First Woman Brigade Commander in NY National Guard Takes Historic Helm

When COL Stephanie Dawson took command of the New York National Guard’s 369th Sustainment Brigade in late 2008, she became the first woman brigade commander in the New York National Guard.

As a woman officer, she’s proud to join the ranks of trailblazing military women who have surpassed milestones. As an African American, she is equally proud to be in command of one of the most legendary units in African American history, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” first made famous by their combat gallantry in World War I.

“Whenever you talk about African American military history, there are a few especially well-known and respected units like the 9th and 10th Cavalry (“Buffalo Soldiers”), the 54th Infantry of Massachusetts (the black combat troops in the Civil War) and the ‘Harlem Hellfighters,’” said COL Dawson a member of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation and a life member of the 369th Historical Society.

The Harlem Hellfighters, then the NY National Guard’s 15th Infantry Regiment, shipped to France in 1917 and was re-designated as the 369th Infantry before the war’s end. As the then current controversy over whether or not black soldiers could perform combat roles or had to be relegated to laborer work only raged on, the French who were struggling to shore up their combat forces were given the unit to use as they deemed appropriate. The French assigned the unit to a combat role with its 161st Infantry Division.

The Harlem Hellfighters fought with great distinction, logging more front line service than any other American regiment in the war and nearly 200 of its members earned France’s highest award, the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) medal for gallantry. Some 1,500 Harlem Hellfighters died in the war. The unit was reactivated for World War II as the 369th Coast Artillery Battalion and also served in the Korean War. After some reorganization, the storied unit served in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War as the 369th Transportation Battalion; and later as the 369th Corps Support Battalion when deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004 to 2005. Today its is again brigade level, as the 369th Sustainment Brigade, and commanded by COL Dawson.

The Harlem Hellfighters were not only tough fighters; they were trailblazers as one of the first black combat units. They were the first black regiment in the US Army and Army National Guard to have black officers in company grades, including 1LT Benjamin O. Davis Sr., who went on to become the first African American to become a brigadier general. His picture hangs on the wall above COL Dawson’s desk, as he also commanded the 369th and his photo is a reminder of those who fought before her and the legacy of pride and commitment they left in her care.

“When you talk about commitment and service, this unit is right on top,” COL Dawson stresses. “Today, we are very conscious that we are writing the next chapter of the 369th history and that the pursuit of excellence in service is as much a part of this generation of Harlem Hellfighters as it was of those who came before us.”

Like the unit she commands, COL Dawson finds herself already in the history books of the NY National Guard, as its first female brigade commander. “Being the first woman to command at this level makes you appreciate the sacrifices and struggles of the military women before you even more,” she says.

COL Dawson adds that she recognizes that someone who is a “first” in something will have increased scrutiny. “People look more sharply at your performance,” a good thing in a way, she says, because “it makes you work harder and better so that ultimately when people talk about you they don’t talk as much about the ‘first’ as they do about the exemplary job that you did.”

The colonel has long pulled strength and determination from the African Americans and women who have “broken through before me.” During her 30-year National Guard career, she has seen a lot of those milestones. “When I first enlisted with my cousin as part of the buddy system in 1979, women officers were mostly serving in professional areas, like nursing. Today, the number of opportunities for females as well as the number of officers is tremendous. Many positions females hold are mission critical and the opportunity for women is vast,” she says. “Young women coming up today don’t feel constrained as we did from time to time and as women before us certainly did most of the time. Today’s women can reasonably expect to achieve their highest aspirations.”

More subtle changes are noted in day-to-day operations, COL Dawson adds, “We were assigned to V Corps, but when GEN Dunwoody, the commander of what was then the Military Traffic Management Command, visited her units in Iraq and Kuwait, all we knew was that ‘their boss,’ ‘the commander,’ was coming. She was never referred to, that I heard of, as ‘a female commander,’ it was just ‘commander.’ … That says to me that, today, women are being recognized for their expertise, not their gender. That’s a change from 1979 and a long way from 1949.”

COL Dawson has come a long way too since she joined the North Carolina National Guard in 1979 and became an officer in 1981, she admits. This is her second time serving in the 369th. She was its support operations officer and eventually its executive officer when the unit was activated to respond to the 9-11 tragedy in 2001. As a lieutenant colonel, she later served as the commander of the NY National Guard’s 27th Rear Operations Center with whom she deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. COL Dawson served with distinction, earning the Bronze Star for meritorious service. In 2006, still a lieutenant colonel, she returned to the 369th that was now a Sustainment Brigade, as its deputy commander. In 2007, she was promoted to colonel and took command of the brigade in 2008.

Both in her civilian job as assistant director of operations for the Port Authority New York and New Jersey and especially in her National Guard career, COL Dawson says she has learned the importance of mentoring. “Three of the keys to success in the military are picking a job that you feel passionately about, being absolutely committed to lifelong learning and getting the education you need as you advance, and finding mentors,” she says. “Mentorship is critically important, and I’ve had a lot of mentors, mostly male officers that I reported to or that just took a special interest in me. Of course, I consider officers like GEN Dunwoody (the first woman four-star general) whom I met when I was deployed in 2003, as a role model as well.”

Mentors and role models are especially important for a young woman in the military, she adds. “She needs to find leaders she can model, male or female, to learn and understand their decision making process because while she may not be faced with the same problems or situations as she advances, if she embraces their visioning and problem solving techniques, she’ll make good decisions and be a better leader.”

As a leader herself, COL Dawson has worked to mentor others while continuing to seek opportunities to “achieve increasingly responsible assignments,” she says.
“As a person who has had a lot of mentors, I focus on how we help bring others along,” a mentoring role that’s especially important for those who find themselves in historically “first” positions, she stresses.“Until someone comes along and breaks through into a position, it’s hard for many to believe ‘I can do that,’ but once people see someone else do it, they know they can too. Such ‘firsts’ are inspiring as I know from looking at the women and African Americans who inspired me and mentoring someone else to reach such positions and beyond has always been an important role for any leader” COL Dawson stresses.

To learn more about the history of African American women in the military, visit the education section of the Women’s Memorial Web site.

To learn more about the Harlem Hellfighters, read the NY State Division of Military and Naval Affairs’ press release about COL Dawson’s command.

(February 2009)