Stefanie Horvath stood at attention Tuesday in her dress Army National Guard uniform as her mother on one side and her wife on the other pinned an embroidered star on each of her shoulders.
With that, Army Col. Horvath was promoted to brigadier general, making her the first LGBT person and second female to reach that rank in the Minnesota Army National Guard. But for Horvath, it wasn’t a moment of firsts or even seconds. It was a moment of acceptance.
“There are no limitations,” she said shortly before a formal ceremony in front of family, friends, Minnesota Guard colleagues and dignitaries that included Gov. Tim Walz.
Horvath’s promotion sent a message to all women — from her female military colleagues to her twin 9-year-old daughters: They can make their mark in careers dominated by men.
“I’m no unicorn,” Horvath said, pointing out that other women pushed through many barriers before she did. As a newly minted brigadier general, she follows Johanna Clyborne, who was the first female to earn that rank in the Minnesota Army National Guard in 2016. Clyborn will be promoted to a two-star general later this year. “We’re moving to a time when it’s commonplace. I know the abilities that women have,” she said. “We need female leadership with their thoughts, visions and their ability to form wonderful solutions that include diverse thoughts for some very complicated problems.”
That includes getting more women in her field of technology and cyber security. “We need critical thinkers whether they’re female or male,” she added.
Horvath was a 17-year-old high school student in Minot, N.D., when she enlisted in the North Dakota Army National Guard in 1989. She knew she wanted to serve but she also wanted to go to college. The National Guard offered her opportunities.
Her father, a Vietnam Navy veteran, approved. But, he said, “I’m not saluting you until you’re a general,” she recalled him saying.
At age 19, she knew she wanted to be an officer. She went to officer candidate school, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and oversaw a platoon of 30 people.
In 1997, she transferred to the Minnesota Army National Guard. “I fell in love with all of what Minneapolis and Minnesota represented,” she said. There were lakes, parks and trails that appealed to the adventure racer and marathoner.
But more important, it was the place where she could be the person she was.
She had just attended the Pride festivities in Minneapolis that summer. “It was an amazing experience to see and be a part of that community,” she said. In North Dakota, she kept her sexual orientation private. And under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that was in place at that time, she didn’t openly admit to being gay. But she felt accepted in Minnesota.
With the move to Minnesota, she rose through the ranks and developed a 20-year career in technology, which included computers, communications, radio and cyber security. She was deployed to Kosovo in 2003 — the only female among 300 men with the 2nd Battalion in the 135th Infantry Regiment. She served as the group’s signal officer responsible for radio communication, computers and networks.
“Just because I was there doesn’t mean I was accepted at first,” she said. “But over the months, I proved I could run fast, fire my weapon and fix their printer issues — the bonds of acceptance.”
She also had to overcome her own biases. “They were always breaking my communications equipment,” she explained. It would be easy to think they were breaking it on purpose. But she spent time with the men on their routes and she realized the broken equipment wasn’t a conspiracy; it was a casualty of war.
Horvath was also deployed to Iraq in 2009 with the 34th Infantry Division and received a Bronze Star for her service.
At Tuesday’s formal ceremony, a brass band played, speeches were made and Horvath was presented with the General Officer Belt and the General Officer Pistol. Her daughters, Jona and Zoe Starks, presented her with the General Officer Flag.
But minutes before the presentations began, Horvath sat outside the auditorium to make one point very clear: “This has not been a path of perfection.”
Along the way she failed and disappointed people. She had shortcomings and didn’t always apply herself as much as she thought she should have.
“In technology, it either works or it doesn’t,” she said. “You’re either a hero or a zero. I don’t want people to think I did everything perfectly.”
Instead, she refused to be paralyzed by failure. “I’m a better leader and technologist because I paid attention to the times I failed.”
After the ceremony, her father stepped through the receiving line and reveled in his daughter’s success. “It’s a totally different world,” said the man who served in the 1960s. “I’m very proud of what she’s done. She did it on her own.”
He unfolded his North Dakota VFW 753 cap, placed it on his head and saluted his daughter, the general.