Senior NCO reflects on ups and downs of her career

  • Published
  • By Airman Shanel Toussaint
  • Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling Public Affairs

JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, Washington, D.C.-- She took one last lingering look at her reflection in the mirror as she pulled her thick black curls into a tight bun.

“This is it,” she said to herself. “This is my only way out.”

She leaned down to grab the backpack full of her belongings and flung it over her shoulder. She pushed open the door of the bathroom and stepped out to meet the Air Force recruiter waiting on the other side.

Rochell Brown, now a senior master sergeant, took it upon herself to embark on a journey to end the cycle of generational trauma in her family. At the age of 16, she found herself to be a homeless runaway, looking for any escape from the abuse that she suffered from her father.

“By 16, it felt like everything that could go wrong, did. My mother wasn’t around -- she was killed,” said Brown, who is now the senior enlisted leader of the 11th Force Support Squadron. “My dad was in the military so he was never around, but when he was, he was abusive in every way that you can imagine.”

Desperate for a way out, she decided that she would rather take her chances living out of her car than to spend one more night at home.

“I could not take my father’s abuse anymore, and I decided that I would rather be homeless than to continue to deal with that.”

Brown pushed herself to get through school in hopes that obtaining her high school diploma would brighten her future.

“I continued to go to school and worked three jobs to keep myself afloat,” she said. “I knew I just had to graduate.”

Something had to give.

She was completely out of options -- starving, homeless and alone.

She decided to drive to the nearest Air Force recruiting office and embark on the journey that would change her life forever.

“I felt like there was nothing there for me in my hometown,” she said. “I was stuck and there was nowhere to go, and I wanted more for myself.”

She left Killeen, Texas, the city she considered home, and shipped out to Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, for basic military training on March 24, 2004, on her way to becoming a personnel technician.

Although she was relieved to be out of her hometown and building a life for herself, the transition from civilian to Airman felt jarring. She never expected to spend more than four years in the service.

Brown had her first child halfway through her contract and that gave her a larger sense of purpose to push herself to strive for more.

“Now that I had someone depending on me, I had to evaluate my options and I realized that my best bet was to stay in,” she said. “I decided that even if I didn’t stay in long enough to retire, I wanted to stay in long enough to give myself options and make an impact.”

With this newfound motivation, Brown started pushing herself to excel and became the first of her peers to be promoted to staff sergeant.

“That was one of the hardest transitions for me in the Air Force,” she said. “Going from being friends with your peers to being a supervisor was not a seamless transition.”

She knew that the trajectory of her career and the very beginning of her legacy was riding on her leadership skills. Struggling with the decision of how she wanted to present herself in a supervisory role, she knew that she wanted to be respected more than liked. Brown always had a passion for making genuine connections with people. Although she did not want to give up those qualities as a leader, she knew that she needed to find a balance for her leadership to be effective.

“What defines you as a leader are the people that are willing to follow you,” she said. “Not because they are afraid of you, but because they trust and respect you and your contribution to the mission.”

Brown continued to put people first, but learned how to set boundaries and began her transition from a peer to a leader. She became comfortable in her stride and was promoted to technical sergeant in 2016.

“Brown has helped me tremendously in my short time here,” said her coworker, Yecinia Saldivar, the unit program coordinator and command support staff for the 11th FSS. “She has never made me feel like a bother. She has always been very supportive and puts people first.”

By the time Brown transitioned from command support staff to the military personnel flight (MPF), she was a seasoned noncommissioned officer. It was there that she crossed paths with the senior NCO who would become her dear friend and mentor, now-retired Chief Master Sgt. Lana Gonzalez.

“A true mentor is forever,” Brown recalls of her mentor. “She pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me a better NCO.”

Gonzalez pushed Brown to volunteer for public speaking opportunities even though Brown had a fear of speaking to crowds. Gonzalez urged her to overcome this fear and embrace the discomfort of hard experiences.

“I learned to get over the nervousness and allowed it to mold me into a better NCO,” Brown said. “I conquered my fear of public speaking and it opened the world up to me.”

In 2018, she felt like she was on top of the world working with her all-female NCO dream team at MPF. Everyone got along well in and outside of the office. She felt empowered to be a part of an all-woman supervisory team.

Brown entered her third contract with the Air Force as a technical sergeant and experienced what she considers to this day to be her absolute biggest failure in her military career.

“Everything was great until it wasn’t,” Brown recalls.

All of the NCOs in the office were technical sergeants and a fill-in was needed for a senior master sergeant position. Everyone was testing that year for master sergeant and everyone wanted that slot. Brown was not the highest-ranking NCO, but she got selected for the position and everything changed.

“No one was happy for me,” she said. “No one would talk to me. It felt like I was shunned and I didn’t know how to handle that. There were times that I cried in my office from the rejection I felt.”

Brown tried to resolve the rising tensions in the office by conducting a meeting for all of the NCOs.

“I sat them down and told them that if anyone else had gotten selected for the position, I would never have gotten upset,” she said. “No one should miss an opportunity just to spare other people’s feelings.”

This meeting fell on deaf ears and her relationship with the office never improved.

“I consider this to be my greatest failure in my career,” she admitted. “The fact that I was unable to get everyone to work together as one cohesive unit again made me feel like I failed.”

In 2019, she tested out of cycle for master sergeant and made it. Since then, she has continued to serve by her code of prioritizing people and fostering a culture of respect.

Today, Brown is on the cusp of her 20th year in the service with no immediate plans to retire. She has showcased woman-empowerment throughout her career. She is a proud mother of two, and working hard to leave a lasting legacy for the ones who motivated her to serve more than one term.

“I’m proud of myself because my kids are proud of me,” she said.

Brown remembers when she was a 19-year-old airman basic walking across the stage to get her first promotion.
Her superior pins her and extends his hand to shake hers and asks, “where are you going?”

“Straight to the top,” she says with a grin.