For 1st time in US history, a National Guard in Maryland is lead by an all-female team
There’s something special about the Maryland National Guard among the 54 state guards in the United States: Since last fall, it’s the only state National Guard where women make up the entire leadership team — including the two-star general who leads the Maryland Guard, a pair of one-star generals in command of ground and air troops, and the senior enlisted non-commissioned officer.
The unique situation came together last year with the planned moves and retirements of the previous leadership team that would begin that summer.
Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, told reporters Thursday that when she reviewed the skill sets she was seeking among the eligible candidates it became clear to her that the result might be an historic all-female leadership team.
“It was really about timing and it’s about having the leaders that have the right skill set,” said Singh, who since 2015 has led the 6,000 guardsmen that make up the Maryland National Guard — 20 percent of whom are women.
“I don’t think really in my whole career I’ve ever seen it that it’s lined up perfect,” said Singh. “So someone was looking out for me.”
“I was looking for something very specific within backgrounds to be able to come into these positions, and each of these individuals had pieces of that,” said Singh.
Singh laid out the possibility of an all-female leadership team to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, but stressed to him that “I don’t want you to think I’m all girl power and not thinking about the guys,” she said. “I just said that these are the right individuals.”
Hogan was excited by the possibility and signed off on her recommendations. By October, the new leadership team was in place with Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead leading the Army component of the Guard, Brig. Gen. April Vogel in charge of the Air National Guard component and Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa Wilson serving as the senior enlisted adviser.
Thirteen of the 54 state National Guards are headed by women, but Maryland made history in the top-most appointments — as it marked the first time that women made up the entire leadership team of a state National Guard.
Birckhead said the scenario played out because of the military’s emphasis on deliberate succession planning, which can help nurture “the hidden gems” who can grow into future leaders.
“It takes 20 years to grow one of us,” she said.
The four leaders have many things in common, including the fact that they have all been in military service since they graduated from high school. Singh, Vogel and Wilson all started their military careers as enlisted service members and Birckhead joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) while she was a student at Hampton University.
Another common theme: at certain points in their careers, Singh, Birckhead and Wilson all served in the same maintenance company. Eventually, Birckhead succeeded Singh as the company commander. Wilson served as her driver.
‘I have to be a face that other females can see to say you can do this.’
They remembered the mentorship of some of their male counterparts In the early years of their military service.
Wilson recalled the valuable lessons she learned from a senior non-commissioned officer who “taught me about how you fit in on a team.”
“He taught me about the importance of networking, and he taught me about a family that you gain when you join the military,” she said.
But in the early days when women joined military units, their gender posed challenges.
When Singh served in the maintenance company in the 1980s, she did not disclose her pregnancy “because I was in a male environment.”
But when it became evident she was pregnant, she was told by her superiors that she would not be allowed to walk through the motor pool.
“I’m sorry, I walk through parking lots every single day,” Singh recalled saying. ” Well, I don’t have leprosy. And it was just that mentality.”
Like most guardsmen who have to find the balance between their civilian and military careers, they also had to find the balance in their personal lives with their military careers.
“So when we’re in a room and people are talking about their co-workers or their team, what they’ve done — just like our team has done, that’s no big deal,” said Birckhead. “I can say we did it while all having babies, because we’re all mothers too.”
For Vogel, it’s the second time that she has served in an all-female leadership team.
“I really don’t think about who’s sitting where” said Vogel. “But it is something I’m very proud of when I look across the room and see people who look like me.”
“If I could offer a piece of advice to another state that’s looking at diversifying their talent it would be that you have to lead by example,” said Vogel. And that means giving opportunities to all service members to allow the development of future leaders.”
“If there’s anything gained by this leadership team it’s that there’s people looking up and saying, “Huh, who knew? But that takes some time and it has to be a dedicated amount of time because you have to think it’s important to your people.”
While Wilson says she wants enlisted personnel to get those development opportunities she also recognizes that she is a role model for female enlisted personnel.
“I have to be a face that other females can see to say you can do this,” said Wilson. “And it’s it’s a reality. You can be there so don’t be afraid to raise your hand and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a first sergeant or I want to be a platoon leader or I would like to be a command sergeant major.’ It’s a reality that can happen now, it’s happening much more.”