In honor of Women’s History Month, we interviewed Lt. Col. Laura Shiplet, Deputy Commander, USACE Sacramento District. Shiplet joined the District from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where she served as the Battalion Executive Officer of 554th Engineer Battalion, 1st Engineer Brigade.
Born in Oakland, California to Naval Chief Petty Officer Connie Torres and Naval Senior Chief Gary Eagle; Laura Shiplet was raised by Senior Chief (Retired) Ross Shiplet. Coming from a family with such a deep military involvement has included a great deal of moving – both as a military ‘brat’ and an active duty Soldier.
Lt. Col.Shiplet currently has 17 years of military service and counting. Read her complete bio: https://www.spk.usace.army.mil/About/Bio-Article-View/Article/1745045/lt-col-laura-shiplet/
PAO: What led you to a career in the military?
LTC SHIPLET: I’m a military brat. Mother, father, grandfather and several other relatives all served. I didn’t intend to. Initially, I felt like it was not the realm for me. But when I was a teenager, I became involved in the JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) and found I had a passion for it. The university I applied to said, “Look, we’ll send you to the cadet basic training, and if you like it, you can sign a contract.” And I LOVED it! I got to get dirty, the teamwork, the camaraderie, and the uniforms felt great. I signed up as soon as I got back.
PAO: Did you intend to go “career” from the start, or did you grow into that decision as service progressed?
LTC SHIPLET: I grew into it. I didn’t make any long-range plans. I just continue to serve as the Army wants me, and I enjoy it.
PAO: What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
LTC SHIPLET: Don’t laugh, but the movie “GI Jane” (laughs) I’m not kidding. The character starts off the movie working in an intel cell, doing geospatial intelligence in support of an operational unit, and I just thought that was fascinating. It wasn’t just the movie though, I had moved my entire life, and so that understanding of geography and culture, it all played into that scene. And I thought, I can do that!
PAO: How do you balance your personal and professional lives as a military officer?
LTC SHIPLET: My husband, Tom Cherney, was active duty as well. It worked out well because we understood our roles in military service, and we “spoke the same language” and cared about the same things. It is very possible to be dual military and maintain both careers and have kids, we just chose not to. So that’s how I balance it with my husband, who is now a stay-at-home, retired, Army officer. He stays at home with the kids, and he is my champion in the house. He takes care of everything, he is my hero, and he makes it possible to dedicate what I need to to the service.
PAO: Do you have children? If so how many, and what are their ages?
LTC SHIPLET: I have 2 kids – a five year old and a one-and-a-half year old. And two cats, both purebred Siberians. I have two human babies and two furry babies.
PAO: Who are your role models?
LTC SHIPLET: My mother. My mother was a single parent in the service before they even knew how to support a single, pregnant enlisted service member. She struggled her entire career with issues that stemmed from her gender and her rank as an enlisted woman. She’s a big inspiration as to why I joined the service, to make lives better for people, not just for women, but for all members. She had to go through quite a bit as a single parent. She retired from the Navy as an E7 (Chief Petty Officer) with 21 years of service.
She’s my number one role model, followed by Col. Antoinette Gant, retired Col. Jeffrey A. Anderson, and this may sound a little weird, but just because she’s had a very interesting career, Sigourney Weaver (laughs).
PAO: In what ways have you seen equality change for the better in your lifetime?
LTC SHIPLET: It’s nice to see more roles have opened to women. There has been education as to mannerisms or jokes that can dehumanize an individual, whether it be a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter. That kind of education in the military service, I think, has been very vital. Also, making it possible to report incidences of harassment or sexual harassment, where in times past, it was, ‘oh, that’s just boys being boys,’ which is not really acceptable. And making our service accepting and understanding of other people – educating service members that we are all professionals, and that we are all Soldiers – has vastly improved.
PAO: In what areas do you feel we still have work to do?
LTC SHIPLET: It’s relative – everything always needs work. Nothing is perfect. Life is a continual learning process, and the same with the service. The service is going to be a continual learning process. We adapt to the changing environment, but you can’t say something is ever done.
PAO: Did you ever have any doubt about your position or your path?
LTC SHIPLET: Oh yeah. It ebbs and flows. In the first years I was very gung-ho. After [year] three of my five years overseas, I got burned out when I got back. So when I hit my 10-year mark, every day was a struggle balancing whether I want to get out of the service, or stay in the service. Every day. My husband, bless his soul, said ‘I’ll support you in whatever decision you make,’ and that allowed me to work through what I needed to work through. After command, I went into a position that was pretty intense, and I was worried that if I did 20 years, that it would always be like that, that I’d always be in a state of feeling like I was deployed, where you couldn’t have kids, and you couldn’t have a life, and I have since found that I have been able to do those things … But yeah – I’ve had my moments.
PAO: How did you overcome those doubts?
LTC SHIPLET: Everyday having the support of my husband and the support of my mother – who had it much worse than myself. And this really helped: Having supporting bosses! Very supportive bosses, great at mentorship when it needed to be done, as well as understanding subordinates who did not judge me as weak because I was human. So not just the support structure at home, but the support structure in the military. And feeling like I can still contribute.
PAO: Who is the most influential woman you know? How does she inspire you?
LTC SHIPLET: I have been inspired by Condoleezza Rice – her professionalism, her way of handling situations, being articulate, and being in a powerful position while still being feminine – she was very inspirational when I was younger.
PAO: What advice would you give to women who know they want to move into leadership roles?
LTC SHIPLET: Never give up your desires and take charge of your fate. You are the driver of your own destiny. However, I would encourage you to not lose touch with your humanity, or who you are, remember sometimes the struggle to gain ground as a leader can make it easy to forget the people who are working for you. They are not automatons and they have their own needs. While we are the military, we have a LOT of responsibilities to the nation, its people and our leaders, YOU have the capability to make or break a Soldier.
PAO: What is one of the most interesting things you’ve done in the military?
LTC SHIPLET: The most interesting thing was being a combat engineer at the very beginning of my career with the 1st Engineer Battalion as an Assault and Obstacle Platoon Leader and deploying to Iraq. I was the first female officer to serve in that role in my battalion. It was a challenge I will never forget.
PAO: What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
LTC SHIPLET: Hmm. That’s actually a really hard question because there is SO much I would tell myself.
Number one: Procrastination is the devil (laughs). Maintain your physical fitness now, before you join the service. (Thoughtfully) Have more fun, I think. When I was young I was so worried about perceptions and putting myself into harm’s way, that I just didn’t go out and do more. I would probably tell myself, read more, read more books; educate myself sooner. And I would definitely tell myself to find more ways to keep in touch with family!