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Behind 'bow wave' in breaking barriers for women

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 25, 2016) -- In 1983, shortly after receiving her commission from the Army, Lt. Gen. Mary A. Legere remembers having a conversation with a fellow Soldier inside what was then called West Germany.

"I was a signals intelligence officer, and was in our position along the border in West Germany," said Legere, who this month ended her assignment as the Army's G-2. "If the Soviet Army came, this is where we would fight and do our mission.

"I remember this young female 18-year-old Soldier looked at me, a young 23-year-old, and said 'we're pretty exposed here, because the main battle positions for our cavalry regiment are behind us, ma'am. And we are in a position, based on our equipment, where if the enemy closes on us, they are going to close pretty fast. Are the Soviets aware that we are not supposed to be in combat against them?'"

In 1983, there were a lot of rules and regulations about where women could serve in proximity to combat. Yet Legere and her fellow enlisted Soldier both recognized at the time the ridiculousness of having such rules in place.

"It was at that moment that I had this stark realization that we had these rules that were established that were based on proximity and combat coding that made no real sense," Legere said. "Men and women -- both similarly exposed -- would need to have access to the same quality of tactical training and experience to ensure their combat readiness and survival in war."

Now after 34 years in the Army, she has just recently completed her assignment as the Army's senior intelligence officer and will soon retire. For almost four years, she was the senior advisor to both the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff of the Army regarding the modernization, readiness, oversight and transformation of the 58,000-person-strong Army Intelligence Corps. She has also served as the senior U.S. Military Intelligence officer in Iraq with Multi-National Force Iraq and in the Republic of Korea with United States Forces Korea.

The role of the intelligence corps, she said, is to provide commanders and warfighters at the point of need the information and intelligence they need to enable decisions "to understand the enemies we face, the terrain and condition of the battlefield, and whether at a corps or a battalion, bring that fused knowledge to a commander ... It's about knowing more about the enemy than you know about yourself, and presenting that to commanders to help inform their decisions and reduce their uncertainty."

MILITARY ROOTS

Legere was born in New York, and grew up in New Hampshire. Her mother was an English teacher, as was her father. "In the early '60s, he had an opportunity to write a television series for a local public television station. Like my mom, he was a great writer, and his experience eventually led him to a career with Public Broadcasting."

Her dad had enlisted in the Navy as a 17 year old college freshman at the very end of World War II, and later served at West Point during the Korean War.

"My father left college as a 17 year old to enlist in the Navy in the final year of the war. He then returned to college, got married to my mom, then started his family," Legere said. "During the Korean War, they recalled him to teach."

On her mother's side, Legere recalled, seven of her mother's brothers served in Vietnam, Korea or World War II, with two serving as career Naval officers. She had her own pack of brothers to deal with as well -- four of them. One served in the Army for 10 years and another received a commission in the Army Reserves.

"When I was in junior high and high school, my brother was stationed in Korea and then Germany," she said. "And as a kid, I loved the idea of travel and seeing the world, so I thought, wow, the Army is a little like a travel agency. I visited him when I was a sophomore in college and had the opportunity to hang out with him and his fellow Soldiers. I could see how much he loved what he did and the people he served with."

When Legere went off to college, she'd already had a lot of exposure to the military -- her own brother, her father's experience, her uncles and one aunt, and all the military kids of service members assigned to nearby Portsmouth Shipyard and Pease Air Force Base in Southern New Hampshire.

"When I went to college I had an interest in international affairs and national security, and also an interest in leadership, but didn't want to take the business school route," she said.

The Army Reserve Officer Training Corps provided a great opportunity for her at the time, she said. She got into ROTC as a college freshman and was invited by her ROTC cadre to compete for a scholarship -- which she won. She said she remembers she had to ask her parents to sign with her for the commitment to the Army that accepting the scholarship would bring, because at the time she was underage.

FINDING A PLACE

"My dad and my mother, very early on in my life, made it very clear that they were going to do their best to give me the education, confidence and the skill sets to succeed in life, but that employing all of those would be up to me," she said.

While her parents did not oppose her decision to be a part of the Army, Legere admits it took them awhile to see how much she enjoyed it, and that a life of service was right for her.

"When they had the opportunity to ... see my husband and I with our Soldiers, I remember my mother saying to me that it's an amazing thing to find a place you belong, and that offers such meaning."

Her mother has since passed away, Legere said. But her father, soon to be 89 years old, and a former Sailor, "refers to me as 'the General,' but I'm his daughter first. I know that both of my parents are very proud of my service."

Early on in her Army career, she said, she hadn't really planned on a career in the military.

"I had a four year obligation with my scholarship and was really excited about the opportunity to serve as an intelligence officer in Europe," she said. "But I was thinking four years, and then pursuing career in the Foreign Service with the State Department".

While she had expected her time in uniform to be short, she didn't glide through her commitment to the Army, she said. She gave it her all.

"I always enter into things with the idea of let's give this a 1,000-percent try," she said. "I had such a great experience in my first assignment in Germany. I was really so in love with intelligence and with the idea of being a leader and Soldier and I said I'll try one more assignment. And then one more and, well, here I am."

BYPASSING CLOSED DOORS

Legere came into the Army in 1982, just a few years after the decision to disestablish the Women's Army Corps and integrate women into the Regular Army in 1978. And it was just two years after the first women had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York in 1980.

While women were finally being admitted into the Army as regular Soldiers, there were still many restrictions on what women were allowed to do in uniform that had little to do with their skills or abilities.

Legere said it took a few years for her to recognize those roadblocks to her career.

"I wasn't conscious as a young lieutenant that there was an issue, until maybe seven or eight years into my career," she said. "As in my first assignments in Germany and Korea, I had every opportunity to command and to hone my skills as an intelligence officer. I really did not realize then that there were jobs in intelligence I could not get or even compete for, because of the restrictions of where and how women were assigned."

Early on, she had been assigned to all the positions that a young officer would expect to get, including platoon leader and various staff level positons. For example, she completed a tour in Korea that included time on a staff and a company command.

It was during her first assignment at a division headquarters where she first recognized that some doors would be closed to her due to her gender -- doors she'd need to go through in order to advance, and to be a competent asset for the Army.

"As a midlevel and junior officer, I got a little bit put off by the idea that if I have the capability, talent and the drive, why can't I have the same positions as my male peers in intelligence," she said. "At one point I thought about leaving the service over that. I just felt like I was going to constantly be behind the power curve if I couldn't have the same opportunities. Over time, I felt I wouldn't be as competent as my male counterparts -- I felt that would be dangerous for them and not really fair to me."

Instead of leaving the Army, Legere said, she opted to stick it out. She figured although some doors were closed, there may be other similar assignments she could take that would provide her the type of experience she would need to progress in her career, and to further develop competence as an intelligence officer.

"I'm glad I stuck with it and ran into mentors who challenged me and really pressed me into positions that would assist me. So when the opportunities did come I was fully prepared," she said.

BENCHMARKING BEST

Another big help to her, she said, was her own husband, who she met in Army ROTC and who was an Army combat arms officer.

"Paul was progressing through the standard leadership jobs of the company-grade officer and we would always compare notes on our jobs and experiences," she said. "At some point, we had the discussion that in order to be competent as a leader, regardless of gender, we needed to seek similar opportunities in our career fields, ensuring we were always mentally and physically prepared to lead our Soldiers. So it's fair to say that in the absence of any other idea, I was consciously benchmarking against the things he was being asked to do, seeking his advice, and making sure that I sought the kinds of positions combat arms officers progress through. When I ran into obstacles, I found other positions that would suitably give me the same sort of experience, and I made great friends among many Soldiers and NCOs who helped me fill in any gaps I thought I had."

Restrictions on women in the military have changed drastically, especially in the last year. Now every job in the Army, every military occupational specialty, is opening to women. The only restrictions now are personal capability. But the transition to that has not been smooth or even predictable, Legere said.

"When I was a second lieutenant I was allowed to be in direct support of an armored cavalry regiment, leading my 60-person collection and jamming platoon," she said.

"After Desert Storm, the Army did a review and restricted women from those positions," she said. "They no longer allowed women in intelligence, or signal logistics to serve in the armor cavalry regiment, and made it more difficult to serve, even in support branches in combat arms units, because they determined they were a little bit close to combat."

Ten years later, she said, another study opened those positions back up to women.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME

Since 2001, with the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, the Army has found that the undefined battlespace provides no sanctuary to male or female Soldiers.

"So more and more positions within the Intelligence Corps were opened, as well as the other support [military occupational specialties]," she said. "As restrictions melted away -- and generally the restrictions melted away before the policy changed -- you had leaders who were putting women in positions that were restricted because they were the best talent and the best person for that role. I was behind that bow wave, ready with the right skill sets.

"I can't tell you how much I appreciated male leaders who took the chance and selected their leaders or staff officers based on merit, vice gender," Legere said. "Their decisions provided the early test cases that proved the restrictions were impractical and unnecessary, and that as long as a Soldier is well trained, gender was not an issue. I appreciate my mentors -- men and women -- who encouraged me to go after the hardest jobs and always be prepared -- they helped me realize that by doing those two things, opportunities will come."

MENTORSHIP

Legere said she has been mentored by hundreds, perhaps thousands of fellow Soldiers, including her husband's father, who had been a career Marine.

"Mentors come from across the ranks from the youngest to oldest, or most junior to senior leaders," she said. "They are people that just put you on the path from the start to take your profession seriously. When I am asked who were my mentors, I can see hundreds of people, if not thousands, that have contributed to my development and my sense of what this profession is about and my obligation to be prepared. I wouldn't be sitting here without my first platoon sergeant ... who just made sure my experience as a lieutenant was not lethal to either of us."

She cites a professor of military science who "from the moment he met me as a young 18 year old until today has been a mentor." As well, she points to her brigade commander in Korea, whom she met as when she was a major, who perhaps had the greatest impact in guiding her in the right direction.

"He was an amazingly tough and focused warfighter who was always pushing our unit to improve. He selected me for two very difficult positions," Legere said.

During a counseling session Legere says she will never forget, "he said I had to start taking responsibility for my potential. I had to be a more relentless about how I went about my own self-development -- reading, writing and studying while also going after the hardest or most difficult assignments -- to ensure I was fully prepared for my responsibilities as an officer."

Legere said she knew that his advice was meant for her, but that it also meant that she had to ensure those who would later be subordinate to her should be held to the same.

Legere said she's always been impressed with those who "have opened doors for others, including people of other races, genders, and nationalities," and said she hopes that in her career, she has in some way has served as an example for using skill, talent and performance as an indicator of suitability for a position, rather than gender.

"While it was almost always unspoken, I hoped that by performing in my positions, particularly in units or positions that weren't necessarily available to women, that I changed people's attitudes about what leadership should look like," she said. "It's not about being a man or woman, it's about an individual who's able to do the job."

ADVICE TO FEMALE LEADERS

Legere said that while she has advice for young female Soldiers in the intelligence community, it also applies to the young male officers as well.

"The wonderful thing about the profession you are entering now is that there are no obstacles as to how far you can take your talent," she said. "But you have to take ownership of the sacrifice, the discipline, the persistence, the dedication and the selflessness that are going to be necessary for you to be successful."

For women who question if they belong in particular places, she said, "I encourage them to always have a friend that holds them responsible for their potential. I have a best friend I met as a second lieutenant, who herself is a very accomplished military officer today. At every step in my military career, when I was about to take a hard job and I had a moment where I didn't think I could do it, she was somebody I knew that if I dialed the phone or sent a note, she'd talk me into never doubting my ability.

"I tell young ladies to surround themselves with both men and women who will encourage them," she said. "Seek mentorship, encourage others, and take responsibility for your potential."

Legere is now in the process of preparing for retirement, and says that she still has great interest in military intelligence.

"I hope I will find an avenue that will allow me to continue to contribute," she said. She said she also plans to spend more time with her family -- something she said she and her husband, already retired from the Army, were not able to do much of when they were both on active duty.