Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead is the only black woman in the United States commanding a state military. Birckhead recapped her journey to NPR, revealing that the military wasn’t even an option when she was applying to colleges.
She took her mother’s advice and applied for an ROTC scholarship in order to find less expensive ways to attend university. According to her, this move was just the start she needed.
“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 disclosed to NPR.
She also told The Baltimore Banner, “I did not choose the military. It chose me… I didn’t have any intention of going through with the award.” She called it a leap of faith because she didn’t have anyone to guide her through the decision at the time.
The Pirate Battalion, Hampton University‘s ROTC program, is where Birckhead started her military career. She learned discipline, hard work, and dedication through the program. Using these traits as a springboard, she went on to become the only black woman to command a state military in the nation, in charge of 4,600 battle-ready soldiers and airmen.
Gov. Wes Moore selected her as adjutant general, Maryland’s senior military job, noting, “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.”
Birckhead formerly worked as a staffer for former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. In 2021, she was assigned by the National Guard Bureau as the task force commander for approximately 14,000 guard members guarding the United States Capitol following the Jan. 6 attack. She was also in charge of the Maryland National Guard’s security for President Biden’s inauguration.
Shortly afterward, Governor Hogan appointed her to oversee the country’s first operational vaccine equity task group. She was entrusted with distributing vaccines, visiting local communities, and assessing who, based on demographics, needed the most shots.
Birckhead looks up to retired Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, who was the first African-American woman to command the Maryland National Guard. Birckhead remains baffled as to why there are still firsts in the field.
“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,” she remarked.
In 2021, less than one in five active duty officers in the Army were women, as stated by NPR. Although Birckhead sometimes has to deal with people who underestimate her and pass her by because of her skin tone, Birckhead said she is toughing it out and is always prepared for any other problems that may come her way, especially because she has a team ready to assist her.
She intends to address issues, including the need for more military recruits. She also wants to ensure that the appropriate people are performing the right jobs and that the working conditions for all of her guards are improved.
“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 stated.