Second Lt. Lynn Ray looked across the cluttered field in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and wondered how she was going to build a school on an overgrown junkyard in an area so impoverished that children went without clothing, and sheets substituted as window glass in the small, unstable homes.
“You think you know poverty,” said Ray, a North Philadelphia native. “You don’t know poverty until you go to some of these countries.”
It was 1998, and the Philadelphia High School for Girls graduate was the officer in charge of 54 soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 27th Engineer Battalion, who worked as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and stone masons for the Airborne unit.
Under Ray’s direction, the group cleared weeds, discarded trash, drew up blueprints, and hired local citizens to help with 24-hour construction. They hung ceiling fans and chalkboards, then sanded and stained handmade desks and chairs for the one story, two-room elementary school — all in just four months.
“It felt so good to be able to do something,” she said. “It was a turning point in my life."
It was just one of the many times over her 31-year military career that Ray showed the mettle and leadership that would capture the attention of her commanders and earn the respect of her subordinates.
On April 4, Ray, who had become a lieutenant colonel assigned to the Pentagon, was promoted to full colonel. She joined a select group of soldiers who have risen to the rank in the regular active-duty Army, where women make up only 11 percent of all colonels, and African American women just 2 percent.
Ray never planned on being in the military, much less an officer. The culture at Girls High, a 171-year-old college-prep school, was one in which students were expected to be strong, forward-thinking, and make good grades, she said. So her sights were set on college.
“They made sure you understood you could do anything,” said Ray, who, at Girls, grew accustomed to seeing women in strong leadership roles.
One of nine siblings, Ray had an adventurous spirit and enough self-confidence to ride city buses to and from grade school by herself, said her sister Christia Lee, 65, a neonatal nurse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“She always had a book,” said Lee. “She loved going to school. She didn’t want to miss a day.”
Ray’s love of learning began at an early age when she would spend time pronouncing words from local newspapers. She quickly moved on to books on theory to learn about how things worked. By high school, her choice of reading material leaned toward the classics. These days, history books are on her nightstand.
After graduation from Girls High, Ray attended Tuskegee Institute — now Tuskegee University — in Alabama. But when the student loans piled up, she left school to enlist in the U.S. Army, with plans to take advantage of the GI Bill. She soon found herself jumping out of planes.
“I loved it,” she said. “It hit all the things that made me feel good about being in this country.”
While enlisted, Ray returned to college, earning her bachelor of science degree at Campbell University in North Carolina, and a master’s degree in public administration from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. During her three-decade tenure, she has been assigned to bases in North Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the Pentagon. She has also served in Panama, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq.
After her time in Afghanistan, Ray was selected to be an Army legislative liaison officer for the U.S. Senate, planning trips abroad for congressional members.
In 2013, Ray accompanied U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) to a refugee camp along the border of Turkey that held about 17,000 who had fled the civil war in Syria. While there, she bonded with a 10-year-old girl who followed the entourage as they toured the camp. The two posed for a photo.
A month later, Ray was back at the child’s camp.
“The first person I see is her,” said Ray. The girl broke from a group and took Ray to the camp hair salon. There on the wall hung a photo of the two of them. Ray was struck that the girl even remembered her.
“It was a humbling experience for me,” said Ray, who now displays in her Virginia home her own photo of herself and the girl.
Brig. Gen. Kevin D. Admiral met Ray in 2015 when they were stationed in Fort Hood, Texas.
“Lynn is definitely a collaborative leader,” said Admiral. “She wants to ensure everyone feels a part of the team and has buy-in.”
If the person with the right answer was the most junior person on the team, then that’s who Ray would listen to, Admiral said. This lesson spread across her formation and greatly improved the morale and effectiveness of Ray’s unit.
Ray brings a bit of Philly attitude to the job, said Admiral. Her nickname among her fellow commanders?
“Union boss,” he said.
“I knew whenever Lynn told me she’d been talking with the other commanders and needed to bring something to my attention, it was going to be a long afternoon,” said Admiral.
Ray lights up when she talks about her hometown where, at Girls, she witnessed leadership in action.
“I am Philly, all through and through,” said Ray, whose cellphone has a Supergirl cartoon for wallpaper. She misses Penn’s Landing in the summer, strolling South Street, and being around the mix of different cultures that embody her hometown.