Last week, Army Gen. Laura Richardson stood before the fall graduation class of Metropolitan State University of Denver as one of its most distinguished alumnae, delivering the keynote address for an institution she had attended since she was a high school sophomore seeking aviation-related classes on the way to earning her pilot’s license.
And while she represents a highly decorated, groundbreaking model of achievement, Richardson reminded the graduates that their future accomplishments just might be obscured, for the moment, by uncertainty.
“Maybe you know exactly what you want to do after today,” she told the gathering Friday at the Colorado Convention Center. “And that’s great. But maybe you don’t. And that’s OK, too. Thirty-five years ago, I was in the latter group.”
Richardson, 58, resolved that uncertainty by forging a career in the Army, where she conquered a succession of challenging roles on her way to her promotion to four-star general last August – making her only the second woman to earn that rank in the Army’s 246-year history.
Now, she heads the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which oversees planning, operations and security for Central and South America and parts of the Caribbean. Her ascent included serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, when she became the first woman in U.S. history to command an assault helicopter battalion of 320 soldiers and 30 Black Hawk helicopters.
Richardson also gained exposure to the governmental sphere as a military aide to the vice president and later served as chief of the Senate liaison division for the Secretary of the Army. Most recently, she directed the military’s medical and vaccination support during the COVID-19 crisis.
But as a newly minted Metro State graduate, she was at loose ends, looking for direction.
“I remember when I was in your shoes, the summer of 1986, nervous about what the real world was going to bring,” she said. “For this class, specifically, the real world came to you instead. Your typical college experience was upended, just like that, by a once-in-a-century pandemic.”
Richardson – then Laura Strickland – grew up in Northglenn, where she gained acclaim as an All America high school swimmer and also started taking meteorological and aviation courses at Metro State on the way to earning her pilot’s license at 16. She eventually graduated from MSU Denver with a Reserve Officer Training Corps commission that launched a career she never anticipated.
When she made brigadier general in 2012, she told The Denver Post: “I know a lot of people say you made it through the eye of a needle if you make it through the general-officer ranks. I never aspired to be a certain rank at all in my military career.”
On Friday, she counseled the Metro graduates to continually pursue a life of service.
“I encourage each and every one of you to never stop serving your neighborhoods, your communities and your country,” Richardson said. “Although you may not have plans to change the world, you just might find yourself doing just that.”
After the morning commencement ceremony, Gen. Richardson took time to talk with The Sun on topics including her career path, her new command and women’s evolving experience in the military.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
The Sun: Tell us about your decision to attend Metro State, and what difference it made for you when you look back on your career.
Gen. Richardson: As I was talking to Dr. (Janine) Davidson (MSU president) last night I was talking about how long I actually had gone to Metro. I said it was about eight years actually, but not all the time. In high school I was taking summer school classes. My father would have me enroll in some classes because I was learning how to fly. And so I took a lot of meteorology classes, and just all of the aerospace science courses Metro offered.
I just really kind of grew up with Metro. And so by the time I went to college for real and was taking ROTC, it was just like a family. I was so comfortable with the environment. It’s downtown. It was somewhere where I just thrived. I really, really enjoyed it. It was just a good … vibe isn’t the right word, but it is. I mean, everything just clicked.
Sun: In terms of physical fitness, your parents provided a lot of structure and opportunity for you and your siblings growing up in Northglenn. What was it like to grow up in your house?
Gen. Richardson: In terms of athletics, we have a lap pool in our house — not not a fun swimming pool but a lap pool. And my father was very much about athletics, and got us all started in athletics really early. I remember him taking me around when I was like, gosh, I don’t know, 5 or 6, going to the gym and seeing if gymnastics was the place to go, or going to track and field. And then trying out swimming lessons — that was my thing.
After school, we would do weights, but there were really no weights or machines that were out at the time, so we grew up with a chin-up bar in our doorway. I got up to about 10 sets of 30 chin ups. You need the shoulder strength for swimming. I did that till I was about 12 and then Nautilus machines came out and so every day it was working out, it was in the pool in the morning, after school were the chin ups or the weight training and then two hours of swim practice after that.
Sun: Speaking of family, it struck me as such an interesting dynamic that during Operation Iraqi Freedom you and your husband, Jim, were both flying helicopters and your siblings were stationed nearby. That must have been an interesting time, to say the least.
Gen. Richardson: Yeah, but I think for the family that was back here, my parents, it was really hard for them. It was pretty exciting for us. I mean, this is what we train for. And we’re actually able to be there. Now, of course, there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen. But it was also comforting to know that I had my sister, who was a doctor, and I knew exactly where she was. So if I ever got really sick or hurt, she would be able to help.
And then my brother’s an attorney, and in combat we do a lot of clearing of targets through our attorneys before you shoot something down or blow it up and he was very good at what he did. And then my husband having a whole battalion of Apaches in the same division, that was comforting as well, because we actually did some missions together. And so his Apaches were protecting all the infantry and our aircraft as we were flying them in and dropping them off in the hot LZs (landing zones).
Sun: When you look at your career — whether combat experience in the Middle East or the COVID-related operations that you’ve done more recently — how did all of that prepare you for taking on this newest leadership role with the Southern Command?
Gen. Richardson: I think it’s dealing with complex situations, where there are a lot of dynamics to be concerned about. In my last position we had, during the DOD response for COVID, we were in over 71 hospitals across 51 cities in the nation. We had the biggest mobilization in a very long time in the Department of Defense for COVID.
We had about 10,000 DOD medical providers that we put in these locations working, initially starting out as alternate care facilities. Just in terms of being able to command and control something like that, being able to take soldiers, sailors and airmen, teams of doctors and nurses and medics and respiratory therapists and then take care of them, make sure they don’t get sick, and then employ them in the hospitals for 60, 90, 120 days on a deployment. Then we did fires, we did hurricanes. If it happened over the land in the States, we were the ones that were handling all that.
So I just think being able to have the agility and the flexibility and being able to command and control something that big really helped in terms of my selection when they were looking for the next commander of SOUTHCOM.
Sun: Did you envision this kind of career path when you joined the Army?
Gen. Richardson: No, I was just probably looking out toward, like, next month. My father was always so quick to put things in front of me or be thinking (things) out for me. All the things that I’ve been able to do, most of them I didn’t even know existed in the military, quite honestly. Until someone called me and said, “Hey, would you like to be the vice president’s military aide?” for example, I was like, “Is that a job in the Army? Is that something I wear my uniform to?”
I mean, you just don’t know, you don’t realize. When you’re at Northglenn High School and then you go to Metro State University, you don’t ever think that you can do something like that unless someone tells you that those opportunities are there. And if you share your story, then maybe folks will think that’s possible.
Sun: Was there a point where you realized you could succeed in a leadership role and take it a long way?
Gen. Richardson: No, I don’t ever aspire to be something because I think that limits what I’ve always been challenged in the service. And certainly I would have never picked the things for me that I’ve been able to do. And so with the positions that I’m selected for in the military, I just try to do the best that I can in that job, and then allow the system to work and not try to vie for a job.
I’ve never said, “Hey, I would like this job.” A few times I’ve been asked what would you like to do next? And I’m like, “I don’t know.” I don’t know everything that’s out there for me to do. Would I ever think that I’d be in the job that I’m in now at SOUTHCOM? Absolutely not.
Sun: For people who don’t know about SOUTHCOM and the U.S. relationship with Central and South America, explain what you knew about the command going in and what you’ve learned so far.
Gen. Richardson: There’s a lot of looking back and forth, east and west, with what’s currently going on with China and Russia. But the investment of our administration for our country, the policies towards Latin America — if you take a snapshot, you may not think that it’s that stable. But if you look over maybe four decades, you see pretty consistent policy, and you see investment in Latin America, South and Central America.
Take Colombia, when they were almost a failed state in 1999, and the $10 billion that the U.S. invested, and then the six times that amount that Colombia invested. Then I go there on my first trip since taking the job, because between them and Brazil, they’re our number one security partner in this area. And you see where they are now, in terms of human rights, rule of law, women, peace and security. I mean, it’s pretty fantastic what they’ve done.
They’re a security exporter, they do peacekeeping operations. They do interdictions with counter narcotics. We work with them, try to train them in terms of their institutional capacity, their security forces. Free and fair elections are very important. The military doesn’t get involved in that, you have to support the security but not get involved politically. All those kinds of things we do as part of our job.
Sun: President Biden mentioned in his remarks during the promotion ceremony at the White House a few months ago the difficulties still encountered by many women in the military. Tell me where you think the military is with regard to the way women are treated now and maybe where it needs to go from here?
Gen. Richardson: I think there’s a couple of things that need to happen. One is engaged leadership. The military has a lot of young people in it and so you talk about teaching young recruits, when they come in the military, what it means to have a healthy relationship with somebody. Like a college campus, our military has a lot of units with a lot of young people together, living in the same barracks building, for example.
I think you have to be shown what right looks like, and everybody that comes in our military and everybody in our society doesn’t know what a healthy relationship is. So I think that that’s important. But I think the military is taking this extremely seriously. And we have a lot of things that we got to (address) in terms of taking care of people — suicide rates, sexual assault, sexual harassment, all those things.
It’s all about taking care of people at the end of the day. And so that’s why I mentioned the engaged leadership, our leaders having to be involved just like a coach of a sports team, right? The coach knows the strengths and weaknesses of everybody on the team, so in terms of our military leaders they’re just like that for people in their unit.
Sun: The president also mentioned in his remarks at the White House that you’re a role model and I understand that on your visit to Colombia you got quite a response at an event there from young women in their military.
Gen. Richardson: So I get to see all these women, helicopter and airplane pilots in the air force and their army and it’s pretty tremendous to see. It’s just like today, seeing a graduation it’s almost like your kids have grown up and they’ve got a degree and you’re just really super proud of them.
And so I tried to certainly help them with their military action plan for women, peace and security. I think when you open up the talent pool for the other 50% of the population, you’re only going to make your organization better. And I think just even in our own military, opening up the rest of the combat positions, if you can meet the standards, then it shouldn’t matter what gender you are.
Sun: We’re living in a deeply divided country right now –demonstrated by an attack on the U.S. Capitol less than a year ago. Is radicalization of rank and file a concern among leadership? And if so, how do you deal with that?
Gen. Richardson: I think that in terms of radicalization, you never say that you don’t have it in your organization. But I have not seen it and I didn’t have it in my last organization, but you always have to assume that something’s there, while even small, and be able to deal with it if it comes about. Because there’s no place for it in the military.
And so you have to know your organization. And then if you find that, it gets reported. You have to have an organization that reports things and feels comfortable reporting things. And then those things are dealt with as they should be, because there’s no place for it.