After deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Brig. Gen. Diana Holland had seen plenty of combat zones. Then came the hurricane. As the Atlanta-based commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, South Atlantic Division, she found herself literally in the eye of the storm last fall, overseeing recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Holland, who had taken the post only 45 days before Hurricane Maria hit, ended up spending 90 days on the Caribbean island. “It was much like going to Afghanistan—in a good way. It’s what you train for your entire career,” she says. “There’s a shared sense of purpose. It’s an incredible story of how Americans came together to help the people of Puerto Rico.”
It was only the latest challenge for the 50-year-old soldier whose boundary-breaking career has included serving as the first female commandant of cadets at West Point. She also worked as a commanding officer in the Middle East, where she led engineering brigades responsible for clearing explosives and rebuilding roads and buildings. Such roles may have seemed impossible when Holland, at age six, first declared she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and grandfather and enlist. But instead of dissuading her, Holland’s father put a pull-up bar in her bedroom.
In her current position, Holland’s responsibilities include maintaining major harbors, helping restore the Florida Everglades, and managing flood-control and recreational reservoirs such as Lake Lanier. Aside from the lake, few people in Atlanta give much thought to the Corps of Engineers, Holland acknowledges. But she wears her uniform to work every day and when she rides MARTA, Holland feels welcome. “People come up and salute me. I’ve had young people thank me for my service,” she says. “I’ve had the best exchanges.”