CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Cold War / Post-9/11
From her earliest years, Maria Falca-Dodson’s parents exemplified a strong work ethic. Her father, a carpenter-mason by trade, built his family’s house with his bare hands. The two-year-old Falca-Dodson followed him during construction; “I don’t know how much help that was!” she laughed. She connected her father’s industrious attitude to his background as an Italian immigrant: “Immigrants are an amazing group. Their tenacity and their perseverance is one [sic] of those things that really stands out to me.”
Many of Falca-Dodson’s family members were veterans. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Italian Navy conscripted her father, Giuseppe Falca. He served in the Axis fleet until the Italian capitulation, then fought with Allied Italy until the end of the war. On her mother’s side of the family, Falca-Dodson’s grandfather, an Italian immigrant, served with the US cavalry in France during World War I. In addition, two of her uncles were American World War II veterans (one of whom received a Bronze Star for South Pacific service).
Growing up, Falca-Dodson had two goals: to serve others, and to pursue a medical career. As a teenager, she found a way to satisfy both: one day each week, she served as a “candy-striper” hospital volunteer. Attending university at Trenton State College (earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing) and Michigan State University (earning a Master of Arts in Administration), Falca-Dodson began her official medical career in “med-surg,” or “rank-and-file” nursing. Later, she worked in the labor-delivery and pediatrics departments.
The 1970s were a turbulent decade for America, with two oil shocks having induced an economic recession. Much “push-pull” politics, as Falca-Dodson put it, surrounded military affairs. Initially, with the Vietnam War still fresh in the country’s mind, the military “wasn’t really highly thought of.” The Iran Hostage Crisis brought the armed forces into the spotlight, with special forces executing Operation Eagle Claw in an attempt to rescue the hostages. Unfortunately, that mission failed disastrously, again hurting the military’s repute.
The vacillating national mood did not discourage Falca-Dodson, who had always wanted to join the military. She grew up hearing stories of service about her aforementioned family veterans, as well as of a neighbor, who was killed in action in Vietnam at age 19. (The anti-military sentiment after Vietnam did not bother her: “I always sort of felt like there was a difference between the political objective and the military people, who felt in their hearts that they wanted to do something to make a difference, and that appealed to me.”) In addition, the military allowed Falca-Dodson to pursue her goals of service and medical work. Finally, she admitted that her youthful sense of adventure influenced her interest.
Falca-Dodson spoke to a military recruiter during college, but decided to delay commissioning for a few years after graduation to pursue a flexible civilian medical career. In 1979, during the Iran Hostage Crisis, she committed to the Air Force (initially the Reserves, then the National Guard), though intending to serve for only several years. Her mother, already worried about Falca-Dodson’s cousins, now feared about her daughter heading to war!
Though few ranking opportunities for women existed at the time, Falca-Dodson was able to pursue a nursing career as an officer. Joining the 108th Tactical Fighter Wing, she began drilling with her unit. “That very first weekend, I showed up in my little white nurse’s uniform with my lieutenant’s bars that somebody told me how to put on!” Falca-Dodson laughed. After several weeks, she left for an officer orientation course at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Falca-Dodson had never been to Texas, though she had traveled to the southwest, as well as overseas to Italy. At the time, this was more travelling than most Americans her age had experienced.
Falca-Dodson first put her medical expertise to use supporting drill weekend exercises at Fort Drum, New York. She noted the peculiarity of her Air Force unit’s assignment to an Army base, which was part of an effort of increased inter-service cooperation. This theme would return with importance during her later tenure as a General.
From these humble beginnings, Falca-Dodson never thought she would eventually become the second-highest ranking officer in the New Jersey National Guard! “I thought I was in a slot to make major when I joined,” she said. “And I did think I was gonna get out in two years; I really did!”
Falca-Dodson emphasized that her success was influenced by great mentors, both male and female. One, Colonel Susan Quinn, encouraged her to attend school for not just support roles, such as the medical field, but also for “line-side” positions: pilots, maintenance people, security forces, and civil engineers. Officers in these fields, which constituted the core of Air Force culture, could rise to top leadership positions with greater chance of success than support personnel. Although upon Falca-Dodson’s commissioning there were many enlisted women in her unit, there was just one other female officer. Additionally, while there were many women in the medical field, few attended flight school. Thus, she had an opportunity to blaze a trail.
Falca-Dodson followed Colonel Quinn’s advice, yet originally had “no hope” of being promoted. Nevertheless, she enjoyed line-side education, as it helped her better understand the Air Force mission and culture. Falca-Dodson also took interest in flying herself, and found a way to gain flight time.
Each Saturday, part-time pilots flew training missions from McGuire AFB, assisted by a volunteer in the back seat. Falca-Dodson showed up every weekend before the flights. Eventually, one of the back-seaters did not arrive, allowing Falca-Dodson to substitute. The crew soon trained her “like a monkey” to be a back-seater; soon she got a second flight, and then a third.
Without realizing it, through these pursuits, Falca-Dodson made herself noticed, which paved her path to promotion. But always humble, she attributed her success to “good luck, and a lot of great mentors. And really, really good people work[ing] for me. I can’t say enough about our enlisted people… They do all the work to make us look good as officers.”
In 1998, Falca-Dodson became Commander of the 108th Air Refueling Wing Medical Group. In 2002, she became New Jersey’s Deputy Adjutant General, and in 2008, Assistant Adjutant General, the first female to hold each position! Meanwhile, in 2004, Falca-Dodson was promoted to Brigadier General, becoming the first woman in the NJ National Guard to pin on general’s stars! In 2009, she again made history, becoming the first female Commander of the NJ Air National Guard, thus assuming responsibility over all full-time operations in addition to managerial duties as Assistant Adjutant General.
Through her 31 years of service, Falca-Dodson visited numerous locations across the globe. She travelled to McGuire AFB, New Jersey; Myrtle Beach AFB, South Carolina; Holloman AFB, New Mexico; MacDill AFB, Florida; Nellis AFB, Nevada; Andrews AFB, Maryland; Gulfport, Mississippi; Nashville, Tennessee; as well as Hawaii, England, Germany, Japan, and Panama, among other locations. Several times, she participated in operational readiness inspections, exercises under simulated battle conditions to ensure vigilance. These examinations took place in Savannah, Georgia; Alpena, Michigan; and Volk Field, Wisconsin.
In the 1990s, Falca-Dodson volunteered for a joint Army-Air Guard humanitarian operation in Panama, launched in the aftermath of the 1989 American invasion that deposed dictator Manuel Noriega. Her unit augmented Army civil engineers to build roads and schools. For the first few weeks, as medical director, she organized the installation of an air-transportable hospital at the camp.
Though years had passed since the invasion, many Noriega supporters still resided nearby, and some continued committing acts of terrorism. Though initially the operation did not completely convince the skeptical Panamanian public of American goodwill, Falca-Dodson explained that true positive change would take time: “Every conflict is never over until the seeds of what you sow are realized,” she said. Nevertheless, Falca-Dodson lauded the Panamanian people at large as “wonderful.” Many residents did not want the Americans to leave, especially because of the economic boost that US consumers provided.
In the 1990s, Falca-Dodson also deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo during the Yugoslav Wars. She was not mobilized for the incident in Somalia (primarily a conflict in the Army’s domain), though some Air National Guard members did volunteer for service there. Falca-Dodson noted that the “mindset” of the time had changed dramatically since the Cold War’s end. “It was a simpler time”, she said, “…we at least knew who the enemy was. It was not an asymmetrical conflict.”
On 9/11, Falca-Dodson was finishing a dentist visit when she heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Unable to contact her command post at McGuire AFB via cell phone, she resolved to drive there, though first she went home to put on her uniform. Though this was generally not required if not officially on duty, Falca-Dodson had a feeling she would be on base for a long time.
On the way to McGuire, Falca-Dodson saw overhead highways signs lit up (which, at the time, were only used to warn of accidents or traffic), stating that all roads to New York City were closed. She compared the “surreal feeling” associated with this sight to childhood nightmares she had of nuclear war and Cold War paranoia.
Finding the front gate of McGuire closed, Falca-Dodson called her command post again, this time making contact. She was directed to a construction gate (that she had not even been aware of previously), the only open entrance to the base. The heavy armament donned by the security forces at the gate startled her.
Falca-Dodson spent most of the day at McGuire watching the news. As more information unfolded, things became “beyond shocking.” From her medical perspective, the low number of casualties needing treatment was also disturbing, as it indicated a high fatality rate. “If you remember what that felt like to not hear planes flying overhead,” she said, “and how quiet that was, that first week, those first few days. It was an amazing thing.”
The following year, Falca-Dodson became the NJ Guard’s Deputy Adjutant General, responsible for organizational management and administration of both the Army and Air Guard. She became committed to understanding the Army’s culture and mission, in addition to the Air Force’s, and described the first years of this journey as an “odyssey.” More than just her post changed, however; mirroring the pervasive fear of terrorism and associated security measures, the mindset again changed: “The military at large, our whole way of thinking, and our doctrine… has enormously transformed since September 11, 2001.” Particularly, emphasis shifted to joint-force operations.
Subsequently, the military became engaged in conflicts in the Middle East for ten years, though Falca-Dodson noted that it was the second decade of near-continuous operations for the Air Force, which had retained a presence in the Middle East after Operation Desert Storm as well as participated in the Yugoslav Wars. Thus, though there was a “climb” in operational readiness after 9/11, it was not as steep as that of the other branches of service.
Falca-Dodson noted that the Air National Guard played a significant role in helping return American commercial aviation to normalcy. During the Cold War, the 177th Fighter Wing had been assigned to air interdiction, targeting Soviet aircraft along the Atlantic coast. A few years before 9/11, the wing lost that mission. In response to the attacks, that role, now called the “Air Sovereignty Alert Mission,” returned. This is especially significant, as from their base in Atlantic City, the 177th is strategically placed as the closest fighter unit to both Philadelphia and New York City, with the ability to quickly support airspace over Washington DC or Boston as well.
In 2005, as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) policy, talks floated of removing the 108th Air Wing’s flying mission. Falca-Dodson successfully fought to preserve the unit. Not only did the wing retain its capabilities, but it has since added new, important operations to its mission, such as an intelligence group, and the Air Force’s sole Contingency Response Group. “I’m just so happy for that wing,” she beamed. “They deserved better than to be sort of kicked to the curb in the way that that process lent itself.”
Falca-Dodson described the relief efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as some of the National Guard’s “shining moments.” The events of 2005 marked the first time in which guardsmen were deployed in response to a domestic emergency on a national level. Previously, in the event of disaster, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) was activated, mobilizing the National Guards of neighboring states. However, in 2005, many Guard units from the afflicted and nearby states were overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, a nationwide call for assistance was made.
The lack of potable water in disaster areas posed a pressing issue. In response, the NJ Air Guard solicited requests for drinking water donations. The water was collected at the armories, palletized, and shipped on C-17s from McGuire AFB. Similar actions occurred across the country; in fact, on the whole, the Air National Guard flew more disaster relief sorties in 2005 than had been made by the Air Force during the Berlin Airlift!
Falca-Dodson personally travelled to New Orleans several times during the relief. Crowded with aircraft and personnel hastily unloading supplies, the naval air station appeared as if it were in a war zone. Looking down the flight line, Falca-Dodson saw every single aircraft tail bearing the markings of a different state.
Though some federal Army troops were mobilized, the Army National Guard conducted most on-the-ground relief. Over 60,000 guardsmen were present in Louisiana and Mississippi to conduct rescue and law enforcement duties.
Thanks to the efforts of the Army and Air National Guard, many lives were saved. “From a domestic operations perspective,” Falca-Dodson summarized, “the National Guard really shone through that effort. And there were good things that came out of an extraordinarily bad situation because of the Guard.”
Falca-Dodson found herself stumped when asked to recount an untold story. Though she had undergone cancer treatment several years prior, a unique experience from which she had tales, she could not recall anything remarkable during the interview. Falca-Dodson connected this to her work with the VA, under the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center. Many combat veterans, particularly from Vietnam, intentionally suppress negative memories and ultimately forget them.
Enthusiastic about supporting the Veterans’ Oral History project, Falca-Dodson attempted to convince the veterans in her family to participate, though unfortunately, they have been reluctant to do so. Since Vietnam, she added, support for American veterans has improved:
“We make sure that there’s always somebody standing at the bottom of the steps when they walk off an airplane… Whether you agree with the war [contemporary conflicts] or not, we’ve at least made the distinction this time about what’s right for the American military person.”
On the subject, she mentioned a recent bill allowing for veterans to transfer their benefits to immediate family members, a reform she considered almost as transformational as the GI Bill in 1944.
Falca-Dodson also weighed in on the importance of history in military school, and society in general:
“We’re taught the history of conflicts, going back to the Peloponnesian Wars, in fact! Because if we don’t learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. And we do repeat it, often enough, because we have people who don’t learn from our history. So, every generation has something to teach the next generation.”
“We come from violent roots as a civilization, but we are capable of overcoming that,” she added. The job of negotiating and ensuring peace would be left to politicians and other organizations; though,` the military could act as a “tool” to assist that process. For example, humanitarian missions and operations of international cooperation, such as the New Jersey National Guard’s partnership with the Albanian military, are important non-combat functions. In turn, Falca-Dodson outlined, the military’s duty is to respond to civilian leadership. “Regardless of what we feel politically, our mission is to serve the president and congress, and the Constitution, and that’s how we’re structured.”
Falca-Dodson further explained that the maintenance of peace requires human-to-human connections:
“You cannot build peace, and you cannot forge relationships, by Facebooking, Twittering, texting, and emailing. It’s all about talking to each other face-to-face, about seeing the body language, and the facial expressions, and the warmth—or the lack of warmth, whatever it is—that is part and parcel of forming a relationship. The relationship is not between you and a computer. It’s between you and another living, breathing person. And that only comes from experiencing that person as an individual and the country as a culture. It’s nice to stay connected for tidbits of news, but it’s not going to build a country, or a relationship. And it’s also not going to lend itself to resilience for our folks.”
Falca-Dodson also detailed her enthusiasm with military service, noting that her strongest bonds have always been with other servicemembers:
“It only took me a couple of months to get hooked on the people… You feel that there’s a sense of mission, and purpose, and accomplishment, and so many things that, I have to say, over 31 years I never really got from any civilian job. And I’ve worked for great civilian jobs with great people, but there’s a real sense of purpose in the military. All of that becomes a hook for those of us who stay in the military. We join for this vague altruism that’s out there, but we end up staying for the people. And I always say, you don’t join or stay for slogans. People don’t fight in foxholes because somebody taught them a creed or a slogan. They fight in foxholes for the guy in that foxhole next to them, or the gal in that foxhole next to them.”
Reflecting on her service, Falca-Dodson viewed her young nursing days as the most fun and carefree, as she was unburdened by policy and decision-making and could focus on her patients. However, she affirmed that her higher-ranking career was enjoyable as well. “Every day is a great day, and every day is better than the one before, because I learn something new almost every day.”
Falca-Dodson remained proud of her service, but she explained that her military career and her country had given back more than ever imaginable: “Really and truly, I’ve gotten so much more back, I could never repay!” Maria Falca-Dodson later retired from the National Guard on October 1, 2012 at the rank of Major General.