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She's currently the only Black woman leading a state military. Here's how it happened

Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead serves as Maryland's 31st adjutant general — making her the only Black woman who leads a state military in the U.S. Here, Birckhead sits inside NPR's studios for an interview with NPR's Jonathan Franklin.
Ajani Daniel/NPR
Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead serves as Maryland's 31st adjutant general — making her the only Black woman who leads a state military in the U.S. Here, Birckhead sits inside NPR's studios for an interview with NPR's Jonathan Franklin.

When applying to colleges, Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead and her mother exhausted every option possible to cover her tuition. For Birckhead, a career in the military was never something that crossed her mind.

Little did she know her application for an ROTC scholarship at Hampton University in Virginia would set her on the path to becoming the leader she is today.

"She challenged me to apply, and I got the interview. And then, after I got the interview, I went through the process, and I was awarded the scholarship. How can you turn it down? So that was the journey. That's how the journey began," Birckhead told NPR.

It's a journey that has taken Birckhead from her life growing up on Maryland's Eastern Shore to her role today as adjutant general — the top military position in the state.

And with her appointment in April by Gov. Wes Moore, Birckhead became the only Black woman in the country to lead a state military, responsible for the combat readiness of 4,600 soldiers and airmen.

"The Adjutant General is the leader of Maryland's Military, and I am very confident in Janeen's ability to do just that — lead. Her record proves her readiness to serve at the highest-ranking military position in the state of Maryland," Moore said when he announced her nomination.

From ROTC to 30 years in the service

Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead serves as Maryland's 31st adjutant general — making her the only Black woman who leads a state military in the U.S. Above, Birckhead outlines plans to improve equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines during a news conference in Annapolis, Md., in March 2021.
Brian Witte / AP
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AP
Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead serves as Maryland's 31st adjutant general — making her the only Black woman who leads a state military in the U.S. Above, Birckhead outlines plans to improve equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines during a news conference in Annapolis, Md., in March 2021.

When Birckhead started her military career at Hampton University, the university's ROTC program —known as the Pirate Battalion — helped instill hard work, dedication and discipline. For leaders in the Pirate Battalion, graduating the best future officers into the armed forces was a point of pride.

Birckhead says this mindset shaped her into the leader she is today — and helped her navigate the many command roles she's been tasked with carrying out during her service.

Before becoming Adjutant General, Birckhead served on the staff of Moore's Republican predecessor, former Gov. Larry Hogan.

In early 2021, Birckhead was appointed by the National Guard Bureau as the task force commander for over 14,000 guard members guarding the U.S. Capitol after the Jan. 6 attack. She also led the Maryland National Guard's security mission for President Biden's inauguration.

Later that year, Gov. Hogan asked her to lead what became the country's first operational vaccine equity task force. In this position, she distributed vaccines, visited local communities and determined who needed vaccines most based on demographics.

The push to grow representation in the military

Birckhead is not the first Black woman to lead a state's military, but as she approaches her sixth month in office, she has drawn inspiration from her role model — the now-retired Maj. Gen. Linda Singh — who was the first woman and African American to command the Maryland National Guard.

She understands how rare it is for someone like her to rise in the ranks. In 2021, less than one in five active duty officers in the Army were women. Only 9% of officers in the Marine Corps were women.

And while she is proud of her rise, after three decades of service, she still wonders why the military continues to have "firsts."

"I've been in for 30 years. And we still have first of, you know, first like this, first woman this. And it's very telling. Firsts are great. But we want a second and a third and a fourth. And then we don't have to say the first. But that's just the culture of the organization. And that's where we want to get to," Birckhead said.

She acknowledges it won't always be easy. Over the course of her own career, Birckhead says, she's often felt overlooked as a Black woman in a military culture dominated by men.

"If I have my uniform on, it's really very interesting to walk into a room. They will address my aide, or they'll address the person that's with me that's not a Black female; clearly, they must be the leader. And that mental leap perception happens so many times," Birckhead said.

Luckily, her team is adept at correcting those who make these mistakes. They often have to point to her and let people know she is the leader they're looking for.

Maryland National Guard Brigadier General Janeen Birckhead visits with a woman as she receives her Moderna coronavirus vaccine in Wheaton, Md., in 2021.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Maryland National Guard Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead visits with a woman as she receives her Moderna coronavirus vaccine in Wheaton, Md., in 2021.

The challenges and goals ahead

Birckhead is no stranger to overcoming challenges — and she knows she will encounter more as she continues to navigate her new role.

One of the toughest challenges she is likely to face is helping expand recruitment — a predicament not only for her own force in Maryland, but for the military more broadly.

"I have to get out in front of people organizations, the community, and say that this is how the National Guard is a fit for your child or your loved one, and give them some assurance that your loved one will be taken care of, be safe in our organization, that there's something here for everyone," Birckhead said.

She is also focusing on the challenges associated with simply running a successful organization. Her goal is for all of her guard members to have healthy working conditions and to make sure the right people are doing the right jobs.

"I will continue to push behavior health and ensuring that we have soldiers and airmen and civilian employees who feel that they're safe and that they have somewhere to go when their issues need to be addressed," Birckhead said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ajani Daniel
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.