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Clara Adams-Ender: Army Achiever

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Clara Adams-Ender: Army Achiever

Clara Adams-Ender: Army Achiever

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Farai Chideya.

Geraldine Ferraro, Carol Moseley Braun, Melody Hopson - over the past month, NEWS & NOTES has profiled a number of women we considered leading ladies in their fields. Today we end our series and perhaps the toughest field of all for women - the military.

Clara Adams-Ender enlisted in the Army in 1959. The highest-ranking woman when she entered was a colonel. By the time Adams-Ender retired in 1993, she was a brigadier general of the Army's Nurse Corps. Over her 34-year career, Clara Adams-Ender says she most enjoyed mentoring other women officers. And the general says she does believe women approach the military differently from men.

Brigadier General CLARA ADAMS-ENDER (U.S. Army Nurse Corps, Retired): I do think that women bring particular skills, because of their past socialization. They bring particular skills to leadership - those having to do with being very willing to mentor people, to coach them, because we've been a group of gatherers, you see, throughout our lives.

And we were homebound people from the beginning, and so we had to make sure that people were able to get along, you see. So we make great negotiators. And so as a result of that, I think I brought those skills. And if you will notice now, in the world of leadership, they use a number of those skills, in teaching and in coaching and in making sure that people learn those skills that will make them successful in their job.

CORLEY: All part and parcel now, you think, to be a general in the military?

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Oh, absolutely.

CORLEY: How important is it to have a competitive nature when you're a woman in the military?

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Well, it is important to have a competitive nature in order to get to the positions that you want to get to. I mean, you know, I had a mentor of mine who was male at one time say to me, Clara, if you had the choice between having a good record, and he says, because everybody has a good record, so everybody has to be competitive; he said, but when you're going to be a general, if you got a choice between having a good record and friends - choose friends, because that's going to be the deciding factor.

CORLEY: I see. You come from a large family, the fourth of 10 children, born in Willow Springs, North Carolina.

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: That's correct.

CORLEY: Your dad was a sharecropper, as I understand, who wanted his children to get an education. How much of a motivating force was he for you?

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: My dad was probably my greatest motivation force as a child because he really - he and my mom both really convinced us that what they believed was good for us was the right thing for us. And so when he said he thought we needed to be educated, I just started heading in that direction.

CORLEY: Well, you are an African-American woman, and I was wondering if discrimination of any kind played a role in your life, advancing in the military and in your home life at all.

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Discrimination is no different in the military than it is in public life because all the people who are in military came from, you see, the community at large. And as a result of that, they bring with them all of the baggage and all of the talents and great things that they were on the outside.

So yes, I did indeed have to face discrimination. But you see, I decided some years ago that what people thought about me, based upon the color of my skin, which I can do absolutely nothing about, was their problem and not my problem. And whenever it became my problem or I thought it was becoming my problem, I have one way of dealing with that, and that is to confront the issue and make sure that we get the information out on the table. And I will tell you quite often, if you raise that as an issue, very often people will deny it and then start to treat you like a human being.

CORLEY: In your book, you talked about being a dark-skinned woman, and the problems that that caused for you as a youngster. And I was wondering if you could talk about that just a little bit.

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: I suppose that's something that happens between and among African-Americans, because we come in all hues, as you probably know also.

But I did notice a difference, and I raised that issue with my mom one day, that it seemed as if the light-skinned, straight-haired young lady that was in my class, one of my classmates, would always get called upon, and I, even though I knew the answer and raised my hand, would never get called upon.

And so I remember my mother talking to me at that time and told me that I was her child and as far as she was concerned, I was beautiful. And beauty was only skin deep, and that was not the only thing that you needed to concentrate on.

And then I learned other ways of dealing with that kind of situation, in that I said, well, you know, I can develop some talents of my own, too - one of them being a smart person. And so that's what I did. I became an individual who was well-read, learned, and all of a sudden that whole business of what I looked like didn't matter anymore. It was what I had to offer.

CORLEY: Well, there's one other family note, General, that I'd like to talk to you about. Your late husband was a German soldier during World War II. Of course he was older than you. But it seems ironic that two soldiers, an American and a soldier who fought for the Germans, end up marrying. How did that happened? And I was just wondering if you considered that kind of like the ultimate rapprochement.

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Well, I mean I did it because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, because I wasn't living with anybody without being married. I mean, you know, the Army just frowns upon that type of thing, or did at that time, and so I wasn't about to do that. But I met him in Germany, whenever I was assigned there, as the vice president for nursing at the Frankfurt Army Regional Medical Center.

And he was an oral surgeon and orthodontist, and we belonged to the same German-American friendship club and professional society that was there at the time. And he - I think he was attracted to me because he had spent some years in Africa, working, before - when he was 21, before he even - I got inducted to the Army. As a matter of fact, he got called back to go into the Army from Africa, and that's how he happened to get there. And so that's how I met him, and we started dating. And then I think the proposal was prompted by the fact that I was getting ready to leave the country.

But we had by that time been dating for three years, and we had mutually agreed that we liked one another a lot, and so the rest of it just seemed to be a good idea.

CORLEY: Well, when you entered the military, the opportunities for women were limited to either healthcare or administration. That's changed and just about all areas seem to be open to women except ground combat. That isn't to say that women haven't suffered injuries and even died in war, because they have. And some fighting roles have opened up, mostly as pilots. But women haven't been directly assigned to ground combat. What do you think about that? Should they be?

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Well, I - I just have an opinion that women can indeed perform and show that they're able to participate in certain kinds of activities and do certain kinds of jobs. And if they are able to participate, I believe they should be able to participate. And not simply because of their agenda. Because there are men who cannot do some of the things that women do in the military right now.

My opinion is that we should open up all of those positions, and see if women can do them. And if they're able to do them, then let them have at it.

CORLEY: And nurses, as you know, have always been caught up in combat.

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Yes.

CORLEY: The soldiers who are injured often end up at Walter Reed Medical Center, which has been in the news recently because of conditions there. General, you served as vice president for nursing in the 1980s. What's your perspective on what's happening at the hospital?

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: The first thing that I would say about the whole situation is that if there were any troops, of course, who are not receiving the kinds of care that they should receive, and it doesn't matter whether it comes from the war or any other place, that is indeed a problem as far as the military is concerned. And we need to fix that as much as possible.

However, I'd just like to emphasize the fact that the major issues as far as Walter Reed was concerned was not the care that the people received whenever I'd say they needed it most, which is the - from the time they got injured until time - the time that they got into the convalescent period. Because most of these troops were in their convalescent period. And we're talking about things that had to do with their housing and things of that nature.

I just regret that the message went out over the airways that the care that is given for troops at Walter Reed is substandard, and I can tell you, having been assigned there, the care is not substandard. There are a bunch of hardworking people over there in that place who came to do a good job well and now that they know that things were not happening well in other areas, they'll take care of them, too.

But I think that we have to look to some other agencies at the same time that we're looking on Walter Reed, got to look to what the Congress has done in terms of dealing with laws and what happens as far as the White House is concerned in terms of deciding what shall happen to troops and what happens as a result of our going into certain places.

CORLEY: Well, of course the whole world has been watching our military operation in Iraq, and speaking of Congress, the House of Representatives narrowly passed a war-spending bill requiring that combat operations cease before September of next year or even earlier if the Iraqi government fails to meet certain benchmarks. The president has promised to veto. Do you think that retired military officials have an obligation to help us understand what's happening in Iraq and with the war?

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Well, I don't know about an obligation, but I think that since we are citizens of the country just the same as everybody else is, we should indeed exercise our rights of citizenship.

I remember one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, said that dissent is the highest form of democracy. And I think that we do need to hear all sorts of opinions and debate the issue out in the open so that whenever the decision is made that everyone who needs to be heard and wants to be heard has been heard.

CORLEY: Well, General, thank you very much for coming in and speaking with us.

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Thank you. You're a great interviewer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Thank you so much.

Gen. ADAMS-ENDER: Sure.

CORLEY: Brigadier General Clara Adams-Ender retired from the Army in 1993 and now runs a management consulting firm. She's written a book about her life called "My Rise to the Stars." We've posted several online-only audio clips at our Web site, where you can hear the general talk more about the Army Nurse Corps. That's at npr.org.

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