WITH U.S. FORCES, SAUDI ARABIA -- O.J. Williams was never one to travel with the crowd, so when she decided in 1972 to abandon high-school teaching for an uncertain future as an officer in the U.S. Army, her family and friends simply gave a resigned sigh and wished her well.
"I come from a family of 12 brothers and sisters," said Ora Jane Williams. "I've always been the odd one, and people just said O.J. was continuing in her normal vein."
Eighteen years later, Williams is a lieutenant colonel commanding a battalion-size logistics management unit screening supplies for three
Army divisions. She is one of the senior female officers working in a line unit in Operation Desert Storm.
"Obviously there's a better acceptance of women now, because there's so many more of them," the 49-year-old Monticello, Miss., native said in a recent interview. "But as I have progressed through the ranks, I've become a smaller commodity. At my level I'm not allowed to have a support system. I'm supposed to be above that."
Williams, a tall, handsome woman, gives a good impression of not needing much help. Working among mostly male peers and subordinates, she has the easy confidence of those accustomed to authority and adept at using it: "I'm here," she said, "because I can do it."
Williams began her Army career half by design, half by accident. A graduate of Alcorn Agricultural & Mechanical College and a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, she was teaching high-school home economics and science in Natchez, Miss., and casting about for "new directions." She was tired of the administrative hassles and tensions in the school system and wanted to move on to something else.
"I went to the movies with a friend, and saw an Army recruiter handing out literature," Williams said. "I was interested; the recruiter came back several times, and eight months after that I was in."
She became a lieutenant by direct commission, the beneficiary of a program designed to encourage intelligent women to join the armed forces. It wasn't until 1976 that the Army opened college Reserve Officer Training Corps programs to women.
Williams found in the Army a "completely different environment," but didn't think it was particularly hard on women, a judgment she has modified somewhat with hindsight: "I was so innocent in the system that I thought it was the same for everybody. I'm black, I'm female and I was always taller -- let's face it, I'm used to having a hard time."
The hurdles, for women, are always the same, Williams said, and must be overcome with each duty change: "Being the only female in the unit, the men are always thinking, 'Is she going to be a powder puff, or is she going to pull her weight?' It doesn't make any difference. You have to earn respect and demonstrate your capabilities." During her career Williams has worked as an administrative supply officer, a protocol officer, a field service company commander and a logistician at a division headquarters. She has served overseas in Germany and Korea, and attended the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
She arrived in Saudi Arabia in mid-August from Fort Bragg, N.C., as commanding officer of the 2nd Material Management Center, a battalion-sized unit charged with the computerized requisition of supplies for the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division and the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized).
Her command processes between 80,000 and 100,000 transactions every day, handling requests for "repair parts, barrier materials, clothing, tents, foodstuffs, ammo" and hundreds of thousands of other items either available in Saudi Arabia or ordered from the United States.
"Logisticians never settle down," she said. "We get one problem under control, and then something else happens." Right now, she said, she is looking for (and has found) all-cotton bras for female aviators. "Their flight suits are fireproof, but nylon bras would melt."
Williams has never married, but has a 12-year-old adopted son who "thinks he's 30 and acts like he's 8." The boy is staying with friends associated with a church group near Fort Bragg. "I could have sent him home to my family, but he doesn't know anybody there. At Bragg everything is familiar. He's doing fine."
Williams acknowledges that there is racism in the armed forces, "like every place else in the United States," but the Army "has a system for dealing with it" and does not ignore it. She encourages young people to join, "to present them with an option -- the Army can be a springboard."
And as a senior officer, a black person and a woman, she is much in demand as a speaker and adviser, a role she embraces -- up to a point. She has the teacher's gift as a communicator, but she also needs downtime. "Sometimes I don't take my uniform when I go home for a rest. Whenever I have it with me I always have to give a speech."