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Gen. Jeanne Holm: strategist for a military revolution

By Deborah ChurchmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 1984


WHEN he found out his little sister Jeanne had joined the Army in 1942, John Holm, then a Navy officer, was a ''typical male, I suppose - I wasn't too thrilled about it.''

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Then in the middle of the war, when Capt. Jeanne Holm and her two Navy brothers came home to Portland, Ore., on leave, ''we really got to know each other,'' Mr. Holm says. ''I found I really admired her - she was a person in her own right, and very bright.''

That pattern of disarming and impressing ''typical males'' has repeated itself throughout Jeanne Holm's military and civilian career. As a World War II truck driver and troop trainer, she got military men over their ''initial reaction,'' as she puts it. After the war, Congress passed the Women's Armed Service Integration Act, which gave permanent status to women in all the armed forces. At that time Ms. Holm reentered the military, switching to the Air Force.

''I'd enjoyed my time in the military, and thought there would be good jobs available,'' now Major General Holm said in a recent interview. ''I never thought I'd make a career of it,'' she added.

She served in Berlin during the airlift and headed up Manpower at NATO headquarters for the southern region of Europe in Naples, Italy - where she lived in a 2,000-year-old cave and learned to sail. Then she returned to the States to head up the Women's Air Force (WAF), helping to double its size and opening up door after door to women in the military, first as full colonel, later as the Air Force's first woman brigadier general, and then major general.

Retiring after close to 33 years in uniform, she took her advocacy to the Ford White House as special assistant to the President for women's issues. There she initiated the Justice Department study - recently brought to light in the Reagan administration by former Justice Department consultant Barbara Honegger - of laws and regulations that discriminate against women. Then, it was back to the Defense Department to serve on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

Lately, she's been writing a book - ''Women in the Military'' (Presidio Press), an overview of the ''unfinished revolution.'' The book took her four years to churn out. Her name has been mentioned for several upper-echelon jobs in the Pentagon and the White House, and her family is urging her to write her memoirs (''My friends are relieved I haven't,'' she quips).

But ask her what she's going to do in the future, and she says, ''Ski. I never plan my career.'' She adds later: ''I believe in planning my recreation.''

By her own reckoning, she has achieved ''more than I ever, ever thought I would,'' rising from the tomboy kid of a divorced mother, determined to ''help my country'' by joining the Army in World War II.

Outspoken journalist Sarah McClendon, who went through officer training with General Holm in the Army, tells this story: ''Jeanne was so determined to join up, but was apparently quite poor in those days and didn't have the money for a hotel. So she spent the night in the car on her way to signing up,'' she says.

Persistence - some say grit - was one key ingredient of her success. She believes, however, that she rose through ''good luck, mentors, and doing my homework.'' She says that she joined ''at just the right time. I was one of the youngest women in officer training, and when it came time to bring women into the highest ranks, I was the ranking female.''

But admirers and critics (and she has few of the latter) see her style as the main factor behind her success. Says one shrewd observer of successful Washington women, ''She believes in working within the system and never presents herself as a radical.''

''She's a team player,'' says Karen Keisling, General Holm's deputy in the White House and now principal deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force. ''In the White House, if someone said something in a speech she disapproved of, she'd go back to that person - she wouldn't try to go over his head.''

Ms. Keisling also observes that ''General Holm is a strong advocate for women , but she's politically conservative and believes in a strong national defense.''

Her positions on women's issues may have earned her the reputation among some Defense Department officers as the advocate for women in the military - period. ''But she never forgets that the prime purpose of the military is a strong national defense. She doesn't go overboard,'' says Navy friend Fran McKee, a retired admiral.