WASHINGTON – Their brother Rus Lodi calls them “leadership junkies.”
If you’re a soldier, you’d better just call them ma’am and salute.
Maj. Gen. Maria Barrett and younger sister Brig. Gen. Paula Lodi are each accomplished in their own fields. But together they have become the first two sisters, the Army believes, to attain the general’s rank in the service’s 244-year history.
“Maj. Gen. Maria Barrett and Brig. Gen. Paula Lodi represent the best America has to offer,” said Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. “However, this comes as no surprise to those who have known them and loved them throughout this extraordinary journey. This is a proud moment for their families and for the Army.”
Fathers and sons have risen to general, including Gen. George Casey, who retired as Chief of Staff of the Army; his father, Maj. Gen. George Casey, Sr., was killed in action in Vietnam. Then there’s the Brooks family. Leo Brooks retired as a brigadier general, and his sons Leo, Jr., and Vincent, went on to become a one- and a four-star general respectively. There is even a wife-and-husband team of three-stars: Laura and James Richardson.
Sisters would have to wait.
The military didn’t officially accept women into its ranks until the Army Nursing Corps was established in 1901. Women, of course, served unofficially before that, some in disguise since the Revolutionary War, according to the U.S. Army Women’s Museum.
The Pentagon and Congress had limited the role of women in combat until opening all fields in 2015.
Since then, more than a dozen women have graduated from the Army’s Ranger School, its proving ground for elite infantry soldiers. Command of combat units is key to ascending to the highest ranks in the military.
Overall, women make up more than 16% of the military’s active-duty force of 1.3 million. Women account for 69 of the 417 generals and admirals.
The sisters’ achievement is a remarkable milestone for women in the military, said Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Defense Department official. She put it in the class of retired Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in any service to attain four stars.
“For both men and women increasingly normalizing women in leadership positions matters,” Dalton said. “The fact that it comes from same family is an incredible accomplishment.”
A Silver Star role model at home
Barrett and Lodi didn’t need to look far for role models. Their father, Ruston, an Italian immigrant, was a World War II veteran and recipient of the Silver Star, although he rarely spoke about his service, his children said. Just as important, Rus Lodi and Barrett said, their father and mother Clara were educators who stressed public service to their five children.
“Both of my parents were school teachers,” Barrett said. “When my mother started having children, she got out, but she continued to be active in the community. So I do think probably underlying everything is that service component to it.”
Rus recalls his kid sisters as the focus of family dinners decades ago in Franklin, Massachusetts, each topping the other’s exploits in sports or school.
“They were two just beautiful girls growing up,” said Rus, 63. “Maria would do something academically that just blew us away, while Paula was doing something athletically, flipping off a diving board, before anybody else. They have just been a great source of pride and admiration our entire life.”
The sisters shared a bedroom, if not the same interests, growing up. “She was a great athlete,” Barrett said. “I was probably more of a student.”
Barrett, 53, recalls a key reason for joining the Army was largely practical: paying for school. She was interested in joining the foreign service. So, she enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Tufts University and was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1988.
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A funny thing happened on her way to a career at the State Department. Barrett found the Army a better fit. She had a great battalion commander, found the signal corps and discovered her passion for leading soldiers. Barrett moved steadily up the ranks, commanding at the company, battalion and brigade level. As a two-star general, she commands NETCOM, placing her in charge of managing and defending the Army’s information networks.
“When I talk to younger officers, I tell them the reason I joined is not the reason why I stayed,” Barrett said. “Our democratic experiment, even on its most imperfect day, is worth defending.”
Paula Lodi remembers watching a documentary on the first women at West Point. That sealed it. She was 8, maybe 10 years old, and she announced to her father that she wanted to attend the school. He encouraged her.
“If you’re a little girl, and your father responds positively to something that you want to do with your life,” Paula Lodi said, “you tend to grab ahold of it.”
Instead of West Point, she graduated from the Rutgers University ROTC program.
“My dad passed away when I was a senior in high school, so I may not have been on the most solid footing after high school,” Lodi said. “And I knew the army was the end state. So I would say going through ROTC, staying focused on that end state was really what kind of pulled me through college.”
She received her commission in the medical services corps and planned to be a dietitian as a civilian. Ten years and out of the service. That was the plan.
“I don’t know at what point probably four, maybe five years in, it just occurred to me, I absolutely loved what I was doing in the medical service corps,” Lodi said.
Climbing the ranks in separate fields
Up the ranks she climbed, like her sister, but in a separate field, the medical service corps. She has risen to become deputy chief of staff for operations in the Army’s Surgeon General’s office.
“The fact that we’re sisters, not brothers, I think it’s a huge illustration of how far we’ve come as a service,” said Lodi, 51.
Gen. James McConville, the Army’s chief of staff and top officer, has taken note of the sisters’ success.
“Maj. Gen. Maria Barrett and Brig. Gen. Paula Lodi are exceptional, proven leaders who’ve distinguished themselves over the course of their careers at various levels of command and during multiple combat tours,” McConville said. “These officers serve in critical career fields and lead organizations essential to the Army mission. Their success showcases how talented people can find multiple pathways to success serving in the Army.”
Neither sister said they started out with the goal to be general officers, and both express pride in the other’s accomplishments.
“I don’t think either one of us told us back in high school when we were both playing soccer together, that this is where we would be 27, 30 years from now,” Barrett said. “I don’t think either one of us would have told you that this is how the story would end.”
Their brother said he isn’t surprised. Over the years, he said, he’s noticed the way his younger sisters were “always talking about leadership, right way of leading, right way of motivation.”
Those were the very lessons their parents stressed, he said. He called Paula’s promotion to general the “closing chapter on a job well done by my parents.”