Q&A with America’s First Female Four-Star General

Apr 05 2016
By Ricki Heicklen
Source Woodrow Wilson School

The past few decades have seen remarkable changes in the role of women in the United States military, from the integration of women into the army in 1976 to the Secretary of Defense’s lift of the ban on women in combat roles just months ago.

In 2008, Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody became the first woman in military history to achieve the rank of four-star general, a landmark moment in the growing role of women in the U.S. military over the years.

Dunwoody’s new memoir, "A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America's First Female Four-Star General,” shares what she’s learned in her nearly four decades in the U.S. Army, from her first command leading 100 soldiers to her final assignment, in which she led a $60-billion enterprise of more than 69,000 employees, including the Army's global supply chain in support of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dunwoody will be visiting the Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as part of its Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Leadership Through Mentorship Program. She will give a public talk on April 11, at 4:30 p.m., in Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall.

In the following Q&A, Dunwoody discusses her career and the challenges she’s faced, and shares some advice for aspiring young soldiers and policymakers.

Q. What initially inspired you to join the military?

Dunwoody: In 1974, my junior year in college, the army was trying to recruit more women after the end of the Vietnam War. If you qualified and were accepted into the program, you were paid $500 a month during your senior year in college, had a two-year commitment, and were commissioned as a second lieutenant. I always wanted to be a coach and teach physical education, but I figured I could do anything for two years, so I signed up knowing it was going to be a short two-year detour en route to my dream job of becoming a coach.

Q. What was the proudest moment of your career?

Dunwoody: My proudest moment was being selected to command a battalion in the 82nd Airborne Division. I was the first woman ever selected for this job. I loved jumping out of airplanes, being a parachute rigger, and I loved leading paratroopers. The spirit and enthusiasm of the young paratroopers was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

Q. What was the most challenging part of your career?

Dunwoody: When the army disestablished the Women’s Army Corps in 1976, I and the entire cohort of women who were serving began the journey of integrating women into the ranks of the regular army. Some units were more accepting than others, and many career army leaders and soldiers were non-believers. Many thought that women had no place in ‘this man’s army.’ We had to prove ourselves, and I found the best way was to exceed expectations and stay on the high moral ground.

Q. What was your toughest job in the military?

Dunwoody: My toughest job was probably serving in the Pentagon as a three-star general. The government bureaucracy was brutal and frightening in their ability to make it extremely hard to get anything done. It seemed that everyone could say “no” in the decision and funding process, but it was hard to reach the true decision makers, the ones who could and would say “yes!”

Q. What do you see as the greatest threats currently facing national security, and what is the state of military policy in combating those threats?

Dunwoody: I think the drastic cuts being made in the military—in terms of resources for equipment modernization, readiness training and the reductions in the size of our military forces—seriously threaten our national security by limiting our ability to deter and destroy threats. The Islamic State, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and China all seem to have agendas and have acted on plans that threaten the United States and our strategic partners. The United States also has a long and distinguished record of responding to humanitarian and contingency operations that will be limited if we are not properly resourced. I think the common theme we’ve heard is that the United States does not have a coherent strategy to identify and ultimately preempt or respond to these threats.

Q. With less than half a percent of Americans serving in the army, are you concerned with the military being stretched too thin?

Dunwoody: There is no doubt about it. We’ve been in a constant wartime footing in the military war since 9/11. That is rapidly approaching 15 consecutive years, and is by far the longest period of time an all-volunteer force has been at war. Multiple deployments are hard on soldiers and often devastating for their families. Missed holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and even the birth of their children is stressful, to say the least. Compounding that are the dramatic actions and consequences of brutal and unpredictable warfare. We are seeing the physical disabilities and the more invisible signs of stress and emotional impact on our men and women in uniform and their families.

Q. What changes have you witnessed over the years as to the roles and opportunities of women in the military? In what ways do we still need to improve?

Dunwoody: In almost four decades of service I have witnessed a lot of change. From my view and experience, the doors continue to open for women and for all people in general—from the integration of blacks into the military to the integration of women into the military to the integration of gay people into the military. For women, the number of job opportunities has continued to expand. I was allowed to attend Airborne school and later Jumpmaster school, my older sister was the third female to graduate helicopter pilot training, my niece is an Air Force Academy graduate, and served as A-10 pilot in combat and now we recently had three females graduate from one of the toughest, most demanding and challenging leadership courses in the Army Ranger school. This year the secretary of defense lifted the ban on women in combat roles. Integration will not be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. I don’t even know what the propensity is for women who will want to serve in combat specializes and special operations forces, but I believe if they are fully qualified, trained, and ready to serve, then being a woman can’t be the only reason to exclude them.

Q. What do you tell young people considering joining the military?

Dunwoody: I tell young folks considering the military, whether they serve two years, five years or many more… they will be better citizens because of the work ethic, values and leadership responsibilities they will be given in uniform. I also believe the military is not for everyone. But I do believe some sort of national service should be required for everyone, whether that involved helping the homeless, joining the Peace Corps or some other way of serving our nation.

Q. What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring public policy students?

Dunwoody: Policy matters and it is important, but just because you change a policy doesn’t mean you automatically change the minds of people who may not support the policy. The most effective policies are those that are built through consensus and communicated to the governed.