FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — The decision to join the Army can prove difficult for many reasons.
For Command Sgt. Maj. Rebecca Franco, 84th Chemical Battalion, the choice was especially tough because she would be walking away from everything she had known and loved, versus the chance to be a part of something more.
Franco, currently stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, hails originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she was born in a close-knit Mennonite community.
“Once you are in that community, you stay in it,” Franco said. “There are responsibilities you have to maintain. It’s a way of living. There really is no way out.”
Franco recalled that her family would make homemade goods and sell them in the local communities. It was on those occasions that she would observe others of different backgrounds and faiths.
“My curiosity would always be there,” she said, adding that her interest was piqued by how differently other people lived their lives. What she saw was a stark contrast to her family’s relatively simple life.
Command Sgt. Maj. Rebecca Franco, 84th Chemical Battalion command sergeant major, addresses a company of Soldiers following a phasing ceremony during Advanced Individual Training. (U.S. Army photo by Stephen Standifird)
Franco admitted that she wasn’t completely satisfied in her childhood community. She felt there was something more she could do with her life.
“I knew if I would make the brave decision to just experience different things, I could potentially have a different outcome for my life,” she said.
On one of her family trips to the market to sell their goods, then 16-year-old Franco saw her first uniformed service member.
“I was absolutely blown away with the way they carried themselves,” she said. “I fell in love with the uniform.”
That chance meeting started Franco on her journey to joining the Army.
Franco focused her efforts on being in the Army Music Program because of her background in music. She went through the audition process and was selected, but the reporting date for Basic Combat Training was still months away — putting her family in a potentially awkward circumstance.
“I didn’t want to put my family in a position where they had to face the consequences for my actions,” she said. “I knew that my religion wouldn’t support my choice, because they are conscientious objectors, and I didn’t know how my family would feel about it.”
Franco’s Army recruiter helped her to find a position with a much sooner ship date — chemical operations. Franco shipped within three days.
“I knew that once I made that choice I could never go back,” she said. “It was one of the most stressful conversations I had to have with my family.”
Franco added that despite the cultural differences, her family has been “extremely supportive” of her career in the Army.
Once Franco was finally in uniform, those around her noticed there was something different about the quiet Soldier from Pennsylvania. While she would tell her story to a select few, it wasn’t something she shared openly.
“It’s not because I was ashamed of anything, it was just how we were raised,” Franco said. “I’m a private person.”
Even during a stint as a drill sergeant here from 2000 to 2004, she hid behind the hat.
“I literally had to treat that job like I was an actress,” she said. “Whenever I put that hat on, I had to change my persona, because it was not who I was. (I’m not) the yeller, the authoritarian, and I don’t have the meaner demeanor. I really struggled with that job.”
She learned a lot in the position, though, and said that being a drill sergeant was “the most rewarding position” she has ever had.
“Being able to see the transformation those Initial Entry Soldiers were making — adjusting to their new way of living — truly made it worth it to me in the end,” Franco said. “I realized that so many others were turning to the Army for a better or different life, just like I was.”
Now she uses her story to help motivate the Soldiers in her battalion.
“I tell my story to encourage people to pursue their dreams, and tell them that nothing is absolutely impossible,” she said.
Franco credits her battalion commander, Lt. Col. Bryon Galbraith, for helping her feel comfortable with not only sharing her story, but sharing who she is.
“I got lucky enough to be paired up with a commander who is a servant leader and has the same values I do,” she said.
Galbraith calls Franco “the ideal servant leader because she is focused on serving the Soldiers in the battalion.”
“It’s because I understand the hardships,” Franco said. “I’m in a position where I can effect change for the better because I relate to what they are going through, and I remember how I felt when I was enduring that hardship.”
In her 25 years in uniform, Franco said she has “truly enjoyed the adventures” of her journey, and she is proud of the choices she has made to get to this point in life.
“The fact that I could never go back gave me the drive to be successful at this decision that I made,” Franco said. “If I wouldn’t have been successful and not tried my hardest to make this work, then what would have happened to me?”