'I Challenged People': Claiming A Seat At The Table As A Black Female Soldier
Debra Gipson comes from a military family. Her grandfather, father, and several uncles and cousins all served in the armed forces.
“I noticed there were no African American females in my family who served in the military,” she said. “I thought, ‘We can serve too.’ So I decided to sign up.”
When she enlisted, her recruiter joked he wasn’t quite sure if she was ready for the military, or if the military was ready for her.
“If I’m being completely honest, I would have to say that the military was not ready for me,” she laughed. “I pushed the military to be more than it ever thought it could be.”
She served a decade in the Army. As a non-commissioned officer, Gipson pushed back against those who questioned her authority, and established herself as a mentor for other female soldiers.
“I think that when we think of power and leadership and authority, we don't necessarily think that [that] looks like me, it doesn't necessarily look like an African American woman. And so, I think that posed a lot of problems for people who weren't accustomed to seeing power vested in what I bring to the table,” she said. “The military is very traditional, and so to some extent there was always this push-and-pull notion about who can serve, and at what level they could serve, and whether or not their authority was rightfully vested in them.”
"I wanted to know what it is I had been willing to die for."
Throughout her military career, Gipson made a habit of speaking up for herself and others, no small feat in an organization where soldiers are taught to toe the line.
“I think for me it was about just knowing that I mattered and that I deserve to have a seat at the table. I challenged people often.”
Her deployment to Iraq took her away from her family for two years. When she returned, she knew she needed time to process what she’d been through. She decided to take a road trip across the United States.
“I wanted to know what it is I had been willing to die for,” she said. "One of the things that I discovered is the sheer diversity of this country, and I don't just mean the racial diversity. I mean the geographic diversity, the locational diversity, the income diversity. I got to meet so many different people during that time because people would know that I was traveling by myself and were always willing to lend a hand.”
The experience fostered a new sense of connection to the nation she’d served.
“You know, our country has a lot of problems and there’s a lot I think our country needs to atone for, but one thing I can honestly say is that I'm proud that I live in this country and I'm very proud that I served in the military.”
This conversation was produced by North Carolina Public Radio WUNC as part of StoryCorps’ Military Voices Initiative, and made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.