There are few things I love more than seeing badass women breaking barriers and proving to the world that powerful women are a force to be reckoned with. Women in the military have fought long and hard for equality, respect and recognition. While I feel like I could spend months researching and compiling lists of all of the amazing women who have served our country, I decided to start with these four, who proved that nothing is impossible.
Maj. Katie Higgins Cook
Like many service members, Maj. Cook’s calling to the military was a family affair. A third generation pilot, Cook has followed in the footsteps of both of her grandfathers, who served in both the U.S. Army Air Corps as well as the Air Force, and her father, who had a 26 year long career in the Navy. In an interview in Risen Magazine, she said of her paternal grandfather:
“He instilled in us this idea, because his parents were immigrants to this country from Sweden. The American dream in this country gave us all these opportunities and we needed to give back.”
Graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2008, she made the choice to go into the Marine Corps, after spending time training with Marines in Quantico, Virginia.
During her time in the Marine Corps, she was one of the few female pilots to fly combat missions during her deployment to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. After that, she spent time on assignment in Uganda, and had already accrued over 400 combat flight hours. It was during her time in Africa that she was approached by a Blue Angel pilot, who encouraged her to apply for the coveted flight demonstration team. Following an extensive interview process, Maj. Cook was officially the first female Blue Angel, and became the pilot of the Lockheed C–130 Hercules named “Fat Albert.”
While Maj. Cook takes pride in her contribution to history, she stands firm on the fact that she was chosen due to her ability to perform, not because of her gender. She is also quick to remind those who praise her of all of the women who came before her, who paved the way for her and fellow female service members. Becoming a role model for young girls is something she takes great pride in, and she highlights the importance of hard work and dedication. She has garnered a respectable social media following, and has coined the hashtag “#flylikeagirl” — in order to encourage young girls to dream big.
When asked about the phrase, Cook explained, “The hashtag ‘fly like a girl’ is empowering. It’s positive. And being able to fly to the caliber of a female pilot is something to strive for. To me, it shows that the cockpit is a great equalizer. Both men and women can do equally awesome jobs, and in the end, there is no distinction between genders when it comes to performance. All of us are pilots with the same goal: get as many landings as take-offs.”
Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody
Gen. Dunwoody has had a career full of firsts. While the one that sticks out the most in recent memory is her becoming the first woman to reach the rank of four-star general in the history of the U.S. military, this wasn’t the first time Dunwoody had helped pave the way.
Another service member coming from military lineage, Dunwoody’s father was a decorated Army Veteran, and much of her life was spent moving from base to base. Her own career in the Army began in the mid-70’s, and after receiving a two-year commission as a second lieutenant at Fort Sill, she fell into the groove of military life and ultimately decided to dedicate the next few decades to serving. By 1992, she had become the first female battalion commander for the 82nd Airborne Division, and in 2000, was named the first female general at Fort Bragg. Throughout her career she was also the recipient of numerous awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal and the Defense Superior Service Medal.
After over 30 years of service, Dunwoody made history in 2008 with her promotion to four-star general.
When speaking on her promotion, Dunwoody said “I have never considered myself anything but a Soldier. I recognize that with this selection, some will view me as a trailblazer, but it’s important that we remember the generations of women, whose dedication, commitment and quality of service helped open the doors of opportunity for us today.”
Following her retirement in 2012, she went on to co-write and publish a book on leadership, called A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-Star General.
Admiral Michelle Howard
Prior to beginning her own career in the military, Michelle Howard already knew the road would not be easy. Joining the service was something Howard thought about often, even as a child. Her father, an Air Force master sergeant, was largely what influenced her to embark on her own journey in the service.
Luckily for Howard, just two years prior to her being old enough to enlist, President Ford signed the Military Procurement Bill which, beginning in 1976, allowed for the admission of women into military academies. Howard was accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1978 and was one of only seven black women in her class of over 1,300. It was during her sophomore year that she first piloted a ship, and soon went on to distinguish herself as a bold and respected leader. After taking command of the USS Rushmore in 1999, Howard became the first Black woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy.
Remember the 2013 movie Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks? Howard played a huge part in the real life story. She had taken the position of commander of an anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden just three days before Captain Richard Phillips was kidnapped by Somali pirates. The movie doesn’t do justice to the real world nuances and complexities of Howard’s involvement. In an interview she shared that:
“The pirates were using the fuel in the life raft to steer toward shore–and it was obvious that if they got to shore with Captain Phillips, we were probably not going to get him back.”
She was integral in the four days of hostage negotiations that led to the successful rescue.
It was in 2014 that Howard made history again, when she was promoted to the rank of four-star admiral, the first woman in the Navy to do so. That same day she was also appointed as the 38th vice-chief of naval operations, which made her the second highest ranking officer in the Navy. As if that wasn’t already impressive enough, two years later she went on to become commander of naval forces in both Europe and Africa. She concluded her career as the Commander of Allied Joint Force Naples. Following her retirement in late 2017, she went on to teach cybersecurity and international policy at George Washington University.
Lieutenant General Nina Armagno
The end of 2019 brought the announcement of the inception of the United States Space Force. Aside from appealing to virtually every sci-fi fan in the country, the Space Force also started to assemble its ranks soon after it was officially unveiled. Among them was Major General Nina Armagno. Prior to her being promoted to Lieutenant General upon her transfer in the Space Force, Armagno had just over 30 years of experience in the Air Force as well as space systems operations, specifically.
Graduating from the USAF Academy in 1988, Armagno has gone on to have an impressively full military career, as well as picking up three degrees and numerous certifications along the way (including a Bachelors in Biology and two Masters degrees, in both Education Administration and National Securities Studies). She was also the only Air Force officer to command both East and West U.S. space launch facilities. Along with the completion of over 20 assignments and almost a dozen awards and decorations, she is also the recipient of the 2010 Women of Influence Award as well as the 2014 Gen. Jerome F. O’Malley Distinguished Space Leadership Award.
Upon her commission in the Space Force, Armagno was promoted to three star general on August 17th, 2020. She will be serving as staff director, and overseeing Space Force headquarters daily operations. Not only does this make her the Space Forces first female general officer, she’ll also be playing an integral role during the earliest years of the history making organization. In a statement, Armagno remarked, “We’re going to be agile, we’re going to be nimble, and we’re going to bring the best of everything into the Space Force”.