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How one woman went from 'unwelcome' cadet to leading Air Force Academy (+video)

Breaking barriers

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson inherited an Air Force Academy in turmoil, reeling from sexual assault and other scandals. The first woman to head the service academy has put in place innovative changes to counter a climate of mistrust.

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    Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson is the first female head of the United States Air Force Academy. When she started as a cadet, in 1977, she says some at the academy saw the female cadets as unwelcome pioneers.
    Courtesy of the United States Air Force Academy
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When Michelle Johnson arrived on to the United States Air Force Academy campus here as a new cadet nearly 40 years ago, she wasn’t “trying to revolutionize anything.”

Coming from the Iowa farm town where she’d lived all her life, the all-state track and basketball player thought it would be a chance to get a good education, play sports, and “serve my country for a while,” she recalls in an interview. “Honestly, I thought it would be more like Outward Bound – I’d be tested, and then I can move on.” 

It didn’t turn out that way. In her career as a command pilot, she has logged 3,600 flying hours. Along the way, she served a stint as the first-ever female presidential military aide – responsible for the so-called nuclear “football” that would authorize a strike – first for President George Bush and later for President Clinton. 

After finishing up her last post as deputy chief of staff for operations and intelligence at NATO’s Supreme Allied Headquarters, Lt. General Johnson  returned to the Air Force Academy – to become the first woman ever to lead the service academy.

Johnson inherited an academy in turmoil in 2013, reeling from sexual assault allegations and revelations of a government-sponsored program in which cadets were being used to “rat each other out,” as one former cadet puts it. 

Three years later, as she prepares to graduate her third class of cadets June 2, Johnson has put in place innovative changes to counter a climate of mistrust that had cropped up in the wake of these scandals – changes that stem in no small part from her experiences as a young female cadet back in 1977.

And as the military opens all combat jobs to women, the role of Johnson and other military women in positions of leadership will be even more crucial in leading the way, experts say. The service academies appear to agree: following in the Air Force Academy's footsteps, West Point announced last December that it had appointed its first female commandant of cadets, Brig. Gen. Diana Holland.

“Our personnel systems are still kind of from the 1950s, and they aren’t necessarily aligned for talent management,” Johnson says.

It’s a problem that the Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James has been taking on at the Pentagon as well. The point is to modernize the system, “So that we don’t lose people along the way,” Johnson adds. “Our part is to launch lieutenants out, but how in the next 20 years do we want to be a part of that?”

Unwelcome pioneers

Even as she arrived on campus, Johnson and her fellow classmates – even many of the women – were not particularly aware, she says, that President Ford had signed legislation in 1975 promoting equal opportunity legislation, including opening the academies to them.

“I really didn’t realize that women weren’t promoted on the same scale, didn’t have the same jobs, couldn’t go to pilot training,” she says.

As it quickly became clear that she and her peers were considered by some to be unwelcome pioneers, it “was shocking,” she says. “As a young kid, I wasn’t trying to revolutionize anything. I thought I was there for the same reason my counterparts were – and I was.”

Her father had given her some advice before she left for college: “Don’t lose your sense of humor.”

That was easier said than done. Outside, Johnson was steely, she says. “Nothing was funny, nothing could hurt me.” Her coping mechanism “was to do what they asked me to do, and do my best.”

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, right, was appointed to head the United States Air Force Academy in 2013. Courtesy of the United States Air Force Academy

This earned her the respect of her peers, and she became the first woman to be cadet wing commander, the senior ranking cadet leading her fellow students, and later the academy’s first female Rhodes Scholar. 

“People will thrust you into these uncomfortable situations – whether academically or physically – and if you open your mind up, you grow,” she says. “I don’t necessarily think that’s a great crucible that everyone should be thrust into, exactly, but those lessons are well-learned over time.”

She learned, for starters, mental discipline “to do something you really didn’t want to do, but will yourself to go through a pain threshold – I’m talking about a sit-up kind of a burn, I don’t mean horrible things,” she says.

“When you’re flying a plane into bad weather and there may be missile threats, you need to stay focused. There’s a habit of thought of saying, ‘OK, I can go to that place where I can focus, and I’ll deal with the concerns later,’ ” she says. “It’s not like you’re not afraid, but you can’t be paralyzed by it.” 

She adds with a laugh, “I can say that dispassionately now, but when you’re in the middle if it, I didn’t realize I was learning all that. I was just doing my best, and I was able to do it.”

'What right looks like'

She has brought some of these skills to her job as the first female superintendent of the Air Force Academy, tackling, for starters, the crime of sexual assault and a culture that would conceal such violence on campus.

Years before, the Academy was put under scrutiny following a study that found that 12 percent of the women who graduated from the Air Force Academy had experienced rape or attempted rape. Some 70 percent said they had been victims of sexual harassment while they were undergraduates. 

Shortly after Johnson took over, the Academy was under the microscope again after charges that, in 2011, athletes sexually assaulted unconscious female students. That triggered an investigation that led to the courts-martial of two football players and the dismissal or resignation of other cadets. The tumultuous sexual assault cases may have had a “chilling effect” on victims coming forward, dampening reporting, she says. 

It was clear, too, that there were some places students felt more – and less – comfortable sharing their concerns. In a survey the academy conducts every two years, students are asked to what extent they feel confident that various departments “will do the right thing if something happens,” as Johnson describes it.

The Athletic Department was not getting high marks. “This is severe dirty laundry, but I’ve asked, ‘Why weren’t we tracking that?’ ”

Johnson called on the Athletic Department. “I went down and talk to them and I said, ‘Did you realize this? Did you see this?’ ”

It was the start of a conversation for an athletic department that had been the source of turmoil, and could be the source of healing. After a tough practice, when young cadet athletes “are sitting with ice on their knees – it’s a time when you’re ready to talk,” Johnson says. “Those are the unguarded moments. It’s in those moments when they may share with you something weighing on them.”

And it’s a way to teach these future military officers to be leaders themselves. “These young men and women are going to be leading others. How do they take care of their enlisted airmen and understand them?”

Setting a clear example of “what right looks like,” as military folks like to say, also helps weed out the predators, Johnson adds. “You’re going to get some, but if the climate is healthy, their behavior stands out more.” 

Still, Johnson came to the conclusion that they could be doing more, starting with blunt talk. “Our programs are trying to be more real,” she says.

Denver-based researcher Anne Munch, whom Johnson brought in to consult, found, for example, that young people of university age log an average of 60 views of pornography per week. 

“We’ve got to speak in the language of the cadets, and it can be rough,” Johnson says.

This has led to some uncomfortable moments, including for Johnson herself, opening up conversations about whether, say, what they see in a film like “50 Shades of Grey” is “normal.” 

From informants to peer counselors

During her tenure, Johnson has also driven the university to create a peer counseling network, which has helped identify students in need of particular support. 

“There was a cadet who locked himself in his room a couple years ago, because he couldn’t go home for Christmas because he’s gay,” Johnson says, citing an occurrence that has cropped upon occasion since the military repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, allowing gay troops to serve openly. 

It turned out the student felt more comfortable at school among his peers than at home.

Through social media and other networks, “The peers pick up on it, then they start checking them, and have mental health counselors work with them.”

In this way, “Peers can make some saves,” she says.“The way this generation does, they lay it all out there.”

The program, and the open communication it involves, is a solid antidote, her peers say, to the scandal that rocked campus just as Johnson was arriving. It involved revelations about a program put in place for peers to “rat each other out,” as Kathi Durst, a 1981 Air Force Academy classmate of Johnson’s, puts it.

“I was shocked – it was disturbing to me that our government would use these kids to inform on each other – and unfortunately Michelle inherited that,” says Ms. Durst, who played on the basketball team with Johnson and in 2014 became the first female to hold the chief pilot job for American Airlines in Dallas-Fort Worth. 

“The reason Michelle has done such a significantly fantastic job is that she’s a great communicator – you can’t fix problems if you don’t communicate.” 

Johnson says she knows what it’s like to feel ‘other,’ and how it kept her and her teammates, too, from reaching out during their time at the academy.

“My basketball teammates and I were close, but in general there was an interesting dynamic. You didn’t want to look like you hung out together, because people were suspicious of it,” Johnson says.

Durst concurs. “I’m gay, and I knew I was gay then…. But we didn’t talk about any of it. Nothing. We were all trying to fit in. We knew it was new, we knew we were being watched, and we put our noses down. We knew we just had to prove ourselves.”

After Johnson was named to head the academy, Durst gathered 15 basketball teammates from around the country. Johnson thought she was meeting Durst for lunch. Instead, all of the women surprised her, after toilet-papering her office. 

Durst says she’d hear about sororities, with their bond of sisterhood. “We did not have that at the time,” Durst says, adding that it is a bond that has come later, through intense shared experience.

“We were so impressed with how far she’d come,” Durst says. They chatted, too, about themselves, in many ways for the first time. 

They learned, for example, the reason why one teammate left suddenly in her junior year. 

“We found out that she’d been raped – repeatedly raped – and taunted,” Durst says, adding that Johnson has taken the issue of sexual assault “front and center, and not turned a blind eye. She’s probably the first commandant in 35 years that’s really investigated it.” 

'Three degrees nose up'

Her experience, Johnson says, has taught her, too, that “for every person who is fighting change, there are 10 who are incredibly supportive people, whether it’s faculty, or coaches, or just professional airmen who said, ‘Hey, you can do it.’ ”

Johnson was a walk-on for the varsity basketball team. “A coach saw me playing team handball in intramurals, and asked if I played basketball,” Johnson recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I do. I have a jump shot.’ He doubted it, until he saw me.”

She still holds the record for career scoring average for the academy’s female basketball players (17.6 points per game) and career field goals (689). But the intensity she brought to bear on the court and in the cockpit requires support and perhaps a new way of thinking about handling talent, she says. 

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, shown with her family, was named the first woman to head the United States Air Force Academy. Courtesy of the United States Air Force Academy

Johnson’s support has come in large part through her husband, a former career military officer and now stay-at-home-dad who she describes as an “Eagle Scout-electrical engineer-MacGyver running the house — and he cooks a lot better than I do.”

When her twin boys, now 13, were born, her husband, a Virginia Military Institute graduate, hit the 20-year-mark and retired from the military. 

He has helped her weather the turbulence of any tough career like hers, she says. She uses his credo – a flying instruction – that it’s best to go into turbulence “three degrees nose up,” she says.

“It applies to life: You don’t want to chase the ups and downs with power, because it’ll get you to stall. You’ve got to just stay steady and when you come through it, you’ll be wings level – and in a climb.” 

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