Fearless. Determined. Strong. Meet the first female soldiers to achieve some of the highest rankings in the Oklahoma National Guard.
From left to right: Brig. Gen. Cynthia Tinkham, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Rosemary Masters, Sgt. Maj. Seretta Lawson | Photos by Ryan West
The year is 1979. It’s a suffocating, hot day in August in Oklahoma City. A schoolteacher who is a single mother of two girls is taking on additional part-time jobs but is still struggling to make ends meet. Instructors are embarking on the first teachers’ strike ever in Oklahoma, leaving the award-winning educator without a job and without a paycheck.
Determined and driven, she signs up for basic training with the Oklahoma Air National Guard to support her family. Little did LaRita Aragon know, what began as a moment of desperation would turn into a lifelong passion that would break stereotypes with every step.
Aragon would become the first woman in Oklahoma to command a unit, to command a base and ultimately to command the entire Oklahoma Air National Guard.
In the past, the U.S. Army has restricted female leaders to specific occupational specialties and unit designations. Oklahoma is now home to many female soldiers who have become the first to achieve diverse leadership roles throughout the organization and blaze the trail for more females to follow.
“The whole point of being a leader is to raise up other people.”
- Retired Maj. Gen. LaRita Aragon
Mission first, people always
Aragon learned to love the mission and the people of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. She felt she enlarged her family circle with more than 1,000 hardworking, patriotic big brothers. Aragon retired in 2007, but to this day she still has soldiers she mentored who call her “G-mom,” which is short for “General Mom.”
“The whole point of being a leader is to raise up other people,” Aragon says. “Our job as an officer is to encourage those under us to reach out and touch other lives. You lead them and they lead others.”
Throughout her career, people believed in her and gave her increased responsibility and opportunities to lead. In one of many examples, she is proud of taking care of Oklahomans by flying hay to cattle who were caught up in snow and ice.
Oklahoma state Sen. Casey Murdock, a TCEC member who ranches in Cimarron County, remembers livestock suffering greatly from the cold following a blizzard in December 2006.
“Snow stayed on the ground, 3 to 4 feet deep, for weeks following the blizzard,” Murdock says. “We lost more livestock the week after the storm than during it due to extreme cold and not being able to get enough feed to the animals. The National Guard delivered hay via helicopters to my friends and neighbors during this time. What they did was a huge undertaking considering the vastness of Cimarron County. It helped save a lot of livestock.”
When Aragon enlisted, most women were in administrative and secretarial roles. Now women can participate in combat, be fighter pilots, drive a surface ship and even be on a submarine. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would make colonel, much less general.
“I was just doing every job I had to the best of my ability. There were some great men with great vision who were mindful of the needs of the military. I’m honored to get to achieve those firsts, but mostly I was grateful to have a job.”
Once that door was opened, women like Cynthia Tinkham stepped through proudly.
Always ready, always there
Brig. Gen. Cynthia K. Tinkham is the assistant adjutant general of the Oklahoma Army National Guard. Among many management duties, she advises and assists the adjutant general on the preparation of Oklahoma Army National Guard units for homeland defense and mobilization as well as any issue or matter that affects the Oklahoma Army National Guard, its citizen soldiers and their families. She is
the first female to achieve this rank in the state.
“I’ve seen woman company commanders, I’ve seen woman battalion commanders, I’ve seen woman brigade commanders, but I’ve never seen a woman Army general officer, so today is a big day for us,” Maj. Gen. Michael Thompson said at her promotion ceremony. “I think it’s long overdue that we had an opportunity to promote a female, and I’m so happy that it’s Cynthia Tinkham.”
Tinkham is a lifelong Oklahoman who loves the outdoors and enjoys gardening. The guard, however, takes up most of her passion.
“What I love about the Guard is who we are and what we are,” Tinkham says. “It’s all rooted in our symbol, the minute man. We’re always ready, we’re always there.”
One of the most rewarding experiences Tinkham has had in her career was serving as an executive officer for an agribusiness team during a deployment to Afghanistan. She led citizen soldiers who had agricultural backgrounds to assist local farmers and help them develop agriculture practices for their area.
On one such venture, the team visited a girls’ school in a village. They asked if they could go in and give them some books and supplies. Due to the rules, only women were allowed in the facility.
“When I walked in and all these young girls were running up and cheering, it was overwhelming,” Tinkham says. “The way they responded to seeing me as a woman in a leadership role is something I’ll never forget.”
“I want females to know you should feel confident you have joined this organization.”
- Brig. Gen. Cynthia Tinkham
Tinkham has experienced and shared with others that you can feel invisible when you are the first or the only type of person to achieve a certain role. You can feel people looking at you differently and scrutinizing your decisions. You can feel isolated and marginalized.
“You have to fight it internally. If you allow yourself to feel that way it can demoralize you,” Tinkham says. “Whether it’s conscious or unconscious gender bias, you have to choose how you react to it and you can’t let it dictate how you feel about yourself.”
Tinkham feels a sense of responsibility to represent the female gender well but hopes that someday a female achieving a certain rank will be commonplace, not newsworthy.
“It’s not enough to just recruit, sign and promote. You must allow women to feel included, that they will be listened to and that they will be allowed to participate,” Tinkham says. “I want females to know you should feel confident you have joined this organization and you will get equal opportunity.”
Starting strong, finishing strong
As the oldest of four children, Chief Rosemary Masters understood responsibility from an early age. At 20 years old, she signed up to join the United States Marines with her brother. Following three months of intensive training, she and her brother returned home with their paychecks.
Masters’ mother was shocked the amounts were the same.
“I didn’t see it as important at the time, but it touched me so much as a memorable moment that I could clearly see I was elevated in her eyes,” Masters says.
While serving in the Marines, Masters met and married her husband Jeff, whom she says is her biggest supporter. The couple had two children. She then joined the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
Through many promotions and deployments, both in state and in Afghanistan, she is now the first woman to achieve the rank of chief warrant officer 5 in the Oklahoma Army National Guard. Masters is one of 22 female warrant officers out of 172 total warrant officers.
The journey to the top began more than 30 years ago in 1988 at a time when women were not as prevalent in her profession. Masters worked especially hard in order to assure her fellow soldiers she could be counted on in any situation.
Masters says when you go into a room of decision makers and you are the only woman at the table, other women notice and it creates a paradigm shift. To her, she’s just doing her job, but to others it gives them the ability to set different goals for themselves.
“I get the neatest emails, Facebook messages and texts that are such a source of inspiration,” Masters says. “One father told me, ‘I want my daughter to see you breaking stereotypes.’”
“It reenergizes me at each rank. I have such a sense of urgency,” Masters says. “I am now at the twilight of my career and I feel like I have to do as much as I can for the next generation before I leave.”
Representing hopes, achieving dreams
Training, leading and mentoring young soldiers is Sgt. Maj. Seretta Lawson’s favorite part of her career. She enjoys helping others and seeing them reach their leadership goals. Lawson is still in awe and is “shocked and surprised” to have achieved one of her own.
The Enid, Oklahoma, native was promoted to the rank of sergeant major, making her the first African-American female to attain the top enlisted rank in the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
“Along with the gratification of my peers and my seniors, I haven’t lost sight of my responsibility,” Lawson says. “I represent the hopes and dreams of new soldiers. I want them to know they can break barriers.”
She joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1991, completing basic training before she finished high school. After being stationed in Korea and Germany, she completed her enlistment and decided to join the Guard in 2002.
In her current role, Lawson trains new recruits. She interacts with many young females who feel they may be restricted, but she encourages them because they are not as restricted as in the past and there are a multitude of opportunities available.
The military has opened doors for Lawson, making it possible for her to travel and serve alongside different people across cultures. A good day for Lawson is when a recruit reaches a milestone in their life, like a promotion or a retirement, and they want her to be a part of it.
“That truly touches my heart,” Lawson says. “It’s the highlight of my day.”
Retired State Command Sgt. Maj. Tony Riggs has known Lawson for many years and says she is one of the finest leaders he knows.
“Her positive attitude, boundless abilities and perseverance ensure she stands out among her peers and serves as an outstanding role model for all to emulate,” Riggs says.
Each of the women are valuable assets to both the organization and the soldiers they serve.
“The fact we can build off each other’s unity and stay positive allows us to continue to be the leaders we are and develop those who will follow us,” Lawson says.