Fort Meade – Female general officers from across the U.S. Army spoke about experiences women have faced in the military during a Women Leadership Roundtable Discussion with a bipartisan congressional staff delegation comprised of women chiefs of staff from both houses of U.S. Congress at the Pentagon, Feb. 7.
The general officers shared challenges from their life experiences, but also revealed the promising future the Army offers to the next generation of women in the military.
“I just know that the future leader of the Army is going to be a woman because that person is going to be infantry and come up through the ranks and do it. I know they can,” said Maj. Gen. Marion Garcia during the discussion. Garcia is the commanding general, 200th Military Police Command, headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Excelling in an infantry career was not always a promising path for women. Beginning in 2016, the Army began to lift bans on women across various infantry careers fields.
“‘Women don’t go to Pathfinder School,'” recalled Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith as she conveyed the response she received when she asked to attend the course in her earlier years, even though the rules had changed, allowing her to do so. Today, that culture has changed drastically, and that situation would play out much differently, she said. There is recourse for a supervisor who prevents female Soldiers and officers to attend courses that they are eligible for, she said.
The general officers conveyed how the military has changed since they first joined, discussed the stigma of pregnancy in some command environments and talked about balancing civilian life and their military careers while serving in the Army Reserve.
As a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, Garcia, said it was challenging to meet the demands of her civilian job as an agricultural veterinarian and her military service. For some time, she lived and worked in Harrisonburg, Virginia, while serving with a unit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Time, money and travel were some of the obstacles she faced, but somehow she managed to work things out. It’s very common for men and women in the Army Reserve to live in one state but serve in a unit several states or time zones away.
“It’s not easy raising kids while you’re doing this,” said Maj. Gen. Mary Link, commanding general, Army Reserve Medical Command.
The roundtable discussion was organized when staff delegation contacted the Army Reserve Legislative Affairs Division to find out about the current state of the military and listen to success stories and challenges faced by women serving in the military’s top ranks. As chiefs of staff, these delegates serve as the most senior staff member in a congressional office and are the top advisors to their members of Congress.
The responses from the panel were not monolithic. In some areas of life experiences — such as family — as one officer might have experienced a challenge, another experienced success.
“The Army Reserve has been very good as far as being able to balance those other priorities in my life,” said Brig. Gen. Lisa Doumont, commanding general, Medical Readiness and Training Command.
“I had twins, and then I was pregnant with my third son, so I said, ‘You know, I want to be around,’ so I left active duty and came into the Army Reserve. It’s been wonderful,” she said.
Lt. Col. Angela Wallace, public affairs officer, Army Reserve Medical Command and moderator for the event, opened the roundtable discussion and set the scene for the panel, stressing how America’s security thrives when relying on every service member’s talents, regardless of gender. Women have also thrived in recent years in military occupations that have traditionally thought to be male-only.
When Garcia was asked about her experience as a military police officer, she said, “This was one of those branches that had been open to women for quite some time.”
“(Military police) run gun trucks ahead of the infantry to clear the roadways and make sure they can get to where they need to go. We’ve been doing that for years,” she said.
While there are more women participating in the workforce in a professional capacity, their annual median earnings is still lower than the earnings of men, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. However, in the military, salaries are based on years of service and pay grade, so there is no inequality or bias.
“Something I tell my daughter is that there is no question if you are going to get paid the same dollar as your male counterpart (in the military). You cannot necessarily say that about corporate America,” said Maj. Gen. Patricia Frost, the director of cyber, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Army Operations and Plans.
Overall, life for women in the military has improved and the balance of family and service is no longer such a stigma.
Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, Army assistant chief of staff for Installation Management, recalls an earlier time when her male leaders reacted to her pregnant appearance.
“Whoa, what happened here? What’d you go and do that for?” and “Soldier! What kind of uniform are you wearing? Is that the right uniform?” Bingham repeated.
Today, the military services are more pregnancy friendly. Maternity uniforms are available for pregnant service members and pregnancies are no longer seen as a hindrance or inconvenience.
Wrapping up, the general officers gave some words of advice solicited by the staff delegation. Lt. Gen. Nadja West, the Army Surgeon General and commander of U.S. Army Medical Command, shared what she felt was most important when it comes to being a good leader and mentor.
“Empathy, I think, is the number one trait of any human being. You can’t be every type of person. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Caucasian male. But, I can learn what is important to my Soldiers and people who work with me who are,” she said.
By Capt. Valerie Palacios (Army Reserve)