One brigade is making history at Fort Rucker.
For the first time, the 1st Aviation Brigade, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, has women in command of the brigade and its three battalions.
Col. Tammy Baugh serves as commander of the 1st Aviation Brigade, whose primary mission is to train and develop future Army Aviation leaders.
Lt. Col. Erica Witty commands 1st Battalion, 13th Aviation Regiment; and Lt. Col. Katie Slingerland commands 1st Battalion, 145th Aviation Regiment, both at Fort Rucker.
Lt. Col. Alissa McKaig serves as commander of the 2d Battalion, 13th Aviation Regiment, which trains Unmanned Aircraft Systems operators and maintainers at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
“I think the historic moment is cool because it happened by chance, because the right people were selected for the job,” said McKaig.
It’s not the first time McKaig has been surrounded by strong female leaders. Early in her career when she served as a platoon leader, she had a female company commander, another female platoon leader, and a female standardization pilot.
“I had that for my first assignment, and I’ll have it for my last assignment too,” said McKaig, as she prepares for her upcoming transition from the Army.
McKaig’s father, who served as an aviator, initially influenced her to join the Army and branch Aviation. She had planned to do only her initial commitment, but her career has spanned 21 years, culminating at 2-13th Aviation Regiment. Throughout her career, she chose to focus on what people have in common.
“I was just always taught you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and you try your best in any position you get,” McKaig said. “I think we should focus on all the things that bring us together as an Army — we all wear the uniform, we all serve together.”
McKaig prioritizes building a cohesive team, and that includes making people a priority.
“You create that team by taking care of people, and when you do that they’re willing to go the extra mile,” McKaig said.
Her advice to junior Soldiers is to choose the career path that is right for them and their families. At one point in her career, she made the decision to teach at West Point, which went against popular career advice of the day. But it was the right decision for her family, and soon the Army began to emphasize broadening experiences, so the risk turned out to be well worth it.
Like McKaig, Witty grew up never really thinking about possible discrepancies between what males and females could do with their lives. Witty’s military family ties included a father who was a reservist during Vietnam and worked as a Department of the Navy employee at the Pentagon.
Her first love was criminal justice, and she thought her career would take her perhaps to the FBI one day. She received an ROTC scholarship, earned her bachelor's in criminal justice, and when she commissioned her original choice was military intelligence. During branch week, however, she was wowed by a Black Hawk helicopter on display, and she had a chance to talk to a female warrant officer pilot.
“That was my turning point,” Witty said. “I was just like, oh yeah, I definitely want to fly.”
Witty got a taste of some of the sacrifices females make in the Army when she and her husband became parents to a set of twins while she was at Command and General Staff College, requiring some planning to get assignments completed before she went into labor. Leaders and classmates supported her, and the school even provided facilities for females who were breastfeeding, she said.
With a priority on family, Witty faced a challenging assignment when she served for a year as the C-3 Air chief with the 2d Infantry Division in Korea, while her husband and twin daughters were back at Fort Rucker. She worried she might lose the connection with her girls at home.
“Trying to talk to a three-year-old on the phone is like, 'Hi Mommy,’ and then it’s gone,” she said. “The first three months was really hard. I talked to them as much as I could every night.”
She was able to make a birthday visit, and to her relief, found that the connection with her girls was still intact. The family was able to visit her in Korea for 30 days at Christmastime, which helped.
Looking back over her career, Witty said she thought she would fly more.
As a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, she spent a lot of time in the aircraft, especially while deployed with 4th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment. But things changed when she arrived at an assignment in Hawaii and the combat aviation brigade was deployed. Her career path focused more on airspace management.
Now a year into commanding 1-13th Aviation, with its diverse mission set that includes Advanced Individual Training (AIT), it is her third time back at the home of Army Aviation.
She makes it a point to remind AIT Soldiers to stay focused on the goal, graduate, and prepare themselves for the next step on their journey.
Slingerland’s path in the Army has been defined by a mantra she passes on to the Soldiers she leads about doing one’s best regardless of the assignment.
“Not every job in the Army is going to be glamorous, or at the front lines, or what you thought you signed up for, but my theme is ‘grow where you are planted’. If you do the best you can do in the position you’re given, and be the best you can be, then the rest is going to work itself out,” she said.
Her first command may not have been her preference, but she still gave it her best, and because of that, she had the opportunity to serve as aide-de-camp for an Aviation general officer.
“General Crutchfield was a turning point for me,” Slingerland said. “I just learned a lot from his leadership.”
She also served at the White House under two presidents as presidential airlift operations coordinator, handling travel coordination for senior leaders and their staff, and traveling with them overseas.
“I think everything happens for a reason, and God gave us that opportunity,” she said.
Slingerland said she appreciates the opportunities that are opening up to females in the Army.
“It’s awesome to see women across the Army in infantry, field artillery, armor, kind of coming alongside our brothers in arms and getting to do the same things. I think it’s neat that aviation is combat arms and it’s always been open to women. We’ve always had an opportunity to be in the fight in a helicopter,” Slingerland said.
For Slingerland, being back at Fort Rucker is a welcome opportunity for her and her husband and their family, with a focus on mentoring young Soldiers.
“The biggest privilege any of us can have is commanding Soldiers.”