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Maryland Guard’s all-female command team makes history

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy | National Guard Bureau | April 11, 2019

ARLINGTON, Va. – Not long ago, women who wished to serve in the U.S. military were limited to select support roles. Today, the Maryland National Guard’s top leaders are all women – a first for the National Guard.

“It is a big deal,” said Army Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the adjutant general of the Maryland Guard. “You don’t see that happening a lot across the board.”

Singh, the first African-American woman to serve as adjutant general of the Maryland Guard, said the all-female team wasn’t necessarily intentional, but a matter of individual skills and backgrounds lining up with the needs of the positions.

“It was really about timing,” said Singh. “It’s about having the leadership have the right skill sets.”

A little more than a year ago, said Singh, was when she first started to see the possibility of an all-female senior leadership team in the Maryland Guard.

“You don’t always know how positions are going to open up and where folks will end up,” she said. “About a year and a half ago I did see the potential that, depending on moves and retirements and national-level assignments, we were going to have the opportunity that we may have an all-female command team.”

The path to that began in 2015 when Singh took the helm as adjutant general of the Maryland Guard. In June, she brought on Army Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead as assistant adjutant general for Army. Air Force Brig. Gen. April Vogel was selected as assistant adjutant general for Air in August and in December, Command Sgt. Maj. Perlisa Wilson took over as Singh’s senior enlisted advisor, completing the current command team.

“It’s not like I engineered it for all of them to end up in these positions,” Singh said. “It just so happened that these talented ones started rising to the top.”

The important part, said Singh, is recognizing the strengths and attributes needed for the role, seeking out those who have them and keeping in mind those talents and abilities come in a variety of people.

“[Leaders] shouldn’t be striving to have an all-female team,” said Singh. “They should be striving to have a competent leadership team that is diverse.”

That means being deliberate about those choices.

“If they are striving to have a diverse team, and that takes, again, being very deliberate to be sure people are given the right opportunities,” said Singh.

For Wilson, those opportunities, and inherent leadership ability, came out at age 17.

“I joined when I was 17 and in basic training I was the [recruit] platoon sergeant,” she said. “Automatically I became a leader and always had that leadership mentality.”

But she also noticed something else at that age.

“One of the things I saw early on, the average female was about the rank of [staff sergeant] E-6,” she said. “So my thought process was that if I stay I either need to become an officer or I would at least like to make E-7 [sergeant first class].”

She chose to stay on the enlisted side, but initially faced challenges in her desire to rise in rank.

“When I said that to some of my male leaders, they laughed at me,” she said, adding there were others who encouraged her and simply laid out what she needed to do to reach the next rank.

“I never thought I would make command sergeant major,” said Wilson. “But, [I had] the right mentors – some female leaders and many male leaders— [who] said ‘you’re going to have to take the hard jobs, you’re going to have to take hard challenges and you’re just going to have to be willing to step up when it’s time to step up.’ And I did, even when I didn’t want to.”

Vogel said similar things about the importance of mentors along the way. She enlisted at age 18 and credited a chief master sergeant in the unit for setting her up for success.

“He was brutally honest with me about the fact that it was not about me,” she said. “I had joined a team that was bigger than me and that I had to find ways to contribute.”

She added that was something she needed at that age.

“He [figuratively] beat that into my head because at 18 I needed, maybe, a little more attention than the average Airman,” Vogel said. “He taught me about how you fit in on the team. He taught me about the importance of networking and taught me about the family you gain when you join the military.”

For Birckhead, learning those things early on is important.

“It takes 20 years to grow one of us ,” she said. “It’s the stars aligning, yes, but it’s also some very deliberate putting that flight suit on, getting in that cockpit and doing things you’re not comfortable with, taking that assignment that you’re not comfortable with and moving forward.”

Items that are true, no matter who you are, she said, adding there were other challenges she faced as a young officer in command of a unit where many unit members saw her as an anomaly.

“Many of them were looking at us [women in the unit] like a daughter or a kid and not as a leader,” she said. “Even though I’m the company commander, it would be ‘like let me tell you, lady.’”

It was a different time and a different environment, said Birckhead.

“They knew you were female and they would challenge you all the time about being able to keep up,” she said.

But those times have changed.

“Fast forward to today, and it’s not even a thought that the company commander is female and [she is] running the organization in an efficient manner and getting done what needs to get done.”

But, things could still improve, said Wilson, adding that an all-female leadership team shouldn’t be looked at any differently than an all-male one.

Singh summed it up another way.

“These are the right individuals,” she said. “They are the people with the right backgrounds, the right skill sets and the right experience.”

For Wilson, being a part of the team has been a distinct privilege.

“It’s been extremely humbling,” she said, adding that she’s looking at growing the next generation of enlisted leaders.

“I’m honored to be here, and I’m looking forward to making the Maryland National Guard a very resilient force, growing and developing our talent and our skills we have in the [noncommissioned officers] and the enlisted force.”

That ensures things are in a better place for those who come after her.

“I’m seeing all sorts of ways to develop that from the lowest Soldier up to the most senior Airman,” she said.