Reviewing the troops is not commonly a woman's privilege, but Flaxie Pinkett is an uncommon woman.
When she received the Distinguished Service Medal from Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander last month -- it's the highest military honor a civilian can receive -- he assembled some of his finest for her inspection. Pinkett looked every bit a head of state as she gave the soldiers, all spruced up in their dress uniforms, the once over.
A cannon's rumbling shot split the air, and the secretary of the army kissed her on the cheek. Pinkett has been a civilian aide to the Army for two years, but she might have reached her high point last month, when, at Alexander's request, she and 36 other civilian aides across the country, left left for eight-day tour of U.S. military installations in Japan, Hawaii and Korea.
Their mission was to inform the secretary on how to improve the quality of military life overseas.
Pinkett took the direct approach to her duty. "I went to the mess hall and asked, 'May I have breakfast with you?'" she said. "I always talked to the ones who were standing by themselves wondering who the black lady in the suit is."
Overall, Pinkett said, she was impressed by the soldiers. In her report to the secretary, however, she recommended the youths be given an ongoing program of vocational counseling -- a personal program that helps them find self-fulfillment in the military as well as discusses their future.
"I found that in many instances they weren't using their free time to the best extent," she explained. "It wasn't a challenge to them, biding their time until their tour of duty is over."
Pinkett said she was disturbed at the number of service men and women who said they did not plan to reenlist after their tours of duty. The U.S. spends far too much money on training to allow soldiers to lose interest in their work, she said.
Many of the soldiers had heard of the fringe benefits the Army offered, such as vocational training, but never took advantage of them, she added.
"I saw the need for a continuing counseling service that persuades them to talk about their future and what they could do," Pinkett said.
She met one young man in Korea who found his job repairing machinery meaningless and degrading. Pinkett told him that in the U.S. or anywhere, a machine part by itself is useless; labor gives it its value. Her point: Get the training here to land a job as a mechanic back home.
Pinkett is president of John R. Pinkett, Inc., a D.C. real estate and insurance company begun by her father in 1932, a year before she entered Howard University.She is interested is all levels of education and has served on numerous boards and committees, including a term as chairman of the D.C. Board of Higher Education.
As a liaison between Fort McNair and the District, she has supported the city's high school cadet programs and sought greater participation by small and minority concerns in military contracts.
By the end of the grueling trip by bus, cargo plane and helicopter, Pinkett said she had established a cheerful camaraderie with her companions. The 27 men and 10 women, five of whom were black, were briefed on top security matters at each military installation.
When traveling near some of the world's trouble spots, she said, she sometimes felt danger was very close.
Her stop in Korea was the only time Pinkett had an opportunity to meet and talk at length with the soldiers -- the most worthwhile part of the trip, she said.There she met 16 military men and women, who found Pinkett's silver-laced hair and slow, soft smile sweet reminders of home.
When she returned home, she called their parents -- including one couple who lives in Alexandria, parents of the only local soldier she met on the trip.
"I'd go again," she said. The trip made her understand and appreciate the role of the peacetime soldier. "I feel I made a difference in the lives of 16 men and women."