FORT HOOD — At 18, Jeanne Pace decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and enlist in the Women’s Army Corps in 1972 as a clarinet player.
Four decades later, the commander for the 1st Cavalry Division Band is the longest-serving female in the Army and hopes to continue serving the country through music until her mandatory retirement date of Aug. 31, 2015.
“I was planning on a 20-year retirement, but decided if I’m not really just marking the days, waiting for 20 years, then obviously I’m still enjoying what I’m doing,” said the chief warrant officer during a rehearsal Friday before a change of command ceremony at Fort Hood. “I was just enjoying what I did so much.”
Pace said she always hoped she would recognize if she became complacent or tired of the job, but after 40 years, she still has a lot to offer.
In 1985, Pace transitioned to a warrant officer. She accepted her final promotion of chief warrant officer-5 in 2002.
“I thought if (the Army) has confidence in me that I can continue to serve, then I’m going to stick around,” she said. “At that point in my career, it was kind of like the program has been so good to me and I still have something I can offer with my level of education and experience.”
Growing up, Pace remembers thinking everyone whose names were in history books were dead. Now, as the last active-duty soldier who was part of the Women’s Army Corps, which was disbanded in 1978, Pace might one day be one of those names.
As she watched the role of women change, Pace recognizes her accomplishments were possible with the help of the women who came before her.
“I think it’s great how far women have come,” she said, adding she still keeps in touch with band members who were part of the Women’s Army Corps.
After reaching the peak of promotions, Pace continues to work for the pure passion of being a bandmaster, aiming to help soldiers reach their full potential.
“I really see my role as being behind my soldiers with a gentle hand, pushing them forward,” she said.
Sgt. Jeremiah Phillips has played his trumpet in the band under Pace’s command for almost two years.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s great because anything she can do to help us do our job, she always does. She really cares about all her soldiers.”
Phillips stayed with Pace, the rear detachment commander for the band, after more than half of the band deployed to Afghanistan last year.
No matter how many stories Pace tells, Phillips said he always learns something new from her insight and is thankful for the opportunity to work with her.
“There’s not a lot of people in the military that have that much experience,” he said. “It’s really great to be able to work with someone like that so that experience gets handed off.”
Pace said the band keeps her young, and the thought of leaving after 40 years of service is even more challenging to think about than sticking around.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she said, through tears. “My emotions come through every time (I talk about it) because I don’t know how I’m going to let go."