The inspiring career of Army personnel leader Dee McWilliams began unassumingly, as most things great begin, when after earning her masters in sociology and psychology, she was teaching at a small two year college in Texas. Her husband, a Field Artillery lieutenant, came back from Vietnam with a battlefield commission requiring him to remain in the service for three more years. “I wasn’t very excited (about her husband’s extension in the Army),” McWilliams remembers. Her husband knew she wanted a career as well, that his Army career made more challenging. He suggested she meet with a recruiter. She went the next day, with reluctance.
“I got what I call a post card commission,” she says, laughing. “I filled out a big packet, and when I was accepted they sent me a post card and told me to find someone to swear me in.”
Her mother didn’t know what to make of it. “For the first three years I was in the Army, mother told people I had a nice government job,” McWilliams laughs. “I still have issues with disappointing my mother.”
McWilliams was the middle child of three and the only girl. Her father was too old to be drafted in WWII. Out of a sense of duty, he became a sergeant in the National Guard.
McWilliams played in the high school jazz band and sang in the college choir. There were no sports for girls in her small east Texas town: “our neighborhood was all boys. I grew up playing baseball, basketball and football with them.” McWilliams is a big believer in women’s sports. “Women who have grown up playing sports have more confidence; they’re more physically prepared.”
What is more inspiring than her career is McWilliams herself, who navigated extraordinary circumstances and pressure with an enviable grace, superior competence and exceptional sense of humor, all of which read as key to her successes.
In 1974, McWilliams was commissioned into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and sent to Fort McClellan for training.
“It was training for lady officers,” she says wryly. “We learned the history and structure of the WAC and of the Army. We learned how to do correspondence. We were not allowed to be photographed in fatigues. We could not touch a weapon.”
The women were issued old WWII green wool fatigues that didn’t fit. Then they were sent out for an overnight in the field.
“They gave us little pup tents to set up,” McWilliams remembers. “And then a huge thunderstorm came in.”
The idea of women outside in the rain was too much for the commanding officer.
“She called his transportation unit and told them to come pick us up at 2 in the morning,” McWilliams says. “I was snug and dry until they made us get out of our tents in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
When the WAC asked the women officers what branch they wanted, McWilliams remembers meeting with a major from WAC Branch and requesting the Adjutant General Corps (AG). “Certainly, degrees in sociology and psychology qualified me for that work,” she remembers. The woman making assignments had other ideas.
“I’m going to put you down for Air Defense Artillery,” she told McWilliams. “Your husband is in Field Artillery. That would be cute.”
McWilliams did not find it cute.
“Ma’am, is that the way you make Army assignments?” she asked. “Because you think something is cute?”
McWilliams walked away with an assignment to AG and was assigned to Ft. Harrison, Indiana, but her forthrightness would be a hallmark of her career.
During her assignment at Fort Harrison, someone gave the women officers the opportunity to qualify on the M16 and the 45. One woman opted out. McWilliams wouldn’t have it.
“Do you realize that you’re giving all the guys in the class the idea that a woman can’t do something?” she asked the woman.
The woman decided to try shooting after all.
McWilliams is upfront about her humor and straightforwardness. “I figured if I didn’t fit into the Army, they could throw me out,” she says. “I could go do something else. I always thought it would be nice to just make lieutenant colonel and retire. I didn’t have family dependent on me for shelter, food, education. That allowed me a lot of leeway to do things without domestic responsibility. I had the freedom to be creative.”
She never had a mentor and “I never worked for a woman,” she said. For those who had never worked for a woman when she took command, she told them “Give it a week. If there are problems, we’ll talk about it.” No one came back to her with problems. That didn’t mean she didn’t have her share of them.
When McWilliams was a captain stationed in Germany she ran into trouble. She and her husband had just amicably divorced. She was working as an adjutant on a staff for a major who “was a sleaze ball.”
“I came back after getting divorced,” she remembers, “and my boss looks at me and says: ‘So. You’re newly divorced. Do you have your eye on someone?’
“I said no. The only single guy was the dufus down the hall and I sure wasn’t interested in him.
“My boss leaned back in his chair and looked over his desk at me. He patted the zipper on the front of his pants. ‘There’s no padlock on this zipper,’ he said.
“What do you do?” McWilliams asks. “This was my boss.”
What she did is nothing short of spectacular. “I opened the door from his office which opened out into a room of ten civilians and soldiers and said ‘You know what this guy just told me? He told me there was no padlock on his zipper.’” Then she walked out.
The ability to respond so well did not make the experience an easy one.
“It was hard. I felt like I had been violated. It hurt me for a long time. I thought he had respected me professionally.”
Surprisingly it did not affect her evaluation report, and the officer left as scheduled soon after for a new assignment.
The choice personnel positions were as readiness briefers, and so McWilliams commanded four companies “because the guys didn’t want them,” she says. She attended the Command and Staff School College at Ft. Leavenworth before arriving on assignment to Ft. Lewis, Washington where she had been told she would command in a major’s slot.
“I was the only one of eleven majors who was a resident Leavenworth grad,” she says. “That is supposed to put you in line for the best assignments. But when I arrived, the colonel told me he’d had filled the command I’d been promised two weeks earlier. The officer he’d put in command was a major who had been passed over for promotion and didn’t want the job. It was clear the commander didn’t want a woman in that position.”
She was sent instead to the planning group within personnel.
DANCING WITH THE BEAR
Soon after, McWilliams went with her boss to a briefing to General Norman Schwarzkopf. “My colonel was a face time guy,” she says. “But partway into his presentation, Schwarzkopf just cut him off.”
A day before the next briefing to Schwarzkopf, her boss came to her and told her she would do the briefing. “I wasn’t a briefer,” she said. “But I figured I could do it.”
When they walked into the room, Schwarzkopf was looking down.
“I said ‘Good morning, Sir.’” Schwarzkopf’s head snapped up. “He had this look on his face: ‘it’s a woman.’”
She briefed, and then Schwarzkopf took his pencil and hurled it at her. It went right by her ear. She didn’t flinch.
“What idiot at the Pentagon created this system?” he yelled.
McWilliams wasn’t rattled. She had done her homework. Schwarzkopf had created the system.
“I realized he was being funny,” she said. “No one else in the room understood it, but he was being funny.”
She leaned over and said quietly, “Sir, this ain’t the 82nd [a unit at Ft. Bragg where Schwarzkopf had served].”
“I know,” Schwarzkopf said. “Don’t remind me.”
As McWilliams and her boss left the room, her boss whispered to her: “He is going to kill you.”
Though others called General Schwarzkopf “Stormin’ Norman,” he called himself the bear.
“In his office he had a sign above his door that read: ‘When you dance with the bear, you quit when he’s ready,’” she remembers. A few months after her first briefing, she accompanied her boss to Schwarzkopf’s office on summons to explain a shortage of artillery soldiers because of restructuring.
“As soon as we walked in, Schwarzkopf said: “I know who’s talking because he’s not.”
McWilliams was ready. “He had a crystal bowl of peanut M&Ms on his desk,” she remembers. “I leaned over and took a handful of them, and put them in military formation.
‘Sir, the Army’s like a bag of M&Ms,” she began. “There are only so many in a pack.” In a few sentences she explained the challenge.
When Schwarzkopf dismissed them and McWilliams followed her boss out of the office, Schwarzkopf growled, “Major, keep your fucking hands off my M&Ms.”
“One of the things I learned from observation is that the big boys didn’t want a lot of words,” she says. “They wanted it simply put.”
NEVER LETTING DOWN HER GUARD
Despite McWilliams’ focus on her job and not promotion, she was constantly aware of the impact of her own career on women across the Army. “I told myself: ‘If you go in as a woman and fail, every woman on this post fails. You better have your stuff together.”
“Every job except my first and my last, I was the first woman in that position,” she says. “I knew if I could do the job, someone coming behind me might get job they had never given a woman.”
She knew, though, when she was being treated unfairly.
Leaving Korea, she found she had been given a battalion command in Ft. Dix, New Jersey, a unit selected for closure. Typically commands did not last long enough there to qualify as a command assignment, and an officer would have to be assigned an additional command later to remain competitive.
“I had been promoted early to lieutenant colonel.” she said. “The boys at branch (the Army assignments office) didn’t like that. They knew if they put me at Dix it would slow me down.”
There wasn’t much that slowed McWilliams down. The boys at branch hadn’t anticipated that. She reported to Ft. Dix.
“It wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t have top quality officers,” she said.
LEARNING — AND TEACHING — IN THE MOMENT
“One night I was in my office at eight PM arguing with my headquarters company commander (her subordinate),” she said. “We were discussing a matter of command philosophy. The commander said a couple of things that made me realize he wasn’t fit for command. I raised my hand to point at him and to relieve him.”
Somewhere in the few seconds her hand was raised, she realized something.
“I don’t know what it was, but I understood that he had never commanded a company. I realized I hadn’t taught him. That it was my job to teach him.”
“As you increase your level of responsibility, your umbrella expands,” she says. “The thing that made you a good captain doesn’t make you a good battalion commander. You have to learn each new responsibility.”
She did not relieve the commander.
“I brought my hand down,” she says. “I said, ‘You know what? We’re both tired. Let’s talk again tomorrow.’”
That evening interaction became one of her biggest lessons, not only in understanding her changing responsibilities as she was promoted, but in understanding her legacy to the Army as well.
“I realized if I had a legacy to the Army, it’s the soldiers I work with,” she says. “I had to make them the best they could be.”
“Halfway through my command, we were assigned a new brigade commander,” she says. “He made sure we all knew before he arrived that he had been in the 82d, the 101st, all the choice units. I realized right away he had never served in a unit with women.
“He gave an incoming speech, and then told his seven battalion commanders to meet him under a tree. There were six infantry commanders and me. He was a tall southern guy, and he told us all how he operated and that we weren’t in real battalion commands because this wasn’t a combat mission. He dismissed us but asked me to stay behind.
‘My wife told me to ask you if the female officers want invitations to the officers’ wives events,’ he said.
I said ‘Sir, when I was married and duty allowed, I attended the officers’ wives events. But now, I am not married to another officer, so I am not an officer’s wife and I won’t be attending.”
A week later a staff officer came to talk to McWilliams. “The new colonel was calling all the women ‘ma’am,” she says, “including sergeants and lieutenants. Everyone wanted to know what I was going to do about it.” In the military, the titles of ‘Ma’am’ and ‘Sir’ are reserved for officers of a rank senior to the person making the address.
“My next meeting with the brigade commander, he said ‘Ma’am,’ and I said, ‘Sir, don’t call me Ma’am. And for God’s sake don’t call the lieutenants ma’am.’”
It wasn’t only her superiors who were flummoxed by a female commanding officer.
“At Ft. Dix, I really played it by the book,” she said. “It was a training installation, so you had to teach people how to do things. One afternoon, the troops were cleaning the facilities. I turned a corner and saw the smallest soldier I’d ever seem stand at attention with the buffer still running. I walked over and unplugged the buffer. She had this look on her face like she didn’t know what to do. Then she pulled the fabric on her BDU pockets away from her body and curtsied.”
McWilliams approached her and said, “Very well executed. Where did you learn this?’.
“My mother,” the soldier said.
“You must come from a very good family,” McWilliams said.
As McWilliams and the drill sergeant walked away, the drill sergeant said, “She is going to die.”
“No drill sergeant. We don’t mess with families. You need to train her to do it your way. You are her mother now.”
While serving as head of promotion and selection board for the Army, McWilliams was selected for the National War College. While attending war college, she was selected for colonel below the zone and brigade command.
When McWilliams took brigade command, “people started to ask me if I was forming my staff,” she said. “It’s common for people to take subordinates with them.” “I told them no, that whoever was at Ft. Hood would be just fine. I never took anyone with me. Working for me once was probably enough. Anyway, the people who were there were brilliant. You really have to have the audacity and confidence to work like that,” she says.
While she was in command, McWilliams took her brigade to the field. “They were administrators and managers, but we needed to work on soldier skills,” she says.
“I walked out one day to observe a battalion. A sergeant was briefing a group of soldiers for perimeter duty that might. At the end of the briefing a young woman soldier looked up. She didn’t look at my eyes, but I saw her face register the bird on my hat. She stood up suddenly, executed an about face, and curtsied.”
McWilliams laughs. “I’m pretty sure I am the only person in the Army to have had two people curtsy.” she says.
She walked away from the soldier, her staff and commanders trailing behind, and walked straight up to a tree.
“I knocked my helmet against the tree, and stood there leaning against it. No one had ever seen me mad before. They were silent.”
Still standing that way, she asked, “Did I see correctly what that soldier just did?”
Her command sergeant major answered her “Yes, Ma’am. She curtsied.”
They never accept you as one of them. There were things I would never be a part of.
McWilliams straightened up. “I like it,” she said. “I want the men to bow.”
Audacity and confidence are things McWilliams has in spades. But audacity and confidence didn’t change the way some of her peers would regard her.
“While I was in battalion and brigade command, the other commanders played golf with the general every Saturday,” she says. “ I was never invited.”
Finally one of the staff officers mentioned it to her.
“I have clubs, but that doesn’t mean I play golf,” she said. She jokes that she got to enjoy her Saturday mornings, but “There is a difference in their minds. They never accept you as one of them. There were things I would never be a part of.”