June 3, 2002
The Pentagon: East River Gate, 2:15 p.m.
Be sure to bring two pieces of identification, they told me. In fact, they told me twice. Somehow, a lady on the first row of our bus forgot one of hers. As a military policeman with a clipboard and a holstered pistol makes his way to the back of the bus, crossing our names off a manifest, the woman tears her purse apart. "I told you," her seatmate says over and over, "I told you to bring two." Three other MPs circle the bus outside, their arms resting on machine guns. I no sooner put my wallet away when a reserve lieutenant colonel, a fellow guest, leans toward me. She's flown in from Georgia.
"You know," she says, pointing toward the familiar hulk of the Pentagon, the construction of which began, eerily enough, on
Sept. 11, 1941, "if that pilot had known what he was doing, he would have hit this side of the building. All the senior officers are on this side. Their offices look out over the river. He'd have gotten them all."
The woman up front never finds her second ID, but they let her in anyway. Our escorts, one for every three of us, are waiting. We can see them in the distance, standing on the steps of the River Entrance. They are to accompany us -- family members, friends, former co-workers and other guests -- to the promotion ceremony of Maria I. Cribbs. In less than an hour, she will be made a brigadier general (one-star) in the U.S. Air Force.
General Officers: Overview and Almanac
Cribbs isn't the only Baylor graduate to make general in the Air Force this year. Jan "Denny" Eakle was selected for promotion at the same time and scheduled for pinning June 7. With the exception of the service academies, no other college or university produced two candidates -- male or female -- for promotion to the rank of general in 2002. Together, Cribbs and Eakle constituted the entirety of the second class of women commissioned from the Air Force ROTC program at Baylor. Both graduated in 1975, during what might be described politely as an awkward time for ROTC nationally. With the close of the Vietnam War, ROTC programs routinely were reduced in size or kicked off campuses completely. For several years in the mid-1970s, newly commissioned officers were encouraged to break their service commitments after only six months of active duty. There have been better times to begin a military career.
Cribbs and Eakle both say they never were tempted to resign early. Eakle laughs when I ask her about quitting.
"That would not have been my makeup," she explains. "At the age of 17, I knew that this was all I wanted to do. But you remember, I was a service brat. My dad was still on active duty for 3 1/2 years after I was on active duty. This is the family business. Think about it in those terms."
It is also the family business for Cribbs. Both of her parents are World War II veterans. Her father served in the Army, Navy and Air Force; her mother was a nurse in the Army and the Air Force and retired as a captain.
It is the nature of professional subcultures, be they brain surgeons or chainsaw jugglers, to view their rarity with a shrug. Cribbs and Eakle are not immune from such a posture.
"You know," Cribbs says, "we're just young girls that grew up, went to college, had boyfriends, got married -- sometimes more successful in love than others -- and worked hard. We like to shop, like to decorate our houses, like to go on trips." Perhaps it should be noted, she also likes shoes -- Ferragamos, to be exact.
They also like to succeed, and they have done so in a profession in which the odds of advancing to general are small, regardless of gender. There are approximately 3,600 active-duty colonels in the Air Force -- the rank immediately below that of general. There are only 138 one-star generals. Including the one-stars, there are only 273 active-duty generals in all of the Air Force out of a total of approximately 353,000 uniformed men and women.
The achievements of Cribbs and Eakle are even more dramatic because the above statistics include men. Although the Air Force is considered by many to be the most progressive of the services in attracting and promoting women (roughly 18 percent of its officers and enlisted personnel are women), in its 55-year history it has produced only 34 female generals. Including Cribbs and Eakle, there will be 12 active-duty female generals in the Air Force, nine of whom are one-star generals, two are two-stars and one, Lt. Gen. Leslie Kenne, the first three-star female general in the Air Force.
Even though Cribbs and Eakle share some experiences -- from their undergraduate years at Baylor to their parallel ascension
in the military -- they are strikingly dissimilar. I thought they'd
"That's the thing that's so remarkable about the Air Force," Eakle explains. "You can get to the same point through some very different paths."
Eakle is analytical and handy with numbers. She has a PhD in operations research from the engineering school at the University of Texas, and she rides a Harley. While she was stationed in the Pacific Northwest, Eakle spent free weekends with her husband patrolling Puget Sound for stranded boaters on behalf of the Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Cribbs was a sociology major and sorority girl at Baylor. It is difficult to imagine her in marching boots. Cribbs has a thing for dachshunds. "They're like my children," she says. "Tia traveled with me throughout Europe, and Christa is named for the daughter of a family who befriended me in Germany."
Officer's File: Maria I. Cribbs
In order to become a general in any of the military services, an officer must meet at least four qualifications: They must have a specific technical base of expertise from which they can lead; they must have succeeded in significant leadership positions either as commanders or managers of military programs; they must exhibit integrity, service above self and a drive toward excellence; and they must show the potential to perform at the next highest grade. And then there's the X-factor.
"They say," one lieutenant colonel told me, before I met Cribbs or Eakle, "that if you become a colonel you've had a good military career. To become a general, the stars have to line up." Twenty-six years into Maria Cribbs' career, the stars lined up.
"My role models were men," Cribbs explains. In 1975, there wouldn't have been many female military role models. Prior to that, women in the services tended toward health-related fields. The Pentagon was a man's world. Cribbs has what she calls a "soft corps" background, which, in civilian terms, means that she has served in a variety of human resource capacities. She started her career running an officer's club in San Antonio. Since then, she has worked as director of personnel and deputy base commander of the Electronic Systems Division at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. She was deputy director of personnel and manpower at U.S. European Command headquarters in Germany and was support group commander of Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. More recently, Cribbs worked as executive secretary to Secretaries of Defense William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld. She currently is chief of staff in the Office of Homeland Security for the Department of Defense. Pressed for an explanation of her rise, Cribbs is gymnastic in deflecting the credit.
"Denny and I have had the opportunity to do pretty much what we wanted to do professionally," she says. "Whether it's professional military education or command, Pentagon assignments or working in the Secretary of Defense's office, the Air Force spent years giving Denny and me opportunities to develop leadership skills. We didn't just walk into these jobs. The Air Force has spent 20-some years getting us ready to do this."
Retired Col. Paul Arcari is one of those whom Cribbs credits with teaching her how to think and work.
"Everything I am I owe to Paul Arcari," Cribbs says. "He pushed you beyond the point you wanted to go. He taught you how to think and how to ask the right questions."
Arcari didn't want to hire Cribbs when she was first recommended to him. At the time, he was charged with the complicated task of increasing the pay and benefits of the all-volunteer force, which required building legislative support. Talented men and women were leaving the services in huge numbers.
"I was told she was a quick study," Arcari says. "I said, 'I don't want a quick study. I don't want to nursemaid anyone.'"
Ultimately, Arcari's staff convinced him to hire Cribbs.
"It was the best decision I ever made," he laughs. "She worked for me for three years. She was so good that I recommended her, as a young captain, for junior personnel manager of the year -- for the whole Air Force. She won. She made major three years early. It was unheard of."
The Pentagon: Third Floor Conference Room, 3 p.m.
The room across the hall from the Secretary of Defense's office
is rectangular and plain, your basic Alabama motel conference room -- blue carpet and Civil War prints -- except that for Cribbs' promotion ceremony, it is chairless and filled, shoulder to shoulder, with senior officers, including one-, two-, three- and four-star generals. The Secretary of the Air Force is there. The room has a podium in one corner and three flags standing in the middle of a long wall. A nervous semicircle forms around the flags. In the first row stand Cribbs' parents and two of her brothers and their families. A third brother, a lieutenant colonel in the Marines, waits beside the podium. At 3 p.m., in walk Gen. Robert Foglesong, vice chief of staff of the Air Force, Cribbs and a small honor guard.
I expect pageantry -- white gloves, swords, the wagon bed speech of Henry V -- but Foglesong has something else in mind. "We tricked Maria into the Air Force in May 1975 for $634.20 a month," he begins, walking over to a pair of easels. A sheet of paper covers pictures resting on each of them. He flips over the first to reveal a portrait of Cribbs on the day of her commission as a second lieutenant. From the reaction of the crowd, she hasn't had blonde hair and a suntan in some time. Eventually, Foglesong gets serious. A PhD in chemical engineering and a fighter pilot, "Doc" Foglesong is known as one of the most demanding bosses in the Air Force.
"If you're looking at a set of records," he says, "thinking about a promotion, you wouldn't find a better set than Maria's."
A few weeks later, Foglesong tells me more about Cribbs.
"You make a short list of people in your life," he says, referring to officers who can be counted on in a crunch. "Maria has been tested with very difficult jobs. She's a great example of integrity and service above self."
"So, is she on your list?" I ask.
"She and Denny are both on it," he says.
Officer's File: Jan "Denny" Eakle
When I asked Denny Eakle where she was from, we were standing in a hotel lobby. "Nowhere," she says. For her, nowhere means everywhere. The daughter of a Navy carrier pilot, and a 26-year veteran herself, Eakle has moved at least 20 times in her life. When I ask her to list all the places she's lived, including during her own career, she says she'd better do it geographically. "It'd be hard to do it chronologically," she says. "We lived in some places twice." Here are a few: Newport, R.I.; Waldorf, Md.; Glenville, W. Va.; Norfolk, Va.; three different cities in Florida; five in Texas, including three on Interstate 35: Waco, Austin and San Antonio. In high school, her family lived on Whidby Island, Wash., during her freshman year; in Orange Park, Fla., her sophomore year; Carlisle, Pa., her junior year; and Hawaii her senior year.
"You don't make a lot of lasting friendships moving every 11 months," she says, "but you do become more family-focused. I spend more time talking to my mother than anybody I know."
Early in her career, Eakle caught the attention of Steve Strowbridge, a retired Air Force colonel who now is the director of government relations at the Retired Officers Association in Washington, D.C. At the time they met, Eakle was stationed at the Pentagon and was working on recruitment policy and implementation for all four service branches.
"It was extraordinary to have a captain at that level," Strowbridge says. "Later on, when I took a job as head of compensation policy and legislation, her name came across my desk. I actively sought her out. She was literate and numerate, if you know what I mean."
Evidently she was a little too literate and numerate. After only three months, Eakle was hired away from Strowbridge by the chief of staff of the Air Force as his assistant executive officer.
Now, Eakle is vice commander of the Ogden Air Logistics Center, which is located on Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah. The Ogden center does maintenance for intercontinental ballistic weapons. And, it overhauls stuff.
"F-16s, A-10s, C-130s. It's like the classic car business: 'Bring us your junk heap and we'll return an aircraft virtually indistinguishable from a brand new one,'" she says.
Before she moved to Ogden, Eakle was a wing commander with 3,500 employees at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. Basically, she was the city manager of the base, responsible for all the services a city normally provides: police, fire, public housing, even the public golf course.
The Pentagon: Third Floor Conference Room, 3:20 p.m.
When he finishes listing Cribbs' assignments from memory, Foglesong and Cribbs' father, himself a retired lieutenant colonel, each pin a star on Cribbs' shoulders. Then, Cribbs' brother leans into the microphone.
"Throughout the history of warfare," he says, reading from a prepared statement, "a general officer's personal flag symbolized leadership on the battlefield. The Air Force has incorporated the use of flags to signify the presence of a general officer. To commemorate her promotion to brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force, we will now unfurl Gen. Cribbs' one-star flag."
After a round of applause and a recitation of the Officer's Oath, Cribbs steps in front of the twin portraits of herself. She takes a couple of hard swallows before beginning. "I think," she says, "that this is one of those times that my fighter pilot friends say they just try to breathe through their noses."
A polished speaker, Cribbs acknowledges her parents and
everyone who has flown in for the day, her co-workers and bosses. She thanks Arcari, who stands in back. Afterward, we adjourn to an Air Force dining room upstairs for the reception. It is stocked with finger food and champagne. Halfway through the celebration, the room grows quiet and the attention swings to the center where Cribbs greets guests. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has entered through a side door. For 10 minutes or so, he stands beside Cribbs and her family, grinning his now-familiar grin, at one point leaning toward Cribbs' mother and asking, "So, where are
It is easy to forget in the social swirl that we are at war in Afghanistan.
Mezza 9 Restaurant: Rosslyn, Va.
Two weeks after Cribbs' promotion ceremony, I meet her and Eakle at a restaurant not far from the Pentagon. Cribbs has spent the morning in meetings exploring ways to prevent terrorists from entering the country. Eakle is participating in a conference on domestic violence in the military. For an hour or so, we talk about their careers, about how Cribbs and Eakle always have worked across the hall from each other, but never in the same office; they've held the same types of commands, but at different times.
"I would say that the thing that has helped me most is an
ethical underpinning," Eakle says. "Ethics are everything. If you can't lead ethically, morally, you have no future." She looks away for a moment. "The best piece of advice that anyone handed me as I was going off to be a group commander came from Gen.
Tony Robertson, who was a four-star. He said to me, 'I only ask you to do one thing for me -- promise you'll take good care of
I sit with Cribbs for a while after Eakle returns to her conference. Our conversation turns to September 11. Cribbs was working in the Pentagon that morning.
"You know," she says, "there was this guy who used to walk up and down the halls of the Pentagon and hand out candy. I had no clue who he was. I can't tell you how many pieces of candy he handed me over the last 2 1/2 years. You'd pass him in the hall and he'd just stick out his hand."
The man was a civilian employee. His picture and biography are on display in the main lobby of the Pentagon, along with hundreds of others.
"I mean, this guy would take his work break and he had a bag of those Werther's coffee drops," she continues. "And he would walk into offices and just leave it on the desk and say, 'Good morning.'" Cribbs stares down at her hands. "There were times when I thought, 'Is that all he has to do?' But he was an angel," she says. "He was an angel. And they got him."
Cribbs knows others killed that morning. One was a three-star general with whom she had worked in Germany. Cribbs says she was visibly depressed for weeks after the attack -- until a subordinate approached her and reminded her of her new role.
"A Navy officer who is my good friend said to me, 'Ma'am, I know you're in pain, but you just can't show it. People are looking to you for leadership.'"
"He was right," Cribbs says. "More is expected of us now."
Bowden, BA '82, most recently was a senior editor and columnist for DMagazine
in Dallas. He currently is producing and co-directing two documentaries.