The first woman to serve as an Air Force Academy cadet wing commander has been picked to become the institution’s first female superintendent.
Maj. Gen. Michelle Johnson was nominated Friday to take over from Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, the academy’s superintendent since 2009. The nomination — which must clear the Senate — could bring her career full circle, all the way from a 1981 graduate to a three-star general overseeing her alma mater.
Johnson’s appointment drew praise from alumni and academy observers, who hailed the choice as an educated pick.
“It sends a clear message that if you can do the job, you can get the promotions ... the military has to offer,” said William “T” Thompson, president and CEO of the Air Force Academy Association of Graduates. “I think it’s very positive.”
Johnson’s appointment comes at a historic time for women in the military.
Last year, Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz was tabbed to head the Coast Guard Academy, making her the first woman to lead one of the nation’s service academies.
In January, the Pentagon announced plans to open up thousands of combat that were previously off-limits to women.
Johnson, a married mother of two, broke gender barriers throughout her 32-year Air Force career.
She graduated in 1981 as the academy’s first female cadet wing commander and went on to become the academy’s first female Rhodes Scholar.
Her career focused largely on aerial tanker operations and air transport missions, according to the Air Force. Johnson logged more than 3,600 flight hours in eight different aircraft.
She returned to the academy in 1989, serving for three years as an instructor pilot and assistant professor of political science.
Johnson most recently served in Belgium as NATO’s deputy chief of staff for operations and intelligence.
Her time as a pilot and as an adviser on cybersecurity bode well for the next generation of cadets, said Susan Schwab, the former chairwoman of the academy’s Board of Visitors.
“She has a background and credentials that looks to be spot-on for today’s U.S. Air Force Academy,” Schwab said. “She looks like a terrific choice.”
Her nomination comes at a pivotal time for the academy.
The academy must grapple with its share of billions in Defense Department budget cuts that took effect Friday — leaving the likelihood of furloughs for 300 civilian instructors and 1,200 other civilian employees.
The academy also has experienced a rise in criminal sexual assault and misconduct cases, leading to the filing of charges against six cadets since January 2012. Sex assault reports during the 2011-12 academic year increased 50 percent at the academy over the prior year, according to a Pentagon report.
“I think this also is an appointment that sends a strong message that those kinds of activities and attitudes will not be tolerated,” Thompson said.
The nomination signals an end to Gould’s tenure, a nearly four-year stint capped by the groundbreaking of the Center for Character and Leadership Development. The building, which will house a bevy of leadership programs, has been noted as the architectural counterpart to the Air Force Academy Chapel.
Much like Gould, Johnson flew transport aircraft, including the C-17 and the C-5.
And both were standout athletes.
While Gould was known for his prowess on the football field, Johnson remains the academy’s second-all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball.
Her latest assignment might be her most historic, said Susan Feland, founder of Academy Women. The nonprofit organization offers mentor programs for women military officers.
“I think its a great reflection of how far society has come, and especially how far our military has come,” she said.
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