The California National Guard’s Brig. Gen. Mary Kight finds satisfaction in helping others succeed.
Brig. Gen. Mary Kight steps off the Black Hawk helicopter and smiles warmly at the small group of soldiers waiting to greet her at Camp San Luis Obispo, a California National Guard training base. Dressed in military fatigues, she looks younger than her 57 years and smaller than her 5-foot-8-inch frame. But her demeanor is confident, professional and definitely in charge. She shakes hands, comments briefly on the gorgeous weather and scenery, then holds up her finger.
“Just give me one minute,” she says.
She walks back to the helicopter and addresses the two pilots, one a seasoned veteran who just returned from Iraq, the other a young airman just one year out of flight school.
“I want to compliment you on a wonderful flight,” she says. “I especially liked hearing some of the training that went on between you during our trip. That’s the reason we’re out here, why we do these trips, to make sure you’re constantly learning and training.”
It’s a characteristic moment for Kight, who has built her 32-year military career on a philosophy of working hard and affirming others who do the same, putting people first while keeping a steady eye on the larger mission. It’s a leadership style that has caught the attention of many commanding officers and moved her up the ladder until she landed the No. 2 spot in the California National Guard—assistant adjutant general—last February. She’s the first female and the first Air National Guardsman ever to become a “general officer.” The job involves overseeing the day-to-day operations of the 21,000-member California National Guard, including making sure military units are ready to fight oversees or aid Californians in a disaster. Her boss, the adjutant general, Maj. Gen. William H. Wade II, couldn’t be more pleased with his good fortune.
“I handpicked Gen. Kight for this position because I thought it was time to make some leadership changes that would move our force forward,” he says. “Mary brings all the right skills to the job. She’s focused and demanding, yet also considerate and understanding. She’s a consensus builder, and she knows how to get things done with a smile.”
Kight may have been destined to such leadership. Born in 1950 in Monterey to Major and Socorro Green, a cook and hotel housekeeper respectively, Kight was expected to do her part, looking after her three younger brothers while her parents worked.
“There’s no doubt about it, she was always in charge,” recalls her brother, Mel Green. “She always felt it was her responsibility to be sure we were in line and honoring our share of responsibility, keeping the house pristine, the garden pristine. The thing about Mary is that she definitely leads and takes control, but she’s also willing to roll up her sleeves and get dirty. She was right there with us, working hard and making sure we stayed focused.”
After high school, Kight completed an associate degree at Monterey Peninsula College and a bachelor’s at Chico State in 1973. She married her college sweetheart, Brad Kight, that same year and began considering her job prospects. But then Brad announced he wanted to join the Air Force, and she found herself thinking, “Why not me, too?”
“I figured I had worked hard putting myself through college. I didn’t want to throw that away. I thought, ‘Let me see if I can apply that learning in the military,’” she says.
Kight found she not only enjoyed military life, she thrived in it. While black women in the civilian world were struggling to be accepted and respected in the workplace, the military offered a simple formula to everyone: Work hard, complete the requirements and demonstrate capability, and you’ll be promoted.
That was a recipe for success for the hardworking Kight. She took advantage of every professional opportunity while at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash. She completed squadron officers’ school in 1976 and, in 1977, earned a master’s in human resources in only one year by taking classes on weekends.
She also learned from her bosses, especially her first supervisor, Maj. Don Wilkenson. In Wilkenson, Kight saw a leader who was fair, effective and focused on helping others succeed.
“He wanted everyone to do well. If you were willing to do what it took to get to the next step, he would help you,” Kight recalls. “He had an impact on me because he was effective. He got things done, but never at the expense of anyone. That experience taught me that the military was not what I thought it was going to be— ‘You! Go stand over there!’ It was actually a very pleasant place.”
Today, Kight brings some of that pleasantness to her workplace at the California National Guard Headquarters in Sacramento. Here she projects an image that’s strong but decidedly feminine. She greets co-workers of all rank and file the same, with impeccable manners, a warm smile and a friendly greeting. “Hi, great to see you!” “How’s retirement treating you?” “Did the trip go well?”
“Gen. Kight is a true professional,” says Warrant Officer Patty Beck, who works in the adjutant general’s office. “I learn a lot by how she conducts herself. She’s very calm under pressure. She doesn’t get worked up, even when things are crazy.”
Beck is one of several people assigned to keep up with Kight’s schedule, which is full and fluid, often changing at a moment’s notice. A typical week might include meeting with the California Department of Veteran’s Affairs to discuss pending assembly bills, advocating for necessary equipment for a base, flying to another state to attend a change-of-command ceremony and filling in for the adjutant general at the governor’s monthly Cabinet meeting.
Still somewhat new to the job, Kight admits it can be daunting keeping track of current operations while planning for the future. Because she comes from an Air Force background, there’s also the challenge of learning the Army culture and helping the two groups, with their distinct goals and agendas, communicate and cooperate for a unified National Guard.
And more and more, there are the demands of overseeing a Guard that has radically changed since 9/11 from a strategic reserve, focused mainly on tending to disasters at home, to an operational reserve where nearly all young soldiers and airmen experience deployment overseas. The California National Guard has deployed more than 20,000 personnel worldwide since the war on terrorism began. Currently, about 1,800 members are serving overseas, including 800 in Iraq and 300 in Afghanistan. Another 1,400 have voluntarily been relocated to California’s southern border to help build fences and provide border control support.
“The California National Guard is still our state insurance policy, but our mission is clear: to provide trained and ready forces for both state emergencies and federal deployments. We’re changing with a different world, becoming more agile and flexible,” Kight says.
She doesn’t worry about her troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. She believes they are well-trained and prepared for their jobs. When she speaks to the soldiers before they’re deployed, she says they typically seem ready, even eager, to go. Last year, she visited troops in Afghanistan and found the soldiers upbeat and extremely proud of the work they are doing.
Even so, once in a while she encounters a situation that gives her pause—like in 2004, when a young soldier was killed in a mortar attack in Iraq and his grieving father responded by enlisting in the state military reserves. “When the father got his commission, I was there to witness it. It was very moving, very difficult, because you looked at that family . . .” She pauses thoughtfully. “I guess that was just what they had to do to move on, to honor their son.”
Kight has never experienced combat or overseas deployment. In fact, her main motivator for leaving the Air Force to join the Guard was a desire to return to California permanently. In 1979, she and her husband were transferred from Spokane to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb., where she continued to work her way up the ranks, achieving the rank of captain in 1980 and continuing with officer training. Yet she began to question her ability to stay in the military for the long haul.
“I didn’t want to leave the military, but I really wanted to go back home,” she says. “My family is incredibly close, and I saw my parents aging and sensed they desperately wanted me closer. So after a year of thinking about it, I sat down with my commanding officer, Gen. Darling, to talk about it. That was a pivotal moment in my life. He said he understood my concern about family and respected that. Then he directed me to consider the Guard or Reserves, which had never occurred to me. I decided that was a great option.”
Kight joined the Air National Guard in 1981, initially working out of Lincoln, Neb., to stay close to her husband. But after the two divorced in 1985, Kight felt free to pursue jobs in California. She transferred to the California Air National Guard, 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, where she worked as an aircraft maintenance officer. It was a male-dominated work environment, but Kight says she never felt intimidated.
“With three younger brothers and a lot of male cousins, I was used to fending for myself. I guess that’s why I felt very comfortable. I was used to being around men,” she says.
Kight stayed in Fresno for 20 years, moving up the chain of command to colonel and serving as Mission Support Group commander. In 2004, Kight was tapped by headquarters to become the assistant adjutant general for the California Air National Guard. Two years later, Wade approached Kight to take her current spot. In March, she was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
With every promotion, Kight’s superior officers have praised the same attribute: Kight makes it a point to know everything about everybody—their jobs, their experience, their special talents, their aspirations. She gets in the trenches (often literally) with personnel so she can fully understand what they do.
“I attended every promotion ceremony for my sister, and that’s always the thing they mention,” says Green. “Mary is just one of those rare individuals who genuinely cares about other people, and she cares without looking down her nose.”
Perhaps some of that humility comes from Kight’s steadfast refusal to see herself as special, even though she has overcome race and gender obstacles time and time again. She recalls being thrilled early in her career, when she was asked to escort a choir from Tuskegee College, a mostly black university, as they performed at several bases. Kight enjoyed spending time with the group but was surprised to realize she also was seen as a mentor by these ambitious young students, a model of what they could become if they chose to pursue a career in the military.
“Most of the time, I don’t think of myself in that way—as being a black woman officer in the military. That’s not my motivator. But more and more, I realize that other people see me that way, and I probably need to embrace it more,” she says. “I can have an impact on young people because of the exposure I have.”
Recently, Kight was approached by a young female soldier who asked, “Does your head hurt?”
“I said, ‘My head is fine. Why do you ask?’ And she responded, ‘Because you must have hit that glass ceiling pretty hard when you broke through it.’” Kight chuckles. “I guess I had never thought of it that way. I’m just doing my job.”
Inevitably, Kight will be remembered for breaking barriers. But she hopes her legacy will be larger than simply being “first.”
“I want to leave behind people who will continue making this organization better. The people coming up through the ranks now are absolutely my focus,” she says. “They may take the Guard in a different direction. Times change. But as long as we recognize people as our greatest assets, we’ve got exactly what we need to move the National Guard into the future.”