FORT BELVOIR, VIRGINIA – Some rose to the rank of general, some carried their passion for the military beyond the uniform, most of them broke multiple barriers and all of them are women who served in the U.S. Army.
Opening the Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame induction ceremony on March 22 at the National Museum of the U.S. Army, the foundation president, retired Brig. Gen. Anne Macdonald, framed it clearly.
The women honored were critical members of the Army, “who have changed the course of history through their service.”
The Army Women’s Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1969 that recognizes women “who have served in the Army or the Armed Forces and contributed extraordinary service,” through its honors and scholarship programs.
They make those recognitions through induction into the foundation’s Hall of Fame and also through “special recognition” awards bestowed on women military members, veterans and those who have supported or contributed to women in the Army.
Retired Lt. Gen. Nadja West came from a family of service. Her father enlisted in a segregated Army in 1939. Her father and mother raised a family of a dozen children, adopting West while they were stationed in Germany.
West watched as nearly all of her older siblings, men and women, joined the service. Her brother, a U.S. Military Academy at West Point 1976 graduate nudged his little sister to consider the academy when that same year it opened its doors to women.
Still a teenager, she had a few years to wait but found her way to West Point and a decades-long career that saw her become the first woman of color to serve as an Army division surgeon in 1999, then the first woman selected as the Joint Staff Surgeon in 2014, advising the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on medical issues.
West rose to three-star and served as the surgeon general of the U.S. Army from 2015 to 2019.
In her remarks Tuesday, she paid special homage that struck a personal chord for some in the audience of more than 100 attendees.
“I would like to thank the women in the class of 1980 (West Point), just think, there were no women in front of them, showing them that it was possible,” she said.
One such graduate who rose when recognized was a fellow honoree — retired Lt. Col. Carol A. Barkalow.
The retired colonel drew a laugh with her comments.
“At 17, I entered West Point, I didn’t understand what the big deal was,” she said. “I had survived the tortures of my three older brothers. So, it wasn’t a problem.”
But laughs aside, Barkalow told Army Times in an interview before the event that she along with women in her class and serving in the Army both before and after she joined in 1976 faced a number of discriminations. One such hurdle was that entire job fields were closed to all women.
As a young officer, Barkalow led an air defense unit in Germany in the 1980s but wasn’t allowed to perform some of the tasks in the unit because she was a woman.
She marvels at the accomplishments of current female soldiers.
“If I could have been a candidate to go to Ranger School, I’d be there in a heartbeat,” the college athlete said.
Barkalow and her wife have continued their commitment to the military and veterans with a nonprofit called “Heaven on Earth,” which they founded in 2013 to house homeless veterans in the Tampa Bay, Florida area.
Nearly 100 individuals have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since 2009. There are 13 individual inductees this year, along with three special recognition award recipients. In past years, entire units or categories have also received recognition, such as in 2014 with the 14th Women’s Auxiliary Corps Band, the last all-female military band. In 2012 and 2013 the foundation honored Army women who served in the Vietnam and Korean wars, respectively.
This year’s inductees are the following:
- Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gwendolyn M. Bingham
- Lt. Gen. (ret.) Nadja Y. West
- Maj. Gen. (ret.) Nancy R. Adams
- Col. (ret.) Kirsten V. Brunson
- Col. (ret.) Jeri I. Graham
- Col. Bettie J. Morden (posthumously)
- Col. (ret.) Diane M. Ryan
- Lt. Col. (ret.) Carol. A. Barkalow
- Chief Warrant Officer 4 (ret.) Rebecca B. Isaac
- Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Diane G. Cummings
- Master Sgt. (ret.) Constance R. Byzinker
- Master Sgt. (ret.) Lachrisha Parker
- Staff Sgt. (ret.) Stephanie L. Mitchell
Source: Army Women’s Foundation
Retired Col. Kirsten Brunson saw the Army’s 1980s-era “Be All You Can Be” advertisements and took it literally.
The University of Maryland graduate commissioned through an ROTC program at Howard University, then delayed service to attend University of California-Los Angeles Law School. She joined the Judge Advocate General Corps in 1992.
The commercial paid off.
What started as probably a short stint to serve her country and get legal training turned into a 22-year career and so much more.
Brunson became the first African American female military judge in U.S. history.
Despite her own achievements, Brunson told Army Times being honored by the foundation wasn’t something she ever envisioned.
“It’s hard to fathom, especially when I look at the women who came before,” she said.
Staff Sgt. Stephane Mitchell remembers when she was only about 9 years old and an Army recruiter came to her house for her brother.
Both her grandfathers and an uncle had served in the Army. But seeing the uniform right there sparked a drive in the young girl.
“I just was fascinated,” she said. “That’s something I want to do.”
Years later as she was finishing school and considering service, a dogged Army recruiter grabbed her attention again. That led to a career in the Army and its medical corps.
While deployed to Afghanistan, Mitchell formed a program to help other soldiers improve their ASVAB scores. It was so successful in raising more than 60 soldiers improve those scores that it became a brigade program and was later taught by all career counselors in the unit.
Over her time in the Army, combat arms jobs opened for women, the first female soldiers served at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the first female soldiers graduated from Ranger School.
“We’re still doing a lot of ‘firsts,’” she said.
She asked why she was nominated for the Hall of Fame when she learned she would be honored.
Mitchell said she was told by her own mentor, a counselor she’d followed for the second half of her career, that it was for the work she had done over the years, both in the Army and afterward.
When she looks back, it’s not the deployments or promotions that stick out, it was the individual work she did with her soldiers, she said.
“The impact that I had, it does not just stay with them,” she said. “It’s like a ripple effect, it goes out.”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.
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