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The Lady is a General
Coral Wong Pietsch

By Susan K. Sunderland

“The military is made up of the face of the nation. Being part of the military makes me ‘not different’. I am a small part of a great institution.”
-U.S. Army Brigadier-General Coral Wong Pietsch

Today’s military woman has come a long way, baby. It took more than 220 years for women to reach their present plateau in military service. They’ve climbed from being cooks, laundresses and nurses with no rank to generals, admirals, astronauts, pilots, ships’ captains, heavy equipment operators, administrators and much more.

Who are these pioneers and patriots who have broken through the male-dominated world of the armed forces? How have they upheld their identity and perseverance to gain respect in the ranks?

An Oahu woman knows exactly what it’s like to travel that course.

Coral Wong Pietsch joined the U.S. Army as a young law student. She had no idea where it would lead. Today she is the first woman general in the 228-year history of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the first Asian-American woman to hold the rank of brigadier general in the Army.

Brig. Gen. Pietsch is an example of the professional caliber of today’s military. That she’s a woman adds interest and reinforces the premise that things have changed in uniformed life. From Rosie the Riveter to Pvt. Jessica Lynch, women make an indelible imprint on the annals of military history.

It is this pioneering spirit that brings Pietsch to the podium at the Junior League’s fourth annual women’s conference. She is the welcome speaker at HerStory 2004 on Friday, April 30, 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Tapa Ballroom.

Pietsch shares the spotlight with other notable women of accomplishment, including keynoter Dr. Sally Ride, former NASA astronaut and the first American woman in space, and local filmmaker Edgy Lee. It’s a perfect platform from which to reach out to women in the community and to inspire them with a message of encouragement and promise. HerStory expects a record attendance of 600 women, according to committee chair Martha Balkin. The growth of the event underscores the Junior League’s commitment to developing the potential of women and improving communities through effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.

That has a familiar ring to Pietsch whose own story deals with establishing a self-identity, overcoming issues that face a child from a mixed racial marriage, and seizing opportunities at the right time in her life.

At her hilltop home in Pacific Heights she reflects on the milestones in her life that brought her to military prominence. This is HerStory.

Pietsch comes from Iowa. Her father, Ming Dill Wong, was an immigrant from Canton, China, who settled in the small town of Waterloo to start a Chinese restaurant.

“He met my mother (Mary Ann Bennett) there, and that’s where I was born,” Pietsch says. Her mother was born in Iowa and during that era, girls typically were educated to the eighth grade and did not finish high school.

“My mother felt that was not good enough for her, and she actually graduated from high school,” Pietsch says. “She also did something that was quite unheard of at that time and went off to college. I’m blessed to have a mother with a pioneering spirit. And my father always said, ‘You’ve got to be better than me.’ That was my upbringing.”

But life had its awkward moments, particularly for a child of Eurasian heritage. Pietsch and her older brother Larry grew up during the Cold War era when people who were different did not want to draw attention to themselves.

She recalls attending parochial school, where a teacher’s remarks, aimed jokingly at her, brought the class to laughter, which Pietsch said, she believed validated that she was different. She said the incident caused her to become so dissatisfied with her appearance that she ran home, took out scissors and began to hack away at her hair.

At a speech for Asian Pacific American Heritage month two years ago, she reflected on that incident. “It was enough that we were different, that it was a mixed marriage and that we didn’t fit in as others did. I didn’t want this dark hair. I wanted light hair. I wanted to look like everybody else.

“It took the Army to get me to realize that I was no different than anybody else. I had come from a world where I felt as if I were different, to a world where there was no difference at all,” she says.

However, the transition had its moments of initial curiosity and wonderment. “I looked different. Good or bad, it was a factor, even in the military. I looked around, and there were all these white men from the South. They thought I was French,” she recalls.

The military was the great equalizer, giving her an education on how other people think and how other people look at each other.

“The military is made up of the face of the nation,” she says. “It is made up of our sons and daughters. It is a great welcoming institution to everybody, no matter where you come from or what you look like.”

That welcome extended to Pietsch’s acceptance into the historic and elite ranks of the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG). The legal affairs of the Army and its soldiers are entrusted to this special group of commissioned officers, all of whom are graduates of accredited law schools and members of their state’s bar. A judge advocate is skilled in the law of nations, the environment, labor relations, and contracts as well as in the Army criminal justice system.

“I was commissioned as a judge advocate general officer in 1974,” Pietsch says. “I was told I was now a member of the largest law firm in the world, with about 1,450 lawyers.”

The world’s largest law firm is now close to 6,000 lawyers and legal specialists. Approximately 1,500 attorneys serve on active duty while the rest are part-time members of the U.S. Army Reserves and Army National Guard.

Women and ethnic minorities are integrated in the ranks too. There are more than 300 women in the JAG Corps and more than 200 ethnic minorities.

Pietsch earned her juris doctorate from Columbus School of Law, Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. There she met Army officer James Pietsch, who was working on his law degree. They got married in 1972.

When her husband returned to active duty, the Army found out that his wife was a lawyer. JAG recruiters came calling, and Coral Wong Pietsch got the patriotic pitch: “Uncle Sam wants you!”

Both served on active duty and in the Army Reserves. James Pietsch retired as colonel in 2000. In his civilian career, he is a professor of law at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law and an adjutant clinical professor at the university’s John Burns School of Medicine.

Following active duty at Eighth Army in Korea and at Fort Shafter, Coral Pietsch worked as a deputy attorney general for the state of Hawaii for six years. She then joined the U.S. Army Reserves and held a number of legal positions, including staff judge advocate for the 9th Regional Support Command, and participated in numerous exercises and deployments. She was activated for six months in 1996 to assume the position of staff judge advocate for the U.S. Army Pacific Command.

According the Army’s Judge Advocate General, Pietsch has had more assignments as a command staff judge advocate than almost any other officer in the Army.

Pietsch’s civilian and Army Reserve jobs have sent her often to far-flung reaches of Pacific Command responsibility. As a soldier in the 9th Regional Command, she went to Japan for the Yama Sakura exercise. As an Army civilian employee, she went to tiny Johnston Atoll to take part in chemical accident/incident response exercises.

One of her most interesting deployments, she says, occurred in 1995 when she took part in the Balikatan exercise in the Philippines. The exercise brought together some 600 U.S. and 600 Philippine military members for combined operations and cross-training. As part of her duty as senior legal officer, Pietsch accompanied a group of Navy SEALS on a rubber boat exercise on Manila Bay.

As for the most challenging situation, she recalls her assignment in Korea in 1975 when bathrooms (latrines) were either for “Enlisted,” “Officers” or “Generals.”

“I think the military has come a long way since then,” she laughs.

In her current civilian position, Pietsch is senior civilian attorney for the headquarters of U.S. Army Pacific Command in Honolulu. As chief of the civil law department, she is responsible for its environmental law, ethics and commercial activities programs, as well providing legal support for privatization initiatives.

It takes perseverance and a non-threatening demeanor to be an effective leader in the military, according to Pietsch. “Be part of the team and have a good support system,” she adds. “You have to pay your dues. There is no instant gratification in the military.”

But gratification does come.

The big news came to Hawaii and to Pietsch in April 2000 when she was selected to become chief judge (individual mobilization augmentee), a brigadier general’s assignment. On March 1, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that President Bush had nominated Pietsch for promotion to brigadier general. Two months later, she received Senate confirmation, making her the first Asian-American female general in the Army’s history.

She received her star in a formal ceremony at the Pentagon. It was a striking contrast to the humble ritual in her kitchen 27 years before when she was first commissioned into the Army.

But Pietsch doesn’t stand on ceremony. Her down-to-earth yet polished style makes her an effective and approachable executive. She claims the glorified publicity and attention accorded her recently “is not so much for me as it is for others who will follow.”

As the daughter of a man who came from China to start a new life, Pietsch knows something about what it means to have the chance to succeed. Her father took the opportunity that America offered; she followed his lead and charted her own course.

Pietsch encourages Hawaii’s younger generation to seriously consider the opportunities and benefits of being a professional in today’s Army or other branch of service.

“There are still a number of misconceptions … low pay, no benefits, bad assignments, no quality of life,” she says. “The military has made great efforts and strides in making sure that its personnel are taken care of and that being a soldier is being a professional.”

The military’s most challenging issue, she claims, has to do with transitioning the forces from a Cold War army to one that can respond quickly and rapidly to any contingency.

“This involves fundamental change on all levels: mindsets, training, force structure, equipment, assignments,” she states. “The Army is doing this while at the same time engaging in operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan and the global war on terrorism.”

Today’s military women are doctors, lawyers, pilots, heavy equipment operators, air traffic controllers, paratroopers, forklift operators, and military police. According to the national organization Women in Military Service, “there is a greater acceptance - and respect - today, and women are here to stay.”

About 10 percent of the U.S. forces currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are women. To date, more than 20,000 women have served as peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo, according to Women’s Research & Educational Institute.

The integration of men and women in a volunteer Army can be complex. Complexity also exists in the diverse field of law. What’s Pietsch’s method of managing complexity?

“First, one must see the big picture,” she responds. “Once you see and understand that and know who the stakeholders are, you can start to resolve matters and begin to strategize.”

“Secondly, surround yourself with the right people who have the knowledge. Bring in the stakeholders. Thirdly, deal with solving the problem.”

“Keep things in balance,” she elaborates. “If there are several approaches or options, one must prioritize. Put things in perspective. Don’t take on too much; it erodes your ability to continue ahead.”

The same advice goes for women who turn to organizations like the Junior League of Honolulu for networking, personal and professional guidance, and character-building.

“Society at one time gave women the wrong impression,” Pietsch opines, “that they could have a full-time family life and full-time profession. You have to have a priority. People will respect that priority. It’s a balancing act, but the sky’s the limit when you find your niche.”

What other message will she bring to the Junior League HerStory conference?

“A big mahalo,” she responds. “Community support is important to keeping up the morale of our troops. If we can continue to do that, it will mean a lot to the efforts of our soldiers on the front lines. Our life is not as free and easy as it used to be. We have to be more careful and more aware of situations.”

When uniform-clad Pietsch was getting coffee in a store recently, a stranger paid for her purchase as a way of saying “thank you for everything you do; you’re my hero.”

He left before Pietsch could acknowledge his kindness.

Little did the stranger know that he bought a cup of coffee for the highest ranking woman officer in the Army.

To Pietsch, that citizen is a bigger hero.



Posted: May 3, 2004 @ 7:36 AM HST

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