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Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson confers with soldiers at Joint Base McGuire-Dix in Lakehurst, New Jersey, last year. Richardson's U.S. North command aided in COVID-19 response across the country. (U.S. Army photo)

From her early years as an All America swimmer at Northglenn High School, through her studies and ROTC training at Metropolitan State University of Denver and then her steady rise through the ranks in the U.S. Army, Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson always gave a nod to her Colorado roots with each incremental milestone.

Late last week, she moved closer to another: The U.S. Senate confirmed Richardson’s promotion to four-star general and commander of the U.S. Southern Command.

Richardson, 57, will be only the second currently-serving woman to earn the rank of four-star general, the second female four-star general in the Army’s 246-year history, and the second female combatant commander.

The Southern Command oversees planning, operations and security for Central and South America as well as parts of the Caribbean from its headquarters in the Miami area. Richardson has been serving as the commander of U.S. Army North at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

Richardson was part of President Joe Biden’s first slate of nominations for four-star command positions. He made the announcement in March, on International Women’s Day to underscore a commitment to enhancing opportunities for women in the U.S. military. Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost, who also has a Colorado connection through her undergraduate career at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, was nominated for promotion to head the U.S. Transportation Command. Her confirmation is pending.

“Each of these women have led careers demonstrating incomparable skill, integrity, and duty to country,” Biden said in a White House announcement. “And at every step, they’ve also helped push open the doors of opportunity to women in our military — blazing the trail a little wider, a little brighter for all the proud women following in their path and looking to their example.” 

Richardson charted a course through Northglenn High School, a commuter college career at Metropolitan State University of Denver — it was Metropolitan State College when she attended — and that school’s ROTC program, where she earned her commission in 1986. She advanced through a variety of assignments, including several in which she was among the first women to hold. 

In 2003, she served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, where at 39 she was the first woman in U.S. history to command an assault helicopter battalion of 320 soldiers and 30 Black Hawk helicopters. Her husband, Lt. Gen. Jim Richardson, commanded an Apache battalion. 

Before and after, she also served in the political sphere, including a stint as a military aide to Vice President Al Gore and a later assignment as chief of the Senate liaison division for the Secretary of the Army. 

Pentagon officials had identified both Richardson and Van Ovost as prime candidates for command positions months ago, but the promotions endured an unusual delay before the nominations advanced. Officials held back presenting Richardson and Van Ovost for promotions because they feared then-President Donald Trump wouldn’t support two women for the positions. Biden’s election victory put their advancement back on track.

The Army did not make Richardson available for comment. But in testimony earlier this month before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, she explained what her approach would be to the new position.

“[The] Southern Command region is of strategic importance to U.S. vital interests, and, if confirmed, I will synchronize our approach to security cooperation, working across all combatant commands to narrow the gaps and seams our competitors are exploiting,” she said. 

Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson, who grew up in Northglenn and was an All America swimmer at Northglenn High School, poses for this 2017 portrait at the Pentagon. Richardson was just confirmed by the Senate for promotion to four-star general and a top command position. (U.S. Army photo)

In her current position in Texas, she has been instrumental in directing the military’s medical and vaccination support throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and is well acquainted with the global impact of the pandemic on international politics in the region encompassed by the Southern Command.

“We are all too familiar with the devastation caused by this deadly pandemic, and I empathize with those who have felt its horrific impacts,” she told the committee. “More than a humanitarian crisis, this devastation is changing the geopolitical landscape. Authoritarian regimes and transnational criminal organizations enabled by China and encouraged by Russia are attempting to consolidate power in the region, and free societies are being directly challenged.” 

When Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, who coached football at Auburn University before entering politics, asked Richardson her top concern, she answered in his language.

“It’s a huge area, quite a lot of ground to cover,” Richardson said. “Just to use a sports analogy, you’ve gotta have your jersey on, gotta have your number and you gotta be on the field. And you can’t just be on the field once every couple of months engaging with countries. It’s gotta be consistent, it’s gotta be persistent, and constantly engaging with our partner nations.”

Groomed for success

Growing up, Laura Jane Strickland almost literally woke up each morning ready to take on the world in the Northglenn home where her parents surrounded her with motivation and provided her the tools to stretch her potential to its limit. A chin-up bar awaited at her bedroom door. The sign on the bathroom door read: “A winner never quits — a quitter never wins.”

Her parents, Jan and Suzanne Strickland, sought to keep their four kids busy during the rebellious ’60s and ’70s with a structured environment and attention to both schoolwork and physical fitness. When they bought their home, they also purchased the adjacent lots with the intention of building rental properties. Instead, they wound up creating a self-contained training facility complete with a basketball court, tennis courts and rubberized running track. They also built an indoor lap pool.

Jan Strickland, a family physician, also created workout regimens for the kids from an early age.

“My father, in terms of athletics and things like that, gave us different tools that you can put in your kit bag to make you better,” Richardson told The Denver Post in 2012, when she was promoted to brigadier general. “It’s a holistic approach, a mental approach. And my stress cap was very much higher than other folks.”

At Northglenn High School, she earned All America status in swimming. She also found time to get her civilian pilot license by age 16. 

Her success in the ROTC program at MSU Denver pointed her toward a military career — a path that younger siblings Darwin and Janis also followed. Another sister, Elaine, became a nurse.

In 2003, the three Strickland siblings, plus Jim Richardson, all found themselves deployed in Iraq at the same time — a nervous time for their parents, who also took on the responsibility of looking after the Richardsons’ then-teenage daughter, Lauren. Lauren followed her mother’s footsteps at Northglenn High.

By that time, the Stricklands’ indoor pool had long since been given over to storage, but the motivational slogans remained on the walls: “Think like a champion. Work like a champion.”

“I’m a firm believer that growing up in that household has been a tremendous help for my success in the Army, particularly being able to keep up with my male peers,” Richardson told the Post back in 2003. “If I hadn’t been lifting weights, I don’t think I’d be in as good of condition as I could be.” 

Suzanne Strickland saw the leadership potential in her eldest daughter at an early age, and wasn’t surprised when she won a spot in military flight school and then trained to fly Black Hawks.

“She was a natural leader,” her mother said as Laura and the siblings prepared to head to the Middle East, “captain of the swim team, a take-charge person. Of the four children, she was the leader. Still is.”

The official promotion and change of command remains several weeks away, and in the meantime, Richardson continues to focus on a busy time on behalf of the Northern Command at Fort Sam Houston. There, she’s working in support of the repatriation of Afghan special immigrant applicants, supporting the ongoing battle against COVID-19 and also keeping an eye on the brewing tropical storms.

“Until she’s promoted, and even after that until she actually assumes the command in a change of command ceremony, she’s still the commander here,” said U.S. Army North spokesman Col. Martin O’Donnell. “So while she’s looking ahead, her focus still remains here.” 

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...