General Lori Robinson, the highest ranking woman in U.S. military history, discussed the challenges that come with leading two commands at an event Monday, emphasizing how she wants to be recognized for her abilities and position—not her gender.

Robinson—who is commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)—explained how she leads “two commands with a common purpose.” Although each command has different responsibilities, she noted that they share the same objective—protecting the homeland.

“I can tell you unequivocally that we are very capable of defending the United States,” Robinson said.

In a conversation mediated by Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy, Robinson and retired U.S. army general Martin Dempsey, who served as the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, discussed the similarities and differences between NORAD and USNORTHCOM.

NORAD is a “binational command,” a joint-effort between the United States and Canada, that manages aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning, Robinson explained. Dempsey jokingly added that NORAD’s “most important job” is tracking Santa Claus.

“In my NORAD hat, I very much worry about Russian long range aviation and Russian submarine capabilities,” Robinson said.

So Jin Lee, a second-year political science graduate student, asked Robinson about the difficulties of working with both American and Canadian defense departments during the question and answer session. Robinson responded that she does the job “to the best of [her] ability.”

In contrast to NORAD, USNORTHCOM—which was founded after 9/11—oversees homeland defense, security cooperation and civil support such as natural disaster assistance, Robinson said. This past year, USNORTHCOM was very active in helping local authorities during several hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma and Maria. 

Dempsey indicated that USNORTHCOM is also responsible for the ballistic missile defense system. Robinson noted that their attention has shifted towards North Korea and its missile program in the past 18 months.

Stephen Kelly, a research scholar at Sanford School of Public Policy, raised a question about the recent addition of the Arctic mission to USNORTHCOM during the question and answer session. Robinson responded that they are still learning about the Arctic in order to “continue to develop [their] roles and responsibilities there.”

In addition to discussing her command responsibilities, Robinson also highlighted why she finds the label “first woman” to be problematic.

“I’m a general and an airman, and I happen to be a woman,” she said.

Dempsey noted that he dislikes the moniker “first female combatant commander,” which is often given to Robinson, because her success in the military is unrelated to her gender.

“It had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman,” he said. “It had everything to do with [her having] the experiences, leadership, intellect and energy to do the job.”

Robinson added, however, that she is proud to be able to say that “every career field in our military is open to women,” which was not the case when she joined the Air Force in 1982.