WASHINGTON -- Anne Macdonald blazed trails for female Soldiers as one of the first women to graduate from West Point and as the first woman to command a battalion in the storied 101st Airborne Division.
But she noted one regret she had during her 30-year Army career during a discussion panel Tuesday to recognize Women’s History Month.
“As I was coming along, I did not take the time to mentor others behind me,” said Macdonald, who retired as a brigadier general. “In all honesty, I was trying to make my way forward. But if I had to do anything over, I wish that I had reached out, had extended a hand and let someone know the going is going to be tough, but we can do it together.
“I heard it from women who had come behind us at West Point, who had said that first class never reached out. And I'm sorry that I didn't do that. Today, I get to do that.”
Macdonald has recently spent more time advising and coaching female Soldiers. After her retirement nearly 10 years ago, she has since advocated for advising women in the Army as the president of the Army Women’s Foundation.
The foundation strives to recognize the achievements of women in the Army while promoting interest in the Army. According the foundation’s website, it has provided educational opportunities and offers scholarships to female Soldiers of up to $2,500 and up to $1,000 for community college or certificate programs. Currently, women comprise 14% of the Army’s enlisted force and 19% of its officer corps.
Retired Col. Kirsten Brunson, the first African-American female judge in the Army, said females and Soldiers of color had approached her for advice numerous times in her career, simply due to her gender or race.
Brunson, as a member of the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, would conduct interviews during recruiting visits at law schools. There, female students asked her about her experiences in the JAG Corps.
“When you go to interview for any job … one of the things you look at is your future,” Brunson said. “And you look around to see if you think you will be successful there. And one of the things that we all look for is somebody who looks like us. Are there women at the highest levels? Are there people of color? Because if there aren't, what would make me think that I can be there?”
Col. Danielle Ngo, the executive officer to the Army’s inspector general, said that she did not have many female role models in the military after she commissioned in 1995. She said that she wishes she had reached out for mentorship more often, but still had male mentors who guided her career.
First Lt. Annalee Tokarsky, who commissioned as an armor officer in 2018 after graduating from West Point, said that she gravitates toward female leaders in dual roles at work and at home. Tokarsky was raised by a mother who attended law school and inspired her to join the Army.
“I personally don't have any children, but I greatly admire and respect [female leaders] especially women in higher levels of leadership that are able to do both: the supermom and the Soldier,” Tokarsky said. “And they’re everywhere.”
Brunson said that she fortunately had female supervisors as she rose through the JAG Corps ranks. She acknowledged the importance of having female role models and how building relationships with them help a Soldier grow professionally. Brunson said that she plans to meet with several of her mentors from her career this Mother’s Day.
“We have so much in common so that when one of us was going through [adversity], the others immediately knew what it was and could pick that one back up,” she said. “We babysat for each other. So find people that have something in common with you that you can rely on and who can rely on you. And it just makes the journey that much easier.”
The Army has created more opportunities for females in recent years, opening its combat training schools to women.
Sgt. Rachel Sims said that she joined the Army because she saw a wealth of opportunities for women. She left her corporate job as a web developer and enlisted as a human intelligence collector. She serves as an Indonesian linguist at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
“I wanted the opportunity to be able to impact more than myself,” Sims said. “I knew that [the Army] would give me the opportunity to be a part of whatever changes going forward will be in our country.”
Macdonald said that she does not believe the Army has enough women within its ranks and she said that policies must be implemented to retain female Soldiers. She said the Army should first strive to increase the number of women in the total force to 25%.
Currently, many female Soldiers have been leaving active duty as mid-grade officers or as junior noncommissioned officers to pursue other opportunities.
“This is the perfect opportunity to increase the number of women who serve,” she said.