Brig. Gen. Kelly Fisher to Review Palisades Fourth of July Parade

When Brig. Gen. Kelly Fisher had just graduated from high school in 1980, she left home without telling her father and joined the Air Force.

“I just had it in my head that if I joined the Air Force, I could be a fighter pilot,” said Fisher, who grew up in Ohio and Tennessee. “I was a little bit naïve. I also had wanderlust, and it was an avenue to travel and have adventures . . . I had this romantic idea in my mind of what it meant to serve.”

Some of that romanticism stemmed from her father, a strong patriot and World War II veteran, whose memorabilia from his tour of duty in Japan had entranced her. After an initial culture shock in basic training, Fisher found she enjoyed the military. The Air Force both helped her mature and gave her the chance to travel by hopping military planes to Europe when she was on leave.

US Army, Brigader General Kelly A. Fisher, poses for her official portrait in the Army portrait studio at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, April 18, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by William Pratt)
US Army, Brigader General Kelly A. Fisher, poses for her official portrait in the Army portrait studio at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, April 18, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by William Pratt)

She was stationed near Vacaville, California, as a medic and mental-health technician, and she served there for five years beginning in 1980 before she was ready to shift gears and focus on learning a profession. Fisher applied to college, was accepted at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, and received a conditional release from the military to pursue her studies via the ROTC program.

Unfortunately, Fisher found that the current governmental support for veterans provided barely enough money to cover tuition, unlike the GI Bill that existed when her father left the military. So, she joined the nearby U.S. National Guard unit to help make ends meet.

“I didn’t know I was going to grow to be very fond of it and chose to stay,” said Fisher, who became a brigadier general in the National Guard in March. She found the Guard very different from her active service in the Air Force, in large part because its funding was so low.

At that time, her unit was mainly composed of Vietnam veterans.

“They were so resourceful,” Fisher said. “You could give them no money and a big mission. Using bubble gum and Band-Aids, they would come up with intriguing ways to meet their objectives.” In addition, their camaraderie and commitment were obvious. “It was a motley crew—a little rough around the edges—but so committed. There is a unique higher calling for people drawn to the Guard. For them, it’s all about serving the community.”

The combination of working with the Guard and studying at Cal Poly also proved fortuitous. Fisher earned her first degree in interior design, then entered a master’s program in architecture and environmental science. In the summers, she worked full- time for the Guard, and they leveraged her new skills to accomplish the organization’s goals. For example, she was asked to design new barracks, so she created design boards and wrote a briefing, which she pitched to then U.S. Rep. Leon Panetta.

“He took that information and went and got Congressional approval for San Luis Obispo to build the barracks,” Fisher said. “The barracks got built, and I got college credit for it. I had tremendous opportunity through the Guard, which is what hooked me. I felt deeply grateful and indebted.”

Since graduating, she has continued to serve the Guard in varying capacities, including at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan. She recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she worked for one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and had oversight of general officers in 50 states and four territories.

Six years ago, Fisher also worked in support of the 82nd Airborne Division in Kandahar and Kabul. She provided military advice, helped to get operations approved, and worked with tribal leaders on governance and development, including building roads and other items of infrastructure. In the process, she learned to appreciate not only the difficulties facing the local people, but also how the country’s instability and lack of security can impact the international community.

“It gave me a very good perspective on just how vulnerable and uncertain and complicated the global situation is with places like Afghanistan that have become ungoverned spaces, and how much of a threat that can be globally,” said Fisher, who said the lack of security, roads, water, electricity and avenues of communication all contribute to the challenges. “We’re in a place where we’re trying to provide assistance and help them help themselves; it’s very difficult to do that in a short period of time.”

Afghanistan would probably need at least a generation of solid work on the varying issues to truly change, Fisher said. “It’s difficult to push Al Qaeda out, because they leverage” the instability and lack of security for their own purposes.

No matter her assignment, Fisher has found the purview of the National Guard, which aims to support and not take charge, to be a boon for the people they are helping, whether the local police in California, such as during the L.A. Riots, or the Afghan people.

“When things get bigger than what the local authorities can handle, they call the Guard,” said Fisher, who mentioned that in California the Guard is actively addressing a flood, ruptured dam, fire or other emergency about one in every three days.“We don’t come in and take over. With the Guard, it’s all about supporting the civil authority . . . We take that skill-set even when we go overseas and do operational missions. It serves us very well.”

Personally, Fisher has also found the Guard to have strong progressive leadership in California that has allowed her to have, for example, a combat arms assignment that would not be allowed for women in other branches. In addition, she has learned exceptional leadership and organizational skills.

“The situations you get thrown into in the Guard and the military in general are so unique,” Fisher said. “A lot of time we’re really blazing a trail. There’s no step-by-step manual. You have to be very innovative and think on your feet and solve dire and complicated problems . . . It’s given me a great deal of confidence.”

In addition, she has learned an appreciation for the U.S. military.

“It’s probably the most progressive mil- itary in the world,” said Fisher, who is now assigned to the land component command in Sacramento.“It’s never been more capable in our history. And the Guard is interchangeable with the active component. We’re very modular and expeditionary and efficient. If they were to call us tomorrow and say we need specific units, it would be seamless.”

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