NEWPORT, R.I., –
From Army ROTC cadet at Hampton University to commander in the Maryland Army National Guard, Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead has proved herself a devoted leader and public servant.
Her personal story provided ample inspiration for a livestream broadcast to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport workforce on March 16. Honoring Women’s History Month, Birckhead shared advice for leadership and spoke about women’s equality, strength and resiliency during tough times.
“I was selected as Army commander in June 2018. It’s been a demanding 30-plus months, with many successes and lots of learning,” she said. “In reflecting on how I came to be here today, as the commander of the Maryland Army National Guard and the DCG [deputy commanding general] for the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle, I thought about some successes. And I’m sure you would imagine that every day was a victory, but I assure you, it was not. I view my path to success, not as the success itself, but where I grew as a leader and ultimately a general officer that you see today.”
If not for her strong foundation, Birckhead said she might not have reached such heights in her career.
Born to a family with strong community ties, Birckhead remained committed to supporting her country at every step. After graduating from college magna cum laude, she went into the Army Reserves. There, she was deployed in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, where she served in the Office of Administrative Review for the Detention of Enemy Combatants. She also was deployed to Afghanistan, where she implemented plans to go in the field with Afghan National Security Forces.
In her civilian work, she is currently a senior advisor in the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians in the Department of the Interior. As commanding officer of the Maryland Army National Guard, she was in charge of Maryland’s presence at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
When she was asked to command Task Force Capitol Grounds, leading 14,000 soldiers for the presidential inauguration and security mission that started the day after the insurrection, she said she heard comments questioning why she was chosen.
“My question was, ‘Why not me?,’ Birckhead said. “I was intimately familiar with the Capitol Hill complex and surrounding area. I was a U.S. House of Representative page in my high school days, and lived in and attended school in Washington D.C. I worked for a representative. I interned on the Hill after graduating from Hampton University. I went on to work on the Hill as a senate staffer for several years and I have commanded at every level. I thought, ‘Yes, well why not me?’”
Birckhead began her talk by examining the history of women in the military. For the first 144 years of our country’s history, she began, women were not considered equal. Yet many women served faithfully in the military throughout the Revolutionary War and in the Civil War, in both the Union and Confederate armies, wearing disguises to perform as soldiers and spies, nurses and doctors. During World War II, more than 400,000 women served their country.
Birckhead was inspired by Harriet Tubman, a Union spy, Army recruiter, and the first woman to lead a U.S. military expedition, as well as Civil War surgeon Dr. Mary E. Walker, the first and only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.
“Today, I am fortunate to have such outstanding women that serve in the Maryland Army National Guard. We have over 1,000 women making up 16% of my total force,” she said. “Without women in the military, we would be combat ineffective.”
Birckhead explained that success requires a strong foundation, relating women’s leadership to a tree. From the roots to the trunk and the canopy, the tree is emblematic of strong leadership skills. Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself, she said, quoting businessman and former General Electric Chairman and CEO John “Jack” F. Welch. But when you become a leader, success is all about others.
For example, at the beginning of her career, she said she was a sapling, developing her competencies. Now, she is intent on helping others develop their own skills, and earn their own success with a solid foundation.
“That foundation is the tree roots. A tree needs to be planted in the earth firmly. The roots are responsible for absorbing nourishment, for ensuring the tree stays in the ground. What happens to those trees with shallow roots? They topple over, become uprooted and die,” she said. “The same can hold true for people. That is where we as leaders fall short in providing nourishment sometimes. The unestablished root system is a new federal employee, or that second lieutenant. It certainly takes a few years, if not many years, for them to get their bearings, to learn the system, their job and craft.”
Without this system in place, she said, so many professional and personal efforts can become unnecessarily challenging, and you don’t find success for yourself or others. Negotiating adversity, for example, or navigating school and health issues, are hard without deep roots.
Finding mentors is also an ingredient for success, she said, noting that she is grateful to have had several mentors guide her along her path. She also offers guidance to her own mentees, telling them to have a plan and to continually assess that plan as they progress through their life goals.
“Surround yourself with people who don’t look like you and don’t agree with everything you say. Work hard to lean into your experiences and trust your intuition. And I think that’s important, to trust your intuition,” she said. “A strong trunk allows the tree to sway in the wind, but it never breaks. I have come to know that to be true over the past 33 months —2020 and 2021 have been a test of my resiliency, and of everyone’s for that matter. But like those roots, my trunk is strong. The Maryland National Guard has been working in the community and doing what it does best — we’re always ready, we’re always there. I have worked tirelessly to live up that motto.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, Birckhead activated more than 1,400 members of the National Guard to help with many tasks. Soldiers visited nursing homes and other medical facilities to assist the Department of Health with testing; processed and distributed medical equipment and personal protective equipment from the state’s strategic stockpile; supported food pantries and food distribution missions throughout the state; and when schools closed, they assisted in the distribution of laptops to students.
After Task Force Capitol Grounds, Birckhead returned to fighting the pandemic through supporting vaccination efforts. She is now working on a Vaccine Equity Task Force across 24 jurisdictions in Maryland and streamlining efforts for the underserved populations to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine.
“So back to the tree,” she said. “The canopy provides protection, shelter and nourishment. Yes, the canopy is at the top, just like the leader is at the top of their organization. I strive to provide the same protection, shelter and nourishment for the soldiers under my command.
“I am frequently asked what drives me to do my job. It is elevating others, and to share in their successes. For me, it is important to leave a long-lasting legacy. Building monuments may be a way of being remembered. But for me, however, being remembered fondly and my name being used over time, space and generations, is important.”
Birckhead said she most enjoys the ability to interact with soldiers and influence their lives in a positive way, as well as to have a positive impact on her community. Her journey to the rank of general isn’t just a tribute to her dedication and patriotism, she said. Rather, it’s a tribute to those who raised, mentored and guided her — to her grandparents who achieved high school diplomas from segregated schools, and went on to be faith leaders, community activists and to serve their country. It is a testimony to perseverance, she said.
NUWC Division Newport is a shore command of the U.S. Navy within the Naval Sea Systems Command, which engineers, builds and supports America’s fleet of ships and combat systems. NUWC Newport provides research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures associated with undersea warfare.
NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.