When Army Lt. Col. Sherry K. Oehler saw an ad for a position running the R.O.T.C. program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in April, she admitted that she had never heard of Pine Bluff, or the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and didn’t know that UAPB was an HBCU (Historically Black College of University).
Still, she jumped at the chance to apply.
“Instead of leading a cubicle, I wanted to lead people,” said Oehler, who was the speaker at the Kiwanis Club meeting at the Pine Bluff Country Club recently. The 17-year Army veteran’s last assignment was as a Program Analyst in the Army G8 Program Analysis and Evaluation Division at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
“The Army is all about diversity and inclusion and I want to be a trail blazer for what happens in this community,” she said. “I’m running a program that is 50 years old and I hope to be able to offer mentoring for the next generation of leaders.”
Oehler, whose official title is Professor of Military Science, is responsible for R.O.T.C programs at UAPB, Hendrix College and Ouachita Baptist University, programs that include 87 total students, 57 of them at UAPB. “We’ve got a mixed crew and some of our students are the first person in their families to ever attend college,” she said. “Some of them are not going to stay in the Army but we’re offering lessons in team building, life skills and integrity that will help them in whatever career path they choose.”
In addition to her college responsibilities, Oehler works with Junior R.O.T.C. programs at high schools, including Watson Chapel, Pine Bluff and White Hall, providing information to students who call asking for information about getting scholarships.
“The Army gives away a lot of money for scholarships, books, fees, stipends and the like but if we’re going to pay, we expect a commitment from the students,” she said.
She began her career in 2001 by enlisting, and during her first tour of duty, was selected for Officer Candidate School; after graduating as a Second Lieutenant, she had a variety of assignments, including three combat deployments to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, as well as two years at Walter Reed Military Hospital, where she was involved in programs dealing with, among other things, alternative medicines.
Oehler said she recently spoke at a seminar in Texas that was attended only by high school-age girls, and one of the things she talked about was the decision by the Secretary of Defense in December 2015 that opened up all the positions in the Army to women, including combat positions.
“That has brought about some big changes,” she said. “The most powerful person in the Army is the Chief of Staff. He’s a four-star General, and women can now be on that same career path that he was on. It’s an opportunity women never had. To have 1 million people working for you and an opportunity to change history.”
“I tell my students, particularly the women that they can be employees or they can be the boss,” Oehler said. “We all can be trailblazers in our own right.”
She said of the 57 students in the program at UAPB, four will graduate and be commissioned as Lieutenants in December, and another 10 in May, and while a few will go to the National Guard or the Army Reserve, most will go on active duty. As far as the future, she said she expects to spend the next three years at UAPB, which will give her 20 years in the Army, and then probably retire.
“I don’t want to go back to a cubicle, so this will probably be my last tour,” she said.