Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Faith Sustains New Commander Of Georgia Guard

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2007

Aren’t generals supposed to talk with voices that bark? Stare and intimidate?

Brig. Gen. Maria Britt won’t do any of that after taking command Dec. 1 of the 10,500 soldiers of the Georgia Army National Guard.

It will be the first time in the Georgia Guard’s 273-year history that a female general will lead it.

She plays down the fact, however. Her focus is to gain respect on her own merits.

Britt earned the right to wear the distinguished ring that people in military circles know marks a West Point graduate. Her class was only the fourth to allow women to attend the prestigious military academy.

Britt’s fingers are bare, except for her wedding ring.

“I don’t like to brag about myself,” said Britt. “I don’t need people to judge me because I went to West Point.”

Britt has a faith that took root in her Catholic Italian-American family and continues to this day. She loves the prayer of St. Francis. Britt finds comfort in the sacrament of reconciliation. Even her promotion to the rank of general was a time of prayer.

Soldiering is seen by the Catholic Church as a worthy calling. There are numerous honored military men and women in the church, including Joan of Arc and St. Sebastian, the patroness and patron of soldiers.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls soldiers “servants of the security and freedom of nations.”

“If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace,” according to the Catechism.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Britt, 46, is in camouflage with the star on her chest that signifies her brigadier general rank. Stopping for coffee near Georgia Tech, she sends an e-mail to a daughter studying at the university telling her that she is sitting at the nearby Starbucks. Later that day she was scheduled to speak at the annual Georgia guidance counselors’ luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta Hotel about the National Guard teaming with educators. (She had recently heard from her high school guidance counselor who prepared her way to West Point.)

As a cradle Catholic, one of her grounding faith experiences was in the West Point Catholic chapel. It was early in her studies when the hazing and the rigorous academics were draining. Classes were six days a week. Britt used Sunday to sleep in, relax and catch up on studies.

The pressure on campus grew. A visit to the chapel when it was empty seemed like the right thing for Britt. And her faith has never been the same.

“The silence was deafening, my eyes couldn’t absorb the colored light from the stained glass, the smell of old incense filled my nose, my mouth was dry,” she said.

Britt described the visit as an “inner soul connection with God.”

“Once there, it becomes part of your essence,” she said. “Things take a different perspective and your priorities tend to change.”

And one of those changes is her understanding of leadership.

“Ever since then, I find happiness when I am serving others,” said Britt.

As a commander, Britt emphasizes her role as a servant leader. She handed out a copy of an article headlined “Bad News for Bullies.” A soldier needs to be treated as a person is Britt’s point.

“I’m concerned about the whole soldier. Knowing the whole person helps to be a better leader,” said Britt, who is currently reading “Band of Sisters—American Women at War in Iraq.”

As a Catholic, Britt said her faith helps keep her priorities straight. It helps put “life in balance,” she said. She repeats part of the Cadet Prayer from West Point, “Choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”

Britt was raised in Gloversville, a small town in upstate New York. The oldest child of teachers, Britt grew up in a Catholic universe, born in a Catholic hospital and attending parochial school until middle school.

“It was an enriching faith experience, but at the time I just didn’t appreciate it as a child, especially when I got the paddle,” she joked.

A conversation with her father, a U.S. history teacher, encouraged her to think about the military. He told his daughter it might lead to an interesting career. (Her brother is a Navy doctor.)

Some 24 years later, she is still at it. After graduating from West Point, Britt earned master’s degrees from the U.S. Army War College and the Joint Military College. She had held numerous leadership roles in the Army and in the Georgia National Guard when Gov. Sonny Purdue appointed her to lead the Georgia Guard.

Britt lives in Conyers with her husband, Tim, and attends St. Pius X Church. Her husband is a colonel in the Georgia National Guard. The Britts have three daughters, 21, 18 and 10.

Speaking about faith is unusual for her.

“I don’t talk about my religion,” Britt said. “I work to model it.”