Army Lt. Col. Donna Abrokwa was a “top-rated” commander who was known for turning around low preforming Army Reserve units into prepared fighting forces ready for deployment.
The Army was her first family. She loved the work, preparing soldiers and being a leader during her 25 years of service. She dreamed of becoming a Brigadier General and with her exemplary career it wasn’t out of reach.
That is until August 2014 when she took command of the 77th Sustainment Brigade at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Prior to her command in New Jersey, she was a “Top Block” Battalion Commander at 7-95th in Grand Prairie, Texas, according to documents and multiple interviews.
The 77th Sustainment Brigade, however, did not have the same stellar history as Colonel Abrokwa. The brigade had a reputation as an underperforming unit with poor metrics and discipline which six previous leaders had been unable correct. It was the major reason why she was transferred to command the unit and turn it around, she said.
Instead, as she attempted to turn the unit around, she would end up in a battle that put her career on the line when those she was asked to command turned on her with demonstrably false allegations. Sadly, instead of supporting Colonel Abrokwa, her superiors also turned on her dragging her through a four year ordeal which lacked equity, equality, transparency and oversight.
She isn’t just fighting for herself, she’s fighting for all the other soldiers who have and are going through the same unfair Army reprimand process that lacks appropriate oversight and substantial evidence to prove the claims, she told this reporter.
“Initially the soldiers received me, thought I was to be their friend because I was African American…I expressed to them that I’m here to command and I am not your friend,” recalled Abrokwa.
It began with an encounter and request by several staff officers in April, 2015. The two staff officers asked her for help in removing a senior commander they said was racist at the facility. She refused. Abrokwa told SaraACarter.com that she saw no evidence that the commander in question was racist. Up until this moment, Abrokwa had not been counseled for any reason at this point and likewise had received no complaints about her performance, said Former Army JAG Lt. Colonel and now Director of the Warrior Defense Project at St. Mary’s University School of Law, Jeffrey Addicott, who is one of the attorney’s representing Abrokwa.
In May, less than a month after this untoward request, an “anonymous complainant” accused her of too many Rescheduling for Training (RSTs) events for the soldiers in her unit.
“The Inspector General received an allegation that you improperly conducted RSTs between October 2014 and April 2015 in violation of Army Regulation 140-I…we referred the allegation to your command,” a March 11, 2016 letter from an investigator with Inspector General states. The letter also stated that results of the investigation would remain in the IG database.
Shortly later, the subordinates would add to the accusations that the 5′ 3″ Abrokwa was a toxic leader, a bully and threatened the career of her subordinates.
SaraACarter.com could not reach the soldiers who complained about Abrokwa.
Four Years of Limbo
Since the complaints were logged against Abrokwa she has been in a four year state of limbo until early 2019 when her commanding General ordered her discharged from the Army Reserve. Abrokwa, who is now divorced with two children has filed a final appeal of that decision in hopes of retention. Currently Abrokwa’s final appeal is with U.S. Army Reserve Commander Lt. Gen. Charles D. Luckey, said Addicott.
How the Army handled Abrokwa’s case is not uncommon. In fact, some legal authorities call the reprimand and elimination proceedings the Army’s “dirty little secret,” because it’s the Army’s way “of punishing soldier’s when evidence isn’t there. The Army requires no standard of proof for a reprimand to be filed, permanently, in a soldier’s official military records.”
“Unbelievably, instead of grooming Colonel Abrokwa for General Officer rank, the military engaged on a multi-year vendetta against this sterling officer all because she demanded that the troops under her command had to perform to Army standards,” Addicott said. “Instead of supporting this hard charging officer, her chain of command chose to target her for discharge – they didn’t want to rock the boat.”
The failure to win her last appeal forced her out for “essentially being a leader who strove to inspire success and combat readiness in her command through following Army values and leadership,” Addicott added.
Was it because she is a woman? Was it because those beneath her simply thought she wouldn’t be as hard on the unit that was mostly made up of minorities because she was black? Did she expect too much from a group of Reservists she didn’t feel were prepared or ready to be deployed if the occasion warranted? Would it have been different if a man had commanded the brigade?
Maybe it was all of it, she told SaraACarter.com. What she didn’t expect was that despite a stellar career her senior commanders didn’t seem to care or want to fight for her when everything in her last command post turned upside down. Devastated by the betrayal is the only way Abrokwa could describe what happened.
“Initially the soldiers received me, as though I was to be their friend because I was African American,” she said in the Summarized Record Of Officer Board of Inquiry held on Oct. 20, 2018. “I expressed to them that I’m here to command and I am not your friend. Some people may have been offended. The 77th STB lacked discipline and I had an uphill climb.”
She has a much steeper hill now, said Addicott.
“Pending a final decision on our last appeal LTC Abrowka will be administratively discharged but with an ‘Honorable Discharge’ from the US Army Reserve,” he added, noting that all she wants is an opportunity to receive the promotion she earned and to continue serving her country.
She Doesn’t Want the Honorable Discharge, She Wants To Serve
Recalling her long military career isn’t easy for the Abrokwa. She said the pain of having to fight for her career over the last four years has been agonizing. Still, she doesn’t want to give up.
In fact, during the past four years she has been in limbo and afforded no due process. The U.S. Army Reserve’s 316th Expeditionary Support Command under then Brigadier Gen. Richard Staats (who was himself subsequently removed from command) and Brigadier Gen. Robert Harter did little to expedite a fair investigation in a timely manner, kept her from her duties, and denied her the ability to command or grow in rank, she told this reporter.
“It’s been excruciating,” she said. “In my heart I know I did my best. I did what I had done when I commanded other units and the allegations were just not true. I was never warned about any behavior or counseled prior to my initial suspension from command.”
Testimonies of Support
In fact, many senior commanders came to Abrokwa’s support over the years. Letters and testaments to her work ethic and leadership poured into the 2018 review board overseeing her case in the military.
One former Army Brigade Commander who Abrokwa worked for testified on behalf of Abrokwa. He said in response to the Army’s investigation report, known as the AR 15-6, that she was “a firm and fair commander…who raised her unit’s readiness from one of the worst in the 80th Training Command to the best battalion in the 94th Training Division through a program that created transparency and accountability for personal readiness in less than a year.”
In another letter supporting Abrokwa a Command Sergeant Major with the 3rd Brigade, 94th Division said she “was the the catalyst for change within out unit and was the leader who refused to accept the status quo.”
In another testament, a First Sergeant of the Warrior Transition Battalion from Fort Sam Houston said Abrokwa, “put into motion a plan to improve unit readiness. I would be the first to admit that it was challenging. One of her methods included the ‘The Readiness Wall.”
“This developed to hold us accountable and to ensure progression toward unit readiness,” the First Sergeant said. “For some, this was a challenge, as accountability usually is.”
Addicott said that despite her record, a single Army investigator charged with Abrokwa’s case based most of his findings on the complaints of just three disgruntled soldiers. He said the decision by the board against her appeal was disappointing considering how many senior commanders and subordinates came to her defense. The fact that she had no history of bullying subordinates didn’t seem to matter to those handling her case, he said.
‘Get Off My Wall’
One of the first steps Abrokwa took at Fort Dix was to establish what she called a “wall of transparency,” she said. The wall reminded the soldiers what they lacked, what they still needed to qualify for and where the unit was as a whole as far as readiness to deploy overseas. It was about the metrics, she said.
“There is nothing bullying or toxic about having individual compliance with metrics posted on a bulletin board,” she said in her response to the Army in October, 2015. “I would exclaim at formations to ‘Get off My Wall,” but I never used the Lord’s name in vain. And to the extent that I raised my voice, being 5’ 3″ tall, I often need to raise my voice (not yelling) in order to project to a larger group, such as motor pool formations with 150 personnel.”
It was a bulletin board, of sorts, that allowed her to identify the units metrics and readiness. It was not wall of shame she said. Abrokwa listed the soldiers by name and it didn’t violate any privacy protocols.
“I was even up on the wall for needing to qualify on my 9mm,” Abrokwa wrote in her October, 2015 response to the Army regarding the complaints lobbed against her. “This was an inclusive process for the unit in order to build cohesion and prepare for deployment.”
Simply put, Lt. Col. Abrokwa was just doing her job, she said.
Hiring Addicott and going forward with her story is one last ditch effort to save her National Guard career and clear her name.
“I’m an African American female and I came into an organization that was mainly filled with minorities,” she said. “At my previous command I received a top rating and also when I came into this command I was in the prestigious war college. When I came into this organization planning to do what I had always done but this time it was different. I tried to change a culture in a unit that was unprepared and undisciplined.”
Abrokwa retained Addicott last year and he has filed a final appeal to the Army this year.