ARLINGTON, Va. — The two sisters played high school soccer together in Franklin, Mass., shared a respectful ability to speak their minds to adults, and gleaned an abiding sense of public service from their parents.
At the beginning of their military careers, they never intended to make the journey they have taken. But here they were at the Pentagon, more than three decades after leaving Franklin High School, sitting side by side in medal-bedecked, dress-blue uniforms as the first sisters to become US Army generals.
It’s a long way from the soccer field and suburban dinner table, but Major General Maria Barrett and Brigadier General Paula Lodi said the lessons they learned growing up helped them reach this unprecedented position.
“You tend to think, ‘I grew up, I left home, and then I had this second half of my life traveling the world and doing things that no one else in your family can relate to,’ ” said Lodi, 51, who was promoted in July. “But the more you try to articulate how you got where you got, you realize you couldn’t have done it without that,” she added in a recent interview.
There was the example set by parents who led and taught in local schools. There were three older siblings who encouraged them along the way. And there was a foundational belief in civic responsibility — instilled through church, sports, and community involvement — that would guide their life’s work, the sisters said.
“It’s easy to separate your upbringing from your career in the military because they’re so distinctly different,” said Lodi, a four-tour Iraq veteran who is director of health care operations for the Army’s surgeon general. “But you get to a point in time where they’re not really as different as you thought they were.”
Barrett, 53, promoted to general in 2015, is charged with operating and protecting the Army’s computer networks at a time of heightened concern about cyber warfare. She commands 16,000 soldiers, civilians, and contractors at more than 20 bases around the globe.
Their mother, Clara, taught typing and shorthand for five years at Franklin High School before leaving to care for a growing family. Their father worked as an elementary school principal in Foxborough, and the talk at the dinner table often focused on his management decisions.
“We were all getting a lesson about how to lead an organization,” recalled Rus Lodi, the oldest child, who now lives in Newton. “There also was this idea that military service was a step on the ladder, a fundamental step.”
The children knew their father was an Army veteran of World War II, but like many who served from that generation, he rarely spoke of it. Barrett said she did not learn until shortly after he died in 1985 — when she was in ROTC at Tufts University — that her father had received the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military decoration for valor.
In the final days of the war, Corporal Ruston Lodi came under German fire in the center of Modena in northern Italy, not far from where he had been born, as he tried to protect a column of prisoners from immediate execution by Italian civilians.
The prisoners were the enemy, but Lodi’s duty was to protect them regardless. Decades later, Lodi would wear his Army boots when he shoveled snow in Franklin, and he kept his uniform and medals in the basement. But anecdotes were hard to come by.
“He didn’t brag about it,” his son said. “He was just one of those classic guys.”
Although drawn to military service, neither Barrett nor Lodi planned to make the Army a career. They both joined ROTC in college — Lodi at Rutgers University — but Barrett planned to fulfill her four-year Army commitment and join the US Foreign Service. Lodi had her eye on a future as a dietician.
Instead, they found the pull of Army life irresistible.
“It is more than an occupation,” Barrett said. “It is service, and you’ve got to get it right because there are people who are depending on you.”
Their careers have taken them around the world. Now stationed at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona, Barrett has been posted in Kuwait, Germany, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, as well as bases in the United States.
In Iraq, Lodi helped close the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. She also was among the group responsible for Saddam Hussein’s final medical exam before his 2006 execution by the Iraqi government.
Their brother said these accomplishments have been a source of immense pride for the family. “I think my parents probably made all the mistakes with us and then perfected it with those two,” Rus said with a chuckle.
Although only 24 of the regular Army’s 316 generals are women, Barrett and Lodi said gender did not hinder their advancement. In 1994, women finally were allowed to serve in all military roles except direct combat; in 2015, all combat jobs were opened to them.
Today, women make up 16 percent of active-duty personnel across the branches. At first, Barrett said, she was determined to prove herself not only as a soldier but as a woman who could excel as a soldier.
“I wanted to take that highest hill because of that reason — I’m a woman, and I’m going to seek the biggest challenge that I can find and go conquer that,” Barrett said.
“And then, you kind of quickly find out that that’s not the right reason,” she continued. “You need to do it because you have a love of the mission and are willing to do what it takes to lead soldiers.”
Lodi said she quickly became accustomed to being the only woman in her section of the mechanized infantry, where she spent the first eight years of her career.
“I don’t think I was ever driven by wanting to break any ceiling or do anything out of the norm just because I was a woman,” Lodi said. “I figured out how to negotiate having to earn a place at the table [and] not be viewed as anything other than a valued member of the team.”
Their success does not surprise Tom Geysen, the longtime Franklin High girls soccer coach, who attended both of their weddings to other members of the Army. Barrett’s husband is a retired lieutenant colonel; Paula is married to a retired command sergeant major, with two daughters in the Army Reserve.
“Even way back in high school, they were both very confident in themselves,” Geysen said. “Not cocky, but confident. They knew what they wanted, knew what they had to do to get it, and worked very hard.”
Since her promotion, Lodi said, she has received an outpouring of congratulations from home, which reminded her of a photograph of her father, standing outside his school and greeting children as they left the buses.
Her father would “lean over to help a kid tie his shoes, or hold a kid’s jacket while he got off the bus,” Lodi said. And he performed these small but meaningful gestures in rain, snow, and sleet.
“It just made me think about going out to see soldiers off to Iraq, or how many times I’ve been out as a commander on the flight line, shaking soldiers’ hands as they get off a plane coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan,” she added.
“It kind of made a real connection,” Lodi said. “That’s how it all comes full circle.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.