She came out of West Kent Avenue, Whittier and Washington grade schools and Sentinel High.
As a University of Montana student in the late 1970s, Colleen McGuire jumped from airplanes with the Silvertip Skydivers, led cheers from the sidelines at Grizzly games, and toted cameras around for KECI-TV in what she thought was as a budding career in television news.
But McGuire wanted to shake her Missoula bonds and see the world.
“I thought if I joined the Army I would have the opportunity to do that for four years,” McGuire said this week on a visit to her old hometown from her new one, Kalispell, where she’s lived in retirement the past six years. “Then I’d get out and pursue my career.”
Four years turned into 32, in a military career that would take the rest of this page and several more to detail.
She doesn’t like her Wikipedia page; it’s incomplete and in some places downright wrong, she said. But it has three things correct about Colleen McGuire’s life. She was:
- the first female commandant, or warden, at the Department of Defense maximum security prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
- the first woman in U.S. Army history to hold the highest law enforcement office, provost marshal general.
- the first woman to head the Army’s premier felony investigative arm, the Criminal Investigation Command.
Wikipedia doesn’t say, but when Gen. George Casey, Army Chief of Staff, pinned a brigadier general’s star on her shoulder at the Pentagon in December 2008, McGuire became what is thought to be the first woman from Montana to attain the rank of general.
Barely a year later, in January 2010, she received the twin charges of provost marshal general of the Army, a war-time position that dates back to the birth of the nation, and head of the Criminal Investigation Command.
At a ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli took the opportunity to hail the accomplishments of the military law-enforcement team of which McGuire was now in charge.
“You have a significant and lasting impact,” Chiarelli told the MPs. “However, much work remains to be done. And I absolutely believe Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire is the right person to lead you in the challenging days ahead. She is a proven, gifted leader — both in garrison and combat.”
Her career was capped last March when McGuire was inducted into the Army Women’s Hall of Fame on Capitol Hill.
“She was a superstar,” retired Maj. Gen. Gil Meyer said Friday from his home in Reston, Virginia. “She still is, but she was considered a superstar in the Army.”
Deployments in embattled Somalia in 1993 and 1994, and in Iraq during the “surge” in 2007 …
Head of an Army Suicide Prevention Task Force that produced the 2010 “Red Book,” a 355-page report that found, among other things, a direct link between opioids and suicides …
McGuire served her final years before retirement in 2012 at the Pentagon for Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2013 she was tapped by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to serve on a congressionally mandated panel to study adult sexual assaults in the military.
It might seem paradoxical, given her sunny outlook and wide palette of interests and abilities, that McGuire hung her service hat on the criminal arm of the Army. It was one of many risks she took in her career that panned out.
“I became military police because I believed it was the closest at the time that women could get to combat,” she said. “That’s what was attractive to me, not the law enforcement aspect but the combat aspect.”
Meyer was McGuire’s mentor in the MPs when McGuire was a young captain, and is now a life-long friend.
“I don’t know why she chose the military police, but she fit in very well,” he said. “She was a role model, for females in particular. It’s her demeanor. She treats people with dignity and respect, she’s approachable, smart, and she’s action-oriented. If you give her something to do, she gets it done.”
None of McGuire’s “firsts” as a woman officer were intentional. Indeed, her promotions were natural steps in a career of proven leadership skills, instilled in part by her father Bill, a retired Army command sergeant major. Her brothers Bill and John both served tours in Iraq.
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“To be the first (female) commander of a prison certainly wasn’t on my list to do, but I ended up loving it,” McGuire said. “And there weren’t any qualms at all about having a woman in command of an all-male maximum security prison. It was just that there had never been a woman that was either qualified or experienced to do something like that.”
She delights in the strides women in the military have made since she was a private drilling on the parade ground at Fort Missoula under Sgt. Bill McGuire, her father and still her biggest fan.
“I look at the young women who just completed Ranger School,” the Army’s most grueling training course, McGuire said. “Compare that to, I think it was 1976, when the first women went through airborne training. I think they had two women learn how to jump out of an airplane, and they were almost coddling them.”
Even when she went through airborne training in 1980, women trained separately from men.
As late as her final years at the Pentagon, the Army was grappling with the idea of allowing women into combat.
“We were trying to figure out the parameters, where and how they could serve,” McGuire said. “Women had clearly proven themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. At that point, where there are no frontline tactics like you saw in World War II, it was all over.”
It 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter approved plans to open all combat jobs to women.
“It was nice watching all that evolve over just 30 years or so,” said McGuire.
Upon her retirement she tried something new. Brig. Gen. McGuire filled out a resume.
"You don't apply for jobs when you're in the Army," she said.
For practice, the UM Delta Gamma alumnus thought she'd interview for the executive director position of the national Delta Gamma Fraternity. She was hired on the spot and spent her first two years out of the Army in Columbus, Ohio. In true McGuire fashion, she found a city and job she loved.
In 2014, she stepped down and moved to Montana. She settled in Kalispell, to be near her daughter Maggie’s family, including grandsons Conrad, 10, and Max, 6.
McGuire recently bought a historic house, a fixer-upper on the east side of Kalispell that will keep her busy for awhile. After a short marriage in her early service years, she’s never remarried but travels extensively, visiting a wide net of friends around the nation and beyond.
She’s a skier, a cyclist, a hiker, who revels in the outdoor life that attracted her to the Army in the first place. The city girl even has a cattle ranch in Eastern Oregon, where she spends a month at a time throughout the year. It’ll soon be calving time so she’s heading west at the end of January.
“I haven’t got the itch to go back to work. I like the freedom of trying different things, and I have a lot of hobbies,” she said. “It will surprise you, but I knit, crochet and do all the needlecrafts.”
When she takes time to reflect, McGuire wonders how she did it all.
“It’s like, holy cow, I must have been like a gerbil on crack,” she joked. “Looking back on it it’s like I’m talking about somebody else.”
She tells friends she spent 32 years in the military and 32 years trying to get back to Montana. Now she’s here.
“I saw the world. This is the best. It really is. There’s nothing like home,” retired Brig. Gen. McGuire said.
“To this point in my life I can honestly say I have absolutely no regrets, because it all led to a really dynamic and fun life that I’m still living. So it’s like, what am I going to do next? and I don’t know.”