Michigan National Guard
Story by Bruce Huffman
Lansing, Mich.— As Women’s History Month comes to a close this year, the Michigan National Guard pays homage to Command Sgt. Maj. Catherine A. Farrell, former Senior Enlisted Advisor (SEA) who retired March 30 with 34 years of service in the U.S. Army. One of many highlights in her distinguished career, Farrell is the only woman to ever serve in this top leadership position with the Michigan National Guard. As SEA, she advised the adjutant general on all enlisted matters affecting training, utilization, health of the force, and enlisted professional development.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Farrell. “As a woman, you’re always having to prove yourself. But the Army has changed a lot since I started, and if you’re willing to put the effort into it, there are more opportunities for women than ever.”
Farrell grew up on a dairy farm in Dexter, and since she was 10 years old had to get up at 5 a.m. to feed and take care of the animals before she went to school. She enlisted in the U.S. Army April 30, 1987, to get away from those early morning chores, but soon found herself getting up even earlier to do physical training during boot camp. It was at that point she began to wonder what she had gotten herself into, but those feelings of anxiety wouldn’t last long, according to Farrell.
Thanks to years of hard work on the dairy farm, she found basic training fairly easy.
“Every time the drill sergeants would yell at me, I’d snicker,” she said. “These guys were sweethearts compared to my father, a hard-core Irish dairy farmer.” To hammer home the point that Army drill sergeants were not to be messed with, Farrell was given a large rock to carry with her everywhere she went.
“I guess I was a slow learner,” she said. “I ended up carrying that boulder the entire time until the end of Advanced Individual Training.” Accustomed to shouldering a heavy burden and going the extra mile, the ‘unbreakable’ Farrell would continue to prove her strength and tenacity throughout her military career.
She served as a Military Policeman (MP) at Fort Bliss, Texas, during her first Army enlistment. Determined to out-shoot the boys, Farrell scored higher on the rifle range than everyone in her unit, and was the first female ever selected to go to urbanized sniper school at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. “It was a real challenge,” said Farrell. “If you accidently shot any of the hostage targets during training you were immediately sent home, and that actually happened to a few Soldiers.” Not Farrell though, she had found her niche, and went on to be the class honor graduate.
After active duty she came back to Michigan and joined the Army reserve, 303rd MP Company in Jackson. It was about that time she joined the Lansing Police Department and began patrolling the streets of Michigan’s Capitol city. After seven years in the Army Reserves she joined the Michigan National Guard in March 1997, where she continued to progress in both her military and civilian careers, working to become a senior staff non-commissioned officer in the Guard, and a detective with the Lansing Police Department.
Drawn to the most challenging assignments, Farrell served on several overseas deployments throughout her military career such as Bosnia, Herzegovina, Egypt, Guantanamo Bay, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. “I missed a lot of holidays and family activities over the years, but the Army built my confidence, and made me into a better person,” Farrell remarked.
It’s hard to imagine, but when Farrell was a Master Sgt., she passed up a staff assignment and promotion to Sgt. Major for a more challenging position as a Company First Sgt. leading Soldiers. It was her strong commitment to the welfare of her troops, and choices like this that really highlighted her leadership abilities and contributed to her eventual selection as the SEA for the Michigan National Guard in March 2019.
“I’m very proud how the Soldiers and Airmen of the Michigan National Guard stood up and responded to everything that’s happened this past year, COVID 19, flooding in Midland, civil unrest and domestic operations, overseas deployments, support at the southern border, and most recently the security mission at the Capitol in Washington DC,” said Farrell.
After 34 years of exceptional military service, CSM Farrell decided to retire March 30. “I’ll miss the camaraderie and esprit-de-corps of the Soldiers and Airmen more than anything,” she said.
Farrell passed on her authority as SEA to Command Sgt. Maj. William W. Russell III at a change of responsibility ceremony at the Joint Forces Headquarters March 6.
“The success of the United States Army depends on the NCO corps, and it starts at the top with the Command Sergeant Major,” said Army Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard and director of the Michigan Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs. “The CSM commands the respect of senior leaders, and most important they command the respect of the more than 11,000 enlisted Soldiers and Airmen of this command,” said Rogers.
Rogers thanked Farrell for her assistance and mentorship during her time as SEA, remarking on her commitment and dedication to the men and women of the Michigan National Guard. “I appreciate her leadership and influence, not just over the past two years, but over the last 34,” said Rogers. “What CSM Farrell has given to this organization cannot be measured. The change she helped bring, the impact, the influence, and her leadership has been significant.”
A role model for all Soldiers and Airmen to emulate, Farrell especially blazed a trail for women in the armed forces with her many accomplishments, paving the way for generations of women to come.
CSM Farrell plans to retire and finish building her dream home in Lansing with husband William Byrnes, who is also a retired detective with the Lansing Police Department.