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Colonel Janice Lembke Dombi

Forging the Path

ROTC at Longwood University opened the world - literally - for Janice Lembke Dombi, Class of '81. Now she's empowering the next generation of female soldiers.

Rappelling. Hang gliding. Canoeing. When Janice Lembke Dombi joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) as a freshman at Longwood, the chance to get outdoors and participate in fun activities drew her attention. She never dreamed how influential the decision would be - or that she'd spend the next 30 years in the Army Corps of Engineers, leaving a lasting legacy across the globe and working to prepare the next generation of female soldiers.

Dombi decided to join the Army Reserves to explore her interest in ROTC further. But it wasn't until she completed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., that she seriously considered a career in the military. Out of 250 soldiers in her company - and only 50 women - she was the distinguished graduate.

"When I went back to Longwood that fall, I decided to join and stay as long as I enjoyed it," said Dombi "The Army continued offering me better, more interesting opportunities. It became a rewarding career in the Army Corps of Engineers that spanned 30 years. Before retiring, I earned four master's degrees and had diverse experiences that ranged from teaching at West Point to building schools, clinics and wells in Central and South America."

Dombi enjoyed her numerous assignments, including teaching History at the United States Military Academy and being the first woman to command a Division in the US Army Corps of Engineers. One of Dombi's favorite assignments was in the Republic of Panama with a Combat-Heavy Engineering Battalion, for which she served as executive officer and battalion commander. She led missions in remote locations in El Salvador, Panama and Ecuador, where her team built schools and clinics and drilled water wells. Dombi enjoyed the day-to-day interaction with the local population. The people in the area helped with construction to learn new skills, and they were eager to get involved and help their communities.

"I chose the Army Corps of Engineers because I thought being an engineer would offer a good mix of indoor/outdoor activity. There's always something concrete you leave as your mark. You can look at a completed project and know that you were able to help, able to make things better for someone else," Dombi said.

Dombi's time in active-duty service ultimately took her all over the world, from Central and South America, to Germany, and Korea. But it was one of her final posts, in Baghdad, where she took a leadership role with a project that carries over to her new life as a civilian: the Sisterhood Against Sexual Assault (SASA).

An engineer in Dombi's section, Lisa Belcastro, had the idea of creating a new initiative to reduce sexual assaults against women in the military. Together they convened a group of senior military women to examine the issue and found that the greatest number of assaults were against women ages 18-24. Dombi and her colleagues came to the conclusion that, for younger women, there can be challenges with self-confidence and the knowledge of how to be women in a male-dominated profession.

"We realized that many of the military's current efforts related to sexual assault are for treatment after the offense, which is important and necessary. But we wanted to work on developing people so that they don't become victims in the first place. It's about prevention before reaction," Dombi said.

One of the first projects Dombi and Belcastro launched was a one-day SASA seminar and monthly meetings for female soldiers on bases throughout Iraq. They focused on building life skills such as setting boundaries and creating goals, but they also provided the chance for the young women to connect with one another and meet women of higher rank who could serve as mentors. Each session made a point to share the male point of view and gave the women an opportunity to discuss real situations they encounter in their daily lives.

"It's about respect and dignity for everyone," said Dombi. "These are Army values, and we take them seriously. This provides young female soldiers another resource to build their life skills and understand how to approach potential issues before they become a problem. We want to help these women find their voice." Dombi is now working to bring this education and mentoring program to military women in the United States.

While she's traveled many miles from Longwood since her graduation, Dombi credits the university with helping her find her own voice. "Being at Longwood encouraged me to be more outgoing. The classes were small enough in size that you knew the other students, and it really helped me speak more freely and build my confidence in active listening and public speaking," said Dombi. "The people were so friendly - and when I came back to speak 20 years later, that hadn't changed."

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