National Guard commander leads from experience

The public service video produced by the Maryland National Guard on sexual assault begins like others. There's footage of troops training in the field. A narrator warns of predators within the ranks. A succession of leaders discusses the impact of assaults on service members and their teams.

Then Brig. Gen. Linda Singh comes on the screen.


"Speaking from personal experience, and having been sexually molested as a teenager, I sought out what I thought was the right support structure," the commander of the Maryland Army National Guard says. "And, unfortunately, it turned out not being the support structure that I needed."

As military leaders grapple with rising reports of sexual assault in the ranks, Singh is believed to be the highest-ranking officer in the armed forces to discuss publicly her own experience of abuse.


Singh, 50, a Bronze Star recipient who has served deployments in Afghanistan and Kosovo, was appointed to command the Maryland Army National Guard last year by Gov. Martin O'Malley. She is responsible for a force of more than 4,750 soldiers — some of them now in Afghanistan, Estonia, the Horn of Africa or patrolling the nation's Southwest border — and a budget of more than $150 million.

In her civilian career, she is director of operations for health and public service in North America for the multinational management consulting firm Accenture in Northern Virginia.

"General Singh is a proven leader with extensive civilian and military experience," said Maj. Gen. James Adkins, the commander of the Maryland National Guard. "As with all citizen-soldiers, she had been able to hone and use skills acquired in both military and civilian capacities, providing a perfect fit for her role as commander of the Maryland Army National Guard."

Singh, who grew up in Urbana in Frederick County, says she was abused as a child and as a minor teenager. She says she made the decision to speak out after visiting an aid center in Afghanistan last year and witnessing the poverty and danger to which the children there were exposed.

"That's just the way they live," she said in an interview. "That's just kind of normal for them. And it gave me a very different perspective of, you know, I shouldn't take anything for granted. Yes, I've had a pretty tough upbringing. But I had a pretty good life compared to those kids."

Reports of sexual assaults in the military surged by 50 percent last year to more than 5,000 — a reflection, military leaders say, of aggressive efforts to encourage victims to come forward.

Officials believe the great majority of assaults still go unreported. In a 2012 survey of service members, the Pentagon found that 26,000 had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the previous 12 months.

Singh, a mentor in the guard and at Accenture, says she wants to help sexual assault survivors to get past blaming themselves, and to make sure that their assailants are held accountable.

"We're having a lot of problems with suicide," she said. "We're having a lot of problems with sexual assault. Sexual harassment. I have not had these situations while I was in uniform. But I know what it is to be a victim."

Singh, who has earned master's degrees in business administration and strategic studies and is working on a doctorate in psychology from Capella University, says it took her years to realize that she was worthy of her successes.

"If I can help someone else, just one person, to not have to go through that whole thought process that I have, and that takes so long, and they could be successful a whole lot sooner, or they can at least be happy with themselves, then I need to speak out, to talk about it now.

"I want to be a transparent leader. I want to be able to save someone from maybe thinking of taking their own life because they feel like they have no other choice."


Singh says she also has raised her experience with commanders to reinforce that they should take reports of assaults seriously.

The advocacy group Protect Our Defenders is sharply critical of the way the military has handled sexual assault. Nancy Parrish, president of the organization, praised Singh.

"We salute Brig. Gen. Linda Singh's bravery in coming forward and speaking out about her assault," she said. "Survivors should be at the forefront of the conversation of how to put an end to epidemic of sexual assault in the ranks."

Adkins said the guard is "fortunate to have General Singh and other leaders of her caliber at all levels of our organization who aggressively fight to ensure the threat of sexual assault is eliminated from our ranks and that victims receive the best support and care available."

Singh is the first woman and the first African-American to command the Maryland Army National Guard. (Her counterpart in the Maryland Air National Guard, Brig. Gen. Allyson Solomon, is the first woman and the first African-American to fill that role.)

"It doesn't affect me in what I do," Singh said. "It affects me in what it means for the future. … It's really key right now to have someone that can be a role model for our younger leaders and just our young people, because many of them are looking to see, 'Well, how can I get to that level? If there's no one that looks like me at that level, then do I even have a chance?'"

Singh has led discussions of diversity both in the Army and among Accenture clients.

"It's really about diversity of people, diversity of capability and diversity of thought," she said. "And if I can help infuse that into the organization, then I know that we have the best leaders, we have the best people."

Singh works four days a week with Accenture and one with the guard. She chose her home in Prince George's County to be convenient to Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington and Northern Virginia.

She takes command of the Maryland Army National Guard as it transitions from a dozen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and deals with tightening budgets. It still will be expected to deploy to other countries and respond to disasters and other emergencies in the United States.

"We still have to maintain an operationally ready force," she said. "Because you can see with everything that's going on in the news, you never know when something's going to spike and you're going to be asked to fulfill that role."


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