LaRita Fullwood has served her country for the past two decades. A current Saint Leo University student working toward a graduate theology degree, the active-duty U.S. Army member continues to impact her fellow soldiers in a positive way as a religious affairs specialist.

Fullwood, 39, was born in Hampton, VA. She currently resides in Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD outside of Baltimore. She is a proud dog mom to an eight-year-old female Yorkshire Terrier, Dutchess.

Aspiring to Serve Her Country

Fullwood says she knew from a young age that she wanted to serve in the military. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, her vision was absolutely solidified. She has also had several family members don a military uniform. Her late uncle, Private First Class George “Phoenix” Clayton, Jr., served during the Vietnam War and earned a Purple Heart. Her nephew, Dale Fullwood, is also in an Army ROTC program and expects to be commissioned this spring.

“In the Army, we have a saying that we are determined to ‘Nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead,’” she says.

From 2002 to 2006, she served in the Army Reserves as an automated logistics specialist. She is now a staff sergeant who is promotable to sergeant first class and works as a religious affairs specialist in the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command.

She went on active duty in 2008 and recounts what led her on this journey.

“I met a chaplain who told me I had an opportunity to serve as a religious affairs specialist to assist a chaplain and work in the ministry,” she explains.

During multiple combat missions, she was very involved in church services and assisted with various ceremonies and events. She coordinates invocations, prayer luncheons, memorial ceremonies, suicide prevention training, marriage counseling, and ruck marches.

“It has always been a goal of mine to become a chaplain someday.”

Fullwood has served three deployments in Iraq.

“These were all such great experiences. I got to visit several biblical sites.”

And what did she learn most from her deployments?

“Freedom really isn’t free,” she says. “I saw so many people struggling to live a life of normalcy like we often take for granted in our country. If you’re able to do something that makes u smile and happy, go for it because tomorrow is not promised. You have to make the best of all moments in life.”

An Invitation to a Prestigious Club

Fullwood was humbled and honored to be inducted into the prestigious U.S. Army Sergeant Audie Murphy Club.

“Being in the Army, I had always wanted to be part of this club and have family and friends experience the ceremony with me,” she says. “It was such a proud experience for me. Audie Murphy was the highest decorated soldier in American history. Only two percent of non-commissioned officers are accepted into this club. It’s up to a panel of sergeant majors to decide who is inducted.”

She is a member of the club’s council and works as the historian. The club partners with Wreaths Across America, Free State Youth Academy, the Harford County Chamber of Commerce, Toys for Tots, and a number of other community-oriented organizations.

“We serve to support the Army and outside community of Aberdeen Proving Ground.”

Higher Education Achievements at Saint Leo University

LaRita Fullwood

Fullwood began her educational career at another university. However, after returning from an Army deployment, she decided to explore other options.

“On the Fort Eustis Army base, I visited each school that had a presence on base,” she recalls. “When I walked into the Saint Leo University office, from the receptionist to the advisor, they were so personable, welcoming, and helpful in providing all of the information I needed about their degree programs. In fact, this was the last school I visited on base, but they were clearly my first choice.”

She initially earned her associate degree in liberal arts in 2012. She completed her bachelor’s in criminal justice in the homeland security track in 2020. She started at the Fort Eustis Education Center but completed most of her undergraduate coursework online.

Opting for the Online Master’s in Theology Degree Program

It was then onto her graduate coursework in the Master of Arts in Theology degree program beginning in January of 2021. Dr. Daniel Lloyd, an assistant professor of theology at Saint Leo, has truly stood out to her in the graduate program.

“I took a Christian scriptures course with him. I can truly say he took time out of his busy schedule to spend with me. He challenged me to become an analytical thinker. At least once a week, we would have one-on-one meetings to go over the assignments and papers for the class. To me, that was super remarkable.”

Based on personal experience, she says juggling education with many other obligations takes patience and persistence.

“It can be very challenging balancing military service and education,” she admits. “You have to truly want to earn your education and work out some type of work-life balance. It’s very important to work on your time management skills.”

Impactful Saint Leo University Core Values & Connections

Three Saint Leo core values resonate with her most.

“Integrity is the most important to me,” she says. “Being true to yourself and others is a must. I also like the core value of excellence. Once you recognize your skill set and weaknesses, you can continue to learn and grow as a person to become the best person you can be.”

Community is another big one for her.

“I’d recommend Saint Leo to others because of the core value of community. Saint Leo has had many active-duty and reserve military students, and their support for the military is unmatched. They also have a young population of high school grads and adult learners who are going back to school. Regardless of whichever category you may fall into, Saint Leo is there to help educate all members of the community.”

In addition to these core values, she feels an extra special connection to Saint Leo because her stepfather, Dr. Anthony Bradford, teaches as an adjunct instructor of psychology for the university. Plus, in the fall of 2021, she was inducted into Saint Leo’s Iota chapter of the Omega Nu Lambda National Honor Society.

Looking Ahead

Once she completes her graduate theology degree coursework from Saint Leo, one of her goals is to earn a doctorate degree with a focus on divinity or religious studies. Ultimately, though, becoming a chaplain is her biggest dream.

“Whether it would be in the military or as a civilian, there is a big need for female chaplains. One day, I would love to be able to start my own church as well. I want to use the knowledge from this theology degree program to share the word of God with his people.”

Sharing Her Voice with the World

At age five, Fullwood began singing for the first time.

“I started singing at my church, St. Johns of God in Christ in Virginia. I’d like to mention the late and honorable Bishop Samuel L. Green who had a positive impact on me there. It was at this church where my parents discovered I actually had a decent voice. I’ve had the opportunity to sing around the world through my military service.”

In 2012, she competed in Operation Rising Star, a singing competition offering soldiers and their family members the opportunity to win a contract with a major record label. While she came up a bit short by placing third, she recalls how impactful the experience was.

“Each week, I had to sing a different song in front of three judges, and someone was eliminated every week. It was kind of like an American Idol format. I learned so much about myself throughout the process.”

She prefers singing gospel music but says she is also a “go-to singer” for the national anthem.

Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog post were provided by LaRita Fullwood and are used with permission.

Listen to LaRita Fullwood Sing The Star-Spangled Banner

https://fast.wistia.com/embed/medias/8j63tlam16