News: Family in no short supply as staff sergeant becomes an officer
Story by Sgt. Christopher Gaylord
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – Having spent the last decade in the Army, Erica McLean is more than familiar with the act of rendering a salute.
Having others salute her, however, might take some getting used to.
After 10 years of climbing her way through the Army’s enlisted ranks, McLean finally stepped into the shoes of an officer Jan. 13 – for the first time, and for good – trading her staff sergeant stripes for the gold bar of a second lieutenant during a direct commissioning ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s North Chapel.
“Even though I’m really trying to stay present in the moment, it’s almost unbelievable,” said the newly promoted 2nd Lt. McLean just moments after her pinning ceremony and still quite in shock. “It’s been on my radar since the beginning. No roadblocks came up; everything kind of fell into place.”
It’s not every day an enlisted soldier earns the right to step directly from one corps to another. In fact, it’s fairly rare.
“It’s actually very uncommon,” said Col. Jack Marr, commander of the 189th Infantry Brigade, a JBLM training brigade responsible for prepping Army Reserve units to deploy. “It generally only comes in a time of war, where we have to fill the officer ranks for critical specialties.”
A direct commission requires that a soldier have at least a bachelor’s degree relevant to the career field he or she aspires to join as an officer. It requires a packet including proof of the soldier’s military and civilian education, the positions he or she has served and letters of recommendations from supervisors and commanders.
“It’s basically saying that civilian-wise you have reached the level of education and advancement that you can transfer in and directly become an officer,” McLean said.
McLean, a reservist who applied for the direct commission incentive in late September, while assigned to 2nd Battalion, 364th Infantry Regiment, will soon join JBLM’s 898th Medical Detachment working patient administration with Army veterinarians.
A licensed mental health counselor for the state of Washington and counselor for the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Department on JBLM in her civilian time, McLean plans to move on from administration to direct patient care for soldiers who seek the help of behavioral health as she ascends the Army’s officer ranks as a reservist.
McLean said that as an Army Reserve officer, she’ll have the opportunity to accept counseling positions that wouldn’t otherwise be offered had she remained an NCO.
“She saw a need for working with soldiers that had issues based on their wartime service, and she stepped up,” said Marr, whose brigade moved from Fort Bragg, N.C., last summer to JBLM and immediately took McLean’s battalion under its administrative wing.
As McLean spent her last few minutes as a non-commissioned officer, family and friends looked on with wide smiles, overjoyed for her success – but not at all surprised.
Bosses, Army supervisors, former commanders – even her church pastor’s family – and several other family members and close friends have always considered her a natural leader.
“She’s always been there for me and for her sisters, just to take charge and be that leader,” said Sandra Roland, McLean’s mother, who chocked it up to blessing that she and McLean’s brother and two younger sisters could make it to McLean’s pinning ceremony.
“I’m a natural-born leader as the big sister in my family,” said McLean, who often managed the household for Roland and cared for her younger siblings in their single-parent home.
But in this family, where Army service runs deep, McLean has had to share the qualities of a leader.
Roland is a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves, and McLean’s sister, Alesia Griffen, is a first lieutenant. McLean’s uncle had served, and her husband serves.
Roland has bounced between active duty service and the reserves since 1987.
Without hesitation, McLean and Griffen will immediately give credit for their desire to join the Army to Roland, who currently serves with the 325th Combat Support Hospital in Independence, Mo.
Inspired by her mother’s sense of duty, Griffen joined the Army in early 2002, just a couple of months before McLean signed up as well.
“You can see this is truly an Army family,” Marr said during McLean’s ceremony. “From mom, straight down through the daughters, they live, eat and breathe Army.”
As Roland rendered McLean’s first official officer salute – a tradition during commissioning ceremonies – her eldest daughter was years, miles and a million memories past the days when she would occasionally serve as leader of the household – past the good and the bad that comes with life in a family that continually answers the Army’s beckoning call.
On this day, there was only good.
“It was very tender – very emotional, because I’m just so proud of her,” Roland said. “It was awesome to be that person to give her the first salute.”
McLean knows the feeling. She gave Griffen her first salute as an officer years ago.
Then, the plan was for them both to be officers together, although, for McLean, starting a family would set her off course for years.
“I’m not the only one now,” said Griffen, who traveled from Birmingham, Ala., shortly after McLean’s goal had officially fallen into place.
And on a Friday the 13th, a date most typically associated with bad luck, everything went right for McLean and her family, who, once again, were able to be together.
“It’s part of our livelihood, not only in the military but in our personal lives,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth McLean, 2nd Lt. McLean’s husband, who affixed her new rank. “We just really hold the priority in our family.”
And in situations like McLean’s, where the line between Army and family has been blurred to the point that the two are essentially one in the same, top priorities come as no surprise.
“It’s almost no question that when significant events happen in our lives we’ll all be there,” 2nd Lt. McLean said. “My family is my foundation. No matter what’s going on outside, I know that this is the core.”
“Whenever they’re there, it just continues to confirm that – that we’re going to be here when it’s a good celebration or whatever’s happening.”