AUSTIN — Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris officially took command of the Texas Military Department on Jan. 1 and will publicly take command from Maj. Gen. John F. Nichols during a change-of-command ceremony at Camp Mabry in Austin on Saturday.
She is the first female to hold the state’s highest military position as adjutant general.
Norris leads 24,000 soldiers and airmen with the Texas Army National Guard, Texas Air National Guard and the Texas State Guard, the three components of the Texas Military Department. Her experience includes leading a battalion during a combat deployment to Iraq and serving as the chief of staff of the 36th Infantry Division during her second combat deployment. The chief of staff runs the day-to-day operations for the commanding general.
She most recently served as the deputy adjutant general in command of the state’s Army National Guard.
Being selected as the first female adjutant general of Texas really isn’t much of an issue for Norris, however. As in all things military, those nominated to the highest positions are chosen because of their skills and talent — not gender, race or any other factor.
“Being the first female doesn’t really resonate as much with me because I have two chiefs of staff who are women, both of whom commanded battalions in combat,” she said during an interview at Camp Mabry in Austin on Monday. “With 50 percent of our recruiting population being women, I would think you’re going to start seeing more and more women coming up through the ranks and taking jobs like this.”
Norris credits the high number of female commanders to the fact that more opportunities have continually been made available to women in the military since the 1980s. She started her career in the Army National Guard in 1986 after accepting a National Guard ROTC scholarship at Florida State University.
“What happened back in the ’80s and early ’90s — the people who stayed with the military (since then), you’re starting to see those people coming to the higher positions,” she said. “So, I think it’s about opportunities.”
Norris said she never thought she’d still be in uniform nearly 33 years.
“I was going to do my six years and get out,” she said, referring to a six-year service requirement for having the military pay for her college education. “What happened was I kept getting new opportunities; I was like, ‘that sounds kind of neat, I’ll go try that.’”
Norris started her career in the Florida National Guard before taking an assignment at the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., as an environmental officer.
“There weren’t many people in the guard in the early 1990s when NGB was setting up its environmental program who had an environmental background, so I just happened into that (assignment),” she said. “I was fortunate that I would always get good assignments. I had some good people who I worked for, mentors who kind of created those opportunities for me.”
When Norris came to Texas, she thought it would be a two-year assignment before heading back to D.C.
“Texas decided to keep me — they put me in opportunities in recruiting as well as with the 36th (Infantry Division), with the engineers, which I loved,” she said.
Fort Hood ties
The Army National Guard is a big player in the Associated Unit Program, a pilot program started by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley that is nearing its three-year mark. AUP pairs up active duty units with National Guard and reserve units; units which would normally deploy together. By getting the units to train together consistently and to share personnel, the idea was to have built a comfortable working relationship to allow deployments to run more smoothly.
“We have one transportation company associated with the 1st Cavalry Division Sustainment Brigade and we have an engineer company affiliated with 36th Engineer Brigade,” Norris said. “We also have two (units) that aren’t associated necessarily with Fort Hood, but we have the 143rd Infantry Airborne Battalion that is affiliated with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Vicenza, Italy.
“The only airborne unit in all of the National Guard is in Texas, so … if you want to come off of active duty and go into our airborne battalion, we have a place for you,” she added as an aside. “The other unit is affiliated with 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division — our 3rd Brigade of the 36th Infantry Division.”
The ties the Texas Military Department has with Fort Hood are long-standing, Norris said. On the department’s Army National Guard side, approximately 14,000 Guard soldiers conduct their annual training at Fort Hood.
Fort Hood is also one of the two places — the other being Fort Bliss, El Paso — where Texas Guard soldiers train prior to deploying overseas, she said. It is also where all units return to after a deployment for the demobilization process, which consists of the paperwork and exams required of deployed Guardsmen and reservists to transition them from active-duty orders to their part-time status.
“Fort Hood works with us very well to make the demobilization process easier. We really appreciate that,” Norris said. “Talking strictly on the Army side, 36th ID has a great relationship with the 1st (Cavalry Division), and they have for a long time.
“Also, III Corps … I would say III Corps considers the 36th ID as one of their divisions,” she joked. “The 36th ID has worked with III Corps for a long time. When I was a major, we did a warfighting exercise as one of the divisions for III Corps, so it’s a great relationship there.”
One thing that sets the Texas Army National Guard different from other states is that it has a division headquarters and all the down-trace units all within the Texas Guard, meaning that all the units which belong to the division are actually located within the same state as the division headquarters.
This comes in handy, because with all the military installations in Texas, when a service member comes off of active duty and still wants to serve, the Army and Air Guard is right there, Norris said. Bringing in former active duty troops brings a wealth of experience for those Guardsmen who never served on active duty, which teaches how to work with other military divisions and an actual corps-level command.
“Not every state has that, because (other states) don’t have that force structure there to work with,” she said. “In Texas, our soldiers — I’m being biased here, I admit it — there’s a lot more experience here because our relationships with the active components here in Texas. The Texas Guard is the biggest Guard, and it’s neat to have a lot of active-duty military in Texas because of the relationships we sustain. I just feel fortunate enough to be the TAG of this whole state.”
Norris said that Nichols created a great base to start with during his seven-year tenure as the TAG: Take care of people, remain relevant and ready, and work with our communities and partnerships.
“I’m going to continue that because I think it’s a great philosophy,” she said. “One of the biggest parts of that for me, something that I’ve been really focused on, is individual readiness. Being medically ready, being able to pass PT tests so (troops) can get promoted — growing those future leaders.”
The Air Guard has three aircraft wings and some other, units such as a cyber squadron and an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron, but Norris said she plans to bring in additional capabilities for them because they really should be bigger, considering the population of Air Force bases in Texas to recruit from.
“We’re also looking to modernize their equipment, like upgrading their C-130’s to the C-130J (the latest and most up-to-date model),” she said. “For our State Guard, it’s to grow our number based on how the governor wants to see the State Guard going. It’ll take us some time, but the Army and the Air recruiters are working with the State recruiters.”
The State Guard is a truly volunteer force which often mobilizes with the knowledge they may not receive any pay at all, she added.
“They’re really a great asset for us, especially during (natural disaster) events, such as floods, fires and hurricanes,” Norris said. “They specialize in running our shelters, so when Texans have to leave their homes (because of a natural disaster), our State Guard is trained to run our shelters so people can come in. They even have a mechanism for bracelets that are bar-coded for families, so that way if they get separated, we can find them. Even for pets (that are displaced) in order to get them back to their families if they have to be sent to a different place.”
She also wants to grow the state’s Regional Training Institute located on Fort Hood, she said.
“Within the last 18 to 24 months we put a large part of our RTI on Fort Hood,” Norris said. “We’re working with Fort Hood to do consolidated classes with active duty and Guard soldiers and Army Reserves for classes such as Professional Military Education (such as basic and advanced leadership courses), Master Fitness Trainer training to certify master fitness trainers, we do the course for field artillery targeting and we do the 19D (Cavalry Scout) training.”
Active duty troops wanting to reclassify into one of the different military occupational specialties can do it through the Guard on Fort Hood instead of waiting for classes to open at other installations, she added. The goal is to get the RTI certified through the U.S. Training and Doctrine Command, giving it the same status as other official MOS schools.
Time to work
Thinking back on the path that brought her to her current assignment, Norris said she was glad she took those opportunities as they came.
“All those things, I enjoyed. All those jobs — they were hard at times, but that’s OK,” she said. “Sometimes that’s what makes you want to come to work, the challenge of making things happen.”