Of the approximately 280 generals in the U.S. Air Force, 60 to 70 are two-star generals, including a mere four to six women. Johnson, a Spencer native, is included in this elite class.
Ranking as one of a select number of females to have braved the often male-dominated military frontier during her 30-year service career, Johnson hopes her efforts have allowed fellow women serving to become more the norm.
"I've been on this bow wave of change," she reflected. " ... When laws changed in 1975, that kind of changed how women could serve in the military and how service academies allowed people in. Frankly, Parliament changed laws in England so that women could be Rhodes Scholars. So, since the 70s, which may not have had great style, but had a lot of people make those changes."
The 52-year-old woman serves as the U.S. Transportation Command's director of strategy, policy, programs and logistics at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. It's a task she's done since July 2009. Johnson has approximately 200 people on her staff, which has a global impact in its role and mission.
The joint command position Johnson holds -- her third joint assignment since May 1992 -- is one of 10 in the Department of Defense. In this capacity, she is responsible for policy programs and logistics for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard and civilians.
"What I do is set the policy for that," Johnson clarified. "That means working with commercial partners. It's better for the taxpayers for us to hire them to do set moves rather than to try to manage this gargantuan, organic fleet of ships and planes."
On any given day, she assists in the oversight of airplanes, trains and ships around the world -- and ensuring each can effectively accomplish its respective task at hand. These assignments cover providing humanitarian assistance, refueling tankers and moving cargo, transporting patients and relocating military personnel, as well as supporting the Department of Defense and the Department of State.
"It's a pretty varied task that we have," Johnson said. "Last year was really hard because other things happened too. And, when the volcano erupted in Iceland, it blocked the North Atlantic and airspace. That's how we get back and forth with everything that we fly, especially with patients, to get them home.
"My directorate is responsible for helping as many inside operations as we can to make sure we have transit agreements and central aid at, like, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. So, I travel a lot to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to make sure we have the agreements with our embassies, with the foreign country, with commercial companies and the civil reserve air fleet or the commercial and sealift carriers that we work with."
Officially promoted Aug. 2, 2010, Johnson was featured during a two-star promotion ceremony Jan. 14, at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Her husband, retired Air Force Maj. John Hargreaves, and their twin sons, Preston and Mitchell, stood beside her during the ceremony. With assistance from Hargreaves, Johnson's sister and step ladders, the second graders pinned two new stars on their mother's shoulders.
"It was a really wonderful opportunity for some of our family to get together on the day of the ceremony, but it's really just a sign of more responsibility, so I appreciate the chance," said Johnson, who talked about life's journey during the event. " ... So often at ceremonies like that, people hit the highlights and make it sound like everything is perfect and that life seamlessly moves forward. But, we all know it's not like that and it's really the moments of adversity, or the challenges, you have that your family and friends have come with you on and make it all work out. So, I was grateful for the promotion, but I'm more grateful for the journey I've been on and the people who've been on it with me."
As Johnson reflected about her current position, she expressed gratitude for the details she is in charge of within the U.S. Transportation Command.
"One of the difficulties when people do things that are very practical and tactical is being able to shift gears to think more strategically and to be able to give and take with people who don't have the same culture. That is the greatest challenge," she said. "But, frankly, that's my niche and that seems to be what I'm asked to do a lot. I'm asked to do things at which I haven't been an expert for 30 years, but I can go in and understand at a high level and then pull people together and try to integrate the effort and move forward. I think that's why people keep me around. That's what my four-star general says anyway."
True to form, Johnson also brushed over her many accomplishments as if they were nothing. Instead, she touted the strong quality, caliber and morale of military people currently serving.
"We're people with families and trying to do a good job," she reminded, "but willing to go live someplace sandy for a long amount of time if that's what it takes, to put our life on the line if that's what it takes. And, I'm very appreciative to all the young soldiers, sailors and Marines who are really out there doing the tactical job every day. I hope I'm making the right choices for them, setting the right policies and giving them the resources they need."
Michelle Johnson, a 1977 Spencer High School alumna, began her 30-year military career as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where she was named the first female wing commander as a senior cadet. Johnson earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University and finished graduate school in 1983. She was promoted to major by 1991 and colonel in 1999, having spent much of the 90s deployed to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where she flew jumbo tankers from a base in the Persian Gulf. From 1992-94, Johnson served as the Air Force aide to the president, working for both President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton. Between December 2007 and June 2009, she was on the joint staff at the Pentagon. She's been a brigadier general since 2005, and was promoted to major general in August 2010.