Niles native who joined Army after graduation retires as major

Published 12:17 am Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Standing in the center of the Pentagon in Washington D.C., Niles High School graduate and U.S. Army Major Cheri Atkins examines the idea of transition.

As an officer with the Department of Army Personnel, Atkins has had her hands in several specialized projects, including co-authoring a plan for equal opportunity transformation and a review of the women in the Army assignment policy.

“Currently I am working on helping the Army look at veterans’ employment,” Atkins said, with the Veterans Employment Transition Initiative.

The initiative, Atkins said, takes a closer look at soldier and family member transitions out of military culture to ensure long-term success when soldiers leave their military lives.

“We’re trying to get the big Army to take a look at this harder,” Atkins said. “And they are.”

The issue is “huge” for Atkins.

“Because I see how important transition is, and even though I am probably in a better place because of all the research I’ve done in the year, it’s still a huge, emotional, significant event,” she said.

But it’s also about to be a personal one for the Niles Viking — who graduated in the top 10 of her class in 1990 — as she begins a transition of her own: retirement.

Members of the military, friends and family will gather at the Pentagon today to celebrate Atkins’ career with a retirement celebration. She will officially sign out of the Army in February and her official retirement will take place April 30.

Atkins enlisted in the Army after high school. A self-described over-achiever, “my parents pushed me hard,” she said. Atkins was hoping to go to a university but wasn’t quite sure how.

“And the recruiter just happened to call that day,” she said.

Entering into military service was not foreign to the Fowler family — Atkins is the daughter and stepdaughter of Fred and Helen Fowler.

Both of her brothers joined the Navy right after high school. Her father served in Vietnam; her grandfather in served in Korea and World War II; her great-grandfather was in World War I; and her great-great-great grandfather served in the Civil War. Her family has served in every branch of the United States military.

So Atkins continued in the family’s footsteps and joined in an effort to continue her education through the Army.

Looking back so many years later she said, “Niles did a lot for me. I think Niles taught me as much as the Army did.”

Handling the challenges she would be faced with — two deployments and an adjustment to military life — were made easier from the lessons she learned back home, Atkins said.

“I think I handled them pretty well,” she said. “But I think it has a lot to do with the way I was raised. You just kind of do what you have to do and I was raised like that. You just do what you have to do.”

In Niles, she said, she learned how to problem-solve, which would come in handy.

“That problem-solving model, which is used in the military … that has made a huge difference in my career because I have been able to logically look at a situation, define the problem and develop a course of action.”

Atkins’ own course began in August 1990 when she went to Fort Jackson in South Carolina to begin her basic training. She was assigned to the focus of administrative specialist.

But before she had the chance to to dive into her new assignment, she was given another.

“While I was in that school, the war kicked off — Desert Shield/Desert Storm,” Atkins said.

At 19, she found herself at Eskan Village in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia working as a mail clerk and supporting the ground force commander for the Army.

“When you think about it, we hadn’t really done mail at war since Vietnam,” she said. “We hadn’t really looked at how do we do mail in an overseas operation. We weren’t really prepared for overseas mail.”

Atkins deployed in January 1991 and returned in May of the same year. The experience, she said, had a profound impact on her and the course of her service.

“The funny thing is that tour, I really learned to be a patriot,” Atkins said. “Every day at noon they played the song “Proud to be an American” … And here I am at 19, as in awe as they get.

“You saw all this love for the soldiers,” she said of the incoming mail for those on the front lines. “I think that’s what really kind of solidified that I love the Army … that I was going to be in it forever.”

She would be deployed again in 2001 after the events of Sept. 11.

Upon her return from that first deployment in 1991, Atkins went back to her administrative duties and worked for multiple units in Atlanta. She started going to school at night and did volunteer work. It was at that time, she said, someone suggested she explore the idea of being an officer.

But her life was about to take a “personal detour.”

In Atlanta, Atkins said she met and fell in love with her husband and followed him to Italy. There, she found herself back in familiar territory, as a squad leader in a postal platoon.

She had two children, Brandon and Anthony. When Brandon, the younger of the two, was just 15 months old, she left for the Army’s Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in Georgia.

She retires at the rank of major.

“I’m actually right where I need to be,” Atkins said. “I’m working at (one of) the highest levels in the Army.

“It’s a blessing,” she said of her position with the headquarters for the Army’s Department of Personnel at the Pentagon,” because I’m able to work at where Army policy is made.”

Now, Atkins has come full circle as she devotes her time to working on a project that could inevitably help veterans in the throes of transition while facing her own.

For 20 years, she said, the Army has guided her, instructed her and told her what to do in all aspects of her life.

“All of a sudden I have to do all those things for myself,” she said. “I have to get a job; I have to (find and) pay for my own insurance.”

She, of course, feels prepared, she said.

“(But) I think about these kids that are, you know, three deployments, they haven’t been home,” she said. “Their family is tired and the wife is saying ‘it’s me or the Army’ or the husband is saying ‘it’s me or the Army.’ Now this young kid, 26 or 27 years old, has to say OK, what do I do now?

“I have a pension,” Atkins said. “But what about the 26-year-old? What about the 27-year-old?”

It’s an important part of the military career, that transition, she said, “and the Army feels it’s really important. I feel very encouraged by that.”

When the army celebrates her career Wednesday, Atkins will be in the company of friends and family and the people she loves, and it’s a love for people she’ll be taking from her experience.

“Love for people,” she said. “I love taking care of soldiers and I love taking care of people and just the sheer satisfaction that you know you’d done something for somebody.”

It’s something she’ll not only take with her but carry with her into the next chapter of her life.

Atkins has accepted a position that will allow her to stay local and involved with the military.

“I’m actually going to work with a company that is helping the office of the secretary of defense develop programs for wounded warriors,” she said. “So I’m going to continue on the same kind of work I’ve done. Again, it’s that love for people.”