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She's West Point's First Female Top Cadet

October 22, 1989|FRANK FISHER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WEST POINT, N.Y. — The new first captain of the United States Military Academy's corps of cadets is an eclectic, if not a Renaissance, woman, the first to attain that rank.

"I had wanted to be a veterinarian," Kristin Baker said. "Then I wanted to be a doctor, and I guess at one point I wanted to be a stewardess."

She now supervises 4,400 cadets, 90% of whom are men, and heads a staff of 40. She is a cross-country skier who loves to dance, a soccer player who listens to country music and rock, an Army brat and a graduate of the Army's elite air assault school.

Now the 5-foot-4, 112-pound senior from Burke, Va., wears the badges of rank that have adorned the uniforms of men such as Douglas MacArthur and John (Black Jack) Pershing. But Baker, 21, is determined to keep her boots firmly on the ground.

"I have an office that's adjoined to my room now. That's one of the benefits, I guess. So I have two places to study instead of one."

She was chosen on the basis of academic excellence, athletic ability and military skills demonstrated over the last three years.

This summer, as Baker drilled new cadets, or "plebes," Brig. Gen. Fred Gorden, the academy commandant, notified her that she had been picked to be first captain.

"I don't know how I reacted to it," Baker said. "I must've reacted kind of funny, because he went, 'You did want it, didn't you?' "

Surrounded by reporters and cameras soon after marching the plebes 13 miles from Lake Frederick, Baker talked about the military with the same ease and frankness with which she describes her love for the music of Lee Greenwood and The Cure.

"I love to dance," she said. "I tended in high school to listen to a lot of punk rock--just kind of one of those things I still do sometimes."

The cadets' reactions to Baker's appointment were generally supportive, if indifferent. Some of them mentioned Mike Thorson, a senior from Onalaska, Wis., and a standout defensive back on the Army football team who was Baker's chief rival for the post.

"There were a couple of guys that were higher than her, much higher than her academically, athletically and probably militarily, but that's not the only criteria they use," said Bill Burke, a senior from Wilmington, Del.

As for Thorson, he said: "We just knew he was up for it because of how good he was. He's going to be a Rhodes scholar and everything. He wanted to be the brigade commander. He's a good friend of mine, and I think he's a little bit disappointed, but he'll do a good job working for Kristin."

Kara Soules, a junior from Ocala, Fla., said: "A lot of guys are like, 'I can't believe a girl got it. She's not qualified and she got it just because she's a girl.' Of course, a lot of guys are going to be upset."

Other female cadets couldn't understand why so much attention was being paid to Baker's appointment.

"Well, it's just like any other person," said Pam Horne, a junior from San Antonio. "I mean, if she works as hard as a guy, I don't think there's any difference being the fact she's a woman. I think women are perfectly accepted here. I don't think it's that big a deal. She's just the brigade commander for a year."

Lisa Buskirk, a junior from Perry, Ill., agreed: "There's been a lot of (women) company commanders and platoon leaders. . . . That hasn't been a problem at all. It's just that 'brigade commander' sounds so big."

Baker is sensitive to suggestions that her achievement represents just another step in the academy's effort to catch up with the 20th Century after a long period of resisting change. In August, 1987, Gorden became the first black commandant at West Point.

"It's funny, because everybody always talks about changing traditions at West Point," Baker said. "You don't change tradition, you enhance it. The tradition at West Point is the excellence, the honor, the gray uniforms. The things that happen because society changes don't change the traditions. They simply enhance the traditions."

Women make up about 10% of the cadets here, and academy officials say that is the proportion of the Army that is female.

As captains and colonels juggle Baker's hectic schedule to make time for interviews, photo opportunities and television appearances, the star attraction seemed to wonder what the fuss is all about.

"I don't think that your role as a leader is based on sex at all. Leadership is an individual idiosyncrasy," said Baker, a human factors engineering psychology major with a 3.36 grade point average. "Because leadership is something that people have, and it's from inside themselves."

She admitted that fate may have played a role in making her a competitor for first captain, a rank other women have sought since the academy began admitting women 13 years ago.

Last year, the academy for the first time in recent memory gave the "cows," or juniors, all the sergeant positions, which are usually reserved for seniors. As a regimental command sergeant major, Baker performed well, and she credits that visibility with putting her "out in front then."

Shortly before her induction into the long, gray lineage of first captains that includes William Westmoreland, Jonathan Wainwright and Pete Dawkins, Baker pondered the challenging year ahead.

"I really haven't developed a solid philosophy yet," she said. "I'd really like to see the corps with a lot of spirit, and stress that sense of honor and integrity that I think are more the leadership qualities that are very important when you graduate from the academy."

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