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Flying high: 1st female to lead largest Air National Guard breaks barriers and shatters stereotype

Maj. Gen. Denise Donnell sat down with Senior Investigative Reporter Tara Rosenblum for her first sit-down interview since becoming the first female to lead the largest Air National Guard in the United States.

Tara Rosenblum

Mar 30, 2023, 12:30 PM

Updated 451 days ago

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A high-ranking military leader in New York is breaking barriers and shattering stereotypes while inspiring other female aviators across the nation.
Maj. Gen. Denise Donnell sat down with Senior Investigative Reporter Tara Rosenblum for her first sit-down interview since becoming the first female to lead the largest Air National Guard in the United States. 
Donnell joined the Navy at age 22. By 27, she was a mission commander flying the military's largest aircraft, with access to unleash the world's most advanced weaponry.
She says she would have never had the chance to knock down barriers had it not been for the undying support of her family.
"I flew when I was pregnant. You have to get a special waiver to do that, and you have to deal with morning sickness on the road. So, I have joked that my daughter has more combat time than my husband who was in the Army because she flew with me when I was pregnant," she says. 
Deploying every two or three years eventually took its toll, so Donnell decided to join the New York National Guard and move her family to Newburgh.
It was a short drive away from the Stewart Air National Guard Base, where her leadership, work ethic and passion for aviation would soon set her on the path to history.
Last spring, Gov. Kathy Hochul selected Donnell to lead the 5,900-member military unit that traces its lineage back to the American Revolution and the War of 1812 - a unit that was led by men for centuries. 
"It took 30 years, and I see myself standing on the shoulders of giants. I don't see myself as unique. I will tell you that I hope I am an inspiration to young women whether they are 18 or 12 or 5 who are interested in flying," she says.
"I've had the mantra of firm, fair and friendly. And when I say friendly, I don't mean I'm a friend. I mean, I'm approachable. I believe that you can work with people and be very compassionate and listen, and I think that has been a difference in my leadership style that may differentiate me from another officer in these types of positions."
Her historic rise to leadership was then followed by a rare honor when President Joe Biden promoted Donnell to the two-star rank of major general last January. 
"To become a general officer, it takes a long time. It's a long process. And much of that process is not up to you...the president and the Senate have a big say in that. You never know when it's going to happen. So, I think what I really felt was a bit of relief. I was humbled," she says.   


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