Women’s History Month, which grew out of a California small-town school event in 1978, honors and celebrates the struggles and achievements of women throughout American history. This year, the West Point Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity presented a women’s panel that discussed and celebrated the vital role of women in service to the Department of Defense and the path toward a bright and limitless future in the military.
The women’s panel, moderated by West Point Garrison Commander, Col. Evangeline Rosel, took place March 18 at Robinson Auditorium before a combination of an in-person and virtual audience. The panel members included Lt. Gen. Laura Potter, deputy chief of staff, Army G-2; Col. Holly West, U.S. Military Academy deputy chief of staff, G-5; Col. Jennifer Hicks-McGowan, USMA deputy chief of staff, G-1; Maj. Kimberly Brutsche, assistant course director for MX400 (Officership); and Sgt. 1st Class Stephanie Reyes, Keller Army Community Hospital Department of Behavioral Health’s noncommissioned officer-in-charge.
The women’s panel addressed the audience through pre-arranged questions asked by Rosel, anywhere from what Women’s History Month means to them to what their hopes are for the future of women in the Army.
Below are excerpts of their answers from the questions posed to the members of the panel.
Q: What does Women’s History Month mean to you as an Army professional?
A: Potter: “I always take some time during women’s history month to go back in history and think about the people who have come before me who have set conditions for all of us. I was the first woman to be the (executive officer) to the Secretary of the Army back in 2008-09 … and during Women’s History Month in 2009, the Secretary of the Army, the Honorable Pete Geren, and I flew up to Milford, Connecticut, to see a woman named Gertrude Noone.
“Noone at that point was 110 years old. She was the oldest living female veteran. The Secretary and I went up there to recognize her during Women’s History Month and have her participate with us as the Secretary enlisted nine men and women into the Army.
“You had a woman born in 1898 who served in World War II, as she joined the Army at the age of 43 after spending 17 years in the private sector working for an insurance company. She served her nation and came in as a tech sergeant and rose to the rank of sergeant first class.
“She sat there as we enlisted 17, 18, 19-year-old men and women into the Army. After the ceremony, Gertrude Noone talked to those young men and women about her experiences and what she thought they ought to do on their Army journey. And this 110-year-old woman said, ‘Be strong, be courageous, exhibit good leadership, exhibit good discipline and don’t limit yourself.’ And it was so meaningful to see a member of the greatest generation talk to the youngest generation in our Army about the very values and standards we all live by.”
Potter added that recent history allowed women to achieve many firsts, such as serving in combat arms, to where it now allows for women’s exponential growth in the future.
“We have a couple of decades of firsts in front of us and some of the women who are listening today will be those firsts … This is really an evolution and it’s very important to remember that if you are a woman and you end up in one of those jobs where you’re the first, it is a recognition that you were selected because of your talent and capabilities. But don’t treat it as much like a first as you treat it as you deserve to be there, and it is part of the Army’s journey as we continue integrating women.
“I think I’ve had six jobs in my career where I was the first woman to do that job and I didn’t apply because I was a woman, I applied because that was the job I wanted to do. I look forward to hearing about some firsts that some of you will experience (in the future).”
A: Brutsche: “When it comes to Army Women’s History Month, I think about my time as a second lieutenant when I commissioned in 2009 as a field artillery female, and I had to sign a memo stating that as a field artillery female I was never going to be a platoon leader.
“I was like … I’m never going to be a fire support officer. I’m never going to be in a cannon unit. You can only be an XO in headquarters, batteries or (long-range surveillance) units … Imagine signing a memo like that now — it just wouldn’t fly. In my almost 12 years in the Army, how much the Army has changed is the fact that you will never sign a memo like that now. It would not be appropriate.
“For me, Women’s History Month comes down to two words — gratitude and sacrifice. Gratitude for the women who preceded me who saw a rock in their path. And, through their sacrifices and individual journeys, however big or small, those sacrifices served to chip away at that rock until we opened up this path and this aperture … (and) we have been serving this great country and placing the needs of others above ourselves since the Revolutionary War.
“And, these duty positions, lifting the combat ban exclusion policy, these branches, these schools, these opportunities, we may now be better qualified in black and white in contemporary times. But the grit, the sacrifice and this will to rise to the occasion as always existed.
“I’m here because of women like these wonderful leaders on this panel and because of that it’s been my personal calling to continue to invest in the next generation of leaders … so that we can stay rooted in our history and be proud of it during months like these.
“Then we can keep fighting and look toward a brighter future.”
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges women have overcome in the Army and what barriers do you see remaining or improvements made?
A: Potter: “When I came into the Army, there were clearly things that were not open to women. In fact, that included being a platoon leader at Fort Drum where I wanted to lead our low-level voice intercept signal intelligence folks, and at that point, those platoons were coded on our military manning documents, our MTOEs, for male only. I had a very forward leaning chain of command and when I applied for the job, they took some risk and let me do that.
“If I look at my journey in terms of challenges that I’ve overcome when I was a young officer, I had a couple points in my career where I was not selected for things because I was a woman. In one of those instances, I proved myself to that same chain of command and the following year applied for the same job and was selected.
“Now, that could happen to any of you on your journey … I certainly hope that it never does, but what I would say to you is if you have a goal that you want to achieve and have a certain position in the Army that you want to lobby for through our new talent management process … you stay at it, be persistent about how you go about applying in your career and don’t limit yourself.
“I think the great thing about our Army’s decision to open up all of our branches to women is you all are coming into the Army as lieutenants in an era where they’ll be a whole lot less self-limiting … as you guys embark upon your career, I think having a mindset of you can achieve the options for you are unlimited is a really important mindset for all of you to have.
“I think as I look back over my 30 years in the military, we’ve seen gradual changes and the Army continues to appreciate the value of women in leadership roles and have made a lot of great changes to open the door to things like the nomination of Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson to be a combatant commander.
“We’re on that journey and I think we still have some work to do on other policies that will help women throughout their career … there tends to be a drop off when it comes to decisions about motherhood and (Brig.) Gen. (Cindy) Jebb could probably share some stories about how hard it was for her to balance a really key job, a Ph.D. and parenting. I could share with you the struggles of taking battalion command six months pregnant and I think Army senior leaders are very interested in looking at all of our policies related to how do we manage family dynamics? That’s both for female service members, but quite frankly, for all our dual military couples to have some work-life balance and all the policies that go to support that.
“For me, when you look at it in terms of challenges, while yes there were some, but it’s a positive story as I look at the journey the Army’s been on and I think through the diversity, equity and inclusion aspects of the Army people strategy, we’re just going to continue to work on it to ensure that we’ve got a great pathway for all of our women who serve. I think we’re in a good place and you guys are coming into the Army at the time where opportunities will be unlimited.”
A: West: “The biggest challenge is what women have done to themselves and not just themselves but to other women. There is something of a rite of passage and to be the first you know that you’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles. Therefore, when the women have come after, sometimes the women didn’t treat each other as well and when I was a cadet (1991 USMA graduate) it was very evident — the women were definitely harder on the women.
“This happened on my very first or second night of Beast Barracks and we had just gotten yelled at and one of the female cadre members asked all of the female cadets to come to her room and I was so thankful saying, ‘OK, good, at least we’re going to get some help here and we’re going to stand together in solidarity.’ I remember her pulling us in and having us stand at parade rest and said, ‘I just want to let you know if any of you say that you were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted, I don’t want to hear it.’ she said, ‘Just keep your mouth shut and no crying, if I see any of you crying, I’m going to come after you.’ I mean, she was harder than anyone else.
“What I have seen happen over my different times at West Point is you now see the support structure that wasn’t there initially. I think women have fought through that to the point where now they’re supporting themselves and what happens as a result is, they don’t doubt each other or doubt themselves and I think that’s something.
“I think the positive news story is I listened to Capt. (Kristen) Griest’s speech the other day is how far we have come and if you listen to her speech at the Founders Day (event), one of the things she talked about was all of these women who she uses for her support structure and I think that is something that didn’t happen when I was coming through … but we didn’t have those mentors or didn’t have each other’s (backs) because we were too busy trying to fight for ourselves.
“The barriers that I see moving forward is really the culture and I say that because I think the Army is slowly evolving, we’ve made a lot of changes, but we’re still evolving into a culture of having just one picture of what success looks like and one picture of what you need to do to be a successful battalion commander and to be a successful officer in the Army and how you need to act. We all have that vision in our heads.
“I think as we shift the culture to say we’re just looking at people as individuals and not based on gender and we’re looking at good leaders ... I think as women moving forward, that’s one of the things that we can contribute to is looking at ourselves and making sure that we’re not contributing to that culture.”
Q: How have the actions of women in the past influenced or impacted you as a woman in the Army today?
A: Potter: “I have had women mentors who have really been trailblazers who have helped the Army realize that we need policy changes, whether that’s allowing women in different branches, whether that’s allowing women to serve in combat formations before we recognized we were doing so — we’ve had a lot of trailblazing women in my career who I think have really set the conditions.
“The one I think I would call out is I was very proud to be at the promotion of our first four-star general Anne Dunwoody who was promoted in December 2008. If you read her history, there was a Dunwoody in every single war America fought since the revolution. She has a wonderful family history and that was a huge move for the Army and the Department of Defense, and that also drove a lot of change in our Army.
“I think we have a tremendous history of women who have had an impact not only on me personally, but the Army institution. Then, in my current capacity, being able to talk regularly to Army senior leaders, to talk to the G-1 and MNRA, the assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and to be able to participate in the growing group of online forums that women in the Army have where they are sharing their successes and they are sharing their struggles where we can collectively help one another continue to make progress on this journey.”
A: Hicks-McGowan: “I was able to form some very good mentoring relationships. One of which … my identical twin sister who also served, she is retired now, but she was in the U.S. Army for 27 years. Although we are twins and we’ve gone through similar experiences, I find her also to be my mentor. What I mean by that is anything that we experienced in life we would ask each other, what do you think of this? What do you think of that? So, I’ve had this built-in partner to be able to share with me the real truth about what it is I wanted to do.
“I also want to highlight some women of the past who have influenced me. I’m going to go way back in our history. When I think about a woman who has influenced me and she will never know it, I think about Harriet Tubman.
“Many people may not realize it, but Harriet Tubman actually served in the Union Army after she escaped her enslavement. She would go on to support the Underground Railroad where she helped to free over 300 men, women and children. But, in addition to that legacy of being one of the most profound abolitionists of our history, she served in the Union Army and she was one of the first women ever to lead a group of men into combat. And, whenever I deployed, I would think to myself, I have a picture of Harriet Tubman and I look at that picture and I think, ‘if I just had one-tenth of the strength and the courage she must have had during those days, when I go into combat or when I deploy, I feel that I can do what I need to do to support my teammates and support my Soldiers,’ She is a woman I look to draw my strength from.
“Finally, I would look to Brig. Gen. Jebb. She is an amazing person. I had the opportunity to travel with Brig. Gen. Jebb when I went to HRC and we take this trip annually to speak with the branch chiefs and the OPMD chief with respect to how we bring in our military rotating faculty. The opportunity to be that close to Brig. Gen. Jebb and see how she operated, to see how she interacted with people who were subordinate to her and I found her just quite remarkable in how she was very gracious.
“At the same time, that presence of power and strength was definitely in the room. It wasn’t anything that she had to force on anyone, it was automatic in the military presence that she exhibited, and I watched her from afar. I was just so enamored with her abilities, her leadership and her style. So, I’m just so grateful for having had the opportunity to be a part of that trip with you, Brig. Gen. Jebb, and to understand more about you and how you operate as a female Army officer. What a representative we have in our Army and how fortunate we are at West Point to have had her in our presence.”
Q: Who is the most influential woman you know and how does she inspire you?
A: Potter: (Adding to the Harriett Tubman reference) “We are going to recognize her in the Army Intel Corps because during that time she provided tremendous amount of intelligence (to the Union Army).
“This is a hard question to answer because there are so many influential women right now in the military. I’ve already talked about how inspiring it is to see Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson be tapped to lead a combatant command or at least the recommendation from the president that she be tapped to lead a combatant command.
“I’ve had a lot of recent women who I find to be extremely influential, but I wanted to go back in time a little bit and since this is a history month and talk about influence on women in the Army at large, for that, I would give a shout out to Col. Mary Hallaren. She enlisted in the Army after the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
“She became the first female officer in the Army who was not a medical person … She was the first director of the Women’s Army Corps (when it officially became a part of the Army) in 1948 and even in those early years, she was an advocate for the full integration of women.
“I think as the women in the audience look toward their future service in the Army, you will all be influential in your own way, and don’t ever forget that because it really is the collective efforts of all of us that are implementing current Army policies and looking futuristically at continued changes that need to be made.”
A: Reyes: “I would say my experience has been the polar opposite of yours … simply because when I joined the military, I was inundated with females in the military. I joined 17 years ago and in the Medical Corps we have females in my whole unit — only about one-third were men, so it was very different from everybody’s experience who have spoken so far.”
Reyes mentioned many women who influenced her, including retired Lt. Gen. Nadja West, a 1982 USMA graduate.
“The reason I mention all (these women) is because they are all dual military and they were able to prioritize and balance their military and family careers and be able to prioritize and schedule their lives.”
Reyes also made a point to speak about Cpl. Jessica Ellis who was killed in action in 2008 in Iraq by an IED.
“The reason I mentioned her, on our second tour, she was KIA … It didn’t matter that she was a female. It didn’t matter at all. She went in and she would save any man twice her size and she did it. She went in and everybody in her unit would say that was the best medic they had.”
Reyes spoke highly of all the women she mentioned because they didn’t leave behind their values while serving in the military.
“They all had their own individual values, and they chose what worked best for them. Every single person has their own values and belief system, and you have to remain true to it. You’ve got to get out of your own way, you can’t stomp on other people to get what you want and that’s why these women are so influential because they didn’t do that, they supported each other, and they believed in each other and they helped each other.
“I think that’s what makes them great people and made them great people because they didn’t destroy each other or other people to get where they are or where they were in life and that’s what made them influential to me.”
Q: What are your hopes for the future of women in the Army?
A: Potter: “My first hope is that women coming into the Army really believe that every position at every rank is open to them. I want women to see themselves as future division commanders or future J3s at a combatant command.
“I mean, pick your aspiration and I really hope that all of our young women coming into the force truly believe they can envision themselves in any one of those positions.
“The second thing I would say is since we brought up the topic of dual military, I think we have some work to do culturally on how we mentor dual military couples. My experience has been when dual military couples are mentored, it often is the discussion about having the wife acknowledging her husband’s career is going to move forward and hers is going to take a backseat because she’s going to have to follow him or take care of the kids … part of that is our matriarchal nature as a society at large.
“But when you’re talking about mentoring dual military couples, mentors need to take a true assessment of both of those members of that marriage and if the woman’s career is going to outpace her husband’s career, then maybe they need to switch that dynamic and that’s exactly what happened in my life. My husband was selected for battalion command and my husband said I think your career is probably going to go better than mine.
“When we had our first child, (he said) I will be the stay-at-home parent. But, those kinds of conversations don’t always come naturally, it requires mentorship. And if the couple is going to try and do it all, be dual military, raise a family which you can do, but it requires some elbow grease, but you can do it.
“… Then, the last one is cautioning both women and men against this issue of identifying yourself, in other words, focusing on your identity as a woman instead of just a member of the squad and a member of the team, which might help with some perceptions that you should or could be treated differently.
“Like I said, I’m so excited for the future and I’m very excited that we have young men and women coming into the Army who have unlimited opportunities and I’m honored that you guys included me in this discussion.”
The Final Words
After the panel discussion commenced, Jebb thanked all the members of the panel for their participation and added, “it’s been so uplifting, it’s been so inspiring, so informing, and I’m just very honored and humbled to be able to be in everyone’s presence.”
After Jebb asked a question of Potter, Brutsche concluded the event with a question but also with her own thoughts of how everyone should think about Women’s History Month.
“When it comes to Women’s History Month, ensure that people don’t conflate the idea of celebrating women with hating men — those are two very different things,” Brutsche said. “It’s not an us versus them type of thing. The point of this month is acknowledging that us as an Army, we’re truly one force, one fight and we all have a seat at the table. We all bring value to the team.”