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Passion-driven leadership: Col. Gwendolyn Foster talks meaningful mentorship, balance, and her drive to serve authentically

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

“Be your authentic self” is a mantra Col. Gwendolyn Foster, Director of Staff for the Air Force Surgeon General, has repeated during her 22-year Air Force career while striving to find balance between perusing new heights in uniform while remaining passionate about her work helping and supporting women. And it is a mantra she continues to share with the Airmen she leads.

That need for authenticity is woven throughout Foster’s career and has helped get her where she is today. Foster is among three leaders in the Air Force Medical Service, including Col. Jason J. Lennen, Air Force District of Washington Command Surgeon, and Col. Eveline F. Yao, U.S. Transportation Command Command Surgeon, who were recently nominated for the grade of brigadier general.

When confirmed, Foster will be the first Black female on active duty to become a general officer in the AFMS. She will also assume responsibilities as the Nurse Corps chief and will become the first Black nurse to achieve that.

Born and raised in Springfield, Illinois, Foster always knew she wanted to care for women giving birth and their families, but she had a second passion … a deep desire to serve her country. But, like many young adults, life events influenced her path.

In 1988, at age 17, Foster joined the Illinois Army National Guard and served as a field medic in the Army Guard and Reserves until her honorable discharge in 1997. Her military service helped offset the expenses of college.

“I initially started college as pre-med, but I married young and had my first little one while we were both still in undergrad, so I was concerned about balancing a family while in medical school,” said Foster. “I ended up switching to nursing, which was a blessing in disguise. I’ve never looked back.”

After college, she worked in private practice as a midwife, but the call to serve her country was always running in the background. Like many who are serving now, Foster had a father who was a Vietnam War veteran.

“For my family, it was not a question of will you join, it was a question of when you will join, “said Foster.

Whether in uniform or not, Foster did not want to compromise being a midwife and being there for women at such a pivotal time of their lives. Her passion to care for women did not fully align with her desire to serve the nation until 2001.

“Then 9/11 happened, and I knew I needed to raise my right hand again and serve,” said Foster. “I went to an Air Force recruiter and asked where there was a need for midwives, where I could have the biggest impact. The next thing I knew, I was commissioned and landed at the doorsteps of Langley in March of 2002.”

As soon as she joined, Foster knew where her primary focus would always remain - serving military families.

“Being a midwife has been my calling,” said Foster. “Midwife literally means ‘with women,’ and everything I do and every position that I hold, I really do look for how I can bring out the best in someone. As a midwife, I look for ways I can bring out that inner strength in my patients they have always had.”

Foster’s dedication to her patients did not go unnoticed, and leaders encouraged her to take roles with more responsibility. While growing with the Air Force, she encountered one of her career’s biggest challenges.

“As I made my way to become flight commander, I learned how to adjust my schedule and meet the demands of being a leader and found time to care for patients,” said Foster. “But what was looming in the background was that, eventually, I would have to stop (caring for patients) if I wanted to continue down this path.”

She did not want the increasing demands of being a manager to compromise her ability to see patients. As her two desires conflicted, she acknowledges she worked through a bit of an identity crisis.

“It was hard to understand initially until another midwife mentor said, ‘You are impacting women at the bedside and the staff you are with in the room. Just think of the impact you can have by being in leadership where you can have a bigger influence over more midwives and the care received by women and their families,’” said Foster.

That was, as Foster put it, her “ah-ha” moment, knowing she could always call herself a midwife no matter the title and rank - it will always be her trade and part of her identity. Foster doubled down on her need to balance both roles.

“While it is not common to push to see patients while taking on many of the leadership roles I have had, I know it is possible,” said Foster. “Even in my current role supporting the Surgeon General, I told my leadership that while director of staff is my primary duty, I would also like to see patients. I work hard to ensure there is never a conflict of interest and that I fulfill my primary duties first. But I also want to have that option to continue caring for women and their families.”

Foster said mentors - through sharing their stories, experiences and encouragement - empowered her to seek balance. She said she discussed her concerns with a commander who was an orthopedic surgeon by trade but continued treating patients.

“He really showed me how he balanced his leadership role with patient care,” said Foster. “When the opportunity came up to go to military education in residence, he encouraged me to throw my name in the running. I was initially uncertain because, at the time, I only viewed myself as a midwife. But because of that 20-minute conversation, my entire career trajectory changed. Now, I encourage all leaders to share their experiences because you never know who is unnecessarily self-eliminating from opportunities simply because they don’t know it is possible.”

As Foster’s leadership roles grew, it often meant she was the only person who looked like her at the table. While the Air Force Medical Service has made significant strides in diversifying its leadership, Foster said she frequently found herself either being the highest-ranking woman or highest-ranking Black woman at a base.

“When I started my leadership journey, it was hard to see anyone who looked like me. I didn’t have a woman group commander, nor have I had a woman wing commander,” said Foster. “It is that thought that keeps me going when things get challenging or overwhelming. I am not just here for myself, but for those coming in behind me. Even on my lowest day, I know there is a bigger purpose than myself.”

From element leader to group commander, Foster reminded herself and other Airmen to remain authentic and to be a guidepost for future decisions. She encouraged Airmen to find that “red line” and know what the right thing is, even if it means having difficult conversations. It is about doing what is right at the end of the day.

“You will have moments where you will not be directly asked to do something, but you will feel obligated to, and that is when you might have to ask if this is a direct order,” said Foster. “One of the few times I had to ask that was when we were being asked to increase access to patients. I worked with my team to find efficiencies where we could without compromising our workload or patient safety. But I still felt as if we were being asked to do more even though we were doing the best we could with our resources. I knew I had to speak up, and I was mentally preparing to give up my role, because I knew we couldn’t do more without impacting patient safety. When I asked my commander if this was a direct order, I was thankfully told it wasn’t.”

“It was the first time that I had reached a red line and I knew I needed to use my voice when something like that happens. If I hadn’t spoken up and we had a bad outcome as a result of pushing beyond our limits, I would not have been able to sleep at night. Never lose sight of your authentic self and what is right.”

While Foster currently sits at AFMS headquarters, surrounded by leaders at the helm of making decisions impacting the enterprise, she wants to continue to empower and encourage Airmen who want to create their own leadership journey.

“When I have members reach out from when I was their commander, or their midwife, or I was their fellow wingman, and they tell me how I made them feel, that is something I remember the most,” said Foster. “I have to remind myself that those seeds are being watered and planted, and they continue to grow. I encourage all medical Airmen to plant those seeds, even though you might not see the fruits right away. My proudest moments in the AFMS have been all the seeds I have yet to see bloom, but I know will one day make us a better organization for it.”