By Spc. Joshua Taeckens
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Zoe Marie Kimbell Tompkins smiled and laughed before knife-handing her soldiers into formation during a change of responsibility rehearsal on JBSA Lackland Air Force Base on March 17, 2022.
Kimbell, the operations non-commissioned officer (NCO) in charge at 470th Military Intelligence Brigade, is originally from China. She does not know exactly where she is from because her parents abandoned her due to the Chinese one-child policy. Kimbell says she was lucky to survive.
“So often people would have a second child and then have to figure out what to do, so the morbid outlet was to terminate the pregnancy,” said Kimbell. “In Chinese culture, males are favored because they carry on the family name and they stay at home and take care of the parents, and the female usually gets married and lives with the husband’s family.”
Kimbell’s birth parents abandoned her shortly after she was born, she was later found and taken to an overcrowded orphanage, where she spent the first year of her life. She then moved into the foster care system before finally being adopted by an American family at 18 months old.
Her family flew to China to bring her to her new home in Forked River, New Jersey. They did everything possible to merge their newly adopted and confused toddler not only into their lives, but into a new society.
“I was a lucky kid growing up because not everybody had the familial support I had,” said Kimbell. “My parents put in a lot of effort just to have me, and there was never any point where I felt that I was not a part of a family.”
Even with the love and support of her parents, Kimbell still struggled with her own identity. She identified more with her parents’ Italian and Czechoslovakian heritage than her Chinese ancestry.
“The biggest thing that I struggled with was my own identity because, by DNA, I am Chinese, but I don’t identify with that culture,” she said. “I was the only Asian kid at my school until high school.”
Despite her identity crisis, Kimbell did well in school and had several options before graduation. Her only challenge was choosing which direction she wanted to take her life.
“When I grew up, I was a theater nerd, but I just wanted to do it for fun because I didn’t think it would be a sustainable career,” said Kimbell. “I realized I could go to community college and get my general education out of the way, but I didn’t have a major that I really enjoyed. Then, someone jokingly brought up joining the military, and I realized that was not a bad idea.”
Kimbell counted her blessings as she looked back at her life and wanted to give back to her adopted country in any way possible, so she enlisted in the U.S. Army during her senior year of high school in April 2016 as a signals intelligence analyst.
As she climbed the ranks, Kimbell developed as a leader and was inducted into the Sgt. Audie Murphy Club (SAMC) on Aug. 13, 2021. The SAMC recognizes NCOs for exemplary performance and leadership. Soldiers are nominated by company leadership to compete, followed by boards, essays and written exams testing Army regulations and leadership decisions.
“The whole process of competing for the SAMC was a learning lesson,” said Kimbell. “The biggest lesson I learned was that it doesn’t matter what your rank is or how long you have been a soldier; being a good leader is about knowing your soldiers and doing everything you can to help them grow and succeed.”
After all of the leadership training Kimbell has had in addition to the lessons she learned in the Army, the biggest lesson she has learned was about self-awareness.
“Before I joined the Army, no one told me you don’t always have to be the one talking,” she said. “Early on in my Army career, I thought one of my mentors was a jerk because he would always tell me to stop talking, but at one point, he told me, ‘You’ve got to calm down. We hear you, but you need to bring your energy down to your audience.”
Kimbell said she learned from that mentor that a leader needs to be able to hold up a mirror, not just from a social standpoint, but also from a leadership standpoint, and make an honest, sometimes brutal, self-assessment.
As Kimbell continues to excel in her Army career, she attributes her success to her family.
“I had a come-to-God moment, where I realized that I got a pretty solid deal in that I have an amazing family with all the love and support that I could imagine,” she said. “In a way, serving my country was my way of saying thank you to my parents and the country that gave me a second chance.”
-This story was originally published on DVIDShub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.
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