1st black female Ranger graduate speaks at Women’s Equality Day observance
by Prudence Siebert/Editor
Guest speaker 1st Sgt. Janina Simmons, 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, Fort Liberty, N.C., credited a dedicated work ethic for her achievements, including how she became the first woman of color to graduate from Ranger School, during her remarks at the Women’s Equality Day observance luncheon Aug. 21 at the Frontier Conference Center.
Self-described as an “average Joe” with nothing special about her, she said she couldn’t recall having hobbies or interests growing up — she didn’t read, she didn’t work out, she skipped class.
But when she joined the Army to help pay for college, at the encouragement of her prior service father, that all started to change in Basic Training.
“I fell in love with the discipline, the camaraderie, the ability to just do great things and be with other soldiers,” she said.
Simmons said when she saw a soldier being recognized at graduation, it occurred to her that a little extra effort can pay off. When she went to Advanced Individual Training, she worked out before and after school and studied, resulting in being named the Iron Soldier for fitness and the distinguished honor graduate.
“That was the first inkling where I felt like ‘Hey, if you do a little bit extra, have a goal, you can be great,’ so I put that extra in the ordinary — ordinary Joe — to be extraordinary.”
Simmons said when she was a specialist, she expressed interest in competing in the Soldier of the Quarter board. After being discouraged, having been told by those she expressed the interest to that she probably wouldn’t win, that the board was for the best of the best, she decided to help herself and studied at every opportunity, placing sections of the study guide where she would see them and studied constantly as she went about her day.
She ended up winning the board.
“The reason that encounter as a specialist was so important, because that was my blueprint — put in the extra work no matter what it is, no matter who is by your side, whether you think you can do it or not, you will be successful.”
Simmons applied her “extra effort blueprint” to become the honor graduate at Air Assault School; to become skilled at learning under stress at the Master Gunner Course, staying up to study and surviving on about three hours of sleep for weeks; to earn distinguished honor graduate and Iron Soldier at the Warrior Leader Course and again at the Advanced Leader Course, with an added “triple threat” leadership award; to earn distinguished honor graduate at Drill Sergeant School among military occupational specialties unlike her own; to become a member of the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club; and other achievements as she progressed in her military career.
Still, Simmons said she experienced Imposter Syndrome.
“No matter how great I did anything, I still always felt like I wasn’t supposed to be in the room; I always felt inferior, no matter what,” she said. “At that time, I had accolades, but no matter what, I always felt inferior.”
Simmons continued to study and uphold her committed work ethic, and she continued to achieve goals and acquire accolades.
Her next goal was to become a drill sergeant leader.
“I was very intimidated going into that realm, I mean, you’re just with the top 1 percent (of drill sergeants), everybody is a (distinguished honor graduate), scoring 300 — to stand out there you have to just be this awesome soldier.”
Simmons said she applied her reliable extra effort blueprint and proved herself once again.
In 2018, she said was at a point where she was wondering what was next, and a colleague said she should go to Ranger School. At that time, Ranger School had only been open to women for a few years, and not very many had gone through and passed.
“I didn’t want to cut my hair,” she said when presented with the idea of having to shave her head for the required Ranger haircut. But that wasn’t the biggest issue.
“I wasn’t even intimidated, I was terrified, of everything — land nav, the physical aspect, the rucking, patrolling, just being around pure infantrymen, I mean, you name it: terrified.”
Simmons said she believes that God has a way of speaking through others, and the idea of going to Ranger School took hold.
“What if you fail and all the negative stuff?” Simmons asked herself. “But what if you actually pass, what if you just make it?”
She again received discouragement from those she reached out to, with her colleagues from Drill Sergeant School telling her she was too skinny, too whatever, to make it, but she decided to apply the blueprint again and began training and studying.
With a homemade study guide of everything she could discover online about Ranger School, Simmons said for the next six months, she studied and worked out until she was exhausted.
And then she went straight through Ranger School and passed.
“I had no idea that I was the first of anything,” she said about being at Victory Pond upon completing Ranger School. “I was just trying to survive … and hopefully earn that tab.”
Simmons stressed that a dedicated work ethic and discipline, plus resilience to failure to shake it off and keep going, are what helped her push past the things in life that try to tear people down.
“There is nothing special about me, nothing. My work ethic is special, because I will out-hustle anybody… if it is something that I want and something that is relevant.”
Simmons said she prefers long-term goals, something to work for, over short-term goals.
“That’s how you see who is truly dedicated and who truly wants something, because down the line, something is going to happen to try to veer you off, 100 percent, with your family, with work, that’s just life.”
How a person defines greatness is very subjective and varies from person to person, she said.
“Greatness is relative to what you think greatness is. I think greatness is, if you leave the room, how do people talk in your absence? Does someone say ‘oh my gosh, she’s such a good person’?”
Simmons advised the audience to stay hungry.
“Never feel like you have arrived. Once you feel like you’ve arrived, that work ethic is just somewhere down here… I am so hungry; I think once I actually pinned the (Ranger) tab, I felt like I was back at a private again and now I have to work even harder, and it just keeps me so hungry and so humble to just keep going and get after whatever it is that I need to get after.”
She described her greatest fear to the audience.
“My biggest fear is lying on my deathbed and God looking at me and (saying), ‘Hey look, I put this inside you, I gave you these tools, and this is who you are, but this is who I wanted you to be. So, if you would have just had the courage to toe the line and work a little bit, get a little bit uncomfortable, this is who you were supposed to be, but this is who you are,’” Simmons said.
When asked by an audience member what is next for her, Simmons said she is training to earn the Expert Soldier Badge with her soldiers in the 108th in September, and she is also hopeful for the Sergeants Major Academy in the future and is considering some other schools she would like to attend.
After Simmons’ remarks, 17-year-old Annabelle Sweet, recent high school graduate who will be attending Beinen School of Music at Northwestern University in Chicago this fall, performed “Habañera” from the opera “Carmen” in French, with Kylee Smith of Platte County High School as her accompanist. Sweet also performed the national anthem at the beginning of the observance.
Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth Commanding General Lt. Gen. Milford Beagle Jr. thanked Simmons and Sweet for their contributions to the observance.
Beagle said when he asked Simmons after she graduated Ranger School who helped her, and the answer was nobody. He encouraged the audience members to provide assistance when others ask for it.
“So, for the males in the room, and all of us in general, when anybody asks you or reaches out for your help, and you don’t help, you don’t extend your hand, definitely that is a reflection of you.”