HEIDELBERG, Germany - As a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., Leah R. Fuller-Friel became her battalion's first female commander.
Now, 25 years later and a colonel, she's the first female commander of the U.S. Army NATO Brigade, headquartered at Tompkins Barracks in Schwetzingen, Germany.
Fuller-Friel's military interests started in high school when, she says, a "diligent recruiter" told her of the opportunities the Army could offer her through ROTC. Back then, she admits she didn't really even know what the letters R-O-T-C stood for.
Today, she's the commander of all U.S. Soldiers serving in three NATO battalions and 10 companies scattered throughout 33 locations in 13 countries.
"My husband and I served in NATO as majors and we really didn't know this opportunity was there," Fuller-Friel said. She was serving with the Army's Training and Doctrine Command as the Adjutant General, she said, when she was asked to take over the U.S. Army NATO brigade.
"I thought 'there's no such thing,'" she said.
Sgt. 1st Class Larry Gray, the brigade's equal opportunity advisor, said having Fuller-Friel take command as the first female in that role is noteworthy not only for the women in the brigade, but for the Army as a whole.
"I think it's really good that other nations know that in our country, females are getting the opportunity to lead troops and can do it just as well as the men," Gray said. "They get those opportunities to train and lead, and having her in that role is very significant."
The Friel family, overall, is making a significant contribution to the military. Fuller-Friel and her husband, retired Army Maj. Jack Friel, a field artilleryman, met and married on Fort Leavenworth, Kan. They have three sons: John, a company commander on Fort Hood, Texas, who is serving his third tour in Iraq; Mark, a captain in the Indiana National Guard; and Matthew, a sixth-grader, whom Fuller-Friel says "can't wait to be in uniform."
As an Army retiree, Jack Friel serves as the senior family readiness advisor for the brigade and, according to his wife, is "working harder than he ever has worked. He's a very busy man."
"We always do a command team charter, my husband and I, what expectations we are going to do - we are going to balance faith, profession and family," she said. "[With] that trio, we are in sync, and usually the kids or the Soldiers will let us know if we are not."
The couple has served five tours in Europe - 12 of the 25 years of service so far for Fuller-Friel. She's held all of her levels of command in Europe as well.
Fuller-Friel said her favorite job so far has been being a company commander, a job that allowed her to get to know each Soldier and spouse in her company on a more personal level. In her current role, it's a little harder to get to know every soldier, though she tries.
Her favorite part of her current job, she said, is "going to see the Soldiers, in their environment, with their issues, and letting them show us what they actually do in support of NATO. We try to get into their element as opposed to them coming here."
With March being Women's History Month, Fuller-Friel reflected on some of the women of her past who have made an impact on her life and helped her get to where she is today.
"First, my mother," she said. "She just instilled a great work ethic, and [encouraged me to] give everything that you do 110 percent and it will show. People will notice and you'll go far.
"And then I got over here in Europe and worked for Maj. Gen. Pat Hickerson and Maj. Gen. Dee Anne McWilliams, and basically those two [made me think] 'Wow, women can be general officers?' They were just absolutely professional subject matter experts in their field, and they're in my field, too. As they retired, they just passed on the torch and said 'you need to go on and do the jobs that we were never able to do.'"
She also mentioned Gen. Ann Dunwoody, commander of Army Materiel Command, with whom she worked when Dunwoody was a two-star general on Fort Lee, Va.
"She's absolutely a master logistician," Fuller-Friel said. "She just said 'know your field, know your Army, and you'll go far' and kept that philosophy."
The military's diversity is something Fuller-Friel said is unique and should be celebrated.
"I think that's one of the reasons why the Armed Forces is considered to be one of the most prestigious institutions - because of the diversity," she said. "We need the diversity. I don't see that in the civilian life, I don't see it in my hometowns, I didn't see it in college, but the Army absolutely gives everyone the opportunity. You just have to seize it, become experts in your field and go from there, whether you are a man or woman."