News | March 16, 2022

A conversation with DLA’s first female senior enlisted leader 

By Beth Reece

Army Command Sgt. Maj. Tomeka O’Neal is the first female to serve as the Defense Logistics Agency’s senior enlisted leader. She joined the Army as a parachute rigger in 1989 and reclassified as an automated logistical specialist in 1998. In 2007, she became a command sergeant major and has held top enlisted spots in units including the Joint Munitions and Lethality Life Cycle Command; Mission and Installation Contracting Command; 1st Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade; and 4th Infantry Division, Special Troops Battalion. 

DLA Public Affairs talked with O’Neal about the changes she’s seen in opportunities for women, stereotypes and more. 

How have you seen opportunities for women in the Army change during your 30-year career?
 
The Army is a predominately male service, but it’s made considerable modifications to what women can do since I joined in 1990. Today, women can serve in combat units and on the frontlines of battle. We have women who are raising their right hand to serve in field artillery, armor, combat engineering and so forth. When I came in, that was extremely unheard of, yet we now have two female four-stars serving as combatant commanders. So while the opportunities weren’t as broad for my generation, the women in the generation coming behind me have every opportunity, to include serving as a command sergeant major of a deployable division. 

That said, I believe more should be known about the work women did in the 20 years of serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s always at the forefront that men are the ones leading combat, but we’ve been there right alongside them in the last two wars even though it hasn’t received much attention. 

How have you worked to overcome the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated environment?

I’ve often had to function at a different level, not because the Army made me but because it was a weight I took on to prove myself. Being a soldier is a challenge in itself, but throughout my career, I absolutely believed I had every ounce of capability to do the things my male counterparts were doing. Part of getting to the place I am today has been about knowing who I am as a person and knowing my mental and physical capacity to serve in tough assignments and to do tough things. At times, I’ve been that one person where I’m the only female at the table – and often the only black female at the table – so I’ve been in those environments where all I had to do was look around to know we still had more work to do with equality, diversity and inclusivity. The key for me has been knowing where I fit into this whole kaleidoscope and finding the opportunities that do exist. 

What are some traits that you see women exhibit more than men that contribute to a positive work environment? 

I think we are far more intuitive than men, and we display more sympathy and empathy because of the unique challenges of being women in uniform. We demonstrate far more humility while sitting at a table with all of our peers and don’t feel we have to be the loudest voice in the room. I also think we’re very observant and pay close attention to the details around us. Women tend to be much better at not letting difficulties or challenges define us, and we’re so much better at moving beyond, putting the negative in the rearview mirror and staking a new claim. 

Are there any stereotypes about women that bother you and why?

The one stereotype I came across as I was going through the ranks and see even now at the senior level is that women can’t work together because our personalities clash. I’ve worked for some phenomenal female leaders while wearing this uniform and I work for a phenomenal female leader today, my boss and DLA Director Navy VADM Michelle Skubic. People have asked me over the years how I managed working with other women and it’s simple: I take the time to understand people and pay attention to behaviors. VADM Skubic and I, for example, understand each other’s time constraints and the unique dynamic we work in. I believe we’re more personable with one another and we’re more direct, and that helps us both be successful.

Tell us about the women you admire. 

My mother is No. 1. She raised five kids as a single parent. She left my stepdad because she didn’t want to raise us in the projects of Chicago, so she loaded our stuff and took us to Atlanta, Georgia. Even though she wasn’t making a lot of money, she refused to allow for us to be stigmatized and she sought a better way for us. I didn’t get to wear fancy clothes because I was the baby and got all the hand-me-downs, but I was appreciative to have food on the table and a place to sleep at night, and I knew my mother loved us to the nth degree. 

The second is retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Mary Brown, who retired as the Airborne Department sergeant major at the Quartermaster School in 2014. She was my first role model and mentor and still supports me. To this day, she tells me that when I stepped off the bus at Advanced Individual Training she took one look at me and saw my potential to be a leader. She was the first person I gravitated to, thinking, ‘I can be like her.’ I wanted to emulate who she was. It wasn’t easy. She gave me challenges, but she knew I could handle and grow from them. 

How do you see equality for women being played out at DLA?

DLA is a large organization and I’m overwhelmingly surprised at the amount of females in leadership positions. Even at our major subordinate commands, regional commands, supply distribution centers, admin offices, etc., we have women in charge of those activities. I believe we do a really good job of promoting our females in leadership positions. Once again though, males definitely outweigh the females. Sometimes I joke with the boss about how, even with an agency as big as DLA, it still took 60 years to get a female leadership team at DLA Headquarters. So if you just think about it from that perspective and consider how long it took us to get where we are, you can see there’s still windows of opportunity here for improvement in terms of upward mobility for women in leadership. And by looking reviewing our quarterly awards nominee packets, it’s obvious we have some extremely talented females within our agency and I’d love to see them continue to achieve and climb the ladder.

What are your thoughts on America having a woman as president? 

It’s just a matter of time. We have challenges today, but we are so strong. We are so tough, so resilient, so adaptable. We have such flexibility and agility that I know we’re going to get there. It’s yet another window of opportunity for the young generation coming up. They can achieve whatever they set their minds to, and that includes being the first female president of our great nation.  

We rarely see you without a smile. What inspire the positive attitude you exude?

I think my upbringing in the church gives me balance. I just believe that the good Lord will take care of you in your time of need and there’s no need to be affected by worry. If something is meant to be fixed, he will allow you to fix it. And if it’s something that’s not supposed to be along your path, then he’s going to give you a choice: get off that path and find a new one or stick to that path and run into a significant emotional event. I’ve never been fond of significant emotional events. I’ve always been fond of trying to move past and not letting things weigh me down. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not all fun and games. I’ve had some bad days – we all do – but when I do you probably won’t know it because I can still be a positive light.