By Vanessa Chatterly
Colonel (Retired) Fern Sumpter Winbush ’89 enjoyed a distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Army, during which she rose from private first class to commander before retiring in 2015.
Today, she serves in a different capacity. As a member of the Senior Executive Service and principal director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), she works to provide families and the nation with the fullest possible accounting of personnel missing from past conflicts. With more than 81,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel still unaccounted for, Winbush said, “I take immense pride in being a part of this mission…. Right now, we’re the only agency in the Department of Defense that has this mission, so we can’t give up, we won’t give up.”
Winbush sees her army leadership experience as critical preparation for her current job.
“I was a commander a couple of times,” she said. “Commanders not only inspire and lead the service members, but they also take care of families. I think families are critically important. We talk about soldiers being the backbone of the army. But the family, they are really the backbone supporting their soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine.
“I’m still helping soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” she continued. “But it’s really the families who survived that tragic loss of their loved one that I’m serving. It gives me great joy to be a part of this noble mission.”
Winbush meets with families of lost military and civilian personnel around the United States every year.
“When I first started this mission and the families first met me, someone said to me, ‘What I need you to know is this just started for you, but this tragedy that happened to my family, it happens every single day since we first learned that he was lost. Families are really relying on you.’ So it’s not just a mission. It’s a calling, a dedication and frankly a moral imperative that continues to shape me to this day.”
By any account, Winbush’s service in the military has been a great success. The Boston native began her ascent through the ranks as a private first class in the Army Reserves. Over the decades, she served in positions of increasing responsibility, culminating with a deployment to Operation Enduring Freedom in Kabul, Afghanistan. She subsequently served as the commander of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia. She earned numerous awards and decorations and obtained a master’s in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.
Prior to this outstanding track record of success, Winbush said, “Failure brought me to UMass Boston.”
She began her higher education quest on a full scholarship to another university. By her own admission, she was not ready for college.
“I had an awesome social life that first year but a horrible academic year,” she said, adding that her scholarship was consequently rescinded. “It was a wake-up call, and it made me realize that, frankly, I just wasn’t ready to go to school.”
She took a gap year to reflect on where she wanted to set her sights next. In 1983, she began her military career in the Army Reserves and transferred to the Massachusetts Army National Guard shortly thereafter.
“I learned quickly that I was not going to progress to the level that I thought I was capable of without a degree,” said Winbush. “I’m not from a prosperous family, and surely no one was going to give me a scholarship at this point. I had to figure out how to finish my degree.”
After learning that the National Guard would fund 100 percent of her tuition, Winbush enrolled at UMass Boston. The university did not have an ROTC program at the time, so she also enrolled at Suffolk University for that component.
She was determined not to make the same mistake twice and earned her undergraduate degree with honors in business management information systems from UMass Boston in 1989. “Between that determination and the discipline that ROTC gave me—sort of reinstilling that former high school student who was very focused on academics, focused on the future, focused on doing well—and the education I was receiving at UMass Boston, it was a perfect marriage. I would like to thank UMass Boston and the staff at the time who helped me. I thank them for helping me get back on the right track.”
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