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Committed: to life and liberty

When Natasha Sunday Clarke was growing up in Alabama and North Carolina, she thought about becoming a lot of different things. A model, a teacher, a defense lawyer — it was all on the table. But a lieutenant colonel in the Army? That surprised even Clarke.

“For my dad, that was a requirement for all of his children to do one year of Junior ROTC in high school, and that was to give us that structure. But I was not excited,” Clarke recalls.

She was soon won over. Not by logic or discipline but by the unmistakable allure of a sophomore cadet decked out in the program’s uniform and regalia.

“She had all these medals, and they would clink when she walked through the halls,” Clarke says. “I didn’t see people picking on her. … And so I was like, ‘I wanna do that.’”

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Worth the fight

Clarke’s love affair with the military turned out to be more than superficial. She went on to join the Army Reserve after high school and matriculate at North Carolina A&T, where she paid for school with a track scholarship and the G.I. Bill®.

Considering Clarke’s dad had served in the Army and later transitioned to the Reserve, Clarke and her four siblings had an insider’s understanding of what the military required — and what it offered in return. 

Portrait of Natasha Sunday Clarke in her sorority blazer

 

“My dad would always talk to us about the places he had seen and people he had met,” Clarke says. “We always stayed on Army bases if we [traveled] long distances. So, I actually got to see a lot.”

Her curiosity, combined with her natural competitiveness and inclination to lead, made Clarke a natural fit for an Army career. 

That’s not to say it was easy. Clarke says she sought out an active-duty role to “learn the intangibles you don’t learn in school,” like loyalty and self-discipline.

Accordingly, she was deployed to combat three times, first in 2003 to Iraq and then again to Iraq in 2005. She returned to the U.S. for a few years, had a daughter and a son and then, just two months after her husband returned from Afghanistan, she was deployed there for her final combat tour.

Clarke has a hard time talking about some of her experiences overseas. “I saw more death in 2005,” she says. “I saw a lot in 2003, but in 2005, I was closer to the people, and that was just really tough to compartmentalize that. You know, you’re talking to someone today, and tomorrow they’re not there.”

 

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From combat to career

Over the course of 20 years in the military, Clarke would spend 13 of them overseas in places like Korea, Germany and the Middle East.

While she worked to develop her military career, she also worked to expand her educational achievements — despite a self-avowed hatred of school.

“I hate, hate, hate going to school,” Clarke says, and she’s not joking. But when she looked around, she noticed a lot of the officers had master’s degrees. Her husband, whom she met in the military, encouraged her to get hers.

Clarke found University of Phoenix, which offered a Master of Business Administration program that looked like it would help her meet her goals. And the school’s approach to focusing on education that has real-world application value resonated.

Clarke began the program in 2005 while stationed in Iraq. “I took classes one at a time,” Clarke says. “I didn’t rush myself, because I was being put into leadership roles and moving around. But I paced myself and when I left Korea in 2009, I had one class to go. We moved to Fort Hood, Texas, and I finished that class, and I got my degree.”

The problem was, she was attending a ceremony commemorating her degree on the same day of the Fort Hood shooting.

“I remember we were standing outside, and people started screaming,” Clarke says. “I was just like, ‘I’ve had combat deployments, and I’m here and this is home turf. This is not what I signed up for.’”

Breaking barriers

Ever the fighter, Clarke persevered to become a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. She is the first African American and the first woman to lead the New England Recruiting Battalion, where she combines her leadership and mentorship skills with her passion for all things Army. Her goal, she says, is not to underscore primacy or divisiveness but to promote a message of unity

Image of Natasha Sunday Clarke leaning against a counter

This is in keeping with her experience in the Army as well as her upbringing, which focused more on commonalities rather than differentiators like race and gender. It’s also in keeping with her other passion: her faith. Clarke is an ordained minister in a nondenominational Christian faith. 

Her belief in God and her family have pulled her through dark times, including a suicidal ideation in 2021. She described her feelings of despair in Pivot: How the Pandemic Pushed Women Toward Their Passion, which she co-authored with 19 other women.

Looking back, Clarke reflects on how a lack of prioritization led to an inability to sit with herself, to experience silence, to embrace peace. Everything was go, go, go for so long that, when she had a break and she found herself alone with her thoughts, she couldn’t handle it.

Through friends, family and other support, Clarke was able to walk back from that brink and use her experience to help others. Today, she explores how her experience and insight can help others, both in and out of the military, and what comes next for her.

School was a priority but not a passion for you early in life. What would you say to people about the importance of education?

I tell people that education is so important. Whether you decide that you’re going to pursue your associate degree or your doctorate, even if you want to get industry certifications, don’t stop [learning].

So even with me, I'm looking at what next-level certifications I need to do because it’s important. It’s not so much about that piece of paper on the wall. The people you will meet and engage with and interact with over that time is priceless. It’s priceless. 

Why was University of Phoenix a good fit for you?

Portrait of Natasha Sunday Clarke

 

 

In other schools, I’d just be sitting in the classroom, and you’re telling me I have to read something, and the answer can only be X. But I’m seeing A, B and C; X, Y and Z. It’s frustrating for me.

That’s why I loved the University of Phoenix experience. The instructor would find a way to help me see something from everybody's perspective.

Tell us about your work with the military, recruitment and what it offers people.

In the New England area, the active Army is not really a big thing. So, when people generally see me without talking to me, they assume that I’m in the National Guard or the Air Force. And all those things are OK, because what I’m getting a chance to do now is educate people.

So, we may not have had that big of a presence before, but we definitely have it now. People now know that we are here. They allow us to get into the schools. We are there to teach them citizenship.

You know, you can be pouring a cup of coffee, and you get so many likes, and you’re getting paid, but you’re not learning citizenship from that. We are actually here to teach kids about how to be better citizens in life.

Why is religion important to you?

I love to talk about religion. … It’s like history. Talking about history and so understanding everyone, because you have to be able to understand people in the military.

Just like with our politics in the Army (we’re apolitical), the same thing is our charge when it comes to religion: Not trying to enforce your beliefs onto someone else. So, understanding people. And I think that’s what has helped me be able to have that compassion and empathy for anyone.

And I love to read. I do not have a favorite genre. I read everything because … you got to be able to understand people and you get that when you talk to people from different walks of life.

How did you learn to find peace?

Now when I travel, OK, work phone, I may look at it. I may not. Now, I used to be like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t look at it.” Now I’m just like, “Nope, I’m on vacation. Nope, I am just enjoying life, enjoying the traveling and seeing my family.”

And mentoring. I love to mentor. I think I’m a mentor to probably almost 100 people. Other people tell them about me. And so I’ve taken advantage of WhatsApp, and I put them in groups. I’ve got five groups, so I’ll go on and I’ll read Harvard Business Review or read something funny about something in sports or a movie, and I’ll just send things out to them. They’ll send me a note offline, and I’ll talk to them. We’ll pick up the phone, and we’ll have conversations.

It’s military people, it’s non-military. People. I’m an ordained elder. So, getting a chance to talk to people, to pray with them, pray for them, asking people to pray for me.

So that’s what relaxes me is to help other people.

What’s next for you?

After being a speechwriter, after helping to collaborate on the book, I’m working on collaborating on another one. I want to help other people become a better version of themselves. To be an inspiration to others. To try and teach people from my experiences, my mistakes, my failures and my achievements.

And I’m still here to talk about it.

G.I. Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by the VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

 

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