There were two things Johanna Clyborne told herself she’d never do when she grew up. Clyborne swore she’d never join the military or marry anyone in the military.
As a U.S. Army brat who spent much of her childhood in the Netherlands while her father was on active duty in Germany, Clyborne wanted to get away from military life. Alcoholism, domestic violence and post-traumatic stress disorder were a daily part of her family’s life, and Clyborne blamed her father’s experiences in Vietnam.
But two weeks after her 17th birthday, Clyborne signed up for the National Guard out of a sense of community duty. And it was soon after that when she met a dashing young lieutenant at the officers’ club at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. He would become her husband.
Three decades later, Clyborne is about to accomplish a first. On Saturday — her 47th birthday — the Minnetonka attorney will become the first woman to be promoted to a two-star general in the Minnesota National Guard. Her husband, Duncan, who is retired from active duty, will be at her side.
“There’s no way I would have ever seen that this would be a possibility when I first started,” Clyborne said. “As you go up in rank it becomes more conscious that you may not look like everybody else in the room. You have to develop your own style, and that’s a bit of a challenge sometimes for women.”
At first, she wanted to minimize being a woman. Taking cues from people like Ann Dunwoody, the first four-star general in the U.S. military, Clyborne would never carry a purse or wear makeup while in uniform. You just want to fit in. But as she climbed the ranks, Clyborne realized that what worked for others didn’t necessarily work for her. She spent the early part of her career being so direct and matter-of-fact that some male colleagues looked at her as a wrecking ball.
Clyborne is an extrovert who thinks out loud, and that can cause problems for senior officers.
“As you go up in rank, you can’t do that, because people take that as direction,” she said.
Clyborne said the military has experienced a sea change in its attitudes toward women officers in the three decades since she signed up.
Sexual harassment was a regular part of military life when she started. Now, Clyborne attests to an aggressive campaign to address those issues. Women weren’t in combat when Clyborne signed up. In 2009 and 2019, Clyborne served as a deputy intelligence officer in Basra, Iraq with the 34th Infantry Division. There were plenty of points where Clyborne nearly quit the military because it wasn’t hospitable for females. She’s glad she stayed.
For Minnesota, a woman getting promoted to major general is a big deal, said Clyborne, who also served for a year as commissioner of Minnesota Information Technology Services.
“There is something to be said for representation — for seeing that someone else did it and I can, too,” she said.
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