Special to the Times
WASHINGTON — Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen Nadja Y. West, who this year became the first black female lieutenant general and the highest-ranking woman to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, says respect is a key to successful leadership.
And she’s knows leadership. In December, 2015 she became the military’s first black surgeon general. In 2013, she was the first black female major general of the Army’s active component, and was Army Medicine’s first African-American female two-star general.
Good leadership, West said, includes treating others with dignity and fairness, carrying oneself with respect, and demonstrating resilience, adaptability and empathy.
“As a leader, you’re really a servant, so you serve those who you lead,” she said. “I think the attributes of any leader start with integrity.”
West earned an engineering degree from West Point and her medical degree from George Washington University School of Medicine. She was sworn in as surgeon general in December, receiving her third star with that appointment.
She said she is extremely proud of the work done by the men and women of Army medicine and what they do for the nation. Around the globe, their work includes medical research, helping maintain the health of Soldiers and supporting the warfighter.
“We really do have probably one of the greatest teams of professionals on the face of the Earth,” West said.
The general said she encourages girls and young women to pursue science and think about a career in military medicine, telling them they can thrive in that career. “The field of medicine is just awesome, because you can serve, you can be involved in making someone well [and] healing,” she said. “What’s more rewarding than that — making sure someone is healthy?”
West recalled the trailblazers from her youth: “Starting at home, my mom was an extremely strong role model,” the general said.
Her mother grew up in rural, segregated Arkansas and put herself through school and college. She served as a model of resilience and strength, West said, showing her 12 children — all adopted — what they could do when they set their minds to it.
“It was a great family environment,” the general added.
West, who was the youngest of the dozen, described a strong military tradition in her family. Her father had a career in the Army and her siblings served in the military — including three sisters who were in the Women’s Army Corps and one who was in the Women in the Air Force program.
“I had the opportunity to see those ahead of me — not only my parents — really forging the way,” she said.
The general said her family proved what you can do when you set goals and ignore what others think or say. They showed her, she said, that “if you want to really accomplish something, to go for it.”
Women in the military
West said she welcomes the opening of all military occupations and specialties to women. “A diverse group provides different perspectives and would give you a wider range of solutions,” she explained.
The result is a military more reflective of what the nation looks like, the general added. “Those who choose to serve should be given the opportunity to serve in those roles that they are qualified to serve in,” West said.
West graduated from West Point in 1982 as part of the third class to attend the military academy after it began accepting women.
“It was challenging for all the cadets, not just the women — both physically challenging [and] emotionally challenging — and so it was quite an experience,” she said.
For the most part, West said, the women were embraced by their classmates. She noted that the academy’s leaders made the difference by setting the tone. Female officers served as role models for her while she was at West Point and have continued to do so throughout her career, the general said.
In the Army medical department, she said, there were many women she admired. “There were quite a few who made me proud and gave me something to aspire to,” West said.
West’s previous assignments include service as commanding general of Europe Regional Medical Command; commander of Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and division surgeon for the 1st Armored Division, Army Europe and 7th Army in Germany.
Her most recent post was as the Joint Staff surgeon at the Pentagon.