America, Meet the First Female Combatant Commander

When I first told my husband (who is in the military) about Lori Robinson, he was fairly indifferent.

“Yeah, I heard about that. First infantry commander. Cool.”

“No, she’s in the Air Force.”

“Oh… I was thinking of someone else. What is she in charge of?”

“U.S. Northern Command.”

“She must be a captain.”

“It says here that she’s a general.”

“Oh, she’s a general? Wow. Must be a one-star.”

“Nope. Four-star.”


He was duly impressed by that point but his initial incredulity spoke volumes as to how truly remarkable Lori Robinson’s rise has been.

The first woman to achieve four star general status (the highest anyone can rise as a general) was only eight years ago. Robinson joins a very short list of only four other women: two in the Air Force (not including herself), one in the Army, and one in the Navy. There have been no four-star generals in the Marines nor any four-star admirals in the Coast Guard. She was the first female commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing to be frocked (promoted in name but not pay) to the position of brigadier general in 2008. Later this year the Senate will confirm her as the first female to command a major Unified Combatant Command. Robinson would lead Northern Command, one of the U.S.’s six regional combatant commands, created after 9/11 and tasked with defending the homeland. Her position is so high that she answers directly to the Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter.

And to think that all of this started with a degree in English!

As a student in her early twenties, Lori Robinson entered the Air Force through the University of New Hampshire’s ROTC program. Since then she has held a variety of positions that I do not understand but that sound really cool, such as “Air Battle Manager,” “Chief of Tactics,” and “Deputy Chief of Staff.” She has worked for the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and the Pentagon. After making major general in 2011 (a two star general) she shot up to a four-star in only three years. She currently has over 900 flight hours.

I don’t know enough about the Air Force, or the military in general for that matter, to have any real sense of all that she has accomplished or to grasp the scope of what her current responsibilities are. But there are only six regional Unified Combatant Commands (UCCs): Africa, Europe, and the Pacific as well as North, South, and Central United States. The mission of these UCCs is to “conduct operations to deter, prevent, and defeat threats and aggression aimed at the United States, its territories, and interests.” As Illinois Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth put it, “In the military, a combatant command is the ultimate job. It’s the pointy tip of the spear, overseeing the people carrying the rifles and flying the aircraft.”

In other words, Robinson is in charge of a lot of men and a lot of weapons… and that is not something you see very often.

Three years ago, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta removed the military ban on women serving combat roles. Three years later, women are being appointed to top combat military positions, placed on national currency, and successfully running for president. Times like these show me just how far America has come.