When the going gets too tough for new Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps cadets in the Muscogee County School District, their commander can give them wise advice not only because of her top position but because she nearly gave up.
Cadet Lt. Col. Kennedy Davenport is the first female commander of the Kendrick High School battalion, comprising 207 cadets. She also is considered the second female commander in the history of the Muscogee County brigade, representing about 1,200 cadets.
So, having a history of overcoming internal and external doubts, Kennedy is confident she can persevere through her next challenge.
Her acceptance package this month from West Point, N.Y., came with a caveat. Although she has a 3.2 grade-point average and an impressive resume, her SAT and ACT scores weren't good enough to get into the U.S. Military Academy right away, so she was admitted to the academy's prep school. It's on the same prestigious campus and can lead to the same success.
"Six months in, you re-apply to the academy," Kennedy said. "They say that, most of the time, people in the prep school, as long as they're doing well, they get into the academy. I just need to work a little bit harder, just a tad harder, and I'll be there."
Despite the complication, Kennedy still is thrilled.
"I was happy, without a doubt," she said. "I'm grateful. I'm full of gratitude. This is one of those feeling that you just can't explain. I've been working on this for a long time."
Kennedy also has been accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and she is waiting for word from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., but she is leaning toward West Point. Regardless, she plans to somehow serve in the military as her career.
"I don't know why, but it's just something that I feel is right," she said. "It's the logical thing for me to do."
Follow then lead
A cousin who was discharged from the Navy for gaining too much weight is the only family member she knows who has served in the military, Kennedy said. So she joined the JROTC as a freshman at Kendrick not knowing what to expect.
"I probably looked at the uniforms and thought, 'I want to wear that,'" she said with a smile. "When I looked at them, I just had a respect for them because I knew they were doing something good in life. They were doing things out of the kindness of their heart, serving others, doing good things."
But she got off to a rough start.
"When I had upperclassmen telling me what to do, I didn't like it," she said. "They're just trying to get you back in order, but I did not like that at all."
Kennedy expressed her feelings to retired Sgt. Major Jackie McGriff, the Army instructor at Kendrick. She told him, "I cannot deal with this. I just want to cheer and play soccer."
The instructor responded, "Fall back in formation. You have to listen to them. They're put in that position for a reason."
Kennedy complied. She realized that if she wanted the impressive ribbons on her uniform, she must do the little things to get the big things.
"You have to learn how to follow before you can lead," she said.
McGriff put it this way: "I explained to her that, throughout your life, you're not going to like everyone. There will always be someone that doesn't like you and you don't like them. But once you overcome that, then you'll be ready. The next day, she said that she was ready, and she's been going ever since."
As she rose through the ranks, Kennedy's gender didn't hold her back, but it has been an issue.
"It definitely puts a lot of pressure on you," she said. "Everything is mainly male predominant. A lot of people aren't ready for a lady to be in charge, a lady taking control. I know that I have a lot to prove, but I believe I can stand up to it. I believe I can accomplish anything. Just because I'm female, I don't think it will stop me from leading or finishing any tasks that need to be completed."
Still, she has sensed not everyone is ready to accept a female military leader. At a school district event, Kennedy was standing in a reception line with the brigade's cadet sergeant major, who is male.
"Everybody was walking by, shaking our hands, saying hello," Kennedy said, "but (an official) looked at me, looked me up and down, then he looked at my sergeant major and shook his hand but not mine."
Asked how she reacted, Kennedy said, "I know everybody isn't ready to accept this, so it didn't bother me at all. I'm still here. I'm still going to do my job."
No cadets, however, have disrespected her, she noted.
"I believe everybody under me are pretty good peers, cadets, all of them," she said.
In fact, the cadets in Kendrick's battalion are majority female now, McGriff said. And most of the battalion commanders in the brigade are female, Kennedy said.
"Females are slowly taking over the program," McGriff said with a laugh. Then he added in a serious tone, "They are just as qualified as the males now."
Kennedy shares her turnaround with the younger cadets.
"Every day isn't smooth sailing," she tells them. "When they don't want to listen to a certain leader, I can pull them aside and say, 'This is what has to happen and this is what you need to do.' A lot of them, they change their attitudes tremendously. They straighten up and do what they have to do."
McGriff notices the positive impact Kennedy makes.
"She constantly shows other kids, explains, motivates, demonstrates things," he said. "A lot of peer leaders, they just want to be telling somebody to do something, but she likes to show them in order to excel and be all they can be. She sets the example. She leads by example."
McGriff and retired Maj. Johnny Smith, the senior JROTC instruction at Kendrick, selected Kennedy to be the battalion commander based on her effort and achievement. To become brigade commander over the entire district, she needed to document her leadership in a resume, take a written test to show her knowledge, and demonstrate her bearing and confidence during an interview with a panel of senior instructors.
"In my opinion," Smith said, "she's definitely top gun for the county."
Initiative is the key reason, he said.
"You just need to tell her to do something once," Smith said.
In addition to the brigade and battalion, Kennedy also commands her school's JROTC color guard, raider team, drill team and rifle team. Her other activities include working at a Carmike Cinemas concessions stand, playing varsity soccer and softball, participating in the Experimental Aircraft Association and Women in Aviation, and volunteering for Special Olympics and Junior Marshals.
"Before I got into JROTC, I didn't know what I wanted to do in life," Kennedy said. "It changed me. It changed me a lot."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
For more information about the JROTC program in the Muscogee County School District, call the office at 706-748-3108.