Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead is the only black woman to lead a state military in the United States. Birckhead told NPR about her path, saying that the military was not even an option for her when she was applying to colleges.
She followed her mother’s advice and applied for an ROTC scholarship in order to attend university at a lower cost. This change, she said, was just what she needed to get started.
“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.
Birckhead began her military career with the Pirate Battalion, Hampton University’s ROTC program. Through the program, she acquired discipline, hard effort, and dedication. Using these qualities as a springboard, she went on to become the nation’s only black woman to lead a state military, commanding 4,600 battle-ready soldiers and airmen.
Gov. Wes Moore appointed her as Maryland’s adjutant general, stating, “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 demonstrates her readiness to serve in the highest-ranking military position in Maryland.”
Birckhead formerly worked as an aide to former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Following the Jan. 6 attack, she was designated by the National Guard Bureau as the task force commander for around 14,000 guard members guarding the United States Capitol in 2021. She was also in charge of security for President Biden’s inauguration with the Maryland National Guard.
Soon after, Governor Hogan appointed her to lead the nation’s first operational vaccine equity task force. She was tasked for distributing vaccines, visiting local communities, and determining who needed the most doses based on demographics.
Birckhead looks up to retired Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the Maryland National Guard’s first African-American commander. Birckhead continues to be perplexed 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.
According to NPR, less than one in every five active duty officers in the Army in 2021 will be women.Although Birckhead occasionally has to deal with people who underestimate her and pass her by because of her skin color, she says she is toughing it out and is always prepared for any additional challenges that may arise, especially because she has a team ready to help her.
She seeks to solve challenges such as the shortage of military recruitment. She also wants to make certain that the proper individuals are doing the right jobs and that the working conditions for all of her security officers are better.
“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.