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Top U.S. military women say they were told they would fail as they rose through the ranks

CBS Evening News Anchor Norah O’Donnell, donned in a purple suit, meets with top-ranking military women leaders
Auburn Braithwaite
U.S. Transportation Command
From left, Adm. Linda Fagan, commandant of the Coast Guard; Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of U.S. Transportation Command; Army Gen. Laura Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, and Adm. Lisa Franchetti, vice chief of naval operations, meet with CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell on Monday at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

All four of the Department of Defense’s four-star generals or admirals who are women — including Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who is based at Scott Air Force Base — said at one time in their career their superiors told them they would fail.

For Van Ovost, that came during fighter flight school. “Indeed one of the senior instructors pretty much said, ‘You shouldn’t be here,’” she recalled. “Of course, that was not my plan, and I was a little shocked.”

Trained as a pilot for larger cargo planes, Van Ovost said she had some learning when it came to fighter maneuvers. In that moment, she said she relied on her peers, and they reassured her that she “was a great pilot.” From there, she put her head down to study.

“The next time I flew with or against this person, I was ready to wax them,” she said as the crowd laughed.

Adm. Linda Fagan of the Coast Guard; Gen. Laura Richardson of the Army’s Southern Command, and Adm. Lisa Franchetti, vice chief of naval operations, echoed Van Ovost’s sentiments about being a woman in the military.

The four women met in person for the first time to celebrate Women’s History Month. In front of a crowd of a few hundred, mostly uniformed women, the leaders discussed their work in a field dominated by men and how to recruit and retain women in the military at the event livestreamed out of Arlington, Virginia.

“In the 75 years since we’ve had the opportunity to serve, we certainly have come a long way,” Van Ovost told the crowd. “Our progress is accelerating, but we have a ways to go. We helped create a service that is more inviting to ensure that we are more ready and more capable.”

She leads U.S. Transportation Command, a joint-force operation that is responsible for planning and moving much of the country’s military needs around the world.

Van Ovost previously was the head of Air Mobility Command, the Air Force wing of TRANSCOM. Her command covers three branches of service and has had a majorrole in the war in Ukraine, moving missiles and tanks, for example, to the front lines.

Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, leader of U.S. Transportation Command, is based out of Scott Air Force Base and is one of four current female four-star officers in the armed forces.

Moderator Norah O’Donnell of CBS News pointed out that only 10 women have served as four-star generals or admirals in U.S. history. She said that all four at Monday’s forum have served at least three decades.

Van Ovost recently returned from a trip to the Middle East, where the general visited Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Her trip drew a contrast to the progress women have made in the U.S. military, but that’s changing, she said.

“There are women now driving. There are women going to school. There are women entrepreneurs,” Van Ovost said of her time in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

The generals also fielded questions from the crowd. An airwoman asked how far away the top-ranking officers believed the U.S. military was from full integration, as compared to accommodation.

“If we were fully included, we would have the armor that is built for a woman’s body based on how we carry the weight,” Van Ovost responded. “We would have flight suits that would fit us — uniforms that would fit us so that we wouldn’t need to be accommodated. The good news is we’ve identified those things.”

And that’s part of the Department of Defense’s push over the past couple of years for combat readiness. For Van Ovost, making sure women are included in those priorities is a key component.

“We have to be insistent upon it,” she said.

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.