WASHINGTON – Flying fascinated Air Force Maj. Gen. Sherrie McCandless when she was a child, so it was no big surprise that in 1991 she joined the military after college to pursue her dream of being a pilot. She's one of many female aviators who was already serving in 1993 when the air combat exclusion policy was lifted, giving women the opportunity to fly in combat.
In her 30 years of service, McCandless has flown fighter jets and cargo planes in various combat zones, and she's commanded units at the squadron and wing levels. After 14 years on active duty, she transferred to the National Guard, where she continues to make a difference. She's worked in various roles in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005, including with the Joint Staff and as a legislative liaison.
McCandless, 52, has been a pioneer for women in several aspects of her career, including in her most recent role as the first female commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard, a position she assumed in April. But recently, she said those "firsts" aren't a big deal to her — it's the responsibility you take on that's important. McCandless's current responsibilities are to the personnel stationed at units based from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to Fort Belvoir in Virginia — and of course, the D.C. community.
So, what's it like to take the reins at such a unique posting, especially after such a volatile year in the U.S. capital? Below, McCandless answered some of those questions, including what it took for her to get where she is today.
Your grandfather was a Marine who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II. How did that shape your choice to join the military?
My grandfather landed on Iwo Jima about 40 minutes into the first wave. He also raised me, so I got to see up close the criticality of that mentality of service, especially during wartime. … The fact that he served at a critical time and understood the military helped demystify it in my mind. I was always in awe, to be honest, of the fact that I lived in a house with someone who landed on the beaches of Iwo Jima.
He was also very much of a staunch advocate for wildlife. He did a lot of research and advocacy and a lot of service to the community, as well as the natural environment, the whole time that I was growing up. He still lives in my house with me today, so now I take care of him.
How and when did you decide you wanted to be a military pilot?
I lived across the street from an airport when I was a kid. I was interested in flying, but my parents gave me the sobering news that flying was too expensive for them to pay for, so I had to go figure it out for myself. So, I rode my bike over to the airport and introduced myself to a small aviation company. They said, "Well, you can wash airplanes, pump gas and keep our books, and for every five hours you work on the ground, we'll let you fly for an hour's worth of flying time." Once I got airborne the first couple of times and eventually flew solo around 16 years old, I knew that I was smitten with the idea of flying.
I had great instructor pilots, one of whom was in the Navy, and my high school guidance counselor said, "Have you ever thought about joining the military? That's where the best pilots come from." She gave me wonderful advice to apply for ROTC scholarships at universities I was interested in, so that's what I did.
You helped usher in the era of female fighter pilots. What advice did you get that kept you going?
There are all kinds of obstacles, boundaries and limitations in your life. My grandmother obviously was a big role model, and she said to get the best education you can, apply yourself at all times and make sure you don't close off any avenues for yourself — just wait because things will continue to open. She said, "Why be the nurse if you can be the doctor?" Then she said, "Why be the flight attendant if you can be the pilot?" Just keeping that forward-leaning mindset — I think it applies, really, to everything in your life. It certainly helped me to stay focused on the long-term objective, even though there were maybe some short-term limitations or frustrations.
You've flown fighter jets and cargo planes. Which do you prefer?
As a fighter pilot for probably 18 years or so, I thought that was the best. Then I got humbled when I went to fly cargo airplanes because, really, those missions — because of the teamwork involved — were really very, very satisfying. You get to share it more when you're in the air because you have a crew, versus in a fighter airplane where you're in the airplane by yourself — you have to get back to the base in order to high-five someone. So, I would say that they each had their appeal, but probably the teamwork is what made both of them satisfactory.
What was one of the most interesting and/or difficult missions of your career?
The most challenging experience, to me, was being assigned to an Army unit for two years [1996-1998]. I remember the sense of thinking, "I wonder how this is all going to work out," thinking my career is doomed, that kind of thing. But getting into an Army infantry unit was probably the best thing that ever happened to me and — honestly, in hindsight — was probably my favorite assignment as a captain.
I literally was embedded with the infantry, doing rucks and marching. We were responsible for the integration of close-air support to whatever infantry unit was on the ground. It was fantastic. I didn't fly for two years, and I ended up gaining so many other competencies at the time. I learned a tremendous amount, and I had fantastic male leadership the whole time — a lot of support. Now it's 2021, and I'm leading both Airmen and Soldiers, so having that cultural appreciation has really been very beneficial.
You've played the part of "first female" in several military roles. Does that still have special meaning to you?
I think every time you take a leadership role, it's a very big deal. You're understanding the responsibility that you have to the Soldiers and Airmen that are now under your command. I've always had the philosophy that they don't work for me — I work for them. So, I would say each and every opportunity is unique and very special when it comes to being entrusted with that responsibility.
As far as the female component of it, I would say that, at this point, that's nothing new. Not to me. There are a tremendous number of women out there today who are leading at every echelon of command and doing amazing things.
The D.C. National Guard has a lot of unique responsibilities. Can you explain some of them?
A lot of the missions that we have are absolutely critical, living here in the nation's capital. We are asked to do unique things. We have F-16s on alert covering the capital for 24 hours, seven days a week, every single day since 9/11. Likewise, we have the VIP airlift mission. We're geographically central and very convenient for members of Congress and others from the Executive Branch and the DOD to be able to go and fly on our aircraft. We deliver them to any point on the globe so they can pursue our national security interests. That's quite an honor for our team, and they're very, very good at it. They've been doing it for decades.
You took over the D.C. National Guard after the Jan. 6 attack at the Capitol. Did that, as well as the general unrest of the past year, make your job harder?
I saw on the faces of the National Guardsmen and women who were here in the district [over the past year] the dedication they had, the unwavering support to their community and, frankly, their resilience during a very hard time. There were lots of long hours. I saw it in action.
My sense is that it just reconfirms the criticality of our role and the fact that our nation is dependent on these skills. Wherever we go, we're providing very similar things — medical support, communications. We're taking those military skill sets that we learned for the Army and the Air Force, and we're applying those that are in such critical need … here at home.
And I think now [people] understand the relevance of the National Guard. People have expectations of the National Guard's support, including with Hurricane Ida in Louisiana and the wildland fires in the West. We train to support the Army and the Air Force in their overseas warfight, but we pivot quickly in the domestic arena. We apply those same skills here at home in the community that we live in as teachers, as coaches, as small business owners.
Leading the D.C. National Guard at this time is absolutely the honor of a lifetime.
What are your priorities for the D.C. National Guard?
We've got to make sure that the people are ready for the mission, that they're trained and that they have the equipment they need to perform the mission. Then, obviously, we're always looking at ways to improve ourselves, to modernize and maintain our relevance. So, those are really the four things that we have been focusing on since I got here and will continue to focus on into the future.
Having served across the country in various roles, how does leading in D.C. compare to leading other units?
It's amazingly similar. It all comes down to the people. You hit the ground and build a strong leadership team. Get out and about — talk to people who are out doing the mission and let them know how much you appreciate what they're doing. Let them get to know you and your command philosophy and the direction that you intend to take the unit. That goes across the board. We're all about people, readiness and being ready for the mission that we're called to do. We're part of our community, and, so that rings true through each one of these National Guard command opportunities.
Was there any advice from a predecessor that really helped you excel?
Throughout my career, I've had both male and female advisers who have been just so tremendously helpful. What I think it comes down to is probably their willingness to share, and then the perspective that they were able to bring at just the right moment.
[One role model] was my ROTC professor who spent six and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton. He was a fighter pilot who was shot down in Vietnam. So, to have that — just to live in awe of that and have someone that you want to model yourself after — I think it's more about their perspective and experiences than anything.
What has been the most meaningful part of your Guard career thus far?
Our community trusts its young people to join the National Guard, who serve their country proudly, and they serve their community proudly.
The National Guard comes from the community — we don't PCS [move duty stations every few years]. We may serve 10-25 years in the same community. So, just having that continuity and that thread, and still having the relevancy of being able to deploy — if the Army needs us, then we obviously have the opportunity to go overseas and participate as required. But we still come home to the same house. We still come home to the same church, the same school in the same community. So, that part of being a part of the National Guard is probably one of the most gratifying. I've lived in the District for 16 years, and I'm just very, very passionate about our community.
When you're not on duty, what do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy kayaking and trail running. Those are the things that just let you clear your mind.
My husband and I almost always try to go out and do that together. Some of these jobs can get kind of sedentary as you get into management roles, so figuring out, after you've been cooped up most of the day, just what it is that builds back your sense of resiliency and having a good time [is crucial]. Everybody tries to shoot for that 10,000 steps a day, so if I can get somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 steps a day, I'm pretty happy. If I can do the rest of it with my arms, I'm even happier.
We've talked about that a lot with our Airmen and Soldiers, too — that if you eat well and you get exercise and you get good sleep, how much better prepared you are for whatever the challenges are that lie ahead.