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Women’s History Celebrated with Army Corps of Engineers Anniversary

Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Honderd
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Honderd

It’s an historic anniversary for the Corps of Engineers marked by a woman who’s made corps history.

“I am the 88th district commander,” says Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Honderd. “I am the first female.”

Palm trees rustle and flag poles clang as Lieutenant Colonel Rachel Honderd hosts a celebration in Charleston on blustery day.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District has had the privilege of serving South Carolina and the nation for the last 150 years,” says Honderd.

It’s an historic anniversary for the Corps of Engineers marked by a woman who’s made corps history.

“I am the 88th district commander,” says Honderd. “I am the first female.”

Lt. Col. Honderd was assigned to the district in 2019, the same year all five commanders in her corporate leadership chain were, for the first time, female.

She was stunned. It reminded Honderd of another first; the first time she had a woman as a boss.

“I had this moment of huh, wow. We can do it, because I’d never seen it before.”

For 24 years, Honderd had grown accustomed to being the only woman, especially as an engineer in the Army. Suddenly, she was surrounded by a team of women and began to recognize their strengths including listening, compromising and seeing the bigger picture.

Honderd realized the value of being a woman as a leader, an insight that was nearly lost when she was the only female.

“You tend to degenderize yourself because you start to see yourself as one of the guys,” says Honderd.

Honderd believes the key to men and women in the Army Corps of Engineers tackling the area’s biggest challenges, like harbor deepening and rising sea levels, is embracing their differences. She likens it to contrasting threads in a woven tapestry.

“Together, we complement each other,” says Honderd. “We challenge each other to think differently.”

“Actually, in the corp. right now, I’m only one of nine women in this profession that is in a management or leadership role,” says Sheila Sollis, the Chief of Safety and Occupational Health Management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District.

It’s Sollis’s job to keep workers safe, mostly men, while they work in the field. She can shut down an entire crew if she deems the situation isn’t safe.

Like Honderd, she didn’t have many female mentors.

“It’s come a long way over the years and I’m hoping that what I do in this field is I continue to grow the field for women.”

Sollis says she worked as an accountant before a male colleague saw promise and suggested engineering. She quickly took him up on the offer.

The Houston native says it was her grandmother who encouraged her to seize every opportunity she never had, all of them.

“There are no perfect opportunities out there,” says Sollis. “So, you need to seize those scary ones as well.”

Honderd agrees. The Washington native had just graduated with a degree in criminology and dreams of working as an FBI agent when a government hiring freeze lead to an opportunity with the Army.

“I had not planned this,” says Honderd. “But when the opportunity came, I said sure.”

Opportunities for women in a once male dominated field; that’s part of the history the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Charleston District is celebrating on its 150th anniversary with a time capsule.

Lt. Col. Honderd places a lock of hair wrapped in a ribbon inside the capsule as a symbol.

“The future is bright for all of us regardless of our gender, our race, our ethnicity,” says Honderd during the 150th anniversary celebration.

The capsule will be opened in 25 years.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.