let's talk about either how you prepared for it or because I'm sure you're prepared. And it wasn't just like magic happen. So like, what steps did you take to prepare Prepare to get out of the military and make that transition.
Naomi Mercer 35:03
I started going to the the well, they have you have the pre mandatory retirement briefing, the mandatory retirement briefing, and then you have executive Transition Assistance Program. So I did all of that starting, I started going to the briefings and just getting some of the information two years in advance practically. I think the first time I went with like July of 2017, so not quite two years. I went to each app once in February of 2018. And then I went again, November of 2018. Because the first time you go through and you're kind of drinking from a firehose, and there's a lot of information and a lot of things to process. So I did it. But then I realized, okay, I need to refine some things about my resume. I need to practice my interviewing skills and my elevator speech, and I need to go back to get some of the finer points that they teach you in those classes. And there were also other classes along the way and other workshops. were usually like, just half a day that you could go to at this point. I knew The English, you know professorial landscape is it was unlikely that I would get a tenure track position. And it was more likely that I would get a tenure track position in a desirable location. You know, my husband was still working for the same startup company technology startup in Silicon Valley. He had to be near a major airport. To facilitate his business trips, we both had to learn that we are definitely city people. So I was not going to go to some small school in the middle of nowhere, because that wasn't for me and my husband as an Asian American did not need to be the only Asian American in town. That was not going to work either. So we decided we wanted to stay in the area. So I was going to focus on jobs in this area. And after running gender integration, religious accommodation programs army, I realized that my real calling was diversity, equity and inclusion. So I also I was very, very supported by the Directorate of military personnel. meant at the time I was General Callaway and what I wanted to do and by my supervisor Colonel Turner, who xo and they let me go through while I was on active duty I went through a Georgetown certificate program Institute for transformational leadership that was on strategic diversity and inclusion so that I could get on top of my experience running programs. And I was out of the office two days, once a month, Thursday, Friday and Saturday going to this class and they were very accommodating. Very grateful that I had such support at that time and as many classes as I could. informational interviews, I did a lot of any career coaching opportunity. I went to, I became very active on LinkedIn. I built my network, you know, and I tried to get on a lot of the military people I know more into diversity inclusion, I started going I put my claim in December I had someone from the Disabled American Veterans that was helping me forms and all the packet and everything I had done my physical the September before and requested a very thorough medical officer she did a very thorough, you know, making sure everything was I put it in and I actually had a decision on my claim on the 10th of June and I was off active duty the 31st of May. That went really well but there were a series of doctor's appointments in like March and April and into May sure that everything was covered.
Amanda Huffman 39:02
Yeah, I think you hit the point that I think a lot of people, you just don't realize like how much work you have to put in to transitioning. It's not like like you started working on it almost two years in advance, and then you kind of figured out what you wanted to do. And then you were able to like, take that extra training and do go to job fairs, work on your interview skills. It takes a lot of hard work to make a smooth transition happen. And the more of it you can do while you're still on active duty, especially like discovering what you want to do is really, it really, I think helps in the transition process.
Naomi Mercer 39:40
I think that taking that time to reflect on what you really want to do, you know, and where you want to be is very important, you know, and once I decided I wanted to do diversity, equity and inclusion, I started looking at that landscape, you know, around the Washington DC area and the places that we're hiring or financial services. As companies and banks and law firms, the law firms wanted somebody with a JV. And so I knew that those were more of a long shot for me. And so I really focused on the financial sector. And I mean, I actually met a lot of great people at some of the big banks because they're trying to do a lot of military outreach and hire Veterans of America. I love those guys. They're their military recruiting program with Aaron Paltrow. And Bobby Turner is amazing, but they wanted me to move to Charlotte. And like, Nope, I gotta stay there. I got a kid in high school who wanted to be in the same place for school. And so that was another factor that we also had to consider. But I do think it takes a lot of work though. I what I really appreciated was my transition Lee and then after I was off, active duty, you know, there was a couple of months there where I was not employed. I basically would try to do all my job hunting stuff in the morning, I would get up and I'd go exercise, I'd come back. I do. My LinkedIn I posted every day on LinkedIn, I would explore any context or whatever, for whatever interview or phone call I would have later in the presentation, but usually it's a couple hours in the morning, and then I had the rest of the day to kind of relax and, you know, come down from a career in the military where a lot of us can get very burnt out because we are going so full throtel all the time, and I certainly was in the Pentagon. To be in what's important to is to take that time you know, figure out what you want, prepare for what you want, and then take some time to kind of settle down and you know, take some time for yourself and spend some time with your family or you know, it's really hard when you're in that job search mode not to feel desperate sometimes and the entire month of June I didn't get I was supposed to have that last and check around the 25th of June, but then got a problem with my lead form? I didn't know it. Nobody told me. So I just didn't get paid. The Army was holding on to my paycheck. And you know, and I finally got it worked out in July, I had to go to the finance office and, you know, get somebody to redo my lead form for me, because I no longer had access any of these things and got it straightened out. But yeah, it's like, it's really hard not to feel desperate when you're looking for a job. But I think it's important to keep perspective, you know, and it's really hard for someone like me, who's been continuously employed her entire adult life, right. So, you know, it's important just to keep that perspective to know that that you know, that retirement pay is kind of a safety net, and you're going to be okay, and it's more important, you know, to not necessarily take the first job that comes along, but the first job that you think is going to be an excellent fit for you. And so that's just, you know, I think that that's important for veterans to understand, because I think a lot they don't take the time to reflect. They don't do the preparation and how All the medical stuff the way that they should or you know, figure out their housing or what have you, they're they're so focused on getting a job, they kind of neglect the other transition pieces. And you know, are used to have chats with the deputy who ran Soldier for Life. And he, you know, talked about this all the time, everybody's going to get a job, you need to take care of your other stuff, you know, whether you're going to get a VA loan for a house, whether you're going to relocate how you're going to do all these moving pieces, you know, with the needs of your family. So I think it's really important to take the time for all of that and to just not feel desperate about the job hunt, you know, the job is not going to come to you, you have to be very active and seek it. But it doesn't have to consume your entire life either.
Amanda Huffman 43:41
I think that's great advice. And it's really true. Like you don't, sometimes Yeah, you get so focused on like, find a job, find a job because like that's where the money comes from. But there's a bunch of important steps that if you neglect them in the long run, you're you're gonna be hurting and if you take that job and it's not the right fit, then You're gonna be on the job hunt, you know, six months or a year from now, because you're miserable. Was there anything from your experience in the military that you wanted to touch on? I still have a question, but I just wanted to make sure before I wrap it up.
Naomi Mercer 44:12
Sure, though, you know, in a large way, I had some really positive experiences. But I also had some very negative experiences. There's a lot of misogyny in the army still, that as a culture, we need to change. And I could see very clearly with the gender integration, the armor branch didn't seem to have as much problem with having women come into armor. Women are smaller, they fit in the tanks better. You know, it was almost a no brainer. The infantry branch was having more difficulty, and I think that a lot of a lot of infantry soldiers, they have this idea of themselves as a man. And that's their identity because they're infantry soldiers. And so when a woman can come along and be an infantry soldier, what does that say about that? their masculinity. And there was no budget for the army to do psychotherapy for all these guys. So I think that that cultural shift is going to take a long time, I think women are still going to go into the infantry, and they're going to still keep pushing and chipping away at it. But really, we know it's the men, and it's the culture that needs to change. And so I think that that's going to be a long time and coming and I think it's going to be really hard. So, you know, bless all the women who are willing to do that. It's great, keeps chipping away at it, you know, but stand up for yourself and don't lose your voice when you're in those situations. And I also felt that as a single mom, there were there were just people who had a special hatred in their heart because they perceived me as not being as dedicated, which, you know, when I was married, it was very clear that I had the better career path that I was the better officer, you know, because as I said, My ex husband gotten on promoted out of the army. So you know, I was not going to be the one to get out of the Army. You know, if it had come to a choice between the two of us, made the choice for us, which was fine. But I think that people at home is the only way to raise a child. And that's not true. I'm a great mom, I think of myself as a good enough mom. And that's okay. And he's gonna be just fine. And you know what I like to have not left her in daycare sometimes for 12 hours a day when I was ramping up her deployment, sure, but we made it through and she's always had the care and concern that she's gonna be fine. And so I think it's important that people just understand that single mothers are not any less dedicated. We just have a lot more on our plate, and actually, that such a great capacity for work and the way you know the things that I can manage. When I was at West Point that was a corporate director, but my second year I was, I was directing the literature course for all the people So that's 1100 students and I was supervising 21 faculty. And pointing out the curriculum, my XO was on maternity leave for an extended period of time. So I was doing that too. And the only thing I had less was a course for me. So instead of four classes, every two days, I was teaching three classes. But I also was writing my dissertation and publishing it as a book at the same time, and getting my daughter to nine ballet classes. So I had this great capacity for work. And part of that was my time as a single mom making everything happen at the same time. And then I was able to do all those things once I had remarried as well. And so I you know, when people question the dedication of single moms, it's like, you don't know what you're talking about. single moms get it done all the time.
Amanda Huffman 47:51
Yeah. And I interviewed a single mom, and I'll put the link in the show notes. So if people want to read that because she's still on active duty, and she and she had a lot of challenges and she got it done. So exactly the same. And going back to the culture thing, I went to a talk and they were talking about how 30% you have to have 30% for the culture to change. And so that's why it's so important when there's like one or two females that the men team up with the women and that they help make that 30% gap. Because without both sides coming together with a minority with other people, then you can change the culture. And so it's really, it is probably it is unfortunately, going to take a long time. But the more people that can be allies to the women who are making those big changes, it's so important, because then it'll, it'll change the culture.
Naomi Mercer 48:40
Yeah. And 30 it's the 27 to 33%. That's that sweet spot.
Amanda Huffman 48:45
Okay. Yep. That's the tech that I just got the general and that's good to know. Yeah. When I heard that it was kind of like a life change, like, Oh, that makes so much sense. And so it's been kind of it's come up in a few interviews. So it's interesting that it gets came up again. So my last question is, what would you tell young women looking to join the military?
Naomi Mercer 49:06
Well, what I would say is, you know, the military did a lot of great things. For me, it paid for my education. I've had free and preventative health care. The, you know, I've had so many benefits, I had subsidized daycare, you know, even though I was always paying the top price for daycare because I was a field grade officer, pretty much by the time my daughter went into it, it was still cheaper than the civilian economy. So there are a lot of great benefits out there. But you're gonna run into misogyny and you need to be prepared for it. And I would just say, no one else is going to stand up for you. You have to stand up for yourself and more importantly, when you see it happening to another woman or to another underrepresented, you know, population, whether it's LGBTQ or whether it's a person of color or what have you. You need to stand up for them to I think that's the most important thing and you know, some Sometimes it's easier for us to stand up for other people first, you know, so maybe that's how you stretch that muscle and start getting, you know, getting into the groove of it. But you ultimately have to stand up for yourself. And I think the army has much better policies now than it did when most the time I was in about retaliation and whistleblowers, and you know, just even some of the accommodations that need to be made. But those policies are there. You need to stand up and say, hey, you're not following this policy. I'm not being treated fairly. Yeah.
Amanda Huffman 50:30
Thank you so much for your time. And for all your wisdom and advice. I really enjoyed hearing your career and your transition and all the other advice that you threw on in the end, so thank you so much.
Naomi Mercer 50:42
Thank you. I had a great time.
Amanda Huffman 50:50
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