Two ROTC commanders help pave the way for women in military leadership

Two ROTC commanders help pave the way for women in military leadership

by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

On Tuesday evenings, Buckley Center Auditorium echos with excited conversations and laughter as 80 students file into their seats. They’re just like any other group of college students laughing with their friends and chatting about finals.

Suddenly the laughter stops. Everyone stands. Backs straight. Eyes forward. Hands at their sides. Silence. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Commander,” a student announces into a microphone at the front of the room.

Senior Mira Gill descends down the stairs, holding a serious facial expression with her hair pulled back into a tight bun. She joins her fellow staff members at the front of the auditorium and salutes the American flag. Now the ROTC leadership lab can begin.

ROTC, an acronym for Reserve Officer Training Corps, is a college program that prepares students to become officers in the U.S. military after they graduate. Senior communication major Mira Gill has been the fall semester Wing Commander for UP’s Air Force ROTC. But she’s not the only woman in military leadership on campus. Marion Lilly, senior nursing major, has served as Army ROTC’s fall semester Battalion Commander, leading about 75 Army cadets. The commander position is the highest ranking a cadet can hold while in ROTC. 

Gill and Lilly salute each other.

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The two women hold high-ranking positions at a time where female leadership in the military is on the rise. They will both join the 16 percent of women who make up the enlisted forces when they graduate as second lieutenants in the spring. 

“I joined the Air Force because I want to make a difference,” Gill said. “I want to be able to serve others in some aspect and this is my way of doing it...If I can somehow make the Air Force a better place and continue to serve, that’s what I want to do.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, women hold 18 percent of officer positions in the military, while the other 82 percent are occupied by men. The military still has a long way to go before it becomes a fully integrated institution, but women have made strides in recent years.

A century ago, women were excluded from from holding any position in the military other than as nurses, cooks or secretaries during times of war. It wasn’t until 1948 that Congress passed The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, permitting women to serve as permanent members of the military. Fast forward to 2015, and women are now allowed to serve in all combat roles across all military branches.

At UP, around 20 percent of students in the Air Force ROTC program identify as female. Gill’s class began with nearly 45 cadets, and only 11 remain in the graduating senior class, where Gill is the only woman.

In the Army ROTC program, about half of the cadets identify as female, according to Lilly. Both commanders have made it a goal in their positions to be role models to the younger women in ROTC.

“Being a good role model for the other female cadets coming into the program is something I’ve always thought was important because if they come in and they see other females not taking on a leadership role, they might be discouraged,” Gill said. “I don’t ever want anyone to be discouraged from going out and taking their shot, so I really make it a point to try to build up the other females in this detachment.”

Commander duties

As Wing Commander, Gill is the leader of detachment 695, UP’s Air Force ROTC military unit, and serves as a liaison between the cadets and the cadre. The cadre is a group of military officers who instruct cadets in military science courses and oversee their training objectives. It’s Gill’s job to make sure that her cadets fulfill nearly 30 training objectives set forth by the cadre each semester. 

This is not the first time that a woman has been promoted to Wing Commander or Battalion Commander. UP has a history of female commanders for both ROTC programs, who have inspired Gill and Lilly in their commanding roles. Despite being from different branches of ROTC, Gill and Lilly have become good friends in their three and a half years at UP and were excited for each other when they were both promoted last spring. 

“We were like ‘yeah, girl power!’” Gill said.

Gill gives her final briefing of the semester at Air Force ROTC's weekly leadership lab and discusses everything that her attachment has accomplished.

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For Lilly, a typical week is filled with physical training, meetings, leadership labs and nursing clinicals, in addition to a full class schedule. A big part of her job as Battalion Commander is planning and preparing cadets for their Field Training Exercise (FTX), which takes place in October every fall. On lab days, cadets go down to river campus where where they walk through squad operations and learn how to conduct battle drills in preparation for their FTX. 

For their FTX this semester, the cadets went to a military base on the Oregon coast where Lilly and her staff of cadets led the underclassmen in carrying out an operation, training with automatic weapons and completing difficult obstacle courses. 

Lilly also leads the cadets in mandatory physical training three times a week at 6:30 a.m., which they call “embracing the suck.” Lilly said she prides herself on her physical fitness. Her high physical training score not only demands respect but also models endurance and discipline to her cadets.

“My hope is that by being physically fit and having a level head, that will inspire the younger kids, especially the girls, to be able to look up to someone and have a good mentor,” Lilly said. “I always say be the leader you want to have.”

Lilly leads her battalion in physical training. Army ROTC does physical training three times a week at 6:30 a.m. on the turf field next to Merlo.

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Women in leadership

2015 marked a major milestone for female soldiers when former Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted in 2016, opening up 220,000 combat jobs to women across the enlisted forces. The following year, First Lt. Marina Hierl became the first female Marine to graduate from the Marine Corps’ Infantry Officer Course and is now leading a platoon of male grunts in Australia. She is the only female to lead an infantry platoon in Marine history.   

In 2016, Air Force General Lori Robinson was appointed to lead U.S. Northern Command, becoming the nation’s first female combatant commander and the highest ranking woman in U.S. military history. 

History continues to be made in 2018. Earlier this year, Army Staff Sgt. Amanda Kelley became the first female enlisted soldier to graduate from Ranger School, a 62-day combat and leadership course. The grueling course began with 347 soldiers, and 127 made it to graduation with Kelley being the only female. 

Gill and Lilly came into their leadership roles at a time when there are more opportunities for women in the military than ever before. But Gill said that being a woman in any leadership role has its challenges. Growing up, her strong opinions and outspoken personality were often interpreted as “bossy.” As a woman, she believes that she has to think harder about how she comes across and how her leadership style may be interpreted.

“If you’re in a leadership role and you’re taking charge, you have to be very careful about how you put yourself out there and you have to think 10 times harder about every single interaction you have,” Gill said. “How is this going to be construed? If you’re laughing or smiling too much maybe they’ll think you’re not being professional...and I’m really just a smiley, bubbly person.”

Gill stands in her formal dress uniform. The four bars on her shoulders represent her rank as Cadet Colonel.

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Lilly said that a lot of women in the military, herself included, feel that they have to prove themselves as “one of the guys.”

“When I went to advance camp after my sophomore year…I used my physical fitness skills and my personality to fit in with the guys,” Lilly said. “I feel that a lot of females feel like they have to overcompensate for some things because in the Army it’s kinda natural for men to take the lead and take the role, and some females can be easily put down so they overcompensate by being overbearing almost.”

Lilly tries to use her physical fitness to set an example for all of the cadets in her battalion, the men included. She said that as a female cadet, people respect her for working hard and leading by influence.

“I really try to exemplify being a good leader by leading from the front and the back and putting in my 100 percent effort, and hopefully people will follow,” Lilly said.

Major Jessy Claerhout, Battalion Executive Officer and one of Lilly’s mentors in the cadre, has had a positive experience as a female officer in the Army. She said that the Army is always changing and she hopes that sergeants and higher-up officers will recognize these changes and continue to “evolve with the times,” especially as women begin to occupy more leadership roles and combat jobs. 

“As a woman in charge, it’s all how you handle yourself,” Claerhout said. “I tell my cadets, as a female...if you treat people with respect and work together, you’ll get things done. You don’t have to yell and scream...There’s just no need for that.”

How they lead

As a leader, Lilly tries to keep a level head and be approachable rather than intimidating. She remembers what it was like to be a freshman female in ROTC and uses her past experiences to create a more understanding and approachable atmosphere for the underclassmen. 

Lilly remembers when Maggie Pieplow, a junior in ROTC at the time who later became Battalion Commander, came to Lilly’s dorm room on freshman move-in day to introduce herself and ask if she had any questions. Lilly admired her for that and tries to incorporate that same kindness into her role as Battalion Commander.

“I think what makes (Lilly) very unique is she balances empathy with a raw level of intensity and discipline to where it holds other people accountable, but never comes across as arrogant or disrespecting,” said Captain Kiernan White, assistant professor of military science, who works closely with Lilly. “I think she has a very unique way of doing that which makes her a natural leader.”

Kindness and empathy are the main values that influence Gill’s leadership style. In her opinion, the title of Wing Commander is “hyped up” because everyone in her detachment is equally important and has something to contribute. Rather than yelling out orders or giving commands, she incorporates her knowledge as a communication major and gives cadets the tools to “build themselves up.” 

While the tactical parts of ROTC like physical fitness, discipline and communication are important, a leader is somebody who touches hearts and minds, Gill said. As Wing Commander, she tries to lead by example and embody the Air Force’s core values: integrity first, service before self and excellence in all they do.

“For Cadet Gill, I think she absolutely holds integrity in her core,” said Major Larry Ingersoll, a member of the cadre and mentor to Gill. “In my interactions with her over the last two years, especially in her capacity as our cadet Wing Commander this semester, I’ve never had any reason to doubt her honesty and integrity...She’s very introspective on ‘okay, this went wrong. Let me be the first to examine myself and see what I could have done better.’ I feel that it’s a very strong approach.”


Lilly, born and raised in Battleground, Washington, has a large family history in the military with her grandma, aunt and older brother all having served as Army nurses. Eight of her aunts and uncles on her mom’s side were all Army officers. 

Lilly smiles in her formal dress uniform. The two diamonds on her shoulders and beret represent her rank as Cadet Lieutenant Colonel.

by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

Her brother, who is six years older, graduated from UP with a degree in nursing. After being stationed in Oahu, Hawaii for three and half years, he is now an Army Captain and works in the ICU at a military base in Tacoma, Washington. His journey inspired her to follow the same path. 

“I’ve gotten to watch his path and the way it’s progressed,” Lilly said. “I just saw the wonderful things that it did for him and the opportunities he was able to have and I was like ‘I want that.’”

Gill came into ROTC with little knowledge or connection to the military. Her sister completed the Army ROTC program at the University of Oregon and later joined the National Guard, but Gill wasn’t sure if ROTC was the right choice for her. When she was looking at colleges, her parents, both teachers, encouraged her to try it.

“When I was getting ready to go to college, I really wanted to go to UP,” Gill said. “I was like I love this school. I visited. I cannot afford it.”

Gill stands in her formal dress uniform. The four bars on her shoulders represent her rank as Cadet Colonel.

by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

ROTC programs offer several financial benefits that aid students in paying their tuition and could result in a full scholarship, free room and board and a stipend. While she was first drawn to ROTC for the financial benefits, Gill discovered that it was much more than that. 

Following the advice of her parents and her sister’s example, Gill attended the Air Force ROTC orientation program at UP where she was chosen to lead an activity on the first day. She received good feedback from the instructors and decided to stick with the program. 

“I met some of my best friends night one,” Gill said. “Just having such a close connection to people going to college for the first time and then being able to enjoy the program with them just really made me fall in love and (it) has become my whole life.”

Camaraderie and other lessons

To an outsider, the military might seem like it’s all about tactical things likes machinery and special operations, but White said that the military is about people. Students who join ROTC not only learn about the tactics of war, but they also develop a sense of discipline and structure, learn how to be an influential leader, demonstrate empathy to their peers and gain lifelong friends in the process.

In her two and a half years working as a member of the cadre, Claerhout said that it’s rewarding to see how much students grow from their freshman to their senior year. 

Lilly said she’s more confident now than she was as a freshman in ROTC. Through her position as Battalion commander, she’s become more comfortable with public speaking and standing in front of her peers. The most important thing she’s learned as a leader is to stay humble and be empathetic. 

As a freshman, Gill said she thought that she had to be a leader all the time, but through ROTC she’s learned that sometimes you have to be a follower and that there’s value in supporting others. Gill has also learned to “not take things too seriously.” 

Ingersoll often reminds her that that no matter what, she’s still going to graduate, commision and receive a great learning experience in the process. Gill carries that advice with her and reminds herself that “everything is going to be okay in the end.”

For Gill and Lilly, ROTC has not only provided them with great leadership skills, but also lifelong relationships. White said that the military has camaraderie that’s “very hard to replace.” 

Lilly said there’s talk on campus about ROTC students being “cliquey,” but it’s because they spend so much time together and bond through shared experiences. She believes that the ROTC bond is one of the strongest at UP.

“Being together five days a week, you’re bound to meet some of your best friends in ROTC and I know I definitely have,” Lilly said.

Life outside of ROTC

When Lilly isn’t leading a squad operation or at nursing clinicals, she lives a pretty active lifestyle. She works as an Intramural Sports Coordinator and plays intramural flag football, basketball, ultimate frisbee, futsal and club soccer. 

“I like to stay busy,” Lilly said.

"Should we pose like Charlie's Angels?" Lilly said.

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Lilly also embraces the Pacific Northwest by getting outdoors and going on hikes. Her favorite place to hike is near Mount St. Helens at the Ape Caves, the longest lava tube in the continental US. Lilly also values spending time with her friends and makes time for the people she cares about.

“Getting together with friends when you can is really important to me because it’s easy to get so caught up in school and work and everything on your to do list and you just gotta make time in the evenings to go out,” Lilly said. “We all play corn hole in Haggerty and just hang out. You can’t forget about your friends because they’re the ones that get you through life.”

Gill is just like any other college student. When she’s not leading cadets, she hangs out with friends and spends time with her boyfriend, where they take time to go on dates or catch a movie off campus. Like Lilly, Gill likes to be active and go on hikes. She said exercise is a great way for her relieve stress and get outside. 

Gill said she tries to stay involved on campus even when she’s busy. Whenever UP has a dance, she’s there. She also loves to listen to music and sing (in the shower) and describes herself as “huge Disney nerd.” 

Their next steps

Both ROTC programs recently had their end-of-semester dining ceremonies, where Gill and Lilly passed on their positions to the next Wing Commander and Battalion Commander for the spring semester. They both feel excited and ready to move to on.

In the spring, Gill and Lilly will graduate as second lieutenants in the military and begin basic training. Gill recently received her assignment as an intelligence officer, her first choice, and will get her station assignment when she completes her basic training.   

Once Lilly passes the NCLEX and becomes a registered nurse, she’ll receive her nursing station assignment. After graduation, she’ll head to San Antonio, Texas to complete the Basics Officer Leadership Course (BOLC) for medical services, a 4-month training program, followed by a 6-month shadow program, the Clinical Nurse Transition Program

Right now, Lilly wants to work in the ICU or ER. Later on in her career, she has dreams of joining a special operations recovery team, where Army flight nurses fly in a helicopter and pick up soldiers who need immediate assistance. She likes the high intensity and adrenaline rush. 

Gill and Lilly smile together while striking a power pose.

by Molly Lowney / The Beacon

For Gill, graduating and moving on is “nerve-wracking,” but she’s looking forward to the next adventure and is thrilled to become an intelligence officer. 

“Looking back I learned a lot about myself, about my own personal style of leadership, about how to talk to people and address problems that I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable addressing,” Gill said. “In the end, we’re all college students...and we’re learning how to problem solve with people that you have relationships with. It can be really difficult, but when you do figure it out and when you do accomplish a mission or create something new, it can be really rewarding and I feel very grateful for all of the support I’ve gotten this semester.”

Lilly is proud of her battalion and the work they’ve done this semester. She feels “ready as ever” to graduate and is excited to pass on her role as Battalion Commander. 

“This semester has challenged me in ways that I never thought I would be challenged,” Lilly said. “Different situations have popped up and I’ve had to become adaptable in those situations and that just further progresses my leadership. I’m very thankful for that opportunity.”

Brigid Lowney is the living section editor at The Beacon. She can be reached at