Youthful Dream Fulfilled
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 5, 1999 Velma L. Richardson wrote "Army officer" in her eighth-grade dream book and she remembers some of her classmates laughed at her.
Years later, Richardson did become an Army officer and soon will pin on the star of a brigadier general. And not just any general, but one of the first two women selected for promotion to general in Army Signal Corps history.
Richardson is also the first woman deputy commander of the Army Signal Center and Fort Gordon, Ga. Her responsibilities include overseeing communications-system training of nearly 20,000 soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and foreign students each year. That mission involves a post work force of 11,200 service members and 4,800 civilian employees and an annual operating budget topping $100 million.
"Only in America could this happen," Richardson said of her achievements. "This really is the land of opportunity, and the Army has clearly been in the forefront of providing equal opportunity, whether it's based on race, gender or ethnicity."
She said she's excited about her selection for general. And humbled, too. "As I look back, I never dreamed of being here, sitting at this desk, doing what I'm doing. But I never felt it was closed to me," she said.
When Richardson was writing in her class dream book, she'd already thought about becoming a minister like her grandmother. But, she said, she didn't feel she had a "calling" to preach. She also decided against being a doctor like her uncle. Instead, she decided to follow aunt Vashti Jeffries' footsteps into the Army. Jeffries joined the Women's Army Corps the year Richardson, 47, was born and retired 28 years later as a colonel.
"Her lifestyle, the way she talked about the Army, how she enjoyed her work and her ability to travel around the world really appealed to me," said Richardson, who was orphaned at age 10 and raised by her grandmother in Bennettsville, S.C. "My grandmother, Vashti O. Jeffries, raised my brother Joseph and me," she said. "Most of my values, upbringing, beliefs and so forth come from my grandmother."
Richardson said she grew up believing there was nothing "unattainable for me." She also credits the "wonderful support and great mentorship" of her husband, Bill.
Richardson characterizes herself as "just a country girl." "I am what I am," she said, "a fairly plain, common-sense-oriented person who believes in people and in trying to set the tone for those who look at me as a role model."
Richardson said tremendous changes have occurred for women in the military since she joined in August 1973. "I came in with expectations based on my aunt's experiences," she said. "I found myself thrust into a very different Army from the one she had served in."
Richardson thought she had joined an Army that separated women professionally from the men by assigning them to the Women's Army Corps, no matter where they were stationed or what their jobs. She quickly found herself in the role of a pioneer -- after an orientation course at Fort McClellan, Ala., she was in one of the early groups of women to join men in an integrated air defense officers basic course. The Women's Army Corps was disbanded in 1978.
"I've seen a greater acceptance of women over the years," she said. That, and a thousand different Army uniforms for women, she quipped. But whatever the uniform, she said, seeing a woman in one isn't a novelty anymore.
"It's now a way of life, certainly a way of life in the Signal Corps," Richardson said. "I've seen many jobs opened to women. All of the changes that have occurred -- the acceptance, tolerance and opportunities have been good for our Army."
In her travels over the years and today, she said, she meets young women who are considering joining the military and those who are on active duty and debating whether to make the military a career. Her advice is simple: "If they have any inkling about serving, they ought to try it out. The military is a great place to be these days."