WASHINGTON — The taunts and bullying still remain fresh in her mind 37 years later.
As a teen, Donna Martin earned a selection as a saxophone player in her high school’s marching band in 1984, becoming one of only three minority students at her school chosen for the 200-member ensemble.
Several of her peers weren’t happy with the decision, she said.
“They made my life a living hell,” said the now-Lt. Gen. Martin, the Army’s newest inspector general. “They tortured me every single day and their antics made me want to quit.”
Martin began playing the saxophone in her junior high school years and spent hours practicing until she became good enough to carry a tune. After initially not making the band, she later earned a blind audition in high school with the help of her mother’s petitioning.
Following her selection, Martin became the victim of verbal torment from her classmates. She said even the school’s band director encouraged her to change instruments. Distraught over the behavior of fellow students, she turned to her mother for advice.
“I wanted to quit,” she said. “But my mother would not let me.”
Life isn’t fair, her mother would tell her, but that shouldn’t let others dictate her life’s direction.
Martin followed her mother’s advice as she continued to perform with the band. And she has remembered those words throughout her 33-year Army career. On Thursday, that perseverance led her to be sworn in as the Army’s 67th inspector general, becoming the first female to hold the position.
Martin’s mother passed away in January 2019.
“My mother taught me life lessons that made me the person that I am today,” Martin said during the ceremony, in which she was also promoted.
Martin’s nomination comes at a pivotal time for the Army, as it combats against racial discrimination while pushing for more inclusivity within its ranks. Following the deaths and disappearances of Soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, Martin took on the challenge of serving as the Army’s provost marshal general and commander of the Army Criminal Investigation Command, or CID.
Working with recommendations from the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, Martin oversaw a five-month structural redesign of CID to better inform and protect victims of sexual assault and harassment.
The changes included splitting the provost marshal general’s duties and responsibilities with that position and a civilian director assigned under the Secretary of the Army. The restructure also called for an increase in civilian criminal investigators to diversify investigative experience.
“Donna has been leading CID during some very challenging times, not only under the watchful eye of the Department of Defense, but Congress and the American public as well,” said Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth. “She has been the right leader at the right time, and her character and leadership help the team not just weather the storm, but chart a course so that CID only gets stronger and more capable in the future.”
Martin does not take her role as the first female to hold the position lightly. She has pioneered several commanding roles, such as becoming the first female to command Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, a training post that hosts the Army Military Police School, Army Engineer School as well as basic combat training. Martin understands the importance of having women nominated to senior Army leadership roles.
“What I think it really means to a lot of females, young women in particular, is that anything is possible,” Martin said during a radio interview with St. Louis Pubic Radio in 2020 following her nomination to provost marshal general. “And … so I hope that I give hope, and that when young women look at my picture in that row of distinguished gentlemen, that they see that there is hope for anyone.”
Martin has also deployed in support of Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. During the ceremony, Martin paid tribute to about 2,500 American troops who died in Afghanistan.
“They paid the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and security of people and the struggle for freedom ... far from their own homeland,” Martin said. “They leave behind a legacy of honor. We owe them and their loved ones a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.”
Martin’s predecessor as inspector general, Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith, lauded Martin’s ability to lead large organizations. He said that as the Army’s top law enforcement officer, Martin pushed for more support to commanders and units in the field.
“Donna Martin has all of the knowledge, skills, and attributes that the Army needs today,” he said.
Wormuth praised Martin’s ability to inspire and care for others. A large contingent of Martin’s family members attended the ceremony, including her husband of 27 years, Chris, a former Marine, and her siblings and aunts.
“We need leaders that look like you and lead like you in our Army’s highest ranks,” Wormuth said. “You show how much is possible to achieve while keeping the well-being of Soldiers and their families front and center.”
In a final gesture to honor her late mother, Martin continued the tradition of giving flowers as she did to her mom every year. Following the ceremony she handed a bouquet to each of the women in her family who had an impact on her life.