By Deb Lewis

When asked what it was like to be a member of the first class of women at West Point, my standard response is, “It was good for me.”

As cadets, we ladies sure had our share of hard-earned lessons that weren’t necessarily enjoyable. However, these hardships provided no clue to my future—serving 34 years in uniform, reaching the rank of colonel, and having the privilege to command four times, including in Iraq.

My father, Bennett Lewis, retired as a lieutenant general after a 40-year career. Dad enlisted during World War II, graduated from West Point in 1950 as an engineer, and saw combat in Korea and Vietnam. As you might guess, my mom, Malvene, and my dad instilled in my two brothers and me a love of our country and an appreciation for the service and sacrifices needed to keep our nation free.

As a military brat, I moved around a lot and spent a good deal of time participating in swimming and horseback riding competitions. Doing well in high school and considering military service, I decided to apply for an ROTC scholarship my senior year of high school. Unexpectedly, Congress changed the law to admit women to the military academies. Friends and family encouraged me to apply to West Point.

Hostility—in many forms—greeted the first women in 174 years to join the all-male Corps of Cadets when we arrived in 1976. Ultimately, 62 of my 119 sisters graduated four years later in 1980.

West Point was my first exposure to harsh words and disrespectful responses from people who did not know me personally. Many reacted unkindly simply because I was a woman in a cadet uniform.

At West Point, I learned how often one forgets a harsh word or unkind act—rarely. (And for many people—never.) I’ve seen plenty of people “go ugly,” undermining the trust needed to work together effectively. Those early cadet experiences helped me thrive under adversity, driving me to help others thrive.

Working off the lessons I learned at West Point, my teams during my service reaped tremendous benefits from treating each other with genuine respect and asking effective questions that inquired rather than accused, giving the benefit of the doubt when facts may have indicated otherwise. I learned to consistently challenge words and actions that adversely impact others, even when I am uncomfortable doing so.

Like many classmates, I felt ill when I even thought about returning to West Point. So, naturally, I became a systems engineering instructor there nine years after graduation! In the years since, I enjoy returning to West Point at every opportunity to work with the amazing cadets, faculty and caring leaders, who are all dedicated to preparing for what lies ahead.

Both my personal life and military career have been filled with plenty of these “good for me” experiences.

My command in Iraq from June 2006 to July 2007 was another such experience. My unit saw 15 to 20 percent of its personnel rotate monthly in the most complex political-military environment one can imagine. The common denominator in our success? The amazing people I worked with.

My Iraq deployment was tough, yet immensely rewarding. By choice, retirement is almost more so. I signed on after my June 2010 retirement to be a one-person support crew for the Duty, Honor, America Tour, where my husband, Lieutenant Colonel Doug Adams (Ret.) cycled through all 50 states in one year—over 18,000 miles—to honor and help veterans, current military members, and their families.

Throughout America, we have found caring people who want to help but are unaware how to go about it. We will continue to share our experiences and stories with people to propel the idea that together we can translate today’s challenges into opportunities by paying attention to what really helps others—especially our veterans, current military members and families, and in their communities.

Deb Lewis retired as a colonel in the United States Army.