Meriam Webster defines the term ‘trailblazer’ as, “One that blazes a trail to guide others: PATHFINDER.”
There are quite a few who fit the ‘trailblazer’ description in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Mississippi Valley Division Commander Maj. Gen. Diana Holland is one such person many would say fits it quite well.
General Holland defines trailblazer for many reasons, including being the first woman appointed commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as well as being the first female Mississippi Valley Division commander and first woman Mississippi River Commission president.
The general was interviewed when she was first appointed commandant, and in response to one of the questions, she told the Daily Times’ Gordon Block, "Every day there's another first. Pretty soon we’re going to be out of firsts, and it’s going to be, as you say, just another officer taking one of these positions."
General Holland’s reference to, “… just another officer taking one of these positions” rings quite true for many organizations around the country but especially for the Memphis District, as the number of women in top leadership roles has climbed to an astounding six women. And like General Holland, four are also the first women to be appointed to their current role in top leadership.
The Memphis District is making history by doing one of the things it does best: taking care of people. It does this by making sure its employees are given opportunities, women, and men alike, to grow and flourish in their careers.
Given Women’s Equality Day was Aug. 26, the Memphis District is celebrating this group of ‘firsts’ with the series, “Memphis District Trailblazers”.
These notable women leading our district include Engineering and Construction Division Chief Elizabeth Burks, District Chief of Contracting Priscilla Sweeney, Readiness and Contingency Operations (RCO) / Emergency Management (EM) Chief Kandi Waller, District Counsel Suzy Weil, Operations Division Chief Andrea Williams, and Resource Management Division Chief Voncile Williams.
Women leaders bring different perspectives on strategic leadership to the table, offer a wide array of benefits and versatility in the way they lead, and the advice they provide is always genuine.
And when we wanted to know more, this group was gracious enough to reveal, some things on a personal level, their diverse viewpoints and the experiences they’ve had, both while leading and before getting into their current roles. But before diving into all this, getting to know them a little more seems appropriate.
Elizabeth Burks became the Memphis District’s first female Engineering and Construction Division chief in February 2022.
In this role, she is responsible for the engineering and construction of flood risk management, navigation, ecosystem restoration, and water supply projects within the boundaries of the Memphis District, which includes portions of Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky.
Burks joined the Memphis District in 1999, as a civil engineer intern. She’s worked in various offices including Construction, Hydraulics and Hydrology, Technical Services, Project Management, and Project Development.
Projects she’s worked on include the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the historic 2011 flood on the Mississippi River, the Grand Prairie Project, and the Regional Channel Improvement Program.
Burks graduated from the University of Memphis in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She is a registered professional engineer in the states of Tennessee and Arkansas and is certified as a project management professional. She is also certified as a Lean Six Sigma practitioner and holds the status of black belt.
Next, Priscilla Sweeney became the district’s third* female Chief of Contracting, but this isn’t the first time she’s made history by being a ‘first’.
In 1983, she earned the distinction of being Kansas State University's first Kodak All-American women's basketball player. She also became the first female inductee to the KSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998.
Then in 2017, Sweeney was inducted into the state of Kansas’ Sports Hall of Fame. After graduating from KSU, Sweeney served in the U.S. Air Force as a contracting specialist and retired at the rank of Senior Master Sergeant. There she was the Department of Defense Female Athlete of the Year and Air Force Female Athlete of the Year in 1988. She also played semi-professional basketball from 1996-1998.
In 2009, the Wildcats honored Sweeney with a jersey retirement ceremony, where her Number 10 was housed to the rafters of Bramlage Coliseum. And at age 30, the Houston Comets invited Sweeney to play in the Women's National Basketball Association. She declined the offer to follow other pursuits.
Sweeney went on to work for USACE Memphis District as a contracting specialist in 2004, steadily working her way up to her current role as chief of contracting.
Kandita “Kandi” H. Waller is the district’s second* female Chief of Readiness and Contingency Operations (RCO) / Emergency Management (EM).
Waller is no stranger to the district as she has been serving on this team since 1998, where she began as a civil engineer in the Civil Design Branch.
A few years later, she moved to River Engineering, which would later become part of Hydraulics and Hydrology (H&H), where she would serve for 18 years. During her time in H&H, Waller started supporting the annual Flood Fight mission while growing to understand the intricacies of the Mississippi River.
In 2019, Waller joined the RCO team as the Natural Disaster Program Manager, where she managed the flood fight mission. Then in 2020 during Hurricane Laura response efforts, Waller stepped up and began assuming the duties of RCO Chief, and eventually serving in this capacity on a 120-day assignment.
Waller was born and reared in Memphis, went to ECS for Kindergarten through eighth grade, and White State High School 9-12th. She attended the University of Memphis for both her bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering and calls the University of Arkansas “HOGS” her team, despite her University of Memphis “Tigers” roots.
Then in April 2013, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Suzy Weil assumed her position as the first female District Counsel following a distinguished career in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
As Memphis District Counsel, Weil serves as the chief legal advisor to the Memphis District Commander, providing oversight in all areas of Corps legal services, including contract law, environmental law, fiscal law, real estate, torts, and admiralty claims, civilian personnel law and EEO.
Before joining USACE, Weil served as the Chief of Administrative Law and Command Judge Advocate, Army Element, United States Southern Command, Department of Defense. Weil also served as an operational Staff Judge Advocate for the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF), Fort Belvoir, with detachments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay.
Weil graduated from The George Washington University in 1988 with a Bachelor of Art degree in Political Communications and Journalism. Weil later graduated in 1991 from the St. Thomas University School of Law earning her Juris Doctorate. She is an avid fan of the NFL and MLB.
In April 2022, Andrea Williams became the first woman appointed to Operations Division Chief.
In this role, she is responsible for the Operation and Maintenance of the Physical Support Branch to include Ensley Engineer Yard Marine Maintenance Center; the Regional Channel Improvement fleet to include the revetment Mat Loading, Grading, and Clearing and Snagging Units; the Dredge Hurley and its associated floating plant; the Motor Vessel Mississippi, Huxtable and Graham Burke Pumping Stations; and providing support to the Engineering and Construction Division as well as the Programs and Project Management Division.
Andrea started her career as a co-op student with the Nashville District, Tennessee. She joined the Memphis District in 2000, serving as a civil engineer in the Construction Branch. She was promoted in 2002 to supervisory civil engineer and served as Water Data Section chief. In 2011, Andrea moved to the Operations Division where she served as Plant Section chief at Ensley Engineer Yard.
Andrea then went on to join the Galveston District in 2019, as an operations project manager over Addicks and Barker Dams and Wallisville Lake. Later in January 2020, she deployed to Afghanistan for two years, supporting Operation Freedom’s Sentinel where she was the Technical Services Branch chief.
She then returned to the Memphis District in January 2022 when she was selected to serve in a temporary position as Operations Division chief and was subsequently hired to fill the position permanently.
Andrea is a Nashville, Tennessee, native, graduating from Tennessee State University in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She also holds a master’s degree in civil engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Last but certainly not least, Voncile Williams is the district’s first female Resource Management Division chief and serves as the commander's advisor and chief financial officer.
In this role, she is responsible for planning, managing, and directing the district’s overall Resource Management Program and its various components of financial management, including budget, manpower, management analysis, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Financial Management System.
Voncile has worked in various USACE offices for a total of twenty-five years with the Directorate of Engineering and Technical Services Division, Programs and Project Management Division, and in resource management offices. In her previous positions, she has worked for the Korea Installation Management Agency and Army Materiel Command.
Her Mississippi Valley Division regional memberships include the Regional Program Review Board, Regional Program Budget and Advisory Committee, and Fleet & Equipment Board, having the primary objective of incorporating sound financial management principles into regional processes.
Voncile graduated from Grambling State University in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in business management and is certified as a DoD Financial Manager, Level III and serves as the district's career program manager for the comptroller career field.
Like all district leaders, they have the education and experience required to be in their roles, but they have much more than that, too.
As history has told us, women have oftentimes been placed in unique, sometimes difficult situations. It is through these circumstances they have acquired the courage, resiliency, and strength needed to rise to the next level – to take that chance or present that idea no one else could or would. It is why women leaders add so much to this district, to this nation, and to this world; because of all this and more, we are beyond fortunate to have them leading us and guiding us every step of the way.
*Corrections*: Following publication, we were notified of two unfortunate errors in identifying the first women in leadership roles. The following positions were incorrectly attributed:
- District Chief of Contracting
- Readiness and Contingency Operations (RCO) / Emergency Management (EM) Chief
- First Readiness and Contingency Operations (RCO) / Emergency Management (EM) Chief: Patsy Fletcher
- First District Chief of Contracting: Glenda Tackett (late 1990s to early 2000s). Jean Todd followed; hired Priscilla Sweeney as a Contract Specialist in 2004.
We sincerely apologize for these errors as we strive to deliver factual information 100 percent of the time. However, we rely on many sources for info, so sometimes things are unfortunately overlooked, and that's why having a significant readership is so important to us.