The 597th Transportation Brigade hosted the first African-American female lieutenant general and highest-ranking woman to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at the Women's Equality Day Observance Aug. 4 at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum on Fort Eustis.
Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, the 44th surgeon general of the U.S. Army and commanding general, U.S. Army Medical Command, was the guest speaker for the observance -- the first stop of a tour to various sites on post, including McDonald Army Health Center, which West commanded from May 2003 to March 2005, when it was known as McDonald Army Community Hospital.
West was greeted upon arrival by fellow female U.S. Military Academy graduate Lt. Col. Stacy Tomic, 833rd Transportation Battalion commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Jerome Smalls, 597th Transportation Brigade command sergeant major. Before West made remarks, the event featured opening remarks made by Maj. Corinne Bell, 689th Rapid Port Opening Element commander, an invocation from Sgt. Tait Blanchard, 690th RPOE, playing of the National Anthem, reading of the Women's Equality Observance Proclamation by Bell and introduction of the guest speaker by Tomic.
"Lieutenant General West -- welcome back to Fort Eustis," Tomic said. "We're truly honored to have you. Lieutenant General West is one of the true trailblazers for women in the U.S. military. Ma'am, the success of you and your fellow pioneers gave girls like me so many opportunities growing up. Your hard work and dedication to being highly successful continue to inspire us, thank you."
West thanked Tomic for what she described as an "extremely kind introduction" and for the opportunity to be the guest speaker for the observance.
West mentioned several recent milestones achieved by women in the Army, including the opening of combat arms military occupational specialties to women and recent women graduates from Ranger School among other firsts for women.
West wanted the audience to think about why everyone was in attendance.
"I would suggest observances like this allow us time to take pause and think about something that is outside our regular area of consideration," West said.
"We normally operate within our own spheres… the context of our present-day experiences and we may not have the opportunity to reflect on how we arrived at our current point in history -- to comprehend what had to occur in our society to allow someone like me the distinct privilege to stand here in front of you today. That's why I think this is important for you today."
West said that in business, the academic setting and the military, successful leaders have learned that diverse teams are much more intelligent teams than ones composed of individuals that look, sound and think the same.
"It's not only the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do," West said.
West mentioned that at the behest of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), Congress passed legislation in 1971 to designate Aug. 26 as Women's Equality Day. The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.
"For those of you not familiar with Congresswoman Abzug, I would suggest that you read up on her life," West said. "She spent her lifetime dedicated to public service and activism on behalf of the oppressed and the ignored. She gained fame nationally as the first Jewish woman elected to U.S. Congress, and later, internationally as a leader in the global women's movement. She once said 'I'm an activist. I'm the kind of person who does things, at the same time I'm looking to create a feeling that something can be done.'''
West asked aloud "Isn't that all what we want to believe? That we can create change -- that something truly can be done to make our future better -- make our lives better."
West said as she prepared for her presentation, she had thoughts and images in her head about all the women she heard about throughout history.
"There are literally thousands upon thousands that have positively impacted our history -- many making small, deliberate contributions every day, quietly, many of them way out of sight of historians, all of them adding to the rich fabric of our great nation, all helping set the conditions that eventually resulted in getting the right to vote for women."
West mentioned that President Ford signed the public law opening the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to women in 1975.
"A little over 40 years ago, a group of 327 women from across the country made history by becoming the first women to attend the armed forces service academies," West said.
At West Point, 62 of the 119 women who began their training in 1976 received their diplomas in 1980.
"I'm proud to say that I know several of them because they were my upper class cadets when I was there," West said. "It was not an easy time for them. Those first women had many obstacles to overcome. These trailblazing women held their own both physically and academically."
West mentioned Andrea Holland, who was academically ranked number 10 in a class of almost 1,000, and was the first woman to receive a diploma from West Point, and Col. Debra Lewis, who retired in 2010 and served as the first female commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers District in Iraq. West said Lewis summed up their spirit in regards to the 2-4-mile runs cadets participated in every morning.
"She said, 'I was determined to pass out before I fell out,'" West said quoting Lewis. "That was the determination. There was no stopping. It was like, 'hey, you're going to have to pull me off the pavement, but I'm not going to quit. That's the attitude that was demonstrated."
West mentioned that the Seneca Falls Convention -- the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, is where she, and so many other women have drawn strength. She asked "How many of the Seneca Falls convention members had that same attitude? They refused to fall out of their 72-year trek to ensure voting equality for women."
West also mentioned the Women's Army Corps -- the women's branch of the U.S. Army, which was created as an auxiliary unit in May 1942 and converted to full status in July 1943.
"Four of my sisters were actually WACs," West said. West then mentioned Retired Gen. Ann Dunwoody, a former WAC member who went on to become the first woman in the U.S. military and uniformed service to achieve a four-start officer rank in November 2008, when she took command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.
"I challenge you today to think of how you will make a difference," West said closing her remarks. "What will your Seneca Falls Convention be? Think about it. May we all continue to change America for the good so our nation continues to be the shining example of freedom and hope that we are for the world. May God bless our nation and strong Army. Thank you for your kind attention."
Tomic then presented West with a Transportation Wheel on behalf of the 597th Transportation Brigade for making the trip down from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to give remarks.