In a world where women are often taught to wear dresses and follow the norms, Sgt. 1st Class Billie Jo Lorius decided to wear combat boots and follow her dreams. A Lemmon, South Dakota native, Lorius joined the South Dakota National Guard at just 17 and has been motivating women to become the best version of themselves in the 21 years since.
As Lorius approaches her military retirement, the family she has built during her service to her country celebrates her success and reflects on the void that they say will be felt with her absence.
Lorius began her military career working as a heavy equipment operator with the 854th Engineer Company, based out of Lemmon, South Dakota, prior to its disassembly. Entering the 854th meant surrounding herself with a unit comprised entirely of men.
Not only did Lorius adapt to the unique lifestyle of serving in the military, she exuded a level of confidence that made her stand out and excel in a male-dominated unit. Rather than view it as a setback or disadvantage, Lorius viewed it as an opportunity to show her unit just how much she was capable of.
“Positivity is a tool for growth, and in every situation there is opportunity for growth,” Lorius says. “Life is meant to be lived, to have adventures, and to leave every situation and every person better than I first found it.”
In 1999, Lorius transferred to the 116th Public Affairs Detachment in Bismarck, North Dakota. It is with the 116th PAD that Lorius spent more than 15 years inspiring those around her to be stronger leaders and positive community influences.
“She doesn’t place limitations on herself, and it’s easier for the rest of us because of that,” says 2nd Lt. Jennifer Joyce, public affairs specialist/editor for the NDNG.
Prior to accepting her commission as an officer, Joyce served several years in the 116th PAD as a Soldier under Lorius’ leadership.
“When you have a strong leader, you have more confidence in your own abilities,” Joyce says. “When you have a leader who believes in you, you want to work harder for them.”
Lorius has worked on numerous projects to support the larger military community, including helping coordinate youth activities and supporting families of fallen service members. Soldiers who have served with her say one of her greatest strengths as a leader is her dedication to the military mission and to her fellow Soldiers.
“The hardest thing about leaving the NDNG is by far the people,” Lorius says as she reflects on her upcoming retirement. “What I will miss most is the sense of camaraderie that ties us all together, but helping people both in the National Guard and the fallen families have been the highlight of my career. I am so lucky to have had the adventures I’ve had across the world, but it’s the people that have made my journey the most satisfying experience of my life.”
Capt. Kristi Blair, 116th PAD commander, served both as a Soldier under Lorius’ leadership and as Lorius’ commander. The two have been part of the unit’s command team of all females for the past two years.
“When I was young and serving as an enlisted Soldier, Billie Jo was a sergeant in my leadership chain,” Blair says. “She took care of us and looked out for the young Soldiers. She took us under her wing because she truly cares about people. That’s something amazing you try to take away when you become a leader. You see someone like her, and you try to exude that same level of care and knowledge.”
Blair and Lorius were part of an all-female overseas training in Germany in April 2015, the first time a North Dakota unit made up of all females went on an overseas training together. It was unique, but much of her career has been made of unique missions across the nation and around the globe.
During Lorius’ time as a leader in the 116th PAD, her subordinates have created success in their civilian professional lives, ranging from public affairs specialist to substance abuse counselor to playing a major role in Bismarck-area nonprofit organizations. Many of Lorius’ Soldiers say they feel her constant support and unique leadership helped them to become leaders in the community, as well.
“She is intuitive and she is genuine,” Joyce says. “Those two traits combined with her interest of human nature make her a good leader because she takes the time to get to know people as individuals, and not just as Soldiers. Once she knows more about that person, she identifies their strengths. She is not a leader who focuses on weaknesses; she is a leader who focuses on building strengths.”
Lorius has used her skills as a leader to instill a sense of self-worth and pride amongst her peers.
“She carries herself in such a way, she walks with a confidence that’s like she is saying ‘try me,’” Joyce says. “What she has done, where she is in her career, and what she has accomplished is important because she gives other females confidence.”
Government Affairs Officer, Davina French says that over the span of her career, Sgt. Lorius has served in positions of responsibility that crossed gender lines. “She has always been known for her fairness and professionalism,” says Lt. Col. French. “As a mentor, she leads by following the rules and her heart equally. Interestingly she started as the only female in an all-male unit 20 years ago and is finishing as the first Sergeant of an all-female unit now.”
For Lorius, caring and leadership is a natural talent, many say.
“It is important for me to help people discover their strengths and, in turn, they are able to find their happiness,” Lorius says. “When people are happy, I believe they can achieve the most and be the people they were always meant to be.”
In short, Lorius says, she cares.
“I try my hardest to be a servant-leader because I believe true leaders are the ones who serve people,” she says. “I lead others not through my position, but because they all know I will work beside them and create an environment where we achieve success together.”
Lorius will retire Oct. 1, 2016.
Spc. Jess Raasch currently serves alongside Sgt. 1st Class Billie Jo Lorius in the 116th Public Affairs Detachment in Bismarck. Raasch has completed missions in Africa and Europe. Currently, Raasch is part of the historically all-female 116th, which has functioned under Lorius’ leadership for the entirety of Raasch’s military service.