Interview with Col. Peggy Combs
As the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Cadet Command, U.S. Army Colonel Peggy Combs is the highest-ranking leader overseeing Army ROTC and is responsible for recruiting more than half of Army officers nationwide.
Col. Combs, in town for the National FFA Convention, talked to Indianapolis Woman about the unlikely way she joined the military and what it’s like being a woman in service.
Q: What prompted you to join the military?
A: That’s an interesting question. Actually, I was not going to go to college. I grew up in upstate New York, the oldest of four kids. No one on either side of my family had ever gone to college. There was really no talk of anyone going to college. When I was about a sophomore in high school, we got a new coach at school; she was right out of college. She pulled a few of us aside and said, ‘I think you guys need to go to college.’ I said, ‘I don’t think my family can afford it.’
I talked to my mother about it, and she happened to be in the Army reserve. We didn’t have much exposure to it, because it was only one weekend a month. It was her time to do her thing.
She had brought home one day a scholarship application to ROTC. She said, ‘This covers full tuition; think about filling it out if you want to do this college thing.’
I did get a scholarship. I graduated out of the ROTC program. I owed four years, and here I am 26 years later still serving. Obviously, the Army’s been good to me.
Q: Did you ever experience any hostility or unwelcome remarks because you are a woman?
A: I never have personally. I will tell you, I don’t see hardly any of that in our force. The best thing is, we’re brothers and sisters. We have a really unique bond of trust. I will say, sometimes in the media we get reported negatively. However, it’s probably because we’re good at reporting. We don’t hide when something happens.
Our female soldiers are very comfortable serving in uniform. They serve honorably next to their male counterparts. I don’t even like to use ‘female soldier’ and ‘male soldier.’ We’re all soldiers. And what is so great is that we all bring a different perspective to the team and how we accomplish our enormous mission. It’s one of the places with equal opportunity no matter the race, gender or religion.
In the Army, I’ve had every opportunity my male counterparts have had. I’ve had exceptional experiences. My mother taught me young, if you work hard and treat people right, everything will go OK. That formula has worked well. We absolutely have very successful women and men in our formations.
Q: You’re a mom to three adult kids. How have you balanced being a mother and having these demanding jobs over the years?
A: At the base, our challenges are the same as couples who work with children. My husband retired after 23 years of service. Our key to success is plain old teamwork. ‘Can you take the kids to the dentists today?’ ‘Who has the most time available?’ And good help. We’ve had to invest in good help to help us.
We measure time with our kids in terms of quality, not quantity. We really prioritized trying to stay together as a family. We’ve had to make a few sacrifices along the way to do that.
My husband is very much the key to my success because of the teamwork. He said, ‘These are our children, and we’re going to raise them and be soldiers.’ I do credit him for my success. It’s hard on women to do it all. I didn’t have to because I have a husband who helped significantly.
Q: What advice can you give women and girls interested in joining the military?
A: I would say that if you are completely ready for a challenge, to enter a profession that is selfless, is rewarding is very noble. Honestly, the rewards that we have far exceed any monetary benefit you can get. If you’re wiling to challenge yourself through that, it’s a continuous learning environment. You develop your full potential and leadership and service to others.
Less than 1 percent of Americans have the courage and strength to step up and say, ‘Sign me up to defend 99 percent of Americans.’ I have seen the quality of America’s sons and daughters that enter our force. It is incredible. If you’re willing to step up the challenge, join us. Whether you stay two years or, in my case, 26 years, the lifetime of lessons you glean make you so much more a well-rounded person.
We are America’s team. I would not be doing it if it wasn’t fun. I don’t define fun as roller coasters and those kinds of things. Katharine Graham said, ‘To love what you do and feel that it matters, how can anything be more fun?’ I read that, and it was so inspirational; it completely characterizes what we do. The people you’re around are incredibly talented. To watch people do things through teamwork and team values is incredible.
We take all folks interested in service. Our opportunities in the Army are not limited by your gender, only by how hard you want to work. The only limits are those you place on yourself.