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The 4 highest-ranking women in the U.S. military speak about the obstacles they overcame

U.S. military's 4 highest-ranking women speak out
The 4 highest-ranking women in the U.S. military speak about their experiences 03:08

Army Gen. Laura Richardson flew helicopters in Iraq and led an assault helicopter battalion. She now leads U.S. Southern Command.

"Where else in the military can you be a helicopter pilot, work at the White House, work at the United States Capitol, work at the Pentagon, and lead American sons and daughters in combat," Richardson told CBS News.

Hundreds in U.S. history have held the rank of four-star general or admiral, only 10 are women.  

Richardson is one of four of those women who spoke exclusively to CBS News this week about the challenges they faced to achieve what they did.

"And there's four of us, right?" Richardson said. "A first. And so, pretty soon, there will be no more firsts."

Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan, the head of the Coast Guard, is the first female service chief in U.S. history, and the only woman to be a de facto member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The journey we've all been on has taken sustained, persistent effort, endeavor," Fagan told CBS News. "Yes, there's been some difficult people along the way, but, you know, they're not sitting here in these chairs right now."

Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost leads the U.S. Transportation Command. As a teenager, she had her pilot's license before her driver's license. But when she enlisted, she wasn't allowed to fly fighter jets because she was a woman.

"A senior leader from that school said there really is no reason that women should be here," Ovost said. "And you don't belong here. I talked to … fellow wingmen. They were helping me so that I would be sharp, so that when I ended up flying with that person again, I would demonstrate that I had every right to be there."

Navy Adm. Lisa Franchetti, the number two officer in the Navy, once commanded a carrier strike group. On her first deployment, though, her boss told her she wasn't welcome there, a situation each of these women has faced.

"He made it very clear to me that he didn't think women should be on our ship and he was going to make sure that I did not succeed," Franchetti said.

That discrimination was met by determination. 

"I just worked harder," Franchetti said. "And, you know, I was gonna make sure that what he wanted to have happen wasn't going to happen."  

The four women acknowledge, though, that there's still a long way to go.

"It's all about who's on the bench, and who are we in the pipeline reaching way down, not just at our colonel level, but to the majors and captains and grooming them to fill our seats," Richardson said. 

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