FORT JACKSON, South Carolina — Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa King can dress down a burly, battle-hardened sergeant in seconds with a sharp phrase and a withering look, then turn around and tell trainee soldiers to be sure they get seven hours of sleep.
As the first woman to take charge of the Army’s school for its order-barking drill sergeants, the 28-year military veteran and sharecropper’s daughter said she’s used to breaking down barriers in military roles normally reserved for men.
“It’s so easy because I love it,” said King, a single, 48-year-old North Carolina native. “I have a family in the Army. It is my family.”
The stern discipline dispensed by her late father to his 12 children set her on a path of taking responsibility for herself and her siblings early on, King said during a recent interview on the Army’s training base next to Columbia.
She learned to “give a hard day’s work for whatever I earned and take no short cuts,” said King, who enjoys passing her values to young soldiers and watching them grow into senior officers and enlisted men and women.
Lt. Col. Dave Wood, King’s battalion commander, said she was chosen for her approach to “the business of taking civilians and making them into soldiers.”
Gone are the days of two decades ago, Wood said, when his drill sergeant made him clean wax off a floor with a razor blade or run around the barracks loaded down with a full duffel bag.
“She’s got this unique way of dealing with soldiers where she can be correcting them, but it’s in a manner that they’re wanting to please her and wanting to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s not degrading to them.”
King takes over command of the Drill Sergeant School on Tuesday at Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest training installation. This year the school will churn out about 2,000 of the in-your-face instructors.
The tough love approach comes through as King conducted her barracks inspections and daily “walkabout” to meet with senior enlisted men and women on a recent weekday.
A touch of bright red lipstick and kohl-dark eyeliner doesn’t soften her stern gaze when she spots a sheet corner not properly tucked or a young soldier with a uniform askew.
“What’s going on here?” she queries, soldiers jumping to attention as she enters a room as they relax between classes on becoming finance clerks or legal aides. “Get back to school and get back to doing something!”
King’s face softened once she determined one soldier in exercise gear wasn’t goofing off, but was just back from the dentist and a root canal. “Get some rest, soldier,” she advised the woman with a swollen face and jaw.
“You all make sure you get your seven, seven hours of sleep!” King said before heading out the door.
King’s inspection companion, 1st Sgt. Teddy Johnson, said with a relieved grin that a day without King’s stern critiques “wouldn’t be a normal day. … She’s always that way.”
Still, she has time for a few other pursuits. She’s completed one master’s degree in business management and is working on another in theology, saying she enjoys studying issues of leadership in the Bible.
King’s elevation marks another barrier broken in a still male-dominated service of 550,000 soldiers, of which only about 14 percent are female.
There were few women training alongside men when she first entered the military in 1980, just out of high school. Several years later, she was chosen to train as a drill sergeant.
King rose to become the first female first sergeant named to oversee the heart and soul of Army warfighters: the headquarters company of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where she was responsible for 500 paratroopers, 22 sergeant majors, 22 colonels and three general officers. She’s served in South Korea and Europe and held jobs at NATO and the Pentagon.
While opportunities for women have increased over the past two decades, they are still excluded from assignments where soldiers engage in direct combat, such as infantry and tank units.
Yet modern-day battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that front lines no longer exist, and even accountants or medics in the rear can find themselves in the heat of battle and must defend themselves and their buddies.
“I have one chance to do it, and if I don’t get it right, that soldier could not survive on the battlefield,” King said.
She’s pleased that her rise should help others, she says.
“It means a door has been opened. … Who knows how far we can go?” she asks. “I just want people to be able to fly.”