Monekia Denkins arrived in South Korea a formidable figure. Drill sergeant. Twice deployed. Single mom. Diabetic who won’t let that get in the way. Not too tall, but a solid wall of sergeant.
Make that first sergeant.
What she did next inspired more than two dozen of her colleagues, from junior enlisted to Korean soldiers to commanders, to write to Army Times to say she deserves to be Soldier of the Year.
Denkins developed a soldier-civilian mentor program to get members of the company working together and give her soldiers what they need to succeed. She won an award for leading soldiers through a high-pressure inspection that won the unit accolades for flawless results. She re-energized the Family Readiness Group and got everyone, including civilians, involved. In her volunteering, she embraced a nearby orphanage, bringing gifts there for the children and inspiring her soldiers to spend time there each week.
She and the company commander at 201st Signal Company, 41st Signal Battalion, took soldiers on a team-building field trip to a Korean folk village where soldiers got to know the host country and their co-workers. On post, Denkins saw the unit’s workplace had gotten shabby from neglect and she worked to get more than $2 million for renovations to barracks and offices.
Denkins looks for ways for her soldiers and civilians to achieve, leading the unit to repeatedly win the battalion honor company award.
It is not just her individual accomplishments that make her worthy of the Soldier of the Year award, but her “overall leadership” and “her never-quit/failure-is-not-an-option approach,” the battalion’s Command Sgt. Maj. Maurice A. Rambert wrote to Army Times. “She is the type of leader that we as Army professionals scour the ranks for but rarely find.”
Leading soldiers is what first sergeants do; it is part of the role. But soldiers say Denkins sets the standard.
“She showed me what a leader was. … It took me being in the military six years before I finally physically saw what the standard was, and it was 1SG Denkins,” wrote Staff Sgt. Najimah Lewis. “If it wasn’t for her, I would not be in the military today.”
Another soldier said “finishing strong” is her most memorable quote.
“One day 1st Sgt. Denkins told me ‘how will you choose to respond to the challenge in front of you?’ I truly think this one question is the reason 1st Sgt. Denkins stands out above her peers,” wrote Pfc. Keyon Elmore, communication security consultant for the 201st. “Every challenge I see that 1st Sgt. Denkins faces, she … not only starts the mission with a standard of excellence but also finishes the mission strong with that same standard.”
Denkins told Army Times how she sets that standard.
“I put my hand halfway in the air, and say ‘that’s the Army standard.’ We say go above that, and this is our standard,” she said. “Sometimes we’re going to stumble and we’re going to fall. If you stumble and fall a little bit, you’re still above the Army standard.”
She is “a true visionary” and “the legendary one that they teach us about in our officer development courses,” said Capt. Gary W. Jones, commander of the 201st.
A first sergeant may be respected and followed, but this one is also loved, the battalion commander said.
“Her soldiers and civilians love her because of her wisdom, compassion, competitive spirit and ... she always takes care of them no matter what,” wrote Lt. Col. Seena Tucker.
“A drill sergeant was what I always wanted to be,” said Denkins, whose hometown is Houston. That assignment, plus another as an instructor, laid a foundation for her to become a leader. She lived the Army life with her son, now 18 and planning his future. “He’s been a great son,” she said. “I would lay down my life for him, and that’s the same for my soldiers.”
She has had two tours in the Middle East, the first at Doha, Qatar, from June 2001 to December 2002 and the second to Camp Victory, Iraq, in 2005-2006.
To be there for her soldiers, sometimes Denkins puts her own daily challenges in the background. She is a diabetic who needs daily insulin. She often finds herself “struggling to get through the day,” she said.
When Denkins arrived at the 201st at the end of 2009, she found a family readiness group that needed a spark. She got to work, revitalizing the group, bringing in civilians and ensuring the group has resources. Family attendance at events tripled, she said.
She also tackled “one of the biggest challenges we face,” soldiers arriving at the unit unable to perform basic duties because they aren’t commercially certified. For soldiers in MOS 25B, information technology specialist, to do basic functions and get access to Army networks, they must be certified. Denkins developed a mentor program that pairs soldiers with civilian technicians who train them. As a result, more than 20 soldiers have their IT certifications, and they can troubleshoot the hundreds of calls their Network Enterprise Center gets a week.
Another accomplishment in 2010 was getting through a Cyber Command Readiness Inspection that included assessing security of facilities and vulnerability of networks. The inspection found no deficiencies. Denkins was awarded an Impact Army Achievement Medal in July 2010 for leading soldiers through the inspection.
Denkins encourages soldiers to keep going to the orphanage where she goes in support of the battalion chaplain’s Good Neighbor Program and where she brings gifts for holiday parties for the children. In 2010, the soldiers of 201st gave more than 580 hours of volunteer time on and off post.
Denkins will reach 20 years of service in February, but says she’s not ready to retire.
“It’s still in my heart,” she said. “When I feel I can’t help a soldier at all, that’s when it’s time to take the boots off.”