by Sally K. Albrecht
In America, women have supported the U.S. military in various capacities since the Revolutionary War. In many conflicts, women have served as medical and nursing personnel. In more recent decades, women have been on the front lines in combat and command positions. We are proud to profile nine members who have blazed new trails through their educational, governmental, and military roles.
The top collegiate leadership positions at The Citadel – The Military College of South Carolina and Virginia Military Institute had never been held by a female student until 2018. That year, Sarah J. Zorn (The Citadel, 2018) made history when she was appointed as the first female regimental commander at The Citadel. This position is the highest-ranking cadet, in charge of the entire 2,350 student corps. She served in that position for the duration of the 2018-19 academic year. As of 2022, Zorn is a first lieutenant stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Tacoma, Washington. She has also served as a HIMARS (high mobility artillery rocket system) battery operations officer, platoon leader, and battery executive officer for the U.S. Army.
In May 2021, Kasey G. Meredith (Virginia Military Institute, 2021) became the first female commander in VMI’s 182-year history. After graduation and leading the school’s 1,700-member Corps of Cadets, Meredith intends to enlist in the Marine Corps. In describing her time as the commander, Meredith said, “It has certainly been a learning experience, which is exactly the reason I applied for the position. It has been an opportunity, incomparable to others, that has been very worthwhile. It continues to request a lot out of me but gives me a lot in return. Even though the time in the position is coming to a close, I will continue to put all of my efforts into commanding the corps until the very last day.
The Tradition of Military Medical Service Continues
Many elementary school students learn the story of Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing, who managed and trained nurses during the Crimean War. Since that time, thousands of women have served as medics, nurses, physicians, researchers, clinicians, and therapists in the military. Many of them also rise to serve in significant leadership and command roles.
Jessica May Franklin (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2016), another somewhat recent graduate, was active in Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets and the Air Force ROTC. As a student, she earned the honor of distinguished graduate while double majoring in biochemistry and Spanish. After receiving the Air Force Health Professions Scholarship, May Franklin continued her studies at Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine and earned the Gold Humanism Honor Society award for her quality of care. May Franklin completed her internship at Brooke Army Medical Center graduating at the top of her class and earning the Air Force Achievement Medal. May Franklin, who presently holds the rank of captain and is stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, is a staff physician and flight surgeon for the U.S. Air Force. In 2023, she will be returning to San Antonio, where she will begin residency to become a board-certified dermatologist for the USAF.
With more than 20 years of military service, Amanda F. Lippert (Old Dominion University, 2008) is currently an aerospace and operational physiologist with the U.S. Navy. In 2016, she was one of six women honored at the Women in Aerospace Awards Ceremony. Lippert is the first U. S. Navy MSC Officer board-selected to serve for two years as a fellow at NASA, studying human performance in extreme environments at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Sherleen P. Espinosa (Old Dominion University, 2009) received both her undergraduate and master’s degrees from ODU. Soon after graduation, she became an industrial hygienist in the U.S. Navy. In March 2020, she was deep-selected and meritoriously promoted to lieutenant commander. Espinosa has been accepted at Duke University, where she will be working toward a Master of Public Policy with a concentration in security policy. In the summer of 2022, Espinosa will be heading to U.S. Pacific Fleet Command to serve as the director of global health engagement and health security cooperation officer.
After receiving her nursing degree at Auburn University in 1997, Melinda A. Williamson (Auburn University, 1995) entered active duty as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Upon completing her master’s degree in nursing at the Catholic University of America, Williamson received a direct appointment into the U.S. Air Force. Presently holding the rank of major, Williamson is the director of medical management at 316th Medical Group, Joint Base Andrews, in Washington, D.C. In this role, she provides policy and operational advice to the chief of medical staff on all population health and medical management activities for more than 20,000 beneficiaries. Williamson has received multiple major awards and decorations, including an Air Force Commendation Medal, an Army Commendation Medal with Two Devices, a Meritorious Unit Award, and a National Defense Service Medal.
Securing the Military Technological Support Systems
The modern military is highly dependent upon a range of technology platforms. Lauren Barrett Knausenberger (University of Maryland, College Park, 2002) joined the U.S. Air Force in 2017, working in the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. Her first position there was director of cyberspace innovation and chief transformation officer. In early 2021, Knausenberger was named the chief information officer for the Department of the Air Force, which includes the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force. In this role, she leads 20,000 cyber operations personnel around the globe. She provides oversight of the Air Force’s information technology portfolio, including the IT investment strategy, encompassing everything from networks to cloud computing, enterprise policies, information resources management, innovation initiatives, and information assurance. Recently, Knausenberger received a FedScoop 50 award, honoring the most impactful leaders in the federal government, and a Distinguished Civilian Service medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Supporting Diversity in Military Training and Leadership
With a diverse background that is both multilingual and multicultural, Adis M. Vila (Rollins College, 2010) began her government service as a White House fellow. During her career, she filled such admirable roles as assistant secretary of administration for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, director of the Office of International Economic Policy at the U.S. Department of Commerce, special assistant to the assistant secretary for Latin American Affairs at the State Department, and agency head of Florida’s Department of Administration. Today, she is the founder and president of the consulting firm Vila & Associates, based in Miami.
One of her most challenging roles was her appointment in 2010 as the first chief diversity officer at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a position she held until 2013. In this position, her mission was to create a culture of inclusion within the academy. Vila established the USAF’s “Ambassadors of Inclusion” program, which was recognized with the Profile in Diversity Journal’s Innovation Award.
About the need for diversity training and leadership within the military, Vila said, “If we as a Nation want to attract and retain the very best into the military, given that it remains a volunteer workforce, it must not only attract the very best among ALL Americans, but create an inclusive organizational culture wherein ALL Americans who take the solemn oath can succeed, feel appreciated, and remain engaged throughout their selfless service to our country. Anything less affects the strength of our military and our Nation’s ability to defend and protect us.”
Leadership at the Top
A trailblazer in numerous ways, Gwendolyn Bingham (Virginia Military Institute, 2021) is a retired U.S. Army three-star general who served in a variety of positions for 38 years. From 2012-14 she was the first woman to serve as commanding general at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In 2014, she became the first woman to serve as commander of the U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command. Bingham’s other firsts include being the first female to serve as commandant of the U.S. Army Quartermaster School and the Army’s 51st quartermaster general at Fort Lee, Virginia. From 2016-19, she served as the Army assistant chief of staff for installation management in the Pentagon.
Bingham has received the Distinguished Service Medal, the 2019 Joint Women’s Leadership in Excellence Meritorious Service Award, and the 2018 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. She is a 2022 inductee into the Army Women’s Foundation’s Hall of Fame and a 2022 Hall of Fame honoree selected by the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps.
Currently, Bingham is the vice chair of the Blue Star Families’ Board of Directors, supporting military and veteran service members and their families, including those of the fallen. Bingham said, “As an Army veteran and member of Blue Star Families’ (BSF) Board of Directors, I am continually grateful and proud of the work that BSF does in supporting and advocating for our service members of all branches, the Guard and Reserves, and their Families. I have seen first-hand the power of strengthening communities and military families through formidable partnerships and look forward to building upon these successes in future collaborative efforts.”
O∆K is proud to celebrate all our members who have served our country in a variety of ways. Their outstanding leadership serves as an exemplary model.
Sally K. Albrecht (Rollins College, 1975) is an accomplished choral composer, conductor, and music editor. She served as Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Omicron Delta Kappa Society and Educational Foundation from 2020-21.