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West Point ushers in new era for women in military with first female commandant

The appointment of Brig. Gen. Diana M. Holland as West Point's commandant of cadets comes just two weeks after the Pentagon's decision to open combat roles to women across all branches of the armed forces.

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    West Point cadet Austen Boroff stands in formation as cadets wait to march to lunch at the US Military Academy, April 2014. On Tuesday, the Academy named Brig. Gen. Diana Holland the next commandant at West Point. West Point commandants are in charge of cadet training.

    With the Pentagon lifting restrictions for women in combat jobs, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr. has set a goal of boosting the number of women above 20 percent for the new class reporting this summer.
    Mel Evans/ AP/ File
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In West Point's history, there have been 75 commandants for the Corps of cadets: military leaders who direct future officers' famously rigorous training and discipline.

And now, for the first time, the Military Academy's 4,200 cadets will be led by a woman: Brig. Gen. Diana M. Holland, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, whose appointment was announced Tuesday.

"Diana's operational and command experiences will bring a new and diverse perspective to West Point's leadership team," acting Army Secretary Eric Fanning said in a statement. "She is absolutely the right person for this critical position."

The high-profile appointment comes amid a major sea change in the US military, less than two weeks after the Pentagon announced that female soldiers would be eligible for combat roles. The promotion of an accomplished female general to such a prominent leadership position is seen as symbol of women's newly heightened role in the military and an inspiration to young female cadets.

Brig. General Holland is currently a deputy commanding general of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, where she is the Fort's first female general. She will begin her role at West Point in January.

"I am very honored to be named the next Commandant of the U.S. Corps of Cadets," Holland said in the Academy's statement. "It's a privilege to be part of the team that trains and develops leaders of character for our Army."

She herself graduated from West Point in 1990, 15 years after then-president Gerald Ford signed a bill admitting women into the armed forces' academies. At age six, she told her father, who served in the Marines, that she wanted to join the service.

"The Marine Corps makes the smallest person in the platoon carry the heaviest weapon," he warned her, according to an interview with New York's Watertown Daily News, but that did not deter her from pursuing an Army engineering career. She has served in various US states, as well as Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Her husband, James Holland, Jr., is a 20-year Army veteran, as well.

For years, the Marines have resisted putting women in combat roles, as other branches became increasingly diverse. Earlier this month, however, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter officially opened combat roles to all women, regardless of their branch.

To First Lieutenant Jill Mueller, the orders to integrate female soldiers means "I love the Army and the Army loves me back," she told The Christian Science Monitor's Anna Mulrine. "And finally, I feel like it’s going to stay that way."

In preparation for the Defense Secretary's decision, West Point has been aiming to increase its percentage of female cadets: of this fall's incoming class, 23 percent are women, an increase that admissions director Col. Deborah McDonald attributed to female-specific recruitment materials and expanded opportunities for female athletes.

According to the Army Times, sexual harassment and assault remain a reality for women at the Military Academy. Although the percentage reporting unwanted sexual contact dropped from 10 percent in 2012 to 6.5 in 2014, over 90 percent of female cadets reported sexist incidents.

"You're never encouraged until that number [of assaults] reaches zero," Colonel McDonald told West Point's oversight board in April.

But seeing women in leadership roles may encourage future officers.

"Every day there's another first," Brig. Gen. Holland told the Daily Times' Gordon Block this summer. "Pretty soon we’re going to be out of firsts, and it’s going to be, as you say, just another officer taking one of these positions."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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