FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo.—Deborah Abel, a human resources “legend” is set to retire next week and said leaving her job at Fort Leonard Wood is bittersweet because working for the Army is one of the best things to ever happen to her.
“This is all I have known for 33 years,” Abel said. “I believe God blessed me with this handicap to get me to where I am today, working for the Army. This is where I am supposed to be.”
Abel, who is hearing impaired, is a human resources specialist in the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center. She earned the nickname, “the legend,” because she has been at CPAC longer than anybody else currently in the office.
“Debbie is irreplaceable. She has so much knowledge. The details and the history she knows is priceless. If we run into a situation we aren’t sure about, we ask Debbie because she always has the answer,” said Tamara Meints, supervisory human resources specialist.
Meints said it is rare for a Department of Defense civilian to remain in the same organization for their entire career.
Abel started as an assistant in the front office. Her responsibilities have grown over the years, to include processing fingerprints and background investigations, serving as awards coordinator for the post, and processing new employees as a staffing specialist.
For 33 years, Abel has been driving nearly 120 miles round trip to come to work. She said spending more than two hours on the road each day is worth it because, “this is the best job I could find with my handicap. I worked at a sewing factory for years, but it closed down. I tried getting a job through the state. They even gave me vouchers that would pay most of my wages, but employers still wouldn’t hire me. Then, I tried vocational rehab and was designated as Schedule A (a non-competitive hiring process agencies use to hire persons with disabilities). I submitted my resume to Fort Leonard Wood. I got chosen for an interview and after that, I was hired.”
Abel added, “They have such a great handicap program at Fort Leonard Wood. You just can’t find these resources at other employers. We have almost every type of handicap here on post”
According to Abel, her customer service skills are enhanced by her hearing loss.
“My handicap makes me more sympathetic and patient with our customers, especially the handicap ones. I want to make sure they have what they need to be successful. I know what it is like, I understand. My heart goes out to them,” she said.
Her primary sources of communication at work are emails and lip reading, which she says has only made her bond with her co-workers stronger.
“My eyes are my ears. I haven’t been able to use a phone for years. If I have to make a call, one of my co-workers will do it for me,” Abel said. “My co-workers have always been good about recognizing when I need help and they are always happy to help me when I ask them to. They never hesitate to step in for me.”
She said the thing she will miss most about working at Fort Leonard Wood is the people, especially the ones in her office.
“They have been so good to me,” Abel said. “I get attached to people. I have worked with many awesome people and military spouses. The only bad thing is the way they come and go or change organizations. I miss them dearly when they are gone. I can’t help but get emotional when they leave. I am thankful for social media; it allows me to keep in contact with many of them.”
Meints said besides Abel’s strong work ethic, her office will miss the liveliness Abel brings each day.
“She is very serious about her job. She is a hard worker. But at the same time, she is about enjoying life. She brings daily laughter, comedy and thoughtfulness to our office. She has such a big heart,” Meints said.
Abel proudly admitted, “I am such a big April Fools’ girl. I have played so many pranks on my co-workers.”
Abel said one of her favorite memories is when she pretended to call out of work on April 1 one year.
“It was April Fools’ Day, and my daughter was due to have a baby. I snuck in my office and closed the door. I called my co-worker in the next room and told her that I couldn’t come to work because my daughter was in labor. I waited about five minutes then came out. Everybody was so surprised to see me. I said, ‘April Fools!’’’
Meints said the funny stories about Abel are “endless.”
“I was told that one time she brought in a Styrofoam cake, completely iced, so you couldn’t tell it wasn’t a real cake. It was before I started working here, but it was a big prank when somebody cut into it,” Meints said.
Meints added that Abel is a critical part of the office’s culture by helping to keep morale high.
“She is going to be missed. She is a character. She is always willing to lead the shenanigans. She dresses up for organizational days and office parties, and she is usually the first to volunteer to bring food or supplies to those celebrations.”
As an example of Abel’s impact on her teammates, Meints recalled a time Abel was upset about her vacation being canceled. The office staff decided to return Abel’s kindness by surprising Abel with a tropical paradise in her office.
“She was scheduled to go on a cruise when COVID happened. Her cruise was cancelled, and she was so disappointed. We decorated her office like the beach. She had a little sand box on her desk and Hawaiian leis everywhere. We made it feel tropical,” Meints said.
Another remarkable quality about Abel, according to Meints, is Abel’s patriotism, “Everything is red, white and blue with her.”
Abel said most of her clothes have a patriotic theme and her house is decorated outside in “red, white and blue all summer long.”
“I am very patriotic. The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday. I love watching the fireworks blow up in the sky and appreciate what it means,” Abel said. “My uncle was a retired Soldier. He absolutely loved the U.S.A. and the military. He was in over 22 years. My dad was drafted into the Army; my brother was in the Navy; my cousin was in the Air Force; I had two other uncles in the Army; and my stepdad was a Marine. Even though I didn’t grow up living the Army lifestyle, most of my male family members had some connection to the military. I think that is why I love the red, white and blue.”
Abel said she can remember her uncle coming to visit her when he was on leave from the Army.
“He was away a lot, but when he did get to come home, he would bring us things, like green Army blankets and canteens to play with. We had a simple life in the country. We got so excited to see our uncle and what he had in store for us,” Abel said.
When she started working at Fort Leonard Wood, Abel said she would turn to him with questions she had about the Army. Her uncle helped her acclimate to life on post and nurtured her patriotism until he passed away.
“He had a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol building for my birthday one year and I got a certificate signed by a senator. That was so special to me,” Abel said.
According to Abel, having such deep patriotism affects the way she interacts with military members and their families.
“When I see trainees coming in and out of our building, I have such respect for them. My heart goes out to them and their parents. They must be so proud. I keep them all in my prayers. My uncle was 17 when he joined the Army. He was only 29 when he went to Vietnam. They are young but are also the most brave and respectful people I know. The choice they have made — to protect us — it is just amazing,” Abel said.
According to Meints, Abel’s appreciation for the military, their families and DOD civilians is obvious by the way she treats customers.
“Even if she has 50 tasks in front of her, she will stop everything to help a customer one-on-one,” Meints said.
Abel said she will miss being able to help customers succeed.
“I love helping people. I like helping customers better themselves. Every time I get to make a job offer to somebody, I get so excited for them. I love to make their day. I really enjoy that. I will miss that a lot,” Abel said.
“I have loved working for and with the military. It is an honor to work for the Soldiers. I think I am going to be like my uncle and miss the military life. The military life is so special, it just sticks with you,” Abel said.
Her last official day at work is May 31.
“I have made the greatest friends a girl could ask for here. I don’t want to leave my co-workers,” Abel said. “At the same time, I am ready. I mean, 33 years is a long time. I want to spend time with my kids, my sister, my grandkids and my grand-dogs.”