Maj. Gen. Beth Austin’s title would be significant even if it wasn’t also historic.
Few officers ever become generals. And before Austin, no woman had ever become a general in the North Carolina National Guard.
Last month, she was promoted from brigadier general to major general, earning a second star on her uniform and becoming one of the top logistics officers for the entire U.S. Army, let alone the state guard.
Austin’s historic rise through the ranks has mirrored a larger trend of women’s expanding role in the military.
When Austin went to basic training, it was segregated by gender.
When she went to the Officer Candidate School, and all throughout her early career, her superiors were all men.
“I didn’t have any female mentors,” said Austin, who was born in Fuquay-Varina and now lives in nearby Willow Spring.
In 1983, when Austin was a young lieutenant, women made up less than 10 percent of the military. Austin’s personal career arc has grown as women have become a more regular presence in the Army and have been given training typically reserved for men. They now make up 16 percent of the Army.
Last month, she was named assistant deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, which develops and delivers weapons, gear, food and other supply to soldiers around the world. In this position, she is tasked with improving ties between the Army, the reserves and national guard units across the country.
An unlikely path
Growing up in Fuquay-Varina, Austin, formerly Beth Dickens, never considered joining the military as an option.
As a teen, her family moved to Raleigh, and she graduated from Broughton High School. Shortly after graduating, one of her instructors at Wake Technical Community College asked if she would be taking his class the following semester. She told him that she had to take some time off to work and save up tuition.
That’s when he told her about the National Guard and how she could make money by working on the weekends. She figured she’d try it out.
Nearly four decades later, that “why not?” decision has defined Austin’s life, leading her to a master’s degree, two combat deployments and responsibilities she never imagined. She moved back to Willow Spring after her husband, retired Col. Mike Austin, went golfing one day and found his dream home across the street from the course, not far from where his wife grew up.
She was shy growing up but found confidence when she put on her uniform. Now in her mid-50s and a mother of three, she’s known as a tough but fair boss who – despite her short stature – isn’t afraid to stand toe-to-toe with anyone.
Just ask her husband, who is retired from the N.C. National Guard. He said he sometimes heard complaints about his wife from his own subordinates.
“A lot of guys would say, ‘You know, your wife is mean,’ ” Mike Austin said, smiling at his wife from across the room at their Willow Springs home. “But I’d say, ‘The only reason she’d do that is if you lied to her or didn’t do something right. So don’t complain to me. I get the same treatment at home.’ ”
Competing to be the best
Beth Austin will be the first to say she has little tolerance for incompetence. After all, it was incompetence that inspired her to make the transition from enlisted soldier to officer.
“I had a run-in with a lieutenant that wasn’t very stellar,” Austin said. “I said, ‘You know what, I can do that better than he can.’ ”
That desire to prove herself has lasted through her career despite sometimes biased superiors.
“I had a batallion commander who was, well, he was a real chauvanist,” Austin recalls of when she was a mid-level officer. “He did not want me (in a position of power). ... I was a female.
“We had some rough times with each other, but I’m still here.”
Capt. Matthew Boyle, a public information officer for the N.C. National Guard, said the guard has come a long way since those days.
“And part of that is directly because of her,” Boyle said of Austin. “She mentored a lot of men and women.”
Austin said she wouldn’t have been able to do so if not for a few bad bosses, in addition to the good ones.
“I used those years with that particular batallion commander as a kind of mentoring,” Austin said. “I always tell my soldiers, ‘You choose two types of mentors: the ones you want to be like, and the ones you don’t want to be like.’ ”
The qualities of a leader
Austin describes herself as a hands-off manager who tells people what to do but lets them figure how to accomplish the task at hand.
At her recent promotion ceremony, more reviews of her leadership style poured in: “intensely dedicated,” “enthusiastic,” and having “remarkable tenacity” were among the accolades found not in friends’ speeches, but in official performance reviews.
Retired Gen. William Ingram Jr., a North Carolina native who formerly commanded the U.S. Army National Guard, was one of the first people to give Austin a shot at becoming an officer. He came back last month for the ceremony to praise her.
“Beth Austin deserves, more than anyone I know, to serve at higher levels,” Ingram said.
As for Austin, she took the opportunity in the spotlight to say she’s just “a simple person, a woman who was raised in a small town” and quoted the Brooks & Dunn song “Only in America” to drive the point home.
But military service is a great equalizer, she said, helping her rise from shy small-town girl to high-ranking Army commander. Her own career has shown that women can be every bit as capable as men, she said, and that women should strive to disprove anyone who says otherwise.
While she doesn’t specifically seek out other women to mentor, she has inspired at least one other woman to serve in the military. Her daughter, Army Capt. Julie Austin, is a military police officer.
“You should never settle for what life gives you,” Austin said. “You should never look back and say, ‘I wonder what I could’ve been.’ ”