Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds, Combat Commander Extraordinaire

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Brig. Gen. Loretta Reynolds

As the author of Breaking Through the Brass Ceiling: Strategies of Success for Elite Military Women, I was recently interviewed for an upcoming edition of the CBS Early Show. They’re doing a segment on Brigadier General Loretta Reynolds, USMC, who has recently been assigned as the Commanding General of the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.

This is historic because she is the first woman to command the site, which trains about 20,000 Marines annually, and is the only place where enlisted female Marine recruits are trained. CBS was interested in my take on whether this signifies a major change for women in the Marine Corps, and whether Brigadier General Reynolds will be treated any differently because of her gender.

Before I discuss that question, I want to discuss the issue of women “firsts” and their significance for women. Research has shown that it is important for girls to have role models and examples of successful women in order to understand what they can achieve when they grow up. In the military, firsts are also a record of the doors that are slowly being opened to women. They are important in that they show an evolutionary change in the roles of women in the service of our country. I know: I was the first woman in history to command a U.S. Navy vessel.

Before I was asked to appear on the CBS Early Show, I had not heard of Loretta Reynolds, nor had I heard much hoo-ha over her in her new command. So I had to do a bit of research. What impressed me the most, besides the fact that she is also the first female Marine general to have graduated from the Naval Academy (1986), and she is only the eighth woman to become a Marine Corps general in its history, was her command of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group from Camp Pendleton, Calif.

From March 2010 to March 2011, she deployed the group to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. There she oversaw five Marine battalions and a military company from Bahrain, and commanded the base that was already feeding, housing, and equipping more than 10,000 Marines. She expanded the base to feed, house, and equip an additional 10,000 Marines and sailors. As a result, the Marine Corps recognized her as the first female Marine to command in a combat area! That, to me, is exceptional, and that is what signifies a major change for women in the Marine Corps.

Not that I think her position as Commanding General of Parris Island is not important, but women have been commanding training sites in the other services for years. Frankly, it is a traditional role for women, even in their non-traditional roles in the military.

As far as the other question, whether she will face different challenges and be treated differently because of her gender? Well, the answer is yes. And no. Brigadier General Reynolds has been in the Marine Corps for a quarter-century. She has lived and breathed the corps and  negotiated all of the challenges that she had to overcome to get to her current position. She has been vetted. The challenges she may face will probably not be new to her, but her response to them will certainly be different from those of her male predecessors. Her male subordinates will have to accommodate that. That’s the way of the military: she who wears the gold, rules!

And that is the rest of the story…I wish her the best!