By Army Staff Sgt. Kimberly Lessmeister
69th Air Artillery Brigade
WASHINGTON, June 25, 2015 – “I will always place the mission first” is part of the Army’s warrior ethos and something Staff Sgt. Janina Simmons takes very seriously, even at the cost of her own happiness.
Since the beginning of her military career, Simmons excelled well above her peers. Now a Patriot launching station enhanced operator with the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade here, she wasn’t allowed to truly be herself until the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed on Sept. 20, 2011.
Despite having to hide what she considers a big part of who she is, she said she never let it discourage her and now has demolished negative stereotypes regarding both gays and women serving in the military through her top-notch performance record.
During Advanced Individual Training in 2010, she earned both the Distinguished Honor Graduate Award for having the highest grade point average in her class, and the Iron Soldier Award for earning the highest score on the Army Physical Fitness Test for the class.
When Simmons arrived at her first duty station in Japan in 2011, she met Army Master Sgt. Gloria Belk, who was a battery first sergeant, but is now the budget sergeant major for 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command.
Belk said she knew that Simmons had what it took to be an outstanding soldier and future noncommissioned officer, so she constantly challenged her and provided her opportunities to grow as a leader.
Simmons took advantage of the opportunities and lessons given to her and used them to better her fellow soldiers.
“No matter what it took, she was going to dedicate the time she needed to dedicate to make sure that any soldier who needed her help got it,” Belk said.
When the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed, Simmons said she still kept her sexual orientation to herself.
“I didn’t know how [my leaders] felt about it, so I didn’t want them to know,” she explained. “I did not want them to look at me differently.”
She found out, however, that Belk supported her.
“It didn’t change my perception of her,” Belk explained. “It didn’t change the respect that I have for her from a leader to a soldier.”
While attending Warrior Leader Course in 2012, Simmons earned a spot on the Commandant’s List, which is reserved for the top 10 percent of the class, and she again earned the Iron Soldier Award for her outstanding APFT score.
In January 2013, Simmons arrived here and was assigned to 1st Battalion, 44th ADA Regiment, 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade. Four months later she was named honor graduate of her Fort Hood air assault school class.
Around the same time, she began dating her current partner, Army Sgt. Rachael Gray, who serves in the same unit.
Simmons said the two do not hide their relationship, but they do maintain military bearing while at work.
“We’re very professional,” she said. “You just have to stay in your lane and adhere to Army standards.”
Army Sgt. 1st Class Yancy Hampton, now the Bravo Battery first sergeant in 1st Battalion, 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, was also one of Simmons’ AIT instructors.
Hampton, who had a reputation as a well-developed and skilled leader, is now one of Simmons’ mentors. Hampton told her he didn’t care about her sexual orientation, Simmons said.
“[Hampton] accepted me 100 percent for who I am,” she added.
Hampton said he never saw Simmons any differently than any other soldier, besides her potential to be a leader.
“I think she’s setting the example that … if ‘I can do it, anybody can do it,’” he explained.
Paving the Way
Simmons is paving the way, Hampton said, not only for other gay, African-American or female soldiers, but any soldier who wants to do great things in the military.
“Whether she knows it or not, there are others watching and there are a lot of soldiers I know who say they want to be just like her,” he said.
Belk shares a similar view.
“It’s important for her to be comfortable with who she is because soldiers already look up to her in the professional sense and if [any of them are gay] … they can look at her and say, ‘Well, this is who I can be if I try my hardest personally and professionally,’” Belk explained.
Simmons continues to lead by example and she’s dedicated the majority of 2015 to attending Army schools and surpassing their standards.
From January through March she attended the Patriot Master Gunner course. The course has an attrition rate of 65 percent, making it one of the hardest schools in the air defense artillery branch. Simmons graduated on her first try.
Earning the Drill Sergeant’s Badge
In April, she followed in her father’s footsteps and attended drill sergeant school. She earned her drill sergeant badge, and was once again named distinguished honor graduate and Iron Soldier.
Succeeding in the military is a way for Simmons to give back to her mother, who made many sacrifices for Simmons and her sister, she said.
“If I tell her I’m doing really well … it sounds good, but telling her I made the Commandant’s List, that I’m the distinguished honor graduate or seeing me hold my trophies from drill school, it clicks more and she’s just beyond proud,” Simmons explained.
Simmons said her success is something she has worked hard for and she wants other soldiers to know they can succeed too.
‘If I Can Do It, You Can Do It’
“That’s what I’m instilling in my soldiers,” she said. “If I can do it, you can do it and I show them the way.”
Simmons said she doesn’t want gay soldiers to feel like their sexual orientation holds them back.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re black, you’re white, you’re male, you’re female,” Simmons said. “If you can think it, you can do it -- you just have to put in the work.”