Many little girls dream of being a ballerina, a princess or perhaps a high-fashion model.
Not Denise Richardson. At the tender age of 4, Richardson wanted to grow up and become a soldier. For a young girl whose family was immersed in a world “of all things Army,” her aspirations weren’t unusual. Her father and grandfather were U.S. Army veterans, and her brother was in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I was always a patriot,” said Richardson, a customer service representative in Alabama Power’s Phenix City Office. “My parents instilled it in me. Even as far back as a toddler, I wanted to be a soldier like my daddy. I am a firm believer it’s God’s calling to go into the service.
“It’s a duty to serve, and it’s a privilege to serve,” said Richardson, who served 31 years in the Army National Guard and three years active U.S. Army.
As a teen, Richardson was in ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) until her 1976 graduation from Central High School in Phenix City.
“I went straight from high school into the military,” Richardson said. “I graduated from high school on a Friday night and was on a bus on Sunday to start basic training.”
Richardson spent 12 weeks at Fort McClellan in Anniston, where she took advanced intense training to work as a clerk for the Army Standard Installation and Division Personnel Reporting System.
During Richardson’s active duty, she married and had her first child. With an infant, Richardson said that continuing in active duty would have been impossible: At her rank, she wouldn’t have been allowed to take her child overseas.
So Richardson stayed in Alabama to embark on her next dream: earning a college diploma.
“I was happy to serve in the Army, but I’d always wanted to graduate from college,” she said. “I was determined to go to college.”
Richardson took advantage of the GI Bill. In pursuit of a business degree, she began attending Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City. She relished her first taste of higher learning, but the yearning to serve tugged at her heart.
“I loved the military,” Richardson said. In 1983, Richardson signed on for the National Guard. She drilled one weekend monthly and for two weeks of the year.
From clerk to heavy mechanic
Richardson found that no clerk positions were open and, instead, took a job many women would find daunting: She became a wheeled vehicle mechanic.
“I worked on Jeeps, Hummers and trucks,” Richardson said. “I did that pretty well.”
After several years, she attended another military school to learn logistics, helping to track and manage the military supply chain. For a short time, she returned as a clerk.
Later, Richardson went into heavy mechanics, becoming a tank turret repairman, which required three phases of training.
“I enjoyed seeing how tanks and other large weapons systems were put together,” she said.
Richardson had been promoted to staff sergeant, rank E-6 – just above sergeant and below sergeant first class – and was a noncommissioned officer. Promotion was becoming more difficult in the mechanical field. At 45, she decided to become a warrant officer.
“I was accepted and attended warrant officer school at Fort Rucker. It was really rough,” Richardson said of the 30-day training. “But I made it.”
As a warrant officer, she served in human resources for the National Guard.
International tours of duty
From 1990 to 1991, Richardson served in the Gulf War, the military operation to expel occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded and annexed.
“That was the first time I’d had shots fired over my head,” Richardson said. “It was the first time I was in the desert, my first experience in combat.
“I was in areas where the enemy was shelling, in northern Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I wasn’t in the tanks – at that point, there were still some restrictions on women serving. But we were affected by rockets and not knowing who the enemy was. When the Iraqis retreated from Kuwait, some went into Saudi Arabia.”
From 2007 to 2008, Richardson served in Kuwait. After 20 years of college and the military, she earned her bachelor’s degree.
“It took me a while, but I got it,” Richardson said, with a big smile.
From 2009 to 2010, Richardson led the National Guard’s Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program in Alabama, preparing soldiers who were being deployed and supporting family members while their soldier was away.
“Deployment is a seven-day-a-week job,” she said. “It’s difficult going, and it’s difficult coming home. You’re on a high tempo; then you get home, and the bottom falls out.
“When you’re running on adrenaline for so many months, it’s not unusual to come home and go into a depression,” Richardson said. “It’s one of the worst things a solider can do. It’s inevitable to deal with – work changes, people change. When it happened to me, I turned to prayer. I made it through.”
In 2013, Richardson was sent to Camp Phoenix on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. There, she lived in a metal shipping crate.
“There was just enough room for a twin bed or an Army cot, and a few of your belongings,” she said. “In Afghanistan, they were stacked on top of each other. They built decks to get up to the top.”
Richardson was close enough to hear the sounds of the battle. Kabul, situated in a “soup-bowl-shaped valley,” is home to 8 million people.
“I was in a pretty safe area, though we had things going on there,” Richardson said. “There were a couple of car bombs, and a couple of people tried to get into the gate to cause us harm. All you can think about is what’s outside the gate. There were tribal wars between the different factions.”
Upon returning home, Richardson was promoted to chief warrant officer in December 2014. She retired from the National Guard on July 31, 2016, after 31 years of service.
‘The military is a good life’
Richardson has no regrets about serving her country, and is extremely proud that her 15-year-old granddaughter – a freshman in ROTC at Smiths Station High School – plans to follow her into military service.
“The military is a good life,” Richardson said. “I wanted to do something not just for myself – I wanted to make a difference. I feel the military helped me make a difference. It teaches discipline and camaraderie. I’ve met people from all over the world, and I hope my granddaughter gets those experiences.
“Servitude is rewarding,” Richardson said. “I’m glad I did what I did. When it comes to my military career, I’ve served a good purpose. I’ve done what God asked me to do.”