By Devon L. Suits, Army News ServiceMarch 19, 2019
WASHINGTON -- Four years and not a day longer -- that was Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham's plan when she first commissioned into the U.S. Army.
As the second youngest out of five siblings, Bingham graduated with a bachelor's in business management from the University of Alabama in 1981. Her father, retired Army 1st Sgt. Edward McMillon, and mother, Louise, had just started a photography business. Bingham wanted to help, she said.
In many ways, Bingham considered her ROTC scholarship and subsequent four-year Army commitment as stepping stones to a greater purpose. She had no qualms with fulfilling her service obligation and moving back to Alabama.
"Obviously, returning home never came into fruition," Bingham said. "I fell in love with this vocation called the U.S. Army, and I've been all the better for it."
As she draws closer to her 38th year in the force, there have been many "firsts."
She was the first female quartermaster general and the first woman to serve as garrison commander of Fort Lee, Virginia.
"Lt. Gen. Bingham always set a positive example," said Maj. Angela Somnuk, Bingham's former aide-de-camp. "She's inspiring."
Bingham is always reaching back to pull people up, Somnuk added, "showing them that anything is possible."
Through it all, Bingham remains a humble pioneer, quietly carving a path for others and making the Army a better and more diverse force.
"I fully understand that I stand on the shoulders of giants of those who have gone before me. There is absolutely no way that I could be where I am today without the love of God, husband, two great kids and a 'village,'" she said.
"I'm humbled and grateful for the opportunity to continually serve and be a part of something that's bigger than me as an individual," she added.
Born in 1959 in Troy, Alabama, Bingham and her siblings grew up as military dependents.
"I grew to love this lifestyle, [and] being called affectionately a 'military brat,'" she said.
Her father was an Army medic and spent a major portion of his career stationed at Fort Hood and Fort Sam Houston, Texas, she said.
"My mother was a devout Christian, and my dad was the kind of guy 'that never met a stranger,' so to speak," she said. "So, I acquired my dad's personality because I enjoy meeting people of different cultures, races, and backgrounds."
Through her faith, Bingham was emboldened by the golden rule --- treat others the way you want to be treated. Her beliefs would serve as the foundation for her life and Army career, she said.
However, growing up as a black woman in the 1960s and 1970s brought to light the constant struggle for social justice and equality during the civil rights movement. Even as a military dependent, she was not immune from the plights of others.
"When we went from an all-black school to an integrated school … the race riots were alive and well when we moved back from Texas into Alabama," Bingham said.
During her initial years of high school, there were still clear lines of division between black and white students, she said. This was most apparent in the school's yearbook, which went from featuring mostly white students to featuring separate black and white students for student positions.
"One year, I was the black homecoming queen during a time when we had two of everything," Bingham said, commenting on her high school yearbook. "So, it's interesting to recall … how we evolved over time. Seeing what appeared to be very segregated, to having twos of everything, to becoming integrated."
Through it all, Bingham never gave up. And during her senior year in high school, she became the sole student government president, she said. She was the first black student to hold that title.
After high school, Bingham committed to an Army ROTC scholarship to attend college.
"I decided that it only made sense to go Army since that is what I knew as a kid growing up," she said. "ROTC taught me so many things about basic leadership, the general principles of being a leader, and compromise. I found it to be challenging, fulfilling, and thrilling all at the same time."
On Aug. 16, 1981, Bingham commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps. Her father was there to pin on her rank.
"It was a special day," she said. "I can remember so many of the teachings between him and my mom that set me on the right path … as I went forward as a second lieutenant and through my company command years, and beyond."
Shortly after arriving to her first duty station at Fort Lewis, Washington, Bingham met her future husband, Dr. Patrick J. Bingham. The couple has been married for over 35 years and have two children, Tava and Phillip.
OVERCOMING ADVERSITY, HELPING OTHERS
While Bingham had experienced her share of highs and lows, there are two key moments in her life that constantly remind her to help others, she said. The first incident happened at the University of Alabama.
"My grades had begun to slip as I embraced the social side of campus life and I wanted to bolster my GPA, so I picked Sociology 101," she said. "How hard could it be?"
To pass the class, she would have to score well on two exams. The first exam was worth 40 percent of her grade, while the final was worth 60 percent, she said. She scored a "D" on her initial test.
Bewildered, a friend suggested that she ask the professor for help. She went to his office and requested support.
"He said, 'Well it's a known fact that people like -- you -- don't do well in education.'" she said. "I can remember that, almost as [if] it were yesterday."
Floored, Bingham thanked him for his time and walked out the office. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she walked to the dorms quickly, she said.
"I was trying to process what had happened. I had just felt the sting of … a racist remark," she said. "I've taken this kind of treatment to heart in the organizations I lead because I never want anyone to feel like they're inferior, or to feel like they can't learn or can't achieve."
The second situation happened early in her career.
"This was not an ugly conversation by any stretch of imagination," she said. "I had a superior officer say, 'Capt. Bingham, you probably have great officer evaluation reports, but I can just about assure you that you'll never ever be seriously considered for battalion command.
'"You don't have enough division time,'" he added.
Instead of getting discouraged, she would continue to give "110 percent" of her best efforts, and was determined to not let him define her success in the Army.
"I used both of those opportunities that have occurred in my own life to coach, teach, train and encourage others," Bingham said. "To those that have gone through something like that, I say: 'Don't let man steal your joy or steal your dreams.'"
"In my view, if you can conceive it and believe it, with hard work you can achieve it," she said.
At times, it takes some "tough love" to aspire and find success, Somnuk added
"Lt. Gen. Bingham was hard on me for a reason," Somnuk said. "It was just mentorship that whole time and I really appreciate that from her.
"Sometimes, you'll be in an environment where just showing up as a female, you will have to prove yourself," she added. "I think she was trying to mold me to have that tough skin and be able to work for and with any leader."
NEED FOR A DIVERSE FORCE
In the end, diversity is a game changer and the key to enabling readiness, the general emphasized.
The Army is similar to a masterfully woven quilt, the general explained. Each quilt is comprised of unique and individual squares. These squares represent the Soldiers, civilians, and their families, and each square has a story to tell.
Once the quilt is assembled, the Army shows its strength as a unified force, she added.
"Diversity is extremely important to the Army, to help us be that ready force, that we pride ourselves in being," she said.
Inclusion is another key characteristic to a ready force, she added.
"As a leader in the Army, I go out of my way … to make everyone feel like a valuable member of the team," she said, "So, when you can come to work and feel like you are appreciated and valued -- you are included. I think it's so powerful, and will make us the organization that we ultimately want to be."
THE WAY AHEAD
It has been a very fulfilling, 38 years, Bingham said. This summer, she plans to transition out of the Army and move to the next adventure -- retirement.
"The Army has been one of the best things that's ever happened to me. I'll become a Soldier for Life … and I look forward to writing a book," Bingham said.
"To quote the Chief of Staff of the Army [Gen. Mark A. Milley:] 'It's not the planes, the ships, or the machines that make the military tick -- it is the people,'" she added.