FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. –
FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. — A Pennsylvania Army National Guard noncommissioned officer has marked a first in her unit’s history. First Sgt. Valerie Jones, with Alpha Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 28th Infantry Division, is wrapping up her time as her unit’s first female first sergeant.
As the senior enlisted soldier in one of the four companies that comprise the headquarters battalion, she is responsible for the training and welfare of more than 100 soldiers at Harrisburg Military Post. As much a she is a trailblazer, Jones says more important to her is the mission of taking care of troops and “keeping it green” despite the varied experiences of her soldiers.
“We’re all green. We’re all Army,” says Jones, an African-American. “The great thing about the military is you’re thrown in with people of all backgrounds and cultures and you all have to work together.”
Being the senior NCO in a unit dominated by higher-ranking division staff officers makes her job more complex. Jones, who is from Ambler (near Philadelphia) and now lives in Washington, D.C., says part of her role is to balance the logistics of company-level training requirements – such as annual physical fitness tests and weapons qualifications – with simultaneous division-level training demands, such as an upcoming Warfighter exercise.
Jones assumed the first sergeant role in September 2018, as the battalion was redeploying to Pennsylvania from Kuwait, when the company first sergeant had to take emergency medical leave. She was serving as the staff electronic warfare NCO but jumped at the first sergeant opportunity, even though it meant temporarily wearing both hats. Because she works in a low-density military occupational specialty (MOS), that is not combat arms, she did not have many routes to the senior enlisted position. The Army opened combat arms positions to women in 2016, but Jones was already too high in rank to reclassify into one of those MOSs which provide broader opportunities to become a first sergeant.
“I knew I wanted to be a first sergeant. I knew what I was taking on, but it was tough,” Jones says. “You don’t fully understand what’s going on in the company, behind the scenes, until you’re doing it.”
Jones said she believes serving in the position has provided encouragement to junior female soldiers in her company. She sees her position as one that should be a resource for all junior soldiers in the unit.
“She’s the reason I’m still in,” says Spc. Nicholas Lomison, who has 13 years in the Guard. “If it wasn’t for her, I’d be out of the military.”
Lomison worked in the company’s supply section but his career had stagnated. He had completed the first mandatory NCO school, Warrior Leader Course (now Basic Leader Course), years earlier but did not have a slot to move into for promotion to sergeant. As his term of service was expiring, he had decided to get out. He credits Jones with helping him make the decision to keep serving and change his MOS to one in which he will have greater upward mobility within the battalion. Lomison plans to attend air missile defense school and will then accept a promotion.
Lomison works as a drill instructor for the Pa. Department of Corrections’ motivational drug treatment program at Quehanna Boot Camp. As a former drill sergeant, Jones has also been able to coach Lomison about his civilian job.
“First Sgt. Jones helped me find a path for career progression,” Lomison says. “She went out of her way to help me, even on her days off. I’d say in my 13 years of service, she’s the best leader I’ve had. She cares about soldiers.”
Capt. Scott Beall took command of Alpha Company in January. He had the choice of two unit commands and said having Jones as his first sergeant made his decision.
“She’s one of the best NCOs I’ve ever had the privilege to work with,” Beall says. “She’s an influential leader. She’s one of those people who just commands your respect.”
A graduate of Wissahickon High School, Jones enlisted into the Pa. Guard in August 2000 following her first year at Bloomsburg University. She holds a bachelor’s in computer graphic design and works as a human resources program analyst for the Federal Aviation Administration. She is pursuing a master’s degree in applied data science through Syracuse University.
Jones started her military career as a human resources information management specialist with the 28th Personnel Services Battalion (now 213th HRC) and spent her drill weekends at Fort Indiantown Gap doing data entry. She was then selected for an Active Guard Reserve (full-time) position as a small group instructor for Primary Leadership Development Course (now BLC). In 2006-07, Jones completed drill sergeant school at Fort Jackson, S.C. and served as a drill instructor for Pa. Guard recruits during their week of training preceding the eight-week active-duty basic training.
After three years as an instructor at Fort Indiantown Gap, Jones worked for 18 months at National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. as a team leader for a mobilization data team. The teams ensured administrative requirements were current for Guard soldiers about to deploy overseas. Afterwards, she returned to Indiantown Gap to serve for 18 months as an operations noncommissioned officer at Joint Force Headquarters.
Her next duty position was as the psychological operations (PSYOP) NCO for the 55th Heavy Brigade Combat Team (now the 55th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade) in Scranton. She joined the division staff six years ago. During that time, she completed the Army’s nine-week course at Fort Sill, Okla. to qualify as an electronic warfare noncommissioned officer.
“That was probably the hardest school, academically, that I have been through,” Jones said. “It was mentally exhausting.”
Jones made the commandant’s list, meaning she was in the top 10 percent of the class. She says she was not a stellar student in high school but credits her parents – her father is a Navy vet and commercial airline pilot and her mother is an elementary school administration assistant – with pushing her and an older sister and younger brother to further their educations. Despite the demands of work and school, she has recently had to handle an increased military workload as soldiers in her unit were called to state active duty related to COVID-19 and protests.
Jones will begin her next assignment this fall as a quality assurance officer for BLC at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Having the BLC class available there gives junior enlisted soldiers the opportunity to complete it while deployed. Jones’ job will be to ensure that the course is operated to the Army standard. Her job will change, but her mission remains the same – the development of junior soldiers.
“You have to look at the potential of the soldier and empower that person to find their strengths,” Jones says. “Bettering soldiers’ lives makes you feel better about being a leader.”