Career Army veteran turned teacher will give address Taylor's Veterans Memorial Ceremony

TAYLOR – Joni Bridgens admits she enlisted in the Army in 1974 because teaching school in Mount Pleasant “just wasn’t exciting enough for me.”

The Taylor native found plenty of excitement in the military. She became a decorated soldier, was the first woman to serve as a command sergeant major of a brigade in the first infantry division and traveled the world in the process.

After 26 years, one month and three days, Bridgens retired – and returned to her hometown to teach. She is currently teaching physical education at Taylor Parks Elementary School – her fifth assignment since joining the district eight years ago.

On Saturday, Bridgens will be a keynote speaker during the City of Taylor’s annual Veterans Memorial Ceremony starting at 11 a.m. outside City Hall.

“I’m much more level-headed now,” Bridgens said with a smile. “I decided to give teaching another turn. But there is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss wearing uniform, stomping in the mud, training soldiers and going to exotic countries. I’m very patriotic.”

Bridgens was raised in Taylor and was a product of the Taylor schools. She attended Clarence Randall Elementary School and West Middle School and graduated with the Class of 1969 of John F. Kennedy High School. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Central Michigan University, minoring in physical education.

Bridgens was teaching in her early 20s when she decided “I’ve got to make a career move.” She paid a visit to the recruiting office she had driven by daily and was most impressed with what the Army recruiter had to say.

Bridgens learned quickly that her decision was the right one. She said her goal as a soldier was to perform every task the military threw her way.

“I wanted to do the hard jobs,” she said. “When somebody looked at me and said, ‘You’re a girl, you can’t do that,’ I’d look them in the face and say, ‘Yes I can and I’ll be the best at it.’ I was never satisfied just ‘doing the job.’”

From 1974 to 2001, Bridgens was given a wide range of assignments. She had her own platoon within a year of enlisting. She spent four years as a recruiter in Alabama, earning “recruiter of the year” honors from 1980 to 1982. She was “drill sergeant of the year” in 1984 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Bridgens was first sergeant in two different companies. She was the first female first sergeant in the non-commissioned officers academy at Fort Hood, Texas. Her troops provided ammunition and food to any detail that had to do with logistics: the infantry, tankers, artillery, aviation, transportation and medical. Assignments took her to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo and other places.

Bridgens final assignment – being the command sergeant major in the first infantry division – was her most rewarding task. She impacted 6,000 soldiers in that unit.

Upon retirement, Bridgens knew she wanted to teach.

“In my early 20s, I wasn’t really ready,” she said. “Now I’m ready to teach. It took me 26 years to figure that out.”

Her first assignment with the Taylor schools was as a social studies teacher for two years at Brake Middle School (now the Sixth Grade Academy). She also spent years at Blair Moody, Myers and Randall elementary schools before joining the staff at Taylor Parks.

Taylor Parks Principal Diane Downie said Bridgens is unique in that she retired from one full-time career before beginning as a full-time teacher.

“She definitely is someone who takes initiative,” Downie said. “She jumps on board to help out wherever she is needed. She has good rapport with the other staff members and the families in the community. She has a great sense of humor with the kids and really tries to understand what’s going on individually with the kids and to work with them.”

Bridgens heads up the school’s safety squad, often volunteering to be a crossing guard herself, and started a dance team at the school.

“She really is a great role model for the kids,” Downie added. “She goes above and beyond. And she has a constant positive outlook on education and helping out the kids.”

Taylor Parks library aide Patrice Lind, who has worked with Bridgens at several school buildings, agreed.

“She is awesome,” Lind said. “I think she is a positive influence on all of our students. Kids need that so desperately these days.”

In Bridgens’ first meeting with the young students in her class and their parents, she tells them about her prior life’s work in the military. She admits to being a disciplinarian, based on her training in the Army.

“I tell the children I will not treat them like soldiers, because they’re not soldiers,” she said, “but I have very high standards for them and their capabilities. I expect them to behave and have manners.”

Bridgens also tells them that she is a mother; that she has a 14-year-old son, Joseph.

“Teaching is fun, but it’s challenging,” Bridgens said. “Sometimes it’s more difficult than the Army. It really is. I was in the service a lot longer than I’ve been teaching.”

-- Dave Gorgon