Face of Defense: ‘Soldier of the Year’ Leads by Example
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
SEOUL, South Korea, Nov. 2, 2011 She is, by one measure, the best soldier in the Army: a first sergeant -- the enlisted leader of an Army company -- and single mother, who stands about 5 feet tall and whose personal email address includes the moniker “short dawg.”
But according to the troops, commanders and civilians who work alongside her, 1st Sgt. Monekia Denkins’ influence far exceeds her physical stature.
Denkins, recently chosen as Army Times newspaper’s 2011 Soldier of the Year, received some two dozen unsolicited letters in support of her nomination for that award. Fellow members of the South Korea-based 201st Signal Company wrote of her tolerance, guidance, mentorship and motivation.
Denkins’ leadership style is indicated within many nomination letters that describe her attitude toward rank. As one letter put it, “On a weekly basis we held meetings in the conference room and [Denkins] would start it out the same: ‘Everyone take off your rank. In this room rank doesn’t matter, for we are family and everyone has a voice. If anyone has anything they need to get off their chest, now is the time, for once we walk out of this room we speak with one voice.’”
Denkins and Army Capts. Keila Sanchez-Erazo and Gary Jones, her current and former company commanders with the 201st, spoke with American Forces Press Service during Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s visit here last week. Denkins introduced Panetta to the crowd at a town hall gathering, addressing them as “leaders.”
“I refer to all of my soldiers as leaders, because leaders must believe in themselves -- people must believe in themselves,” she told AFPS. “My soldiers are referred to as leaders, not by rank, … because I want them to be able to go out there and be able to accomplish any mission.”
Denkins said she considers it her job to show soldiers what right looks like.
“I am the example. My commander is the example,” she said. “Beyond that, I make them face their fears head-on.”
Poor leaders are those who don’t meet established standards, she said.
“There’s one standard. You can always rise above the standard, but you don’t drop below. … It’s not an 82nd Airborne [Division] standard, it’s not a Fort Bragg standard, it’s not a Korea standard. It’s the Army standard that we compete against,” Denkins added.
She admitted the letters supporting her nomination surprised her.
“Really and truly, I thought they all hated me because of how I am,” she said. “But when you’re part of a team, you’ve got to push people to the point where they feel very uncomfortable. … When they’re uncomfortable and they can face it and overcome it, there’s no better feeling. You can see it in their faces that they believe they can accomplish anything.”
The first sergeant said during 20 years in the Army, she never has worried about being liked.
“When we have to fight and win tonight, [‘like’ is] not going to get us there,” she said. “It’s not about likership, it’s about leadership.”
Sanchez-Erazo, who commands the 201st, said that while Denkin’s soldiers may not say so to her face, they truly admire the ability that she has to build them up. “She finds ways to make them believe in themselves,” the captain said.
Jones, former 201st commander, said Denkins not only leads her troops through their military tasks, but supports them in life challenges as well. For example, he said, one soldier in the company, a 19-year-old “super troop,” tested positive for HIV about a year ago.
“Absolutely outstanding soldier,” he said. “When he was first diagnosed, it was a very, very difficult time for him. The person that he went to was First Sergeant Denkins.”
During the three weeks before the soldier returned to the United States, Jones said, Denkins was by his side, helping him to cope with the news and the difficulty of sharing it with his family.
“There are so many leaders today who have a false sense of care,” he said. “You see the stories about toxic leadership -- leaders who only care about their careers. But she never looks up; she always looks to the soldiers.”
Denkins said the other soldiers in the unit never knew about that soldier’s condition, and he returned to the United States with his dignity intact. “I wanted him to concentrate on getting better, because this is not a death sentence,” she said, noting that she asks herself how she’d want to be treated when a tough situation arises. And when she faces a “point of no return” situation, Denkins said, her first thought is to turn it around.
“One human life lost is way too many, because one person can affect thousands,” she said. “So I’ve got to figure out a way to turn a situation around. I don’t sleep well at night, because I’m always thinking. I always want to make it better.”
Denkins admitted her time as a first sergeant has made her look at herself in a new light. Jones and Sanchez-Erazo build her up by challenging her to take better care of herself, she said.
“They see something that I haven’t taken time to look at, and that’s me,” she said. “I’m the last person to get fed.”
Denkins was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2008, and while she admits to not always taking her medicine as she should, she doesn’t let the condition slow her down. Jones said he once carried the first sergeant to the emergency room, where she was told to take three days off. Denkins was back at work later that morning, he added.
As a single parent, Denkins said, her 18-year-old son, Marquel, has had to get by on the “not a lot that’s left” when her duty day ends.
“It’s not a good balance,” she acknowledged. “I spend more time at work, … but when I am with my son, it’s quality time. And I will back him up, and I push him to do anything he can do.”
Her soldiers have asked her son how he can live in the same house with her, Denkins said, and his response is it’s easy “if you do what you’re supposed to do.”
“I believe that it starts at home,” she said. “I am a very disciplined person -- I always tell everyone, it’s the small things that will trip you up. What I say to my soldiers, my son gets 40 times over.
“I’ve never had a problem with my son, not once,” she continued. “Marquel is a blessing to me -- he’s very, very disciplined. He’s very respectful.”
Denkins has been selected for promotion to sergeant major, and she’s slated to attend the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy next year. Denkins said she considered retiring a while back, but has decided against it.
“I was actually getting a little disgruntled,” she said. “When you start seeing stories about toxic leaders, I take that personally, because I am a leader. For those who are out there who don’t want to do the right thing, I think they should be the ones who retire.”
Denkins said she’s looking forward to attending the academy.
“I want to do my best, because if you don’t have to worry about Denkins, that’s one less soldier you’ve got to worry about.”
Denkins said she has seen the standing of women in the military improve during her career.
“Now, as far as sitting at the table with the males, we’re coming a long way,” she said. “We’re noticing there are females that go into combat, they get into situations, and they survive.” She added some advice for other women in uniform.
“Don’t let somebody tell you that you can’t do something because you’re a female,” she said. “Stay grounded, focus, and you can achieve anything that you want to if you believe in yourself. But it starts with you.”