"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.
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."
"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."
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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
the troops.'" 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."