CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – The role of women in the military, as well as American society, has evolved and continues to evolve. Women’s History Month is an opportunity to note the contributions of these front-leaning pioneers and hold up their stories of achievement and dedication to equality.
More than 30 years ago, Col. Lorrie Oldham, joined the Army on a dare. She stayed because she felt a sense of pride in service, and she relished the professional challenges only the military could provide. As the Deputy Commander for Clinical Services at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, she provides medical oversight, through the administration of regulations and guidelines of care and through the thoughtful mentorship of junior physicians.
She is also an African American woman.
“Women’s History Month is important for the same reason that African American History Month is important, in that, there have been many, many achievements that have gone under reported or achievements that people have just not been made aware of. If we are going to talk about American history, then we have to talk about it in equal parts because that’s what made it. As with other minorities, American Indians, for example, who have formed foundations for this country, as well as in the military,” said Oldham.
In the pursuit of equality, she stated that her experiences within the military have been positive.
“In the military in general, they are more opportunities for minorities, be it a gender minority or a race minority, because the military is well ensconced in affirmative action and Equal Opportunity. What you find in the military, that you do not find in the civilian sector, per say, is that we enforce it. We are vested, in that, we have our annual requirements to keep everyone up to date and informed that ‘hey, we have these things in place for a reason,'” said Oldham. “And I think when you look across the military in general, you can see a broad landscape of the world. You see a broad representative of everyone, in all levels, from private to sergeant major, from second lieutenant to general.”
To illustrate her claim, she listed a quick rundown of senior leaders to include Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command and the 43rd U.S. Army Surgeon General, Maj. Gen. Ted Wong, commander of the Northern Regional Medical Command, and Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, deputy commander of U.S. Army Central.
“I have said it many times before; I believe the U.S. civilian population can actually learn from the Army, in what it looks like to be diverse,” said Oldham.
Despite the achievements of these personnel, she acknowledges that she is still a bit of a trailblazer herself.
“I attempt to live right on a daily basis, because of that old adage, ‘someone is always watching.’ It’s true. Just yesterday, a soldier came up to me, didn’t know who he was, he was an African American captain, and he said, ‘Ma’am I have seen you in the [Dining Facility]. Do you know that you’re the first African American female colonel that I have seen?’” said Oldham.
“I investigated it and I discovered that I am actually one of two, African American female colonels, on this post. I have been other places, where I have been the only one. Recently a lieutenant colonel said, ‘You’re the first I’ve met, and now I want to be a colonel also.’ Everyone sees, everyone notices, to my surprise, and I just try to do the right thing all the time because someone is always watching,” Oldham added.
She said she did not realize the importance of making the rank of colonel at first, but now it stands as one of her biggest accomplishments – right next to graduating from medical school. She explained that she simply assumed if she worked hard and she put her mind to it, she would make the rank of colonel, but after becoming a colonel and not seeing others like herself in the same rank, she realized it was an accomplishment. Her next goal: earn the rank of general.
“There were many, many forerunners, whose names I will never know, that created the door - just as, my being a black female colonel is opening the door for people that I do not know. But the fact that I am here: opens that door. I could not have possibly gotten here without them, just as the current generals are opening the door for me,” said Oldham.
Her positivity and lead-by-example style make her popular with the hospital staff.
“To me a leader is approachable. [Oldham] is that. She knows that we’re all physicians, and we’re all trying to do the best that we can, and she’s going to help us do the best job that we can,” said Maj. Dean Nelson, an emergency room physician at the Camp Arifjan Emergency Room. “Even though I have been in five years, that’s still relatively young as far as the Army goes, and it doesn’t matter that I deployed, there’s still so much to learn and being around someone like her, someone who is a mentor and someone to bounce ideas off of, is so helpful. If I have any questions or concerns, I can ask her.”
Nelson added that her experience translated into invaluable Army and medical wisdom.
“I can’t say enough good things about her. She’s not just an administrator, she cares about soldiers. She doesn’t have anything to prove. She is who she is, and she still has an attitude of service,” said Nelson.
Oldham said she will keep pushing forward toward her personal and professional goals.