SHE'S GOT GRIT: NADINE KOKOLIS ON LEADERSHIP AT THE GROUND LEVEL

By Shannon Huffman Polson (aborderlife.com)

    After reading about early women military pilots, it might be easy to get caught up in speed. There are times, though, that leadership can have a deeper impact on the ground.

    Nadine Kokolis began her Army career as an ROTC cadet at Penn State. She was motivated to sign up to help pay for college. Her background suited ROTC as well. Though not living far outside of the city, her parents expected her to help with tasks like chopping wood, working to build decks, fixing cars. There was no room for excuses. 

    “I learned I could do just about anything,”she says. 

SHOWING LEADERSHIP BY GOING HEADS DOWN

    She arrived at the combat engineer officer basic course along with new lieutenants commissioned from the service academies. At first she was intimidated. “They seemed like they knew everything. Their uniforms were always pressed, and it seemed like they had already learned everything they needed to know about military history. Instead of letting herself be discouraged, Kokolis put her head down and got to work. It turned out that hard work was all she needed to excel. 

    This reliance on her own abilities during her initial training gave her confidence when she first ran into opposition at her first unit as well.  

    “On my initial interview with my new battalion commander," she remembers, ”he told me as a ROTC graduate that he didn’t expect me to do as well as the male officers or the female West Point graduates.”

    Though taken aback, Kokolis suggested to her commander that he might be surprised.

    “I don’t think my response impressed him because he told me that my sponsor was a West Point graduate and I should try to do everything like she does. It was my hardest lesson as a 2ndLieutenant,” she says. 2nd Lieutenant is the rank at which Army officers begin their careers. 

    “I learned not everyone wants you to succeed. I always believed in myself, worked hard and met challenges head on.  In some cases you have to fake it till you make it. You need to maintain a certain level of confidence and determination in yourself if you are going to succeed.

LEADERSHIP ON THE GROUND 

    This lesson would stand Kokolis in good stead. During Kokolis’s deployment during the Gulf War to Iraq, she was part of a battalion in charge of building refugee camps for the Kurds that fled their homes.  

    “I was four months into my first assignment in Germany as platoon leader assigned to Bravo Company, 94th Engineer Battalion,” Kokolis says. “One morning we were preparing to depart for a convoy, and I was assigned to take the entire company to the fuel point.”

    The convoy was expected to take all day and into the night, and because of hostilities, would require a special police escort. 

(Kokolis and a friend atop a blown out tank in Iraq)

(Kokolis and a friend atop a blown out tank in Iraq)

    Kokolis remembers when the plan went wrong: “While we were fueling our vehicles our company commander came over the radio to say our police escort had arrived and would depart in 10 minutes.  I told the commander that there were over 30 vehicles left to fuel and there was no way we would be ready to leave in 10 minutes. 

“You need to maintain a certain level of confidence and determination in yourself if you are going to succeed.”

 

    The commander left me behind with the rest of the company, going ahead with the escort himself along with the executive officer, the medics, and administrative personnel, and told me I would have to lead the convoy.”

    Kokolis finished refueling the company’s vehicles, took charge of the additional units that had been left along with hers, and moved out on the only road heading southeast.  The convoy took over 14 hours, but against the odds they made it safely to the border with everyone and all the vehicles.

(Kokolis with Kurdish refugees at the camp she helped to build)

(Kokolis with Kurdish refugees at the camp she helped to build)

    Once established in Iraq, Kokolis faced her next big challenge. “Our mission was to build refugee camps for twenty thousand displaced Kurds. We cut a road network, set up tents configured in Zozans (facing inward) for extended Kurdish families, installed fresh water point, erected latrines, and built a food distribution center.”

    Building the camps was what she was trained to do. Convincing the Kurds that the camps were safe took longer. Finally, the word got out. One night cars began to appear, headlights shining through the dark, and when Kokolis showed up with her platoon the next morning several thousand Kurds were parked along the road and waiting to be enrolled. 

    The reward for her hard work came in ways as unexpected as the lessons she had learned.

    “While my platoon was building the latrines, a small group of children started to spend time watching us.” Kokolis remembers. It was a family of five girls and two boys who were enchanted with Kokolis’ blond hair and blue eyes. They came every day to the job site until one day they invited Kokolis to come home with them for lunch. She was escorted to the family tent and seated in a corner as twenty or more family members crowded in to watch. 

(Nadine Kokolis with a Kurdish family in Iraq)

(Nadine Kokolis with a Kurdish family in Iraq)

(The job site in Iraq where Kokolis and her unit would construct the first of three refugee camps)

(The job site in Iraq where Kokolis and her unit would construct the first of three refugee camps)

    “Their mother prepared a huge platter of fresh cut vegetables, rice and flat bread. Since I was the guest of honor I was told to eat first, so I took a few bites as everyone stared at me. I asked them to eat with me but it was not until I said I was finished that everyone else pounced on the platter. We tried to communicate the best we could through broken English and hand gestures. I learned that most came from nice homes and good jobs as teachers and engineers. We laughed, I held small children and danced to their music. They were all smiles and you never would guess that their lives were completely uprooted only a few weeks ago. It was a remarkable humanitarian experience and something that I will never forget.”

    Kokolis left active duty after six years, but continued her career in the Reserves while working in a number of corporate roles in the private sector. 

    “I did miss the camaraderie,” she says. “A majority of my lasting friendships have been made while I was in the Army.  The most terrifying, exciting and just plain unusual experiences I’ve had were in the Army and I will always remember who was there with me.”

“Grit is always working hard, never giving up, and finding your hidden abilities.”

 

    After 9/11, she was activated and in an unexpected twist, assigned to Washington DC. She enjoyed the strategic work with the Corps of Engineer Headquarters so much that she transitioned to a human resources speciality and worked for Army personnel headquarters before serving as a Congressional Liaison. 

    “I hadn’t realized these opportunities existed when I was younger,” she says with gratitude. She finally retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel.

ADVICE TO NEW LEADERS

    What advice would she give new lieutenants?

         “If you are mentally tough you will get through anything. Being physically tough is necessary, but mind over matter will get you through.”     

     She has other advice, too: “Make sure you have good non-commissioned officers who are willing to teach you and who make it their mission that you are successful.  And earn your soldiers’ respect and trust by being a hard worker, a good listener and someone who can make decisions.”

    Can grit be developed? “It can, but only with a good work ethic,” Kokolis says. “Find your own motivation to push yourself beyond your limits, and try to be a little bit better every day.”