View Full Version : A Star Among Military Women

05-12-09, 06:52 AM
A Star Among Military Women
Kathryn Mckay
Mon May 11, 6:06 pm ET

As a kid, Jeanne Holm had one goal: survival.

"I grew up during the Depression. My mother was widowed with three small children when I was 7. She worked very hard to allow me to continue in school," Holm told IBD from her Maryland home.

The idea that she would become the first female two-star general in the U.S. armed forces was unimaginable for a girl born in 1921.

But the Oregon native who began her military career as a truck driver during World War II has been a driving force in achieving parity for women ever since.

"There are generals and then there's General Holm," said Wilma Vaught, a retired Air Force one-star general and board president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. "You can't meet her without being impressed. She has the quality that sets her apart from everyone else in the room. She's an icon."

Like her mother, who ran a shop and sewed to feed her family, Holm had to be pragmatic. After graduating from high school, she used the metalworking skills she learned in art classes to become a silversmith.

When America entered World War II in 1941, Holm wanted to join the Navy like her brothers, but the service wasn't taking women. "We were all trying to do something for the war, and I couldn't," she said.

Now She Could

By 1942, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was open for business. Holm joined when she turned 21.

As excited as she was, reality set in fast. In her first night in the barracks, made from a converted stable with 200 other women, she looked up at the high ceilings and thought, "Where am I? What have I done?"

The next morning, she knew the answers.

"I woke up gung-ho," she said.

After the initial training, Holm had three job options: cook, type, drive. She chose to drive.

"The majority of us were already professional women. We had the attitude and devotion," she said. "Whatever we could do, we did it."

Soon Holm was on the rise, getting accepted into Officer Candidate School. After graduating, she spent most of the war years commanding Army basic training units.

"We wrote our own manuals, set up our own classes and opened the mess halls. We formed everything from scratch," she said.

When World War II ended in 1945, Holm was a captain and did what so many military men did: She went to college on the GI bill.

She was attending Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., in 1948 when a life-changing letter landed. It was from the Defense Department telling her that through the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, women could serve as regulars in the Army, Navy, Marines and recently formed Air Force.

The letter came with a card asking a simple question: Which branch did Holm want to join?

She checked Air Force.

"I always had an interest in aviation," she said.

She missed the military so much, she left college. "I was flat broke. I slept in the car along the way," she said, recalling her cross-country trek to Fort Lee, Va.

Once she was back in uniform, Holm jumped into U.S. and overseas duty. She helped with war plans in Germany during the Berlin Airlift of the late '40s and organized personnel at the Air Force's Italy headquarters.

One goal that stayed in Holm's sights was education. She took classes at the University of Maryland while she worked at the Pentagon, finishing her degree at Lewis & Clark College.

The studying paid off, with Holm becoming the first woman chosen to go to Alabama's Maxwell Air Force Base for the Air Command and Staff College, a prestigious assignment where, Holm said, "We had a lot to learn. The Air Force was brand-new. We were all neophytes."

By 1965, Holm was the Air Force's only female colonel. Soon she rose to director of women in the service, working to expand their chances. "It was a large challenge. Women were not allowed to create policy," she said. "I had to be creative."

Even if that meant shaking things up in the highest court. Holm provided support to Sharon Frontiero in an equal protection case before the Supreme Court.

Frontiero, an Air Force lieutenant, won the 1973 decision that said military benefits must be doled out equally between men and women.

"You can have laws, but you still need someone to kick the doors open, and that's what she did," said Dorothy Cochrane, curator of general aviation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Holm's kick helped open the way for women in the Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps in 1969 and the service academies in 1976.

Despite her best efforts to make the Air Force first in letting women train in the cockpit, the chief of staff said no and the Navy said yes in 1973. Right before Holm retired in 1975, the Air Force announced it would open pilot training to women.

"She pushed the boundaries forward for women in the military, but she never did anything for women just for women's sake," Evelyn Foote, a retired Army brigadier general, told IBD. "She was a pioneer, and she was the right spokesperson to push the envelope based on logic, rather than emotion. She knew women could perform if given the chance."

Now many women have that chance. Less than a year after Holm suited up in blue, 2,714 women were in the Air Force; today, 63,899.

Still Shining

For all Holm did for others, she never expected to go beyond the rank of colonel. She started preparing her retirement papers. But her boss, Lt. Gen. Robert Dixon, convinced her to stay.

Good advice. In 1971, Holm was the first Air Force woman promoted to brigadier general. Two years later she rose to major general.

Now she could really pull rank.

"I talked to everyone and did whatever it took -- going through the front door, the back door or whatever door" to help women rise in the military, she said.

After retirement, Holm advised three presidents and wrote two books on military women. At 87, she's still vocal on defense matters.