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By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
Twenty-eight years after she found her place in the Illinois Army National Guard, Command Sgt. Maj. Mary Dixon, of Chapin, Illinois, will retire Sept. 30.
Dixon, who enlisted in 1994 as a petroleum supply specialist assigned to the 258th Quartermaster Company in Beardstown initially joined for the education benefits, but once she arrived at basic training, decided she wanted to go on active duty.
“I enlisted for the education benefits the National Guard offered,” Dixon said. “Once I got to basic training, I knew this is what I needed to do. I was ready to go active duty.”
However, Dixon’s career path kept her closer to home as she instead applied for a federal technician job at Camp Lincoln.
“While I was on annual training at Camp Darby, Italy, I talked about my plans with then-Sergeant First Class Peggy Bates,” Dixon said. “She talked to me about federal technician jobs and helped me apply for my first couple of positions.”
Dixon began her first federal technician job as a shipping clerk in Supply and Services at Camp Lincoln in late 1995.
“I am very fortunate. The career path I took led me here,” she said.
Dixon, the Commandant of the 129th Regiment (Regional Training Institute), will retire from the Illinois Army National Guard, but will remain in her federal technician job as the chief of administrative services within the G-6 directorate, with oversight of the Department of the Army photo lab, the print shop, the state mail services, and as the Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act officer.
Dixon said she will miss the camaraderie of training and sharing like experiences with fellow Soldiers but offered a piece of advice for those still serving.
“The Illinois Army National Guard has given me the strength and confidence to give everything I could to the organization and my fellow Soldiers,” she said. “For those who are still serving in the National Guard, regardless of your rank, take care of your fellow Soldiers, whether they’re your battle buddy or a subordinate, focus on what’s right and everything else will work out.”
While things change over the course of a career, Dixon said she thinks the training changed the most since she first enlisted.
“When I joined, the military was very much in the Cold War-era attitudes. It was pre-September 11, so training was very different – we were training to fight a nation-state war,” she said, adding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed how the National Guard trains its Soldiers and Airmen. “We had to learn a new way to train because we were fighting an enemy that was everywhere.”
Dixon has deployed once in her career – with the Bilateral Embedded Staff Team (BEST) A-7 to Ghanzi Province, Afghanistan in 2011 as the senior logistics noncommissioned officer.
“The deployment helped reinforce the ideas of selfless service,” Dixon said. “I had the training I needed to do the job and the deployment allowed me to prove that to myself.”
Dixon said she volunteered for the deployment.
“I realized with the units I served in, if I don’t volunteer, a deployment isn’t going to just happen for me,” she said.
Dixon called the deployment successful, and the team stays in touch with each other.
“One of two things happen with a deployment, either you want nothing to do with anyone you deployed with, or you want to remain part of each other’s lives,” she said. “Our 18-person team is the latter, we like having reunions and being part of each other’s lives.”
Dixon said she made lifelong friendships with others on the deployment, particularly Sgt. Maj. (retired) Sharon Hultquist. The two were the only women Soldiers on the team. However, that didn’t hamper her ability to get the job done.
“She was an excellent battle buddy,” Dixon said. “I could bounce ideas off her. We crossed paths after the deployment, and she has remained a great friend and a great influence on my career.”
Dixon said Col. (retired) Michael Haerr, commander, BEST A-7, allowed her the freedom to get the job done.
“He gave me the latitude during the deployment to manage our shop the way we needed to in order to get the job done,” she said.
Dixon said for her fellowship and the camaraderie of serving with others is the most meaningful part of her military service and offers advice to young people who may be looking to serve in the military.
“I think everyone should serve at least one term in the military,” Dixon said. “The relationships you build will last a lifetime and, at least for me, military service will provide you with a purpose and direction.”
Dixon said to find a profession you enjoy and most likely you will find a similar position in the military.
“There are literally thousands of positions in the military, most which will translate into a civilian career as well,” she said. “If you find something you enjoy, something you’re passionate about, everything will fall into place.”
Among Dixon’s most memorable experiences of serving in the Illinois Army National Guard is the ‘super camps’ once conducted by the 129th RTI.
“In the early days of the RTI, we conducted super camps, which would last about a month,” she said. “Everyone packed up the entire schoolhouse, all the RTI’s courses, and moved to Camp Atterbury, Indiana, for training.”
She called the super camps amazing. “Things went wrong, and you had to figure out how to fix it,” she said. “It was hard, but you really learned to work as a team.”
Among the special people Dixon has served with throughout her career she singled out Master Sgt. (retired) Gary Staggs, who was the senior supply sergeant at the RTI.
“He gave me the leeway to do the job,” she said. “I ran the food service program and he trusted me to do the job. If I had questions, he’d be there to answer but he gave me a lot of latitude to run the program.”
Although Dixon served most of her career as a traditional Guardsman, she served one tour in the Active Guard and Reserve program, helping to stand up the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 44th Chemical Battalion, based in Macomb, Illinois.
“I am grateful for the AGR experience,” she said. “It gives me a greater appreciation to support the Soldiers serving in the field.”
Dixon’s husband, Matt, and two children, Rebecca, age 24 and Benjamin, age 15, have been supportive of her career.
“I have an amazingly supportive family,” she said. “I know I can’t give them the time back I missed, but I can use the rest of this time to reinforce the bonds we have made. I appreciate everything they did, there is no way I could have done what I did without their support.”
Dixon thinks her military service has had a lasting positive impact on her children.
“I think because of my military service, my children have an appreciation for hard work and the necessity to finish the job,” she said. “They know if you make a commitment, you need to follow through until the end.”
Dixon’s time in uniform may be winding down, but the extra time she will have won’t be wasted.
“I’ll have more time with my family,” she said. “I’ve missed a lot of family things.”
Dixon has purchased a vacant building in Chapin and has dubbed it her 10-year project. She plans to renovate the building and open it as an event venue.
Dixon is also actively involved in the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in Jacksonville and said she will have time to be more involved.
“The VFW saved me after the deployment,” Dixon said. “I reached out to them after I came back wanting to transfer my membership to the local post. At my first meeting, the then-adjutant wheeled his walker over to me and asked if I was coming back to the next meeting. I said yes, and he handed me this notebook and said, good you’re the adjutant now.”
Dixon said the members there, all Vietnam veterans and older, welcomed her into the post.
“A few years later I was asked to be the post commander because they said we needed younger members and fresh ideas,” she said. “More recently I served as the quartermaster, which is the organization’s finance officer, and I am currently the Senior Vice Commander.”
Serving in the VFW and its auxiliary is a family event, Dixon said.
“Matt also served in the Illinois National Guard, but never deployed, but has taken on the role of standing up the post’s new auxiliary, and is serving as the president,” she said.
The two met while volunteering on the state honor guard – at a time when it was an all-volunteer joint unit with the Air National Guard and had about eight active members.
“We performed a few funerals, but it was mostly drill and ceremony,” she said, adding the early honor guard laid the groundwork for today’s Funeral and Honors teams.
Dixon isn’t the only member of her family who has served in the military.
“I had a brother who served active duty in the Army and a brother and sister who served in the Navy,” she said laughing. “I’m the only one who served in the National Guard.”
It is through her service Dixon has come to appreciate certain military traditions.
“Everyone likes to be recognized for the work they do,” she said. “Whether it’s a promotion or an awards presentation, it’s important Soldiers are thanked publicly for their hard work. Honoring them for their accomplishments allows others to see the results of hard work and dedication and gives them goals to work toward.”
Dixon has served alongside several Guardsmen over the years, but has served with three, in particular, for extended periods of time. Through these assignments, friendships were born.
Staff Sgt. Samantha Singer, of Toulon, first met Dixon in 2008 when they went to annual training in Oklahoma and describes her as a phenomenal leader.
“She puts the care and welfare of Soldiers first and foremost,” she said. “She knows the rules and regulations like the back of her hand, which ensures good training.”
Singer, a traditional National Guard Soldier, is a supply sergeant assigned to the 3625th Classification and Inspection Company, based at North Riverside, recalls one particular set of circumstances that has helped solidify a decades-long friendship.
Singer said she and Dixon were among a group of Illinois National Guard Soldiers participating in Exportable Combat Training Capabilities (XCTC) missions in Oklahoma and she was sharing a room with Dixon.
She recalled one evening when she was outside on the phone with her mother and Dixon comes out – telling her there’s a spider in the room and she needs to come and kill it because she’s terrified of spiders. Other issues forced a move from the hotel, but graduation weekend at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, left barely any rooms available.
“The entire annual training was chaotic, but then-Sgt. 1st Class Dixon handled it all with professionalism and a positive attitude,” Singer said. “We have been friends since.”
Dixon later hired Singer as a temporary federal technician in Springfield.
“I worked for her for a while at the RTI and then our careers as both Soldiers and federal technicians took different paths, but we reconnected when she served as the command sergeant major of the 108th Multifunctional Medical Battalion (MMB) in Chicago,” said Singer, who, as a federal technician, is a budget analyst for the Construction Facility Management Office at the Galesburg Armory.
Dixon’s service alongside Lt. Col. Matthew White of Arlington Heights, executive officer of the 108th Sustainment Brigade, began when Dixon was selected as the 108th MMB’s command sergeant major and White served as the executive officer, later becoming battalion commander. Together with Dixon, the two served as the 108th MMB’s command team from 2016-2019.
White said he would characterize Dixon as the epitome of Army values, a person of courage regardless of the consequences and someone who advocates diversity and inclusion.
“She excels in all she does,” White said. “She has a clear vision of where she wants the organization to go. Her innovation in creating the Best Warrior Competition in the battalion as well as creating leader books for the battalion’s junior noncommissioned officers impressed me. In fact, the leader books were identified as a best practice and shared throughout the brigade.
White said Dixon has a passion of advocating for Soldiers.
“Command Sergeant Major Dixon truly cares for those she serves with and those in her charge,” White said. “Her number one priority was junior leader development and helping junior Soldiers in advancing both their military career and civilian career.”
“She is one of the best noncommissioned officers with whom I’ve served,” he said.
The current senior enlisted leader of the 108th Sustainment Brigade, Command Sgt. Maj. Kehinde Salami, agrees with White.
“She is my go-to person when I have an issue and she has never guided me wrong,” he said. “I know I could always go to her even if it was to bounce ideas off her and I never questioned her judgement.”
Salami met Dixon in 2008 when he transferred from the U.S. Army Reserves into the 108th MMB.
Salami was assigned to the force health protection section with Dixon when he came into the Illinois Army National Guard. He had an issue with promotion paperwork to sergeant first class. Salami said Dixon was able to straighten out the paperwork which allowed him to get promoted.
“She is a wonderful leader who cares about Soldiers and those around her,” he said. “She is an excellent leader and very organized.”
Salami said the Illinois National Guard is losing a great Soldier with Dixon’s retirement.
“We are losing a wonderful leader,” Salami said. “I know she’ll still be working as a civilian employee, but the Illinois National Guard is going to miss her as a Soldier.”