WASHINGTON, (March 28, 2016) -- When Maj. Gen. Camille M. Nichols looks back at her four decades in the Army, she recalls the incredible service of women and the sacrifices and contributions they made for the nation.

Her time in the Army has been an "amazing journey," she said in an interview with DOD News. Nichols said she would "sign up in a minute" and do it all again if she could, especially considering the significant role of women in today's military.

"Women have been asked to serve. They have volunteered to serve. They serve admirably, and with great distinction," she said. "I am proud to have served beside many women. I am proud to have served in combat myself."

Women in the military have put themselves in harm's way and have paid the ultimate price, she said. Their sacrifice is "a testament to their professionalism, not to their gender."

Women have proven they are just as able as anyone to provide the capabilities the nation needs, "wherever we're asked or called," she said. She is proud of the bravery and valor of female service members, she said, adding that she expected nothing less.

Nichols, who is the director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said the Army allowed her to thrive over the years.

She pointed out that when she joined the Army, women were still part of a separate branch: the Women's Army Corps. But soon, she said, while there were challenges, the Army integrated women and accepted their new role readily, even more so than in the private sector.

Now, decades later, the military is opening combat jobs to women.

"I'd say that what I've seen in those 40 years has just been dramatic and dynamic, and you just couldn't find a more adaptable place to be," she said.

TRAILBLAZING AT WEST POINT

Nichols enlisted in the Women's Army Corps in 1975 and noticed her leadership's uncertainty with where to place her.

"When I arrived at my first permanent party duty station, they actually did not know what to do with me," she said. "I couldn't draw my weapon to go to the field. I couldn't go to the field, because I didn't actually have the second half of the pup tent -- so if I didn't have both halves, I was not then going to be able to camp outside in Germany."

Nichols entered the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, in 1977. She was in the second class of women to attend the academy.

It was an "interesting period," she said. "It had its ups and downs. I think between good leaders and caring classmates, we worked through all that and made the best of it."

She was commissioned as an engineer officer upon graduation in 1981. In her male-dominated field, she said, she would often be the only woman around. But once she showed her peers she was a dedicated, capable and competent worker, she added, she would sense a shift in their attitude.

It was "amazing" to see the change, she said, pointing out that such an environment allowed her to thrive and the unit to be successful as well.

WOMEN IN SERVICE

As an engineer, acquisitions officer and program executive officer, Nichols said, she was able to work on important projects around the world that helped the warfighter and strengthened national defense.

A secret to success, the general said, is to find ways to contribute and see how you can make a difference. The Army promotes that mindset, Nichols said, allowing her to follow her passion and make significant contributions in her field.

Nichols said she encourages young people, especially girls and women, to consider a career in the military. There are enormous opportunities for the military and the nation to take advantage of the greater role and increased contributions that women can make to the workforce, she said.

"If you have a thirst for knowledge and a thirst to commit and contribute, the military -- whether you're civilian or in uniform, I think is a great place," she said.

Talent, contribution and commitment are recognized and rewarded in the military, she said.

"You can potentially go as far as you would like to by serving," she added. "I think that's a testament to the military institution and I would encourage everyone to do some type of service to their nation, to give back for the freedoms that we have."

Legacy of Service

Nichols said her desire to serve grew "exponentially" the longer she spent in the military. Her biggest source of pride comes from helping and guiding others.

"My greatest success had been the ability to mentor and shape younger officers and [noncommissioned officers] to see the value of military service and how with possibly just some small adjustment ... that there is, in fact, a place for them," she said.

The general said she is grateful for all the opportunities and experiences she has had in the Army.

"I have been honored to serve our nation and our great Army for over 40 years," Nichols said. "I can think of no better place that I could have done my life's work than to serve in the military."

Her previous assignments include serving as director of business operations in the U.S. Army Office of Business Transformation and as deputy commanding general of the Army's Installation Management Command in San Antonio.

Nichols, who has more than two decades of experience in Defense Department acquisition, also served as a company grade officer in several command and staff positions in engineer units in the United States and South Korea. She also worked with basic training units at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was a manager and assistant coach for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Women's Handball Team.