Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Cindy Pritchett was a Soldier of many “firsts.” (For a full listing of her credentials please see the video clip below.) She served in the Army for 37 years from July 1973 to May 2010, and as a Command Sergeant Major for more than 19 of those years.
Pritchett’s parents both served in the Navy. Her mother was a Navy Storekeeper, while her father worked in aircraft maintenance as a Navy Airdale. She was an athlete, playing volleyball and softball in high school. She stated that if she had not joined the Army, she would have become a physical education teacher. However, she did not follow in her parents’ footsteps by joining the Navy; she explained that “I didn’t want to join the Navy where any of my daddy’s friends would be able to keep an eye on me.” Pritchett enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) but, unlike her male peers who wore Army fatigues in basic training, her uniform consisted of a blue shirt, blue shorts and a wrap around skirt that would be taken off for PT. During their training, WAC recruits were shown what weapons could do, but were not allowed to fire them. “Initially, as a WAC, we all learned how to wear make-up. We learned how to have correct posture. We had a class on, how to walk, where you put a book on your head. So, you learned how to walk. You had classes on how to be a lady, how to sit.”
Many changes occurred in the Army during CSM Pritchett’s service. In 1978, the WAC was dissolved and she “joined” the Regular Army. As she advanced in rank, CSM Cindy Pritchett encountered many situations where she felt change was needed. She was ahead of her time and made the most of her assignments. She was inspired by Drill Sergeant Karen Siddens, one of her early female role models, to attend Drill Sergeant School. It was at Drill Sergeant School where she struck a deal with the Senior Drill Sergeant First Class, Bobby Odin. “I will make a deal with you. I will get you through this part of how to deal with female trainees, if you teach me everything you know about the Infantry.” She wanted to learn everything she could about weapons training. She learned to disassemble and assemble every weapon the men were responsible for and, in turn she showed the women. Odin “taught me how to be a soldier in this man’s Army. I learned all the basic soldier skills that soldiers in the Army today learn.”
Pritchett was not without her share of adversity and the complications that came with being a female Non-Commissioned Officer. She had to interview for positions and assignments when men were just given them based on their credentials. Some of her male subordinates refused to take orders from her. She was often treated with disrespect, denied positions because of her gender, and sometimes held to different standards by her male peers. When she was promoted to Sergeant Major (E-9) and selected for a Command Sergeant Major slot upon graduating from the Sergeant Major Academy, one of the male soldiers in her class said “you know a lot of good men didn’t get selected for promotion today. And I said, yeah, and a lot of good women did. It was the insinuation that I had taken a promotion from a guy.” Then as a new CSM, she recounted her first meeting with the 561st Corps Support Battalion Commander, who greeted her with “What did I do to get the girl?”
She demanded respect because of her rank, not because she was the female assigned to a position. When a male logistics officer addressed her offensively, she told her commanding officer, “Like me, don’t like me, that’s immaterial to me. But I am an E-9 in the United States Army, just like you are a colonel and we are due by our position, a certain level of respect. And that’s all I am asking. And that is what your S-4 did not give me. And what you and the XO did not do to defend me as the Sergeant Major. Not Cindy Pritchett but as the Sergeant Major.”
CSM Pritchett felt the pressure of being the first woman to hold many positions. She believed that in her roles, she represented all women at that level and that if she screwed up, it would define other women as well. She stated that “I try not to let it define how I did my job, but I was always very conscious of it in the background that, okay, you might not want to do that.” When asked about integrating women she replied, “You know, even as we have talked about this whole integration thing, about whether women should be in combat arms and this, that and the other. I have always been a person of – whatever the standard is, whoever can meet it, should be able to do the job. Don’t change the standard. Just put the standard out there and let water seek its own level.”
She even got the chance to play softball on the All-Army Women’s Softball Team for several years and went on to play on the Inter-Service Team in a national tournament. She stated that her early success in the Army was because of male mentorship. “Everybody around me that gave me opportunity or saw something in me were male leaders. My role models were all male leaders.” It wasn’t about having male or female mentors it was “You have to have people that recognize something in you, that you have a relationship, that you are willing to confide in, that you trust, that will help give you the guidance that you are looking for and that will be honest and truthful with you about where you are at and what you should be doing.” It was this mentality that made Pritchett an exemplary leader and trainer during her military service. She was motivated but grounded, secure in herself and humble. Her philosophy was, “I want that job and what are the requirements. It’s not that I don’t strive to get those things, but if that’s all I’m focused on and I’m not looking at who’s going to replace me and pulling those people up behind me then I’ve failed as a non-commissioned officer.”
She was a soldier, and took great pride in being one. She held herself to the same standards that she instilled in those under her command. She retired from serving a three-star level command and was most notably the first and only female senior enlisted advisor to a sub theater commander in a time of war. She was nominated and assigned the CSM to Combined Armed Forces Afghanistan in 2004 at the request of General Dave Barno. Barno selected her because in his view, she understood the Army and its’ need for training and leadership development. “There’s never been one before me. And to date there has not been one after me.” Pritchett laid the foundation for women soldiers, establishing the groundwork for a lot of the things that are coming to fruition today in the Army. When asked how she would like to be remembered, she stated that “I was firm, fair, open-minded and welcomed change. Not for the sake of change, but because change was necessary.”
Education Assistant: Shelly Eberly
Interview: Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Cynthia A. Pritchett, Interviewee: Sergeant Major Brett Waterhouse of the United States Army Heritage and Education Center. Location: MacDill Air Force Base, FL. May 3, 2018. Anderson Court Reporting, 1800 Diagonal Rd., Suite 600, Alexandria, VA 22314.