There is a memory trick new recruits use to learn the order of flag ranks leading to four-star general, the highest U.S. military rank in the Army, Air Force and Marines. The mnemonic BMLG “be my little girl” helps soldiers remember the title and order of officers based on the number of stars on their uniforms. One-, two- and three-star generals are ranked brigadier, major and lieutenant in that order.
Our military is run on an inflexible hierarchy of command. Among the very exclusive club of U.S. military generals, brigadier generals have to salute major generals and above, and major generals must salute lieutenant generals and up, but lieutenant generals only salute four-star generals -- who only have to salute presidents.
Needless to say, those stars are hard to come by.
Last week, Army Brig. Gen.Tammy Smith, who is nobody’s “little girl,” earned her first star and became the most recent woman to join the tiny club.
Out of fewer than 100 active-duty Army generals total, only a handful are women. According to her Defense Department biography, Smith was most recently deployed as the chief of Army Reserve affairs for U.S. forces in Afghanistan (USFOR-A). During her 26-year military career, she has earned numerous awards and served in “logistics, operations, training and personnel,” for duty in Panama and Costa Rica. In addition to giving the Pentagon another stellar manager, she gives women in military service another commander of their own gender.
Like CEOs in business, generals (and the Navy’s tiered equivalent, admirals) are the big bosses in the military. But, because the business of a militia is war, even more so than in corporate culture men have always dominated the chief ranks.
Although women have served in the Army since 1775, an important qualification – front-line combat -- is not considered woman’s work and remains off limits. Only recently as our defense culture began to recognize that women make very competent soldiers, and are every bit as heroic as their brothers, have women begun to receive the stars that signify that they are stars. (The sad result of diversity is, of course, that brave female troops are now regularly listed among the fallen.)
The first and so far only female four-star general, Ann Dunwoody, was promoted to the highest rank in 2008.
Smith’s promotion is significant on its own military merit, but the new brigadier general gave the country another kind of amazing example by doing something as loving and normal as having her spouse at her side for her swearing-in.
Last year, the United States ended the centuries-old ban on gays in the military, along with two decades of a draconian “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. On Friday, Tammy Smith became the nation’s first openly gay flag-ranking military officer.
Her new, five-pointed jewelry was pinned on her uniform at a ceremony in Arlington by her wife, Tracey Hepner. Hepner is a founder of the Military Partners and Families Coalition, which “advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender military partners and their families. “
"Looking at the photos of Tracey’s joy as she pins the star on my shoulder is a memory that will imprint my heart forever,” Brig. Gen. Smith said. Although she acknowledged that the Defense Department prefers that sexual orientation remain “a private matter,” she said that “participating with family in traditional ceremonies” is what is “expected of a leader."
Regardless of rank, we can all salute the new general and her lovely wife.
Bonnie Goldstein is on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel.