At the inaugural event of the Fort Riley Female Support Network, a mix of about 50 military and civilian women gathered for an afternoon of inspiration, motivation and mentorship June 28 at the Warrior Zone.
The Fort Riley Female Network is about sisters being mentors to one another, said Carolyn Tolliver-Lee, Family Advocacy Program specialist, Army Community Service, who organized the event.
“We need each other because we’re stronger together,” she said.
That spirit of mentorship seemed strong among attendees, like 1st Lt. Melissa Niehus, 541st Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, who brought West Point Cadet Juliette Wallerstein along as part of the Cadet Troop Leader Training, or CTLT, program.
CTLT is akin to an internship program, Niehus explained.
“She’s going to be shadowing me for the next two weeks, and she has been for the last week,” she said. “I thought it’d be a perfect opportunity for her to come with me and really just to see a wonderful opportunity like this.”
Niehus also welcomed the opportunity to network with peers and seniors.
“There really isn’t a big pool of females out here, and, actually, there are only a few lieutenants in my brigade, so I figured it’d be a great opportunity to meet other lieutenants … but really to just be motivated and to get some mentorship,” she said. “I’m really happy to be here.”
The gathering featured two guest speakers: Command Sgt. Maj. Tomeka O’Neal, who will join the 1st Sustainment Brigade, 1st Inf. Div. in a couple of weeks, and Karen Matagi, director, Equal Employment Opportunity Office.
It was important to include female leaders from both the military and civilian worlds to provide balance, Tolliver-Lee said.
“That’s what the initiative will be about – both civilian and military … to give the program the balance and the image that we’re trying to promote,” she said.
With calls of “Hooah!” sounding throughout the remarks, the messages of both speakers seemed to resonate with the audience.
As a young private, O’Neal recalled mentors who made an indelible impression on her, like one leader who told her no one else would get her promoted.
“‘Private, you’ve got to do it yourself.’ That’s what he told me,” she recalled. “’You’ve got to figure out a way to get it done yourself.’”
Although O’Neal put in the hard work and effort herself, she credits much of her success to those leaders.
“I’ve been in the trenches … I’ve lived it,” she said.
“I got here because I found mentors and leaders who set me on the right path as a young private.”
Now she said she hopes to inspire and motivate other female Soldiers as part of her legacy.
“After having my mentors tell me the route to take, it was only right for me to tell the next person and the next person what it took to get here … My legacy are the Soldiers that I leave behind. Your legacy is going to be the Soldiers that you leave behind,” she told the audience. “We have to lead by example as females. We always have to take it one step further because we’re always one step behind.”
Just as O’Neal rose through the ranks in the military, Matagi was promoted through civilian ranks, rising from a GS5 to a GS13.
But her success did not come easy.
At the age of 16, Matagi’s father died, leaving her stay-at-home mother behind with three children. Her mother was unable to find work because her skills were outdated, Matagi said.
“That taught me a lesson: rely on yourself, take care of yourself. Don’t rely on somebody to take care of you … When you’re not keeping your skills up-to-date, you’re not taking care of yourself,” she said.
Although Matagi said she came across discrimination in the workplace over the years, she kept working.
“I made sure that I always had a job … just to keep myself fresh – make sure my mind was fresh,” she said.
When she struggled, her mentors helped guide her, she said.
“I had people along the way who pulled me up,” she said. “And that’s what I want to tell all of you here: that you are sisters, OK? I don’t care if you’re in the military or if you’re civilian. You are sisters. So, you give somebody a hand up. You’re not giving a hand out, but you’re giving a hand up.”
Today, Matagi said she embraces a diva mentality – not one of stardom or entitlement, she explained, but a vivacious attitude.
“Everybody in here is a diva,” she concluded.
As the first female network meeting drew to a close, speakers and organizers urged participants to get the word out to help the initiative grow.
“My hope is that the attendees today take this back to their organizations, and that they be on the lookout for the next event,” O’Neal said. “That’s how you touch people – you’ve got to get out there and expand. That’s what I’m looking for – expansion.”
By Julie Fiedler
1st Inf. Div. Post
First Lt. Melissa Niehus, 541st CSSB, 1st Sust. Bde., left, Cadet Juliette Wallerstein, West Point, center, and Command Sgt. Maj. Tomeka O’Neal, 1st Sust. Bde., right, play a bingo ice breaker during the first Fort Riley Female Support Network June 28 at the Warrior Zone. A mix of about 50 military and civilian women gathered for an afternoon of inspiration, motivation and mentorship. (Julie Fiedler | POST)