Becoming Lori Robinson

The country’s highest-ranking female general didn’t even have the military in her sights when she came to UNH

Thursday, September 8, 2016
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Gen. Lori Robinson visiting Australian Air Force bases and units

IN COMMAND: Gen. Lori Robinson, commander Pacific Air Forces, visited Australian Air Force bases and units from March 7 to 17. (Photo © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence: Sgt. Pete Gammie)

Most people don’t make the cover of a magazine unless they’re a celebrity — an actor or a singer or a rock star, say. But then, define rock star.

Earlier this year, U.S. Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson ’81 pretty much gained that status when she took over as head of U.S. Northern Command, established after the Sept. 11 attacks, and became the first woman to lead a major combatant command in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces and the highest-ranking female general in U.S. history. Not long after she was nominated, Time included her in its list of this year’s 100 most influential people. In the magazine piece, the combatant command position was called “the ultimate job…the pointy tip of the spear.”

That isn’t exactly where Robinson imagined she’d end up when she was at UNH majoring in English. She thought she’d go into teaching. Instead, after graduation, she joined UNH’s ROTC program, thinking she would “do the Air Force” for a few years while she figured things out.

Before she had decided on UNH, her father, retired Air Force Col. George Howard ’57, had suggested she attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. “I said ‘Are you out of your mind? I’ve been doing the Air Force for 18 years. I want something else,” Robinson recalls. Born in Texas, she had started school in France and then moved to England — not the last of the places the family lived while her father was on active duty. “Thirty-two years later, here I am.”

Howard, who lives in Glen, New Hampshire, where he was born, makes little of the fact that his daughter is one of only two active female four-star generals in the Air Force, and the first woman to head a combatant command. He thinks Robinson does, as well.

“Her attitude is ‘I’m an airman first and I’ll fulfill my duties and do my job the very best I can’,” Howard says. “I don’t think she was looking to progress. She was looking to do her job.”

Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, is responsible for defending the U.S. homeland and surrounding region. It also oversees the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. As the head of NORTHCOM, Robinson will be the top general overseeing military activities in North America.

Prior to taking command of NORTHCOM, Robinson had been serving as commander of the Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii since 2014, a role that previously also had been held only by men. Robinson also was the air component commander for U.S. Pacific Command and executive director of Pacific air combat operations staff at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

“I am conscious of being a role model as the first woman to hold some of these positions,” says Robinson. “I like to think I’ve gotten the jobs because people felt I was the most competent person for the job and I just happen to be a woman.”

Not surprisingly, she regards her new command as an honor. At the May 13 ceremony that put her in charge of NORTHCOM, she said, “I can’t think of a more sacred responsibility than defense of the homeland. And to be able to do that and be in this level of command is unbelievable.”

Howard and other family members flew to Colorado to be part of the historic change of command ceremony. “We all take pride in what she does and what she stands for,” he says. He isn’t the only retired Air Force officer in Robinson’s life. Her husband, David A. Robinson, a former fighter pilot, was a two-star general.

“There was a time when I didn’t really understand what it meant to be part of something bigger than one’s self. Now I see how it can make a difference,” Robinson says. “It can really become your passion.”

Her other passion, according to her father, is her family.

“Her family is one of her bottom lines,” Howard says, adding that he Face Times with Robinson weekly. “I spent a year in Thailand and we wrote letters. This is so much better.”

Originally published in UNH Magazine Fall 2016 Issue

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Very proud to say that I know Lori (or rather General Robinson) and how proud her "home town" of Bartlett is of her. Way to go Lori !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

— Norman Head

 

This article is part of the series:

UNH Magazine Fall 2016
It’s UNH’s 150th anniversary! Celebrate with stories about Bob Morin ’63, Lori Robinson ’81 and 150 (more) remarkable Wildcats.