Barred from Combat, These Women Rose to the Top of Military Intelligence


In candid interviews, five senior officers reveal the challenges and opportunities they've faced, from sexism to mentoring today's rising leaders.

When Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson was a young Army officer, she made a choice that many of her female colleagues were also making: she decided to go into intelligence.

The reason was simple. In the days before the Defense Department began opening more combat roles to women, it was the best way to get close to the action.

“It struck me that I could get closest to war-fighting as a woman by choosing this field,” said Gibson, a former deputy Director of National Intelligence. “It was an area where the sharpest women could excel, because we weren’t allowed to go to infantry, or armor, or real artillery units.”

Today, Gibson and other female colleagues hold many of the top jobs in military intelligence. But some three decades after they joined the service, there still appear to be a few glass ceilings yet to crack.

Defense One spoke to five women in senior intelligence posts. We asked why they chose intelligence as a career field, what institutional challenges and opportunities they faced along the way, and why some of them say they’ll likely never reach the highest military echelons: combatant commanders and Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

From left, Lt. Gen. Karen Gibson, Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien, Maj. Gen. Laura Potter, Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, and Rear Adm. Kelly Aeschbach.

Their answers reflected a mix of broad institutional trends and personal preferences. All five were deeply positive about their experiences in military intelligence, even as they detailed instances of sexism and discrimination, the challenges posed by relationships and families, and the occasional difficulty of finding a bathroom on deployment.

In the 1980s and 1990s, they said, intelligence was a field where they felt immune from the women-in-combat controversy, and could compete on their own merits.

Some, like Gibson, might have wanted to try to qualify for the military’s elite forces, like the Army’s Rangers. Others saw intelligence as the right fit for their skills. Either way, they seized an opportunity to be on equal footing with their male counterparts.

“Thirty years ago, intelligence seemed like one of the only career fields open to me where I could focus on my cognitive strengths without having to engage in the physical-strength debates that were going on at the time, as they were debating opening up other combat-oriented career fields to women,” said Lt. Gen. Mary O’Brien, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and cyber effects operations, the Air Force’s intelligence chief. “I could apply my critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.”

Now, Gibson and O’Brien are at the top of their fields, and they are hardly alone. During 2019, women held the senior intelligence post at five of the military’s 11 combatant commands. Gibson was the intelligence director, or J2, at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which oversees American troops in the Middle East, before becoming the deputy director of intelligence for national security partnerships. We also spoke with Rear Adm. Kelly Aeschbach, former J2 at U.S. Strategic Command, now the commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence; Rear Adm. Heidi Berg, J2 at U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM; and Maj. Gen. Laura Potter, once the top intelligence officer for U.S. troops in Europe, now commanding general of the Army Intelligence Center of Excellence and its home base of Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

But there also appears to be a limit to their successes. There has been only one female director for intelligence at the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Elizabeth Train, now a retired rear admiral. Only one woman has been named a combatant commander, the four-star officers who sit atop the chain of command and answer directly to the defense secretary. (No woman has served as U.S.defense secretary.) Those posts, with the exception of U.S. Cyber Command, typically go to officers plucked from the military’s combat arms career fields, which were generally opened to women only during the Obama administration.

“We as an Army tend to put intel officers primarily in intel positions,” said Potter, the two-star leader of her service’s intelligence center of excellence. The U.S. military’s only four-star intelligence officer is Gen. Paul Nakasone, who leads both U.S.Cyber Command and the National Security Agency. “Other than the billet Nakasone is in, we really don’t go past the three-star level,” she said.

Last year, there were 3,891 female intelligence officers in military intelligence — about 20 percent of the total. (Women make up about 16 percent of the military’s overall officer corps.) Ethnicity among female military intelligence officers appears to roughly conform to the military at large. About 11 percent of female intelligence officers identify as black, about 7 percent as Asian — compared to around 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively, of officers of both genders across the military.

“In the military, since we promote from within, getting more diverse leaders into these senior positions is taking a long time,” O’Brien said.

All five women said they felt the intelligence field rewarded merit.

“It’s an area I felt where competence was rewarded. I never felt like a token,” Gibson said. “I felt like when people asked for me to be on their team — and with one exception, it was always men — it was because they thought I was the best person available for that job.”

“Intelligence really drew me because of the almost disproportionate effect you can have,” said AFRICOM’s Berg. “You’re advising the commander, you’re giving them the intelligence they need. And then eventually you’re going on to command yourself.”

They were frank about the practical challenges of being among the few women in combat settings and working with foreign counterparts who were less accustomed to the idea than the Americans. Building an effective relationship with their male Afghan counterparts was culturally difficult, several of these women said, and sometimes it was more practical to send a male service-member to a given engagement. Sometimes the challenge came from the U.S. side: When O’Brien was the deputy director for intelligence in Afghanistan, she was told by a higher-up to “look more tactical,” presumably in order to have more credibility among her male peers.

“You do have to re-credential yourself every damn day with every new person,” Berg said. “That gets tiring, where sometimes your male counterparts don’t have to. They’re given the benefit of the doubt as they walk in.”

Women have to choose their battles, Berg said, and “figure out where you want to contest something because of the impact it’ll have for those that are coming behind you, and where you just need to let it go — because you need to preserve your energy too. Conflict has a toll.”

But often the challenges were as simple as trying to find a woman’s bathroom in the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense. There is one, said Aeschbach, but it took the better part of a half an hour to locate it and find the key — all with a male security detail following her around.

“Just the comedy of being different and trying to figure out how to do that and trying to be graceful in the execution, have a sense of humor about the fact that your security detail has to follow you around while you figure out how to get in the bathroom,” she said.

Several of the women said a career in military intelligence provided them flexibility that was crucial to having children and maintaining their career trajectory. But they also said there were times they were asked directly whether having those children meant they were no longer committed to the job.

“There was a lot of whispering: ‘Is she still all in? Is she still all in?’” O’Brien said. “And I would have to openly and explicitly counter that. If I went [on a work trip] with a bunch of men, I would be the only person they’d say, ‘Well, who’s watching your children?’

“I left them at home with peanut butter and jelly, they’ll be fine. But nobody ever asked a man, ‘Who is watching your children?’”

Often their stories were deeply funny.

Berg, a Russian linguist, recalled her visit to a Russian aircraft carrier in the 1990s.

“I had been raised during the Cold War, so for me, this was like going to the Death Star: I was going to practice all my old Soviet Russian, I was going to be the guy in the heart of the enemy,” she said.

When the helicopter landed on the flight deck of the Kuznetsov, there was a formal reception with a band and more than a dozen flag officers and general officers. Excited, Berg expected to hear “something very Hunt for Red October” from the Russian brass.

“The first words I hear as I get off, in badly-accented English — this guy leans over and is like: ‘Hey. They brought chicks!’”

“‘Chicks!’” Berg laughs now. “Of all the words!”