A Champion for Women Who Served: Phyllis Wilson Leads the Way
“You put yourself in the right place; you never know what can happen,” advises Phyllis Wilson. And this three-time Excelsior graduate can rightfully back up this claim. Currently, the president of the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 Wilson has an impressive 37-year military career, seven college degrees, a registered nurse credential, eight children, and 12 grandchildren.
With the goal of becoming a doctor, Wilson started her college career at a local community college following high school, the first in her family to pursue higher education. But due to limited financial resources, she could only afford one or two courses at a time. “I realized that I was two and a half years into it, and I didn’t even have one year of college finished and I thought this is going to take forever—there’s got to be a better way,” she recalls. And as fate would have it, she passed an Army recruiting station that was promoting college tuition benefits.
Wilson signed up, expecting to serve a four-year enlistment, yet discovered military service resonated with her. “There was something about the military that was a perfect fit,” she explains. “I just love the teamwork and the travel—the incredible sights, scenes, sounds, and foods that I probably would have never been exposed to had I not raised my right hand and said I’m willing to join the military.”
She began her Army career as a Military Intelligence German linguist voice intercept operator. During her active and reserve service, she held roles ranging from tactical to strategic with duty in Germany, Iraq, and the United States. She mobilized to support Operation Desert Shield/Operation Desert Storm and served as the signals intelligence collection manager for XVIII Airborne Corps, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Wilson also supported Operation Enduring Freedom as a senior counterterrorism analyst and deployed twice to Iraq with a highly specialized Joint Special Operations Task Force, whose objective was the capture of Osama Bin Laden.
Military tuition benefits launched her educational career, covering the costs of three of her degrees. She earned the first, an associate degree, while living in Germany. She earned an LPN certificate stateside with the goal of joining her husband in Germany and working at the local military hospital. When that didn’t work out as planned, she took a position at a credit union, which offered tuition benefits as well. She observes, “Life throws you curve balls, and you’ve got to learn to swing.”
And Wilson is pragmatic about those curve balls in her life. “I would much rather have failed trying to do something than regret that I never tried. Because when I’m much older, I don’t want to regret that I didn’t even try for it.”
Failure wasn’t an option when Wilson attended the Army’s airborne school. “I was not coming back to an airborne unit without those wings,” she says about earning her Parachutist Badge. “You find a way to get through. It truly is mental. There is so much your body can do for you, but sometimes you think you can’t. But if your mind tells you that you can, you can!”
Now as the leader of the Military Women’s Memorial, the nation’s only major national memorial to honor all women who have defended the nation from the Revolutionary War until the present, Wilson continues her service in a civilian role. “Everything I’ve done in the military, God’s path, has prepared me to do exactly what I’m doing here [at the Memorial] I love this job!”
A parking lot encounter is another example of finding herself in the right place, one that prompted Wilson to apply for the Military Women’s Memorial position. “I didn’t want to be associated with a military women’s anything,” she explains. “I was a soldier, not a woman soldier.” But after being confronted by a man who questioned her right to use a specially marked veteran’s parking spot, she rethought the opportunity. He asked Wilson if her husband was with her, incorrectly assuming only a man could be a veteran. Biting her tongue, this Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame member calmly explained that she was indeed entitled to use the spot. She explains, “Goodness, how many more women have to wear a uniform to serve this country before they’re recognized? Situations like this are happening to other women too and somebody has to champion them. Why not me?”
Wilson earned her seventh college degree—her third at Excelsior—in June 2021. She used her Master in Public Administration capstone course to explore the Memorial’s organizational construct. Throughout her Excelsior studies, earning a BS in Liberal Studies in 1988 and a BS in Nursing in 2010, she enjoyed the College’s flexible approach to learning and its military savviness. Based on her personal experience at other colleges and universities, she observes, “There weren’t a lot of colleges and universities that were nearly as helpful as Excelsior in finding those additional credits.” The College, she says, is a good fit for military students. “They get it, they know what an ACE guide looks like, they know what a joint service transcript is, and they can help you get maximum credit,” she explains.
As a recent graduate student working on her second master’s degree, she cites access to a world-class library and the collaboration with her fellow students as hallmarks of her experience. Noting the importance of self-improvement, she says, “higher education is a great way to demonstrate that you’re trying to be the best possible employee, whether in uniform or out of uniform.”