Women's History Month: Retiring Army Guard colonel says she has no regrets

First Nevada female colonel to command a brigade became a trailblazer for others

Col. Joanne Farris was one of 39 women recognized in March by the Veteran Affairs Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno.

Col. Joanne Farris was one of 39 women recognized in March by the Veteran Affairs Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno.

Joanne Farris doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer although she became the first woman in the Nevada Army National Guard to command a brigade six years ago.

Maj. Gen. Cynthia N. Kirkland became the state’s adjutant general from 2005-09, and according to Farris, the state’s top National Guard military leader emerged as a role model for a number of female officers seeking command of battalions and brigades. When Farris refers back to the people who made a significant impact on her career, Kirkland, who served in both the U.S. Navy and Nevada Air National Guard, is one of the top five.

“As the military changed, the Guard began to see diversity of having woman in higher positions,” said Farris, who is now a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve serving as an emergency preparedness officer. “I do feel strongly to promote women in the organization who demonstrate what they want and can do with those leadership positions.”

As brigade commander, Farris oversaw the training of the Regional Training Institute and the 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion which included personnel who came from many Nevada communities.
Farris, who enlisted in 1988 as a private first class, has spent the past 33 years moving up the ladder, attending various schools, accepting leadership positions and juggling life between her military and civilian employment responsibilities and home life. She is a supervisor of recreation therapy at the Veteran Affairs Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno and has been with the VA on a full-time basis since 2007.

On June 3, though, Farris is retiring from the military, but her mentorship for younger female soldiers has been consistent. The longtime soldier said she will always be there to share and assist any woman who wants to succeed at the next step of her career.

Farris also takes pride in her civilian employment. With March being Women’s History Month, Farris and 39 current or former female veterans had their photos taken and mounted on a wall at the Ioannis A. Lougaris VA Medical Center, which is part of the Reno medical campus. According to the VA, this national photo exhibit features women who served in all branches of the military and are now employed in different sections of the local healthcare system that serves Northern Nevada and eastern California.

“The military has offered me the best years of my life and the best experiences of my life,” said Farris, who graduated from Lassen Union High School in Susanville, Calif., in 1980.

CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Between graduation and the late 1980s, Farris said something was missing in her life. She spoke to an Army recruiter about serving her country while learning about new, challenging careers. Farris looked at the female recruiter, who was dressed sharply in a green uniform, and told her the Army is “something she would like to do.”

“She said you can do it. I went through basic training,” Farris recalled the recruiter’s response. “What’s holding you back?”

“Nothing,” Farris quipped.

Farris signed the paperwork, and weeks later she left for basic training and then to AIT or advanced 
individual training to become proficient in her chosen field. Returning home, Farris was assigned to a medical detachment, but she desired to be in the 106th Public Affairs Det. During that time, she attended the University of Nevada, Reno, and was enrolled in ROTC where she participated in the Simultaneous Membership Program. Farris could be both a cadet in UNR’s Wolf Pack battalion and a soldier in the Nevada Army National Guard.

Farris experienced her first overseas deployment in March 1990 with the small public affairs unit by traveling to the Republic of Korea for almost three weeks for a Team Spirit exercise. She eventually became the broadcast chief. After graduating from UNR with a Bachelor of General Studies degree and a commission in the U.S. Army in 1991, Farris packed her bags for Fort Benjamin Harrison northeast of Indianapolis, where she completed the Adjutant General Officer Basic Course that taught newly minted lieutenants the organization needed for Army personnel and administrative operations.


Steve Ranson/LVN
Col. Joanne Farris was one of 39 women recognized in March by the Veteran Affairs Sierra Nevada Health Care System in Reno.

 


ASSUMING LEADERSHIP ROLES
The first of many leadership roles soon opened after Farris returned to the Silver State. The Nevada Guard selected her as detachment commander for the 99th Troop Command battalion’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company

“This was a great honor to be selected for that position and the opportunity to use my leadership skills that were imparted on me through all the training,” Farris said, adding she was blessed with an “awesome” first sergeant, Harry House.

Farris gradually accepted more responsibilities in logistics and operations; however, she had another opportunity to return to public affairs as both the briefing and executive officer for the 69th Press Camp. She assumed command when the unit deployed in 1999 to Kosovo, where NATO forces were trying to end a conflict in the Serbian (previously Yugoslavia) province. Farris and other soldiers from the 69th, though, were assigned to Budapest, Hungary.

“The scope of our mission was Hungary, Bosnia and Kosovo,” Farris said. “I had the opportunity to travel around the country to experience the culture and write stories.”

During her months in Hungary, Farris said she attended a Marine Corps ball and also met the Hungarian president. Once she returned to the United States, Farris wanted to work full-time for the 
Nevada Army National Guard.

“I became the state’s family program officer,” Farris said. “My career took off.”

Farris began her new job with a small budget prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

“I was told it was a great job,” she remembers. “I would work with families and also make sure families knew what deployments were like.”

Then, her office bustled. On the fateful day almost 20 year ago, terrorists commandeered four passenger jets and crashed two into the World Trade Center and one into The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The other crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania.

National Guard and Reserve units deployed in the United States and overseas. While many Nevada soldiers were called up to provide airport security, Farris said a military police company shipped off to the Presidio of Monterrey (Calif.) The same MP company also deployed in December 1990 to Saudi Arabia, almost five months after Iraq’s army invaded neighboring Kuwait. Soon, other units deployed, and Farris’ office became one of the busiest in the Nevada Guard. She ensured families would be taken care of after their loved ones left on deployments.

Then, a series of command positions opened, each one nurturing Farris’ career for the recently promoted major. She became the Joint Forces Headquarters (JFHQ) detachment commander and then executive officer of the 421st RTI (Regional Training Institute) at the guard’s former Stead training facility northwest of Reno.

“The Joint Forces Headquarters command was one of the best,” she said. “I learned more in that command position. I didn’t expect it, but I had great mentors.”

She re-emphasized Kirkland — the state public affairs for the Nevada Military Department when Farris commanded the 69th Press Camp — was not only a mentor but a great role model. At the RTI, Farris became executive officer and eventually commander from 2009-2011.

“That was another moment in my career I really relished,” she said. “We were one of the first RTIs accredited with the new standards.”

Farris said the RTI had a solid Officer Candidates School, and at one time, 32 candidates enrolled in the program. Farris also mentioned her RTI command team consisted of an all-female team.
Retired Brig. Gen. Frank Gonzales was commander Army Guard at the time and had set goals for Farris.

“Gen. Gonzales wanted the program to grow,” she said of the OCS and other programs.

Once Farris’ command ended, she boarded a flight to Afghanistan two months later, and was attached to the 401st Army Field Support Brigade at Bagram Air Field as a program manager for biometrics. In less than a year, she returned to Nevada where, during a six-year span, she was the JFHQ command information officer, the deputy commander for the 991st Multi-Functional Brigade and then brigade commander for two years and finally deputy commander for the Army Guard for six months.
Farris’ final military assignment, though, required her to transfer to the U.S. Army Reserve.

NO REGRETS
Despite the overseas assignments, long hours during critical times and juggling career and personal life, Farris said she has no regrets.

“I start out as an E-3 (private first class) and go to colonel is a good career. I have no regrets in my life,” she said. “Education, travel, meeting people, doing the things I dream of.”

As many military officers know, education is a big requirement for promotion. During her career, Farris said she attended a number of courses, but the major schools included officer basic and advance courses, Command and General Staff College, Joint Task Force commander and U.S. Army War College, a program she said presented many challenges. Farris even found time to complete her master’s degree from Clayton College, and a program in therapeutic recreation and recreational therapy from Eastern Washington University.

Farris, though, said she took advantage of the opportunities in the military — education and command —when they occurred.

Farris thought for a moment about her 33-year career, her assignments and her ascension to becoming the state’s first brigade commander from 2015-2017: “So many people before me knocked at the glass door, but I was able to go through it.”

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