On the weekend ahead of the the 75th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, Gov. Wes Moore promoted Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead to the rank of major general, making her the only Black woman adjutant general in the United States.

Retired Maj. Gen. Linda Singh became the first African American and first woman to lead the Maryland National Guard, serving as adjutant general from 2015 to 2019.

Birckhead, a resident of Crownsville, reflected on her accomplishments and inspirations in an interview with The Baltimore Banner.

Brig General Janeen Birckhead at Martins Airport
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead (center), Brig. Gen. Drew Dougherty (left), and Col. Andrew Collins (right) await the arrival of Maryland Gov. Wes Moore on May 12 at Martin State Airport. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)

Why is it important to have women, particularly Black women, in positions of power like this?

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Diversity, dedication and discipline — a living and breathing example of those values. Providing perspective to matters that may change the course of decisions. Changing a life by showing what right looks like and how leadership is done well.

Brig. Gen Birckhead salutes Gov. Wes Moore
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead renders a hand salute to Maryland Gov. Wes Moore after a bill signing on May 12, 2023, at Martin State Airport. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)

Did you think you would ever rise to this rank when you began your career?

No, I did not. In fact, I was not going to stay. But I did. I’m so glad I did.

Once I joined the National Guard in the early to mid-‘90s and met retired Brig. Gen. Julia Cleckley, one of the few Black female officers at that time, I was exposed to a new world of woman leaders.

Brig. Gen. Clara Leach Adams-Ender is fondly considered the matriarch. She led with a stern, direct guidance and care for soldiers.

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Maj. Gen. Linda Singh is my mentor, friend and colleague. I followed her in command at every level. The way she handled the Maryland National Guard activation in 2015 for Freddie Gray gave me the strength and confidence to lead Task Force Capitol after Jan. 6.

Lt. Gen Donna Martin participated in my promotion to major general, and it made the day that more special. She, too, is one I watch and emulate. She has not shied away from the tough jobs. It’s her service that I remember and regard when things get tough.

Briefing in Baltimore
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead take notes during a briefing at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore on May 17. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)
Briefing in Laurel
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead receives a briefing on May 18 in Laurel. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)

What characteristics of women in service make the Army special?

The presence of women in the Army brings unique characteristics that contribute to its strength. Inclusion of women expands the talent pool, fostering innovation and creativity. Their resilience and determination break down barriers, inspiring future generations. Women enhance connections with local populations, gaining trust and understanding diverse communities.

Moreover, women excel in building strong relationships and fostering teamwork, promoting a supportive and inclusive environment. Inclusion in combat roles and specialized units expands operational capabilities, contributing to mission success. Women also serve as role models, inspiring diversity and equality in the armed forces.

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5th regiment armory
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead speaks with her aide, Capt. Sylvia Mercedes, after a May 17 meeting at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)
Briefing in Baltimore
Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, Gov. Wes Moore and other military officials receive a briefing at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore on June 3. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)

Why did you choose the military?

I did not choose the military. It chose me. I was strongly encouraged by my mother to apply for a four-year Army ROTC scholarship. I didn’t have any intention of going through with the award.

Reflecting on the decision, I didn’t have many women I could call upon directly for guidance. It was a leap of faith.

Promotion ceremony
Col. Denise Walker and Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead prior to Birckhead's promotion ceremony on June 3 at Morgan State University. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead wipes away tears after a tribute to her late mother, Fannie W. Birckhead, during her promotion ceremony. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)
Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh (retired), the first Black female adjutant general of Maryland, honors Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead during her promotion ceremony. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)
Promotion ceremony
Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead is pinned to major general by her family during her promotion ceremony. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)

Do you feel that you are a role model?

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I hope that someone considers me a role model. I strive for excellence every day. Some days I fall short but keep getting up. Whether Army or civilian world, I hope others see me successfully navigating obstacles and bringing others along with me. I will add that I pride myself in mentoring a wide number of diverse people.

Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead is greeted by guests at her change-of-command ceremony. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)
Change of command ceremony
Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead receives the stars worn by her mentor, the late Maj. Gen. James Fretterd, during a reception following the change-of-command ceremony. (Michael A. McCoy for The Baltimore Banner)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael A. McCoy is a two-time combat veteran and Washington, D.C.-based documentary photographer.

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