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Photo by Alyson McClaran

Just Keep Swimming

Trailblazing U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson reflects on the value of struggle, her rise to the top levels of the military and what makes a great leader.

March 6, 2019

By Matt Watson

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson still remembers being cut from her Northglenn neighborhood swim team.

But even at a young age, the three-star, glass-ceiling-shattering lieutenant general realized that setbacks are not failure.

Richardson kept swimming and went on to be an All-American racer at Northglenn High School — and she still holds a several school records in butterfly stroke, she said March 4 at Northglenn Community Center, where she was being honored for Women’s History Month.

The alumna of Metropolitan State University of Denver and its Army ROTC program recounted her rise from amateur swimmer to acting commanding general of the U.S. Army Forces Command – the first female to lead the largest command in the Army – and offered young people in attendance her advice for dealing with struggle and being a good leader.

Richardson, a 1986 graduate of MSU Denver’s psychology program, credited her Northglenn community, swim coaches and ROTC mentors for setting her on trajectory to succeed. She also lamented the pressure today’s children face to achieve at a young age at the cost of their grander goals.

“As children, we’re often asked by grownups, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ At some point, in middle school or high school, we aren’t asked that particular question as much. As we grow from children to adolescents, do we forget how strong our dreams are?” she asked.

Her dream was to be a pilot, she said, and she earned her private license at age 16. The military provided a path to fly for a living, a pursuit that culminated in Richardson serving as commander of the 5th battalion of the 101st Aviation Regiment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“We must help our youth find their dream, and then connect a pathway to that dream,” she said. “Our young people really need the support of their community like the community was there for me.”

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson speaks at Northglenn Community Center for International Women
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson speaks at Northglenn Community Center for International Women's Day. Photo by Alyson McClaran

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Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson’s call for young people to participate in military, public or national service is a familiar refrain for MSU Denver students and alumni.

University President Janine Davidson, Ph.D., is a commissioner on the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, a bipartisan, 11-member commission created by Congress in January 2018 to develop recommendations on inspiring more Americans – specifically young people – to participate in military, national or public service. 

The commission issued an interim report last January in which it indicated it’s considering recommendations that would require citizens to participate in military, national or public service. It also proposed expanding the registration requirement for the Selective Service System to include women. A final report with policy recommendations and legislative proposals is expected to be published in March 2020.

Davidson, the first woman to fly an Air Force tactical C-130 and former undersecretary of the Navy, was appointed to a three-year term on the commission by former U.S. President Barack Obama.

“For me, it’s pretty important,” she said of the appointment. “I’ve spent my whole life in some sort of public service.”

 

Being cut from the swim team wasn’t the only setback Richardson overcame to achieve her goals, she said. For instance, for all her accomplishments in the pool, she struggled to prepare for the two-mile run required in Officer Basic School.

“Being a runner and being good at running is not the same. You can also be a good swimmer and be a crappy runner, and I found out I was a crappy runner, even though I worked out all the time,” Richardson said.

She spent six months training daily for the physical fitness test and finished faster than all but about five of 40 males, she said.

“Struggle isn’t bad. You have to know what your shortcomings are and try to get better.”

After her keynote address, Richardson was interviewed by Northglenn High School senior Gabriella Gomez, who is a competitive swimmer and Junior ROTC member. She asked Richardson, whose command includes more than 850,000 soldiers and civilians, what makes a great leader.

“What I look for in a great leader is initiative and a good attitude. Wanting to get things done is what I look for. Even at my level, I’m very much an action officer,” Richardson said, complementing the precedent set by her predecessor General Robert Abrams, now the commander of U.S. Forces Korea. “I thought he had at least four battery packs hooked up to his back. …It’s important to learn from the people you work with.”

Richardson urged young people in the audience to consider serving their country – either in the military or through public service or national service.

“(Military and public service) opportunities give you a sense of purpose and the satisfaction of contributing to something larger than yourself,” Richardson said.


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