Wilmoth's careers in academia, military were dual but never dueling
Peggy Wilmoth enjoyed a long military career where she reached the rank of major general and deputy surgeon general for the U.S. Army Reserve, the first nurse and woman in this role.
Peggy Wilmoth was a young nurse working with severely disfigured cancer patients when she had an aha moment about a missing aspect of their care. It led to her passion for health policy and a prestigious academic career in psychosexual oncology, or how surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy impact body image, sexuality, and fertility.
The same Peggy Wilmoth had a master’s degree in nursing and a 4-month-old baby when she fulfilled a childhood dream and joined the Army Reserve. It led to her storied military career where she reached the rank of major general and deputy surgeon general for the U.S. Army Reserve, the first nurse and woman in this role.
Of the more than 135,000 people serving in the Military Health System, Wilmoth stood out by juggling careers in academia and the military for more than 35 years before retiring from the Army May 1.
“If you cut me, I bleed green,” Wilmoth said. “I’ll miss it, but it’s time for me to move aside and let someone else move up.”
Wilmoth grew up in Columbus, Ohio, listening to her neighbor tell stories about serving as an Army nurse in the South Pacific during World War II. Wilmoth’s own family’s military service reaches back to the Revolutionary War.
Wilmoth wanted to join the ROTC program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But women weren’t allowed in ROTC when she started her undergraduate program. She joined the Army Reserve in 1981 while a nursing instructor at the University of Delaware.
Wilmoth combined reserve duty in the Army Nurse Corps with academic appointments at Central Missouri State University, University of Kansas, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Georgia State University. There, she was dean and professor of the nursing and health professions school. She also has had more than 60 psychosexual oncology academic papers published on topics such as comparing the effects of lumpectomy vs. mastectomy on sexual behaviors; and strategies to help nurses become comfortable with psychosexual assessments of patients. “We’re not providing holistic care if we omit discussions and education about the effects of treatment on this part of life,” Wilmoth said.
Wilmoth’s military accomplishments include being the first woman and first nurse at the general officer rank to command an Army medical brigade, the 332nd in Nashville, Tennessee. With opportunities came challenges, however. They included physicians who weren’t supportive of nurses assuming leadership roles in the military, and women who were wary of other women in uniform achieving success.
“Women need to learn how to support one another, to lead without undermining each other, to be happy when other women succeed,” she said. “These are important aspects of leadership development that we need to talk about more.”
She also thinks it’s important to share lessons from her own career. In late March she told attendees at this year’s Female Physician Leadership Course in Falls Church, Virginia, about being a “happy camper” colonel serving as commander of the 312th Field Hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina. At that point a one-star asked her to be his chief of staff at the 81st Regional Support Group at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“It was a non-medical position in a non-medical command,” she recalled. “And my first thought was, why would I want to leave my command early to be his chief of staff? It took him several phone calls to convince me that when someone opens a door for you, you need to walk through it.”
For Wilmoth, the point of the story for attendees of the leadership course was, “Had I said no, the door would have been slammed shut, and I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
The infant of 4 months at the beginning of Wilmoth’s military career is now a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve. Wilmoth also has a younger son who works in the film industry. As for her own plans post-MHS, Wilmoth is exploring options in and out of academia. She won’t leave the military behind for good, though.
“I’m a soldier for life, so I’ll be helping the Army from a different vantage point,” she said. “And hopefully, I’ve done my part to pave the way for those who are coming behind me.”