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When Lynice Thorpe-Noel left high school in Nashville, North Carolina, on her way to Norfolk State University 30 years ago, her career goal was to be a poet—to perhaps write greeting cards for Hallmark.

In a January ceremony hosted by Maj. Gen. Jason Evans, she became the first woman to be command sergeant major of the Army’s Human Resources Command at Fort Knox.

Between those two events, Thorpe-Noel earned associate and bachelor’s degrees in management from the University of Maryland University College, which she said helped give her the training and the insights that propelled her Army career.

“One thing I believe about education. It gives you exposure to being a critical thinker,” Thorpe-Noel said.

“We have to solve a lot of problems in the military.  We have to be thinkers. You need the vocabulary to help your thought process. You need to understand the value of communication,” she added.  "It rolls back to your education. I am a lifelong learner in an environment that doesn’t remain the same. I always fall back on things I learned in my college education.”

Her North Carolina childhood in the place she calls the original Nashville was idyllic, according to Thorpe-Noel. But at college, she said, she believed she was drifting and not making the most of her Norfolk State education—and she didn’t want to go home in defeat.

“As far as my parents knew I was still in college in September,” Thorpe-Noel said. “But in October of 1989, I was on my way to basic training.”

After leaving higher education to join the Army, however, she found the Army wanted her to continue her education.

“From day one, coming into the military, it was always this thing about my civilian education and how much did I have,” she said. “The Army always had an investment in us as soldiers who have a civilian education, giving us an opportunity to be in a degree program. Here I was thinking I was running away from something, and I was right back in.”

She chose UMUC among other programs available because she was familiar with the name. “I wanted to go to a college with a reputation, and UMUC had that reputation.” It also helped that UMUC had a real campus at Augsburg, Germany, where she was stationed in the early 1990s.

Most of her undergraduate work was in a classroom, she said, and she worked a deal with her first sergeant who agreed to give her four hours in the middle of the day to attend classes if she put in extra time in the morning and evening.

“I was a young sergeant and a young mother,” she said.  “I hadn’t been married that long, and my daughter was just over a year old. I got phenomenal support.”

The professors, she said, “had a passion to see us do well.” They understood that their students were not like others.  “Our first job was to protect and defend the United States, and that means sometimes going into the field.” While they didn’t stint on the quality of the education, she said, her professors made allowances.

With two combat assignments—one during Operation Desert Storm and another in northern Iraq—her education sometimes took odd twists as her education followed the troops to where they were stationed. “I took one exam where my proctor was a combat physician,” she said.  “She put me in one of those little bays in a combat hospital where I took the exam on a bed.”

Along with the two combat assignments—she once was in charge of making sure that the mail got to and from U.S. soldiers in northern Iraq—her military career has included four tours in Europe and one each in Hawaii, in Texas and Georgia and “a host of other places around the world.” But she never was in the right place at the right time to participate in her two UMUC graduation ceremonies, she said.

Now, after nearly 30 years in the Army, she has reached the top of her profession. As command sergeant major for the Army’s Human Resources Command, she serves as the senior enlisted advisor and personal advisor to HRC’s commanding general on what’s needed to ensure the enlisted ranks are ready to serve where and when they are needed.

Thorpe-Noel provides assessments, recommendations and feedback to the commanding general and senior leaders on professional development, advancement, promotions, accessions, quality of life, the health of the force, awards and other areas that affect the total force worldwide, including impacts on mission accomplishment.  She oversees the command's health and welfare for more than 4,000 personnel and supervises the professional development of more than 600 noncommissioned officers.

“The main focus from my foxhole is setting the right environment for ambitious strategic thinkers to optimize the Army’s lethality; getting the right soldiers with the right capabilities in the right positions at the right time,” she said on accepting the position.  “What we do at HRC is critical to the overall mission of America’s Army.”

Or to put it another way in a high school metaphor, “I am like one of the vice-principals to the principal. I advise the general on all matters enlisted … Caring for soldiers is something I have a passion for.”

Becoming the first woman to attain this position indicates how the Army understands the need for diversification, she said. The people in the ranks should look like the people back home.

"In America’s Army, the only barriers that exist are the ones that soldiers choose to see,” Thorpe-Noel said.  “I think if you choose to ignore those barriers, you can realize endless possibilities.”

And poetry?  Yes, she still writes a little from time to time.  “Once in a while, I am motivated to write something pretty sweet for my hubby.”

Hallmark’s loss is the Army’s gain.