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Brig. Gen. Susie Kuilan: Strong-minded, born to lead

Strong-minded,born to lead by Lara Jo Hightower | April 4, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.
Brig. Gen. Susie Kuilan became the 95th Training Division’s first woman commander in the unit’s history in January. (Chris Wilson/The Lawton (Okla.) Constitution)

When Brig. Gen. Susie S. Kuilan was appointed commander of Fort Sill's 95th Training Division in January, the change of command ceremony was an historical first: No woman before her had ever held the position. That accomplishment was just the latest in a three-decade-plus career that demonstrates the depth of Kuilan's innate sense of competition, fierce determination and iron will. These characteristics hearken back to when she first decided to join the Army: If she was going to do it, she resolved, she was going to make sure she wouldn't stop until she achieved the rank of General.There aren't many women who are generals in the U.S. Army -- the number hovers somewhere around 5% -- but despite that, she achieved her goal in 2018."

"It was absolutely the career highlight of my life," she says from the home in Gravette she shares with husband Joe Bryant and five dogs who can be heard in the background as she talks on the phone. "I had everybody I loved around me. The greatest mentor that anyone could ever ask for was there, promoting me. And I got promoted on May the 4th -- 'May the 4th be with you?' That's what my cake said, and I had the band play all kinds of 'Star Wars' songs."

Kuilan might not have found herself scaling such heady heights in the armed services were it not for a chance meeting between her German-born mother and a G.I. -- a man Kuilan considers her father -- who was stationed in Germany. The two fell in love, married when Kuilan was just 3 years old and moved to Camden, Ark., where her father had grown up. Because of a paperwork mix-up, Kuilan didn't officially become an American citizen until she was a teenager -- making the oath of citizenship so much more meaningful.

"I didn't have to go through the test," she says. "But I was old enough that I did have to go to the federal court in Texarkana and swear an oath to the Constitution and all of that good stuff."

By that time, of course, her memories were almost exclusively American.

"My mother will tell you the story about when I was 7 or 8," she says. "She asked me about my father, and I looked at her like she was crazy, because I saw him every day, right? She says I literally forgot about the fact that I had a real father somewhere. And I actually still do forget that fact, because, when I was pregnant, I did ask [the man she calls her dad] if twins ran in the family ."

Kuilan was an excellent student in high school and successful in extracurricular activities like drama, Student Congress and forensics and public speaking. After high school, she attended Henderson State University, where she parlayed her skills into a degree in mass communications. Then came time to contemplate what direction she would take after graduation. Joining the Army might not have seemed quite in character for her, but, she says wryly, "I was following a guy."

That might have been the initial impetus behind Kuilan taking a closer look at the prospect, but after some research, she came to believe that it would be a good career choice for her.

"I had a tentative job offer upon graduating from Henderson from [aerospace company] LTV in Camden," she says. "It was an entry level public relations job. But I realized that the amount of responsibility and things that I would get to do in the military, compared to an entry level position on the civilian side -- the civilian side just couldn't compare. And I said, 'You know what -- I want that.'"

And once she was accepted to Officer Candidate School, she was on her way.

Basic Training

But, first: Basic Training.

"I think I was pretty darn clueless about what it actually meant to join the Army," she admits with a laugh. But, she says, after "one day at Basic Training," it started making more sense. "The hardest thing about Basic Training for me was the homesickness, really and truly. I could put up with all of the drill sergeants yelling at me; I could put up with all of the physical efforts and discomforts and all of that. But the homesickness almost killed me. [Henderson State had been] less than an hour away from home. I only lived on campus for a year. So going to Basic Training at Fort Jackson -- so far away from home and for such a length of time -- I remember that being one of the most difficult parts for me."

Once Officer Candidate School was completed, Kuilan served in various positions with the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Polk, La. In 1991 , she went off active duty -- and regretted it almost immediately.

"I went straight into teaching, and teaching is a fairly regimented career choice," she muses. "The bells tell you when to move, right? So I can't even put my finger on what I missed so much. Part of it is the kinship is just so different than anywhere else. I'll give you a good example. We had a competition this past week at the 95th Division, and we put a bunch of soldiers into small squads, where they were for about three days. At the end of those three days, we had an award ceremony, and we could tell that those squads felt like they had been together for a long time -- yet, they had only been together for three days. But the bonds that they formed were just incredible. You go through that 'forming, storming and norming' in, like, one hour."

She taught high school, first in Louisiana, then in Utah, where her parents moved for a job. But that whole time, she had the niggling feeling that she should be back in the Army.

"I ran into this gentleman at a mall in Salt Lake City," she remembers. "I don't remember how we struck up a conversation, but he was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, and he convinced me that I would enjoy it, and that it would be easy for me to get back in. And sure enough, I think I was back in less than three weeks after that conversation."

What followed was a string of positions that signified Kuilan's continued success in her chosen field, including Battalion Commander, Brigade Deputy Commander and Brigade Commander. Kuilan says it was when she took command for the first time that she knew she had made the right decision as far as her chosen career was concerned.

"My very first time of being in charge of people was as a lieutenant on active duty," she remembers. "And I remember thinking to myself -- this was probably the moment when I absolutely knew I had made the right decision. A year after joining, I was the lieutenant in charge of 27 people and several millions of dollars worth of equipment. And I realized if I was at LTV, writing copy for the public relations job, I wouldn't be in charge of anything, not even myself. I knew I had made the right decision."

Made to command

Friends say her personality is tailor-made for command.

"She's very strong-minded, but she listens to all sides of something," says longtime friend Sue Fiero. "She's a natural-born leader. She just takes charge and does what she has to do. And I think that, more than anything else, has gotten her where she's at. She can get along with anyone and is a really good communicator."

"Her ability to compartmentalize everything in her world -- family, work, Army -- is unmatched," says Kuilan's husband. "This organizational skill itself stands out to me, and I know the higher ups in the military are very aware of it. She treats everyone the same -- they are soldiers first, then when off duty then can speak candidly. She is well admired across the board. I have been fortunate enough to meet some way high-up officers, plus her subordinates, and they all absolutely love her leadership skills."

"One of Brig. Gen. Kuilan's personality traits that has led to her success is her willingness to listen and learn from subordinates," says Kay Masley, who served as Kuilan's First Sergeant when the two were in the same U.S. Army Reserve unit in Salt Lake City, Utah. "She seeks out individuals who can provide information for situations where she might not have as much experience. In addition, Brig. Gen. Kuilan is a voracious reader and has the ability to absorb a large amount of information."

Son Jason Kuilan says Kuilan's authentic personality means the mom he sees at home is very similar to the Brigadier General she is at work, with her keen communication skills being the primary common characteristic.

"She started a reading program with her new division," he says. "And they're picking really difficult texts to talk about. I think the first one was the third report about the Fort Hood incident, and then the second one was a book called 'Black Hearts [: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death]'. And both of those are, I would say, difficult to read, and then even harder to discuss, because they're issues that are very close to home. I think she sort of led with me, as well -- if there was something going on in the news, that wasn't something we ignored as a family, it was something that we talked about. And I think that helped me become a lot more open minded and also helped me see the world from a different point of view. I definitely think it's helped me become a better adult."

Jason also points out that, despite Kuilan's increasingly demanding promotions, she always made time for him while he was growing up.

"I'm not really sure how she did it," he says. "I don't know that there was anything that I did that she wasn't very involved in. I can remember times where I would look over, and she was in the stands with some of the other dads at football practice -- not even a game. I remember times when she would be away on a military trip, and she literally flew back to watch a football game, and then drove like five hours afterwards to get back to the unit that she was at for the weekend.

"For most of my younger childhood, she was getting her Ph.D. for the civilian side of the job, and I didn't really understand that then," he continues. "But she would go to work during the day, be a mom in the evening and be up until 2 am writing her dissertation. Now that I'm sort of at that point in my career where she was, I just can't imagine how she did it."

One Ph.D. and Iraq

Kuilan received a high-profile assignment when she went on an active duty tour as a Military Fellow with the Chief of Staff of the Army, Strategic Studies Group, after which her advanced degrees -- at this point, she held three Master's degrees and a Ph.D. in English -- and her teaching experience made her the perfect choice for the first person to hold the John Parker Chair of Reserve Component Studies at the Army War College.

"The John Parker Chair was created by Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley, chief of U.S. Army Reserve and commanding general, U.S. Army Reserve Command, to provide a valuable means to strengthen practical understanding and deepen the academic richness of the U.S. Army War College's core educational enterprise," reads an article from the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service blog in 2015. "The goal is to produce graduates from all of its courses who are skilled critical thinkers and complex problem solvers in the global application of land-power." In the same article, Kuilan said of the position that "40 percent of my time is teaching and 60 percent of my time is researching whatever the Chief of Army Reserve asks me to."

In 2005, Kuilan was asked to make a big sacrifice: She was sent to Iraq as the support officer for the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, a program administered by the United States Army to help augment the Army force structure. This meant leaving behind 12 year-old Jason, who stayed with his grandparents during the separation. She was stationed in Camp Bucca and says the experience forever changed her.

"It was one of the highlights of my career," she says. "I know they don't write about it very often, but there is some writing about it -- post-traumatic stress growth, rather than post-traumatic stress disorder. Because I will tell you, I came back a better person than when I went, and it was because of that deployment, not despite of it. Now, I'll have to be honest: I didn't personally see trauma. But it was all around me. And I knew I was in a war zone, even though I felt like I was never in danger. But I came back and realized that there's very little in the world worth stressing over. And I also know I was a better mother when I came back. I was more present, more in the moment."

"When she came back from Iraq, our relationship and our dynamic definitely changed quite a bit," says Jason. "It was very much a mother/son relationship, but also a friend relationship. And that friendship has definitely only grown over the years. I tell all my friends now that my mom's my best friend, and they meet her -- we'll go out to a bar, or we'll go to a baseball game, and they'll say, 'Well, I can see why -- your mom is awesome.' And my answer is she's one of the coolest people that I know -- a Brigadier General, an ordained minister, a Ph.D. doctorate. She's incredible."

Meanwhile, Kuilan's work continued to be recognized within the Army. Over the course of her career, she's earned dozens of awards and decorations that include the Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Army Achievement Medal, Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal with three oak leaf clusters, National Service Defense Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with "M" Device, and the Parachutist Badge -- so there is little mystery as to why she was chosen to be the first female to command the 95th Training Division at Fort Sill.

"This is a big deal for us, because we're giving one more excellent general a chance to command a formation of Army soldiers," Maj. Gen. Andrew Juknelis said in a Lawton (Okla.) Constitution article about the appointment. "I've known Susan for a couple of years now, so I'm really excited to have her here to join this unit. It couldn't have worked out better for us."

No desire to retire

While Kuilan acknowledges that serving (and succeeding) in a male-dominated field like the Armed Services can be difficult for many women, she says she's had a career relatively free of any negativity provoked solely because of her gender. She chalks some of that up to the fact that she was older when she joined -- early 20s, while many women are right out of high school at the time of their enlistment -- as well as the fact that she was on the officer track. Ironically, Kuilan says she's noticed more instances of what she calls "dismissal" as she's climbed the Army ladder .

"When two people are walking together in uniform in the military, the lower ranking person always walks to the left -- always," she explains. "It's so, in my case, my right arm is not encumbered so that I can salute. The other day, the guy I was with, we're walking together, he to my left, and we're both in uniform. Twenty people came walking in our direction and all 20 of them saluted him and said, 'Good afternoon, sir.' All 20 of them! And not one acknowledged me or my rank at all. I've had that happen to me a couple of other times, as well. It's almost as if, the higher up and higher rank I get, the more of a unicorn I become."

Now relaxing into her third month of the new post, Kuilan says she's settling in nicely. Although she commands a reserve unit, the work is much more than the proverbial "one weekend a month."

"She works hard," says Fiero. "I think it's funny -- everybody talks about the Army Reserve as a part-time job. It is not a part-time job. It's never been a part-time job to any of the people I've ever met in her unit. They're working day and night in their civilian jobs and their Army job. I've never met so many committed people."

Kuilan says she doesn't feel stress often, but that may be because she adheres to hobbies that are usually recommended for conquering stress, like reading and physical exercise. But even her hobbies are examples of her fierce drive and determination.

"I have not missed a day of running in almost seven years," she says -- and yes, that includes this past winter's cold snaps that saw negative temperatures on multiple days. "One of those days, with all the snow and ice, I ran inside my husband's warehouse. The other days, I ran outside. I just bundled up and went."

You might think that means she hasn't been ill in seven years. But, no -- she still runs while feeling under the weather.

"I'm pretty sure I had covid," she says with a laugh. She went in for a test that returned negative, only to have her husband test positive on a few days later. That night, she had a fever, but woke up the next morning and went running anyway.

"But the rest of the day, all I could do was sleep," she says. "Same thing the next day -- I felt nappy, and I'm not a nap person. I just couldn't stay awake."

Nonetheless, she managed to get outside and run.

She and Bryant also hope that their future will soon hold more travels as a means of getting away from it all.

"I had never been on a cruise, now I've been on five or six with her and several short vacations all over the country," says Bryant. "It is our hope that in the next 12 to 18 months, we can move into a 5th wheel full time and travel wherever we want. We can both work as long as we have Internet service."

Access to the Internet is important, because, even though Kuilan talks about traveling the country, she's not talking about retiring. After talking to her a little over an hour about her work, one is left with the distinct impression she loves what she does too deeply to consider leaving it any time soon.

"She believes in the Army," says Fiero. "She believes in what she's doing. She believes in her soldiers. And she just wants to make this country a better place for all of us."

Brig. Gen. Susie Kuilan hasn’t missed a daily run in seven years.

(Courtesy photo/Susie Kuilan)
Brig. Gen. Susie Kuilan hasn’t missed a daily run in seven years. (Courtesy photo/Susie Kuilan)
“She just wants to make this country a better place for all of us.” — Sue Fiero

(Courtesy photo/Susie Kuilan)
“She just wants to make this country a better place for all of us.” — Sue Fiero (Courtesy photo/Susie Kuilan)
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Self-Portrait

Brig. Gen. Susie Kuilan

My greatest fear is failure.

I’m most comfortable in running clothes.

At any given time I would rather be on a cruise ship.

My greatest strengths are my organizational skills.

My greatest shortcoming is lack of patience.

Take anything but don’t take my dogs (and cat).

One place I’d like to visit is anywhere a cruise ship or 5th wheel camper can go.

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