Sisters climb Army ranks together

Sonny Long

July 5, 2011 at 2:05 a.m.
Updated July 6, 2011 at 2:06 a.m.

When Jennifer Hicks-McGowan and Vanessa Hicks-Callaway were little, their mother used to dress the identical twins alike, but in different colors so people could tell them apart.

Today, the 44-year-olds proudly wear the same colors, those of the U.S. Army with lieutenant colonel insignias on their shoulders.

The sisters were promoted to their new rank together in a ceremony Thursday at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

This wasn't the first time the pair was promoted at the same time - they also received their promotions to captain and to major together.

"To be promoted at the same time, together, is a tremendous blessing for both of us," said Hicks-Callaway. "It is an indicator that we have not failed those who have played a part in our success along the way. Their efforts, their prayers, their advice, their mentorship has not been in vain."

Her sister expounded on their relationship.

"We are confidants of each other," Hicks-McGowan said. "I don't make a decision, professional or personal, without bouncing it off Vanessa first.We are constantly reminding and encouraging and pushing each other to make it to that next level together. The teamwork has paid off."


The sisters grew up in Victoria and graduated from Victoria High School in 1985.

"It is a great feeling to have an identical twin. You have this feeling that someone understands you and relates to you," said Hicks-Callaway. "At the same time, there is a balance. We tried to establish our own identity, our own selves. There are two sides to the coin."

Hicks-McGowan gave credit to their mother, Viola Hicks, for helping them remain individuals.

"We'd dressed alike, but in different colors, so parents and teachers would not get confused. From the beginning, she tried to help us establish our own identify through that process," she said.

In high school, they were members of the Victoriadores dance team, the first blacks to make the senior squad in 1985, said Hicks-McGowan.

Both girls worked after school part time, but Hicks-Callaway found time for choir while Hicks-McGowan took part in vocational office education.

"I absolutely loved being part of that organization," Hicks-McGowan said. "We had the opportunity to work part-time during our senior year and prepare to be administrative professionals.

"That experience spearheaded me into choosing the profession I'm in now, personnel administration. I got my start in VOE at Victoria High School."


In 1987, the sisters - with their eyes on college down the road - decided to join the U.S. Army to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and the Army College Fund, but once they got into the service, they loved it.

They moved from the enlisted ranks to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

"I had thought about being an officer, but not very seriously when a recruiter told Vanessa about the program at Sam Houston State," Hicks-McGowan said. "It was a wonderful experience. It taught us a great deal about leadership and professionalism, all those things that we would need crossing over from enlisted to officer."

Hicks-Callaway bragged on her sister.

"Jennifer was our cadet battalion commander," she said. "She was in charge. I had to call her ma'am. To be cadet battalion commander, you had to be the No. 1 ROTC cadet."

Both sisters earned Distinguished Military Graduate honors. Hicks-McGowan majored in communications, and Hicks-Callaway majored in political science.


Coming out of ROTC, the sisters had to choose their career paths in the Army.

Hicks-Callaway chose military intelligence and Hicks-McGowan chose the adjutant general's corps.

"I was a logistician when I was enlisted and we supported a military intelligence unit. I fell in love with the military intelligence mission," said Hicks-Callaway. "Our job is to paint the picture for the commander so when he gets ready to go left or go right, he's doing it based on some very substantial information turned over by intelligence professionals."

Hicks-McGowan, currently the ROTC commander and chair of the Military Science Department at Jackson State University, explained that the AG is the oldest branch in the Army and has many functions.

"During wartime, the AG is responsible for casualty reporting. Also, whenever a soldier loses his life on the battlefield, it's the AG who notifies the next of kin," she said. "The AG has a sacred trust between the Army and the nation to be sure that when we are notifying that next of kin, it's done with dignity and respect. I am proud to be part of that sacred trust."


Both women have served in the Middle East during their time in the Army.

Hicks-McGowan, while still enlisted, served in Operation Desert Storm, then later also took part in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

She recalls vividly her first trip to the Middle East in 1991 and seeing the sea of sand that served as a wake-up call.

"I was a sergeant and responsible for people. I couldn't let them see my fear," she said.

Within 48 hours of arriving in Saudi Arabia, her unit came under Scud missile attack.

"The heart was pounding. I thought, I've got to get myself safe, but I was also thinking about the others. The people in my unit. Thanks to God, everyone in my unit returned home safely," she said.

Hicks-Callaway also remembers her time in the Middle East as harrowing. Her unit supported a signal brigade that set up communications for the commander.

"As the intelligence officer, I had to make sure they knew what they were facing or potentially facing," she said. "It was a scary feeling, having the responsibility of telling people this particular threat may be here, this particular threat might be there. Getting it wrong was always a possibility. You felt this fear, not necessarily of what could happen to you, but what could happen to them if you did not do your job."


As head of the ROTC program at Jackson State, Hicks-McGowan tries to instill in cadets that professionalism and performance matters the most.

"It's not the color of your skin in the Army that will hold you back or move you forward. Ultimately, it's the manner of your performance. The only thing that will hold you back is you."

She also said she has great respect for her cadets.

"Those that are coming into the military now, they know we are at war. This day and age these kids know the deal. It's not a matter of if you deploy, it's a matter of when," she said.

Hicks-Callaway's current assignment is chief of the intelligence analysis branch for the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

"Our job is to cover the globe for threats from the information perspective," she said.


Both women, as would be expected, have definite visions of the future.

Hicks-McGowan wants to continue her military service while pursuing her doctorate degree in public policy and administration at Jackson State.

Hicks-McGowan has been married for 17 years to Evangelist R. McGowan. They have a daughter, 15, and a son, 12.

"I want to be there for them a lot more," she said. "I'm taking it in blocks of three years at a time. We'll see what happens next."

Hicks-Callaway sees her promotion as an opportunity.

"Now that I am a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, I have the opportunity to be more of an influence to someone out there," she said. "I feel God has put me in this position for a reason, to have this promotion for a reason. I want to be a positive role model, an inspiration to others. I will now be able to be even more influential especially to those I can identify with. Those that started with very menial beginnings. At this level I have a greater opportunity to be an inspiration and an example."

She and her husband, high school coach Jason Callaway, have also discussed a transition plan. The Callaways have been married 15 years. They have two sons, 12 and 5.

"I love this country," Hicks-Callaway added. "I would like the opportunity to utilize what I learned as a political science major and what I learned in the U.S. Army to perhaps seek political office."



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