Army Surgeon General Nadja West is the certified definition of a true badass.
West, 56, is the first female African-American three-star general in U.S. Army history (est. June 14, 1775), the highest ranking woman ever to graduate from West Point, a wife, a mother of two..I mean really, if that doesn’t constitute a super woman, then I’m going to need to re-read the definition:
Yeah, she’s pretty much super woman.
As with anything in life, it hasn’t always been easy. Along the way, she has had some struggles believing in herself.
“My parents always said of course you can do anything you want, but I never did,” West says. “I would always have confidence issues: ‘I don’t think I can do that.'”
When she first began her career in pursuit of medical school, she was filled with self-doubt. “I had a random elevator encounter with a West Point alumnus that pushed me to getting over my fears. He asked me about what I was interested in, and I said medical school, but I don’t think I’ll be able to get in”.
West was adopted at 2 years old by a military family in the Washington, DC area, with 11 other adopted children.
“My mom decided that she couldn’t take care of me or didn’t want to take care of me,” West said. “I’m just very thankful that she decided to give me a chance at life because you could have had other options.”
West’s adoptive mother was from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and was the granddaughter of slaves.
“She remembered talking to her grandmother and sharing stories,” West said. West’s mother decided on adoption when she wasn’t able to have children of her own because of scar tissue from a ruptured appendix that she couldn’t afford to have removed.
Her adoptive father joined the Army in 1939, when it was still segregated.
“He stayed with it for 33 years because he believed in it, in our nation, and believed in the changes that were occurring in the military well before society,” West said.
“He and his buddy caught a train ride out to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, which is where they did the basic training for colored taroops and colored soldiers that they were called at the time,” she said. “The white officers, who were doing the training, thought of the assignment as a ‘punishment tour’, but my father said it changed when they actually got there. It was not a desirable assignment. But he said that he could see that once you get to know a person, and you get to see your soldiers, they’re just like anyone else.”
West says she was inspired at an early age by her father and her other siblings. She recalls one of her proudest moments being when her brother Peter came to her kindergarten class with his uniform on. “I wanted to show my classmates my brother that’s in the Army.” she beamed.
Another inspiration she had was Star Trek. “I thought Mr. Spock was really cool. I wanted to be the science officer, and I really wanted to be a Vulcan one day,” West said.
When visiting West Point’s campus for reunions, West is greeted like a celebrity by old classmates and new cadets. “If you told me when I was a plebe at West Point that you’re going to be a three-star general, I would have laughed you out of the room because I just didn’t see it. I couldn’t see it in myself.”
Being one of the pioneering women at the institution was not without challenges. West said her class began with 126 women but only 62 graduated. When she arrived, there was just one all-male class left, but she said for some, the goal was to “run all the women out before they graduated.” West came close to dropping out herself.
West recalled an encounter in which a fellow cadet got nose to nose with her and, using her maiden name, said, “Grammar, you will not be here when I graduate.” He was trying to intimidate her, but she says it had the opposite effect.
“I thought OK, if I have to …” she paused, searching for the right word, “I’m going to stay.” West went on, “That was that was a motivator for me because I said, ‘I can’t not make it now because I don’t want to prove him right.'”
West went on to graduate from West Point and then medical school at The George Washington University. She then went back to the Army as a medical officer and served in the first Gulf War.
As a captain in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, her commander put faith in her abilities over the fact that she was a woman.
“He asked, ‘Doc, can you fix broke soldiers.’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir, I can.’ And he says, ‘Glad to have you aboard. Glad to have you with us.’ And so he didn’t ask me where I went to medical school and ask what my grades were. He looked me in the eye and asked me if I could do that. And in my heart of hearts, I would do the darndest I could to live up to that.”
Rising up through the military ranks as an African-American woman was not always smooth. One friend of West’s told her directly that she was only getting promoted because of her race and gender.
“Well, you realize that, you know, the only reason that you got promoted is because you’re an African-American female.” he said.
“That’s why I showed him my orb – we have this officer record brief. I was the distinguished undergraduate in my class of flight surgeon course. The top graduate.” says West.
West says they are still friends today and that she was actually grateful to this person for being honest. He gave her the chance to prove her credentials when others might have just talked behind her back.
“You know the old saying that, you know, your mom wears combat boots used to be like a slur. It’s like, ‘Oh, she does. And they’re pretty cool,'” she said her son jokes about his mother.
She makes an effort to stop to talk to younger people, even for a few minutes, because her own experience tells her that a short encounter has the potential to change the trajectory of their lives.
“One of the things that I tell people is just believe that you can, and then don’t sell yourself short or don’t take yourself out of the race before you even start running. And I almost did.”