170519-z-zz999-064by Jody Kerzman  |  Submitted Photos

Two years into her job as commander of NATO Headquarters Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Brigadier General Giselle “Gigi” Wilz still pinches herself to make sure she’s not dreaming.

“I don’t know that I dreamed I’d be a general or commanding in Europe,” Gigi says. “My dad always knew though. He always said I was destined for great things, even when I didn’t realize it. I always just took things one day at a time but also was always looking for the next opportunity.”

In 2015, the next opportunity was a big one: Gigi became the North Dakota Army National Guard’s first female general. Seven years earlier, she had also become the Guard’s first female colonel.

“The special thing about being promoted to colonel was that my dad promoted me,” says Gigi. “He retired as a colonel, after being in the Guard for 38 years. He passed away right after I became colonel in 2008, so he never got to see me be promoted to brigadier general.”

a woman in command

Gigi grew up in Richardton, North Dakota, the fourth of six children. Her dad, Charles Wilz, and three of her brothers also served in the Army Guard. They all had a huge impact on Gigi’s career path.

“I have three older brothers, a younger brother, and a younger sister. My family will tell you, that by the time I was 10 years old, I had my little sister and two girl cousins her same age marching around like they were in the military, and at that time I also had two older brothers in the National Guard too. It fascinated me. I remember when I was 16 years old I asked my dad how old I had to be to join. He told me I had to be 17. So a week after I turned 17, I joined the Guard.”

Gigi enlisted with the 191st Military Police Company in Mandan. She was a part-time soldier while she finished high school and college, but after college she started working for the Guard full time. She earned her commission as a second lieutenant in 1986, served in the Gulf War, and held various leadership roles, including Chief of Staff of the North Dakota Army Guard.

When she was promoted to brigadier general in 2015, Gigi was assigned a one year tour in Bosnia and Herzegovina to primarily work with local authorities on defense and security sector reform and command NATO forces operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is the first female commander within the NATO alliance.

“When this came up, I have to admit, I was a little scared. But I got to bring an incredible team with me, a team I got to pick myself so I knew I had great people working for me,” she says. “I was the first female assigned to command a position within NATO structure. NATO is huge. It’s made up of 29 nations so being the first female in this position is mind boggling. I’ve been treated exceptionally well, with great respect. Since the war during the 90s, there have been 20 NATO commanders here in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Initially I was this shiny new trophy. Everyone had to meet me to make sure it was true, that I was really a woman. They are used to seeing women in civilian roles, not in uniform.”

Gigi points out Bosnia and Herzegovina’s minister of defense is a female and she says there are a lot of young female officers from other nations that come through her office.

“These young women just look at me and ask, ‘How did you do it?’ Most of them have never met a female general before. It’s an opportunity for me to talk to them, to mentor them and quite honestly learn from them.”

SPECIAL & SURREAL EXPERIENCES

A year after her arrival in the Balkans, when many of her team members went home, Gigi agreed to stay for another year. She’s forever grateful she did, because in the second year of her deployment, she experienced another first. For the first time in her career, she had a female boss as the Joint Forces Commander in Naples.

“Admiral Michelle Howard was vice chief of Naval Operations for the Navy before she took the command job here. She is the commander of U.S. Naval forces in Europe and Africa. She is an incredible boss. I’ve never worked for a female before. She mentors all the time and has an incredible leadership style. Her leadership style is very empowering. Having such a great boss has had a huge impact on me. In addition to her being my boss, I have had the great opportunity to do a couple gender-related events with her. Most militaries aren’t like the United States military and don’t offer women the same opportunities. Most countries have still not fully integrated women into their militaries, especially not at senior levels. I’ve done more than a dozen security and gender events all over the Balkans and Europe. We talk about the length of time it takes to gain experience, achieve rank as a female,  the different opportunities available and how important women are to peace and security operations around the world.”

Gigi says although she’s been deployed before, this deployment was different. Her day-to-day duties centered around defense and security reform at the very strategic level; in many ways, she wore a diplomat hat, more often than her military hat.

“I met with the minister of defense every couple of weeks and her chief of defense. I spent time with the members of the presidency,  the minister of security, the ambassadors from other nations that are assigned here,” she explains. “I had the opportunity to meet the secretary of the Navy early in my deployment and I was invited to dinner with the secretary and the three members of the Bosnia and Herzegovina presidency. That night, the secretary became ill and wasn’t able to join us for dinner. The U.S. ambassador rearranged the seating arrangement at the last minute and I was told, ‘General Wilz, you’ll be sitting across from the chair of the presidency.’  That was my initiation into the diplomatic scene. I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’m just a small town girl from North Dakota in a strange country having dinner with the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina. What have I gotten myself into?’

“I had experiences like that every week. Once I was talking to former President Clinton at an event and was interrupted to meet the president of Slovenia. I can’t make this stuff up. I questioned what I was doing there several times!”

BACK IN THE LAND OF THE FREE

After two years in Bosnia, General Wilz is now back home in North Dakota.

“It is bittersweet. I made some incredible friends there and being involved in the political and military landscape really felt like I was making a difference. We’re not done there yet. But my time is done. At least for now.”

Gigi will take 45 days off, and then wait to see if she gets another assignment. If the Guard doesn’t reassign her she says she’ll think about retiring.

“I turned 50 during this deployment so retirement is an option, but I’m not sure I’m ready. For one thing, I’d have to pick out what to wear everyday! Wearing a uniform is easier than choosing outfits,” she says with a laugh. “I might have to learn to drive again. I had a driver and a security team everywhere I went in the Region. The food in Bosnia was incredible, not as incredible as the people though. They are open, friendly, and kind. But the food was amazing too. Still, I missed a good hamburger straight off the grill. The beef is a little different there. And more than anything, I’ve missed my family. I made good friends over the past two years, but there’s something about coming home that allows you to just be you, be who you are outside of the uniform. Over there, I was always Ma’am or General. I am ready to have the freedom to just be Gigi.”

Freedom is not something Gigi takes lightly. In fact, it’s what has kept her going year after year, deployment after deployment.

“The idea that I was part of something that is bigger than me. The United States has been a part of nation building time and time again.  We did it after World War II, after the fall of the wall, and it’s what we’re doing in the Balkans. We are demonstrating the freedom that we enjoy in America.”