Col. Jeannette McMahon (Ret.)—a former Chinook helicopter pilot with decades of military experience—was responsible for launching the first sexual assault prevention program at West Point (her alma mater). She is also a teacher, mother, and widow. In addition to sharing her professional accomplishments, she discusses her transition to widowhood—among the hardest transitions that anyone can make.
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Welcome to Women & Wealth. I'm Beata Kirr, Co-head in Investment Strategies at Bernstein, and this podcast aims to educate and inspire women to make the right choices for their wealth.
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Well, hello, everybody, and happy 2021. I think it's too late to say happy New Year, but I do think it's notable that this is our first episode of the calendar year. Looking forward to a full year together of really interesting programming. So we're kicking off 2021 with a discussion in our Transitions series, if you will. You may recall that we've had prior episodes talking about the big life transitions that women make, and one of them was about moving into retirement and the new approach to retirement.
00:56 - 01:18
And we will have more on this concept of transitions. But today, I am really, really honored to be sitting down with a very special woman. Her name is Jeanette McMahon. And Jeanette is a former US Army colonel, a Chinook helicopter pilot with decades of experience in the military.
01:18 - 01:52
She is now a teacher teaching math to, I think, eighth grade students. She has a very long and interesting resume. Both her professional and personal story are really going to come out today. She was responsible for launching the first sexual assault prevention program at West Point. She's also a mother and she is a widow. And it is her transition to widowhood that we will be discussing today, which is no doubt the hardest transition any person can make. So, Jeanette, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us today.
01:53 - 02:06
Well, thanks, Beata. Thanks for having me. Such a great honor to be able to join this group. It's so professional what I've gained from it. And so to be a part of it is just really, really a lot of fun. So looking forward to our talk today.
02:06 - 02:29
And you said it exactly right. You know, I had to struggle through a lot of things in life, went to West Point and had to go through that ordeal and experience. And 27 years in the army in a kind of a non-traditional role for women. But the hardest thing I had to do was, you know, losing my husband and then raising my three boys and transitioning my life into something positive after that.
02:29 - 02:45
I cannot imagine. But I know that our listeners will benefit from hearing your story. So with that background, maybe we should start to talk about it. Do you want to tell us the story of what happened really on the personal front?
02:45 - 03:12
Yeah, well, Mike and I were dual military career officers and we married and we were both aviators. We went to school to get our master's degrees in operations research. So we spent full careers in the military in over 25 years. And Mike was commanding a unit in the 25th I.D. out of Hawaii. And we were stationed over there with three boys at the time and my parents were nannying for me.
03:12 - 03:38
It was kind of an ideal situation, if you can imagine living in paradise and Mike deployed over to Afghanistan and unfortunately, the plane that he was a passenger in crashed in the mountains. And it was a real tragedy and completely unexpected. You know, you always think it's going to be somebody else. And, and how old were your kids at that time? How old was Mike? How old were you? Kind of place us back in that in that time, if you could? Yeah.
03:38 - 04:11
The boys at that point, I had three boys and the oldest was fourteen, and then twelve, and then four. And I think the thing that I think about with the grief that that I went through is that it can be all encompassing at times. But I think I learned really well from his father in law, his father, my father in law, who had lost two sons and two lives prior to me losing Mike, and I just realized that you have to live life. Even though Mike is gone, my husband, Mike is gone,
04:12 - 04:38
I have to live and I have to teach the boys how to live every day. You have to be grateful for every day. And so that's kind of where we started. But, you know, it takes a while. And that's the thing. It took a long time for me. I think it took almost over a decade, maybe eleven years before I felt like I got to the point, and I could not projected when it would have happened, but suddenly at one point, I realized that I've gotten over it.
04:39 - 05:01
And when I say that, I say, you don't, you don't ever really get over it, but you learn how to cope with it. You are able to put that grief up on a shelf and pull it down when you know you need to. But you can, you feel like a sense of peace. You come to peace with it. As you're speaking, I think a lot about Sheryl Sandberg's book
05:02 - 05:13
called Option B, which she published after the very untimely, very unfortunate, tragic death of her husband, he was also quite young. She also was a mother.
05:14 - 05:43
And, you know, she was famously quoted as saying something along the lines of, well, option A is gone. Right. So you got to deal with option B ,to your point of, this happened to you, it becomes a defining moment for you. And she talks a lot about how the various stages of grief, which I think you've talked about as well, that you just said, well, you got to a point where you were over it, but it took a decade. Right.
05:43 - 06:01
And I wonder if in kind of providing advice to others who find themselves in this situation at a young age with young kids, you could think back to those first couple months a little bit. And what would you share as advice in that really painful, horrible period?
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What would you say looking back at yourself then? Yeah, I think one of the most important things is to be gentle and kind with yourself and to allow yourself to have that moment, that time. And especially when you have children, you have to, mothers are just going to be the strong one for their kids. There's, that's just who we are. That's what mothers are.
06:24 - 06:55
But you do have to allow time for yourself as well. And so you've got to kind of think about how you can plan your life to do that and to get some help when you need it and to rely on family and friends. And it's interesting how, you'll see that relationships tend to change after someone dies, because everyone, everyone has a different understanding and perception of death and some people can manage it very well and others can't. So some of the people that you would think would be the ones to help you the most are not able to deal with it.
06:55 - 07:09
And you kind of you might be getting angry about it first, but then after time, perhaps you'll forgive them because that's just who they are. And then the people who, these people rise up that you didn't really, maybe you weren't even that close to,
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But now all of a sudden they're there for you when you need it. And so it's a great way to forge your relationships and make some relationships even stronger. But you do want to take time for yourself and be gentle with yourself. You will get through it. You really will. Everyone has their own timeline, their own perspective on it. But you will get through it.
07:35 - 08:00
Right, and you have no choice, to your point and Sheryl's point, and especially as a mother, I think one of the interesting things you had talked about was how differently your boys dealt with that grief and how, you know, one of the reasons it took over a decade in many ways to be able to move forward in some way is I think, I think, you said to me earlier, they had different experiences at different ages and then it continued to evolve.
08:01 - 08:26
And in the book or the New York Times article that talks about your experience and highlighted your story, there was a really notable and memorable paragraph about your four-year-old and how he spoke to the press that came that day and what he had to say about Mike and how he just so succinctly said, well, you know, Daddy's in heaven now and he's doing good things up there.
08:26 - 08:41
And I was just so struck by that experience. Right. And then over time, how that changed. That was an interesting moment because we had the memorial service just days after his death on the base.
08:41 - 09:11
But when we walked out into the parking lot, there was this huge gaggle of reporters. And Ricky, who was my youngest, came in front of us and started talking to the reporters and telling of the story about how his dad had died and how he was now going to be an angel in heaven. And then that evening on the news, the reporter showed Ricky riding on his scooter saying, you might not think that four-year-old Ricky McMahon would really understand about his father dying, but you'd be wrong. And then they showed Ricky, you know, beautifully talking about his dad.
09:11 - 09:21
But I think my point goes to that. Even though he could talk about it, he seemed to understand it, it was a four-year-old's understanding.
09:21 - 09:54
And so the grief that a mother has to deal with her children is that the children, over time, their brains cognitively grow and mature and they can understand that death differently. So now they have to re-grieve it because they have another deeper level of understanding of what really happened and what that loss means to them. So now I've watched all three boys progressing through this grief from childhood into being young adults, and it really did, I think, extend the grief for our whole family.
09:54 - 10:09
And I think that affects all people and all mothers in different ways. And I think that you just have to accept it and help them in those stages and be strong yourself. Yeah, well, thank you for sharing that.
10:09 - 10:20
You know, going back to those really, really emotional, raw moments, I just was so struck by the, kind of the innocence of the kids and at different ages how they experienced it.
10:20 - 10:47
And I think in terms of pivoting to advice, right, to our listeners in your story, it feels to me like there's some really key messages in there. Patience, kindness, acceptance, understanding that, you know, there's probably this kind of conflict in your brain about wanting normal to return and what does normal look like, but then accepting the stages of grief, which so naturally take time for that to occur.
10:47 - 11:16
And I think in terms of kind of even bringing it back even more closer to what we do, of course, as financial advisers, I think we have to think about how that affects decision making around those decisions. Right. Because my personal experiences have been sometimes there's this desire to make big changes or act now and this very overwhelming state. And I want you to talk about your experience with money around that time and how it affected you as well.
11:16 - 11:44
But my advice is to wait before any big changes happen and everybody finds themselves in a different state. But honestly, we talked about this with the retirement transition too. Give yourself the grace of time because that grace and patience will pay off in spades. It's very rarely the right thing to do to make big decisions very quickly. So could you comment on your own experience about becoming the primary financial decision maker and how you thought about those things?
11:44 - 12:12
Sure. And that's such a great question, because for me, Mike and I have over the number of years, we had kind of taken on certain either traditional or non-traditional roles within our family, one example would be, Mike was really a better cook than I was. And he was the one who would use the breadmaker, you know, that kind of thing. And we both cooked. But he was much better at it. And when it came to financial things, he was just a natural numbers analyst.
12:12 - 12:32
And so he was really good at deciding, you know, how we should handle investments. And so, but I was really good at the monthly, pay the bills each month and take care of of that type of process. You know, more the mundane, if you will, day to day operations. And so we kind of had a great balance that way.
12:32 - 12:53
You know, he would do the investments and the taxes and look at the big picture and then I would do the daily bill for the monthly reckoning. But when the time came for me to decide when he passed, what type of changes to make or what to do with, you know, insurance monies and things like that, I froze, you know, and I was, you know, I'm smart.
12:53 - 13:15
I have got a Bachelor of Science and Engineering, but I just did not feel like I could make a decision. And honestly, I sat and probably luckily, I sat on making any kind of decision for over a year, maybe even two. I didn't do that necessarily... And I think your advice is very good, is to just hold off and not make any big decisions.
13:15 - 13:35
But I felt like I needed to take the opportunity to give the boys some control back and I needed them to be smart financially. And so in addition to kind of holding off on financial decisions, I really emphasized with them the importance of, at a very early age, like, how to handle credit cards and not to have credit card debt.
13:35 - 13:53
And luckily, you know, I must have done a good job with it because all three of them have been really good about that kind of thing and started investing really early. One thing that children really need, a loss like that, a loss of a parent, if their world is being turned upside down, they don't trust in the world.
13:53 - 14:13
And so by providing that financial security and ensuring that they understand how to provide their own financial security, that gives them some control back. So much wisdom in your response, right. The control for children, the idea of, you know, like you said, you and Mike were partners.
14:13 - 14:38
You were, we all know that it's hard to split things equally. There's no equal, there's just a balancing of an enormous number of tasks, whether working inside the home or working outside the home. How do you even split the financial aspects? Because you and I talked about and you just laid out there's the bill paying versus the investing versus the insurance. So no matter what, there's going to be some aspect of newness in a transition like this where you weren't involved in everything.
14:38 - 15:01
But what you've said is really the whole reason we have this show, because women being engaged with their finances, knowing where they stand, and truly having a partnership from day one, whether they're the breadwinner or half of the breadwinner or supporting the breadwinning from working from home, knowing where you are at is step one because you have this enormous tragedy.
15:02 - 15:17
But there was this help in the fact that you knew where you stood and you were in a good place from a financial security perspective, because can you imagine having this tragedy and then at the same time learning that you're not secure financially, that you hadn't planned for where you're at?
15:17 - 15:47
Right. That can you imagine adding that on top of everything else you lived through? I just want to say a big thank you to my financial advisers. I had a couple of them over the years. And honestly, because I was so frozen in certain aspects of my financial thing, although I didn't make any decisions, I still have things like the taxes I had to take care of. I was frozen on that. I can remember things that I was good at, the paying the bills part, I became not so good at.
15:47 - 16:20
And I can remember walking into my financial advisor's office one day and if he became more of a friend than a financial adviser, which is what I needed at that point, and he gave me a cup of coffee and he helped me, he literally helped me mail some bills that need to be paid. I mean, that level of concern and support was what I needed and, you know, he didn't have to help me mail a letter. But it was what I needed at that moment and I appreciated it. And years down the road, I realized how much help that really was. Yeah, yeah.
16:20 - 16:51
I also want to pick up on one thing you said during this time, and then we should talk about your professional career, because that's a whole separate topic of what, you know, what a trailblazer you are, how you give back to women. And one of the first women in the military at West Point, just incredible stories there. There's one other little thing that you said during your time of grief that I find very interesting. And also Sheryl Sandberg confirmed this. And again, I can't recommend her book enough, Option B, because it actually changed how I engage with those going through a loss.
16:51 - 17:13
And what you said was that the people that you were surprised by, that came out of the woodwork, the people that were willing to engage, that reached out, that said, that didn't say what can I do, but just did something. That's what Sheryl Sandberg talked about a ton. That you don't have the answers to the question of what can I do. You're trying to put one foot in front of the other and regroup after an unthinkable loss.
17:13 - 17:46
And I remember in her book she talked about the person that just parked outside her house and sent her text and said, hey, I just dropped off four burgers and fries. Like, you have no idea whether her kids wanted to eat burgers and fries. But it wasn't like, what can I bring you for dinner? You know, there's, of course, these dinner sign ups, but just did it. And then that person drove away. And this concept of, I also think for our listeners, there's value in this story of thinking about what we can all do to help each other during times of loss. And I loved that you said the same thing, that people you weren't close with
17:46 - 18:03
Suddenly you became, right, that just showed up. So that was my personal takeaway that I thought that was so interesting that you seconded what Sheryl Sandberg had also said. And the part that you mentioned is, don't just talk about, don't offer things, don't say,
18:04 - 18:30
Oh, just call me if you need help. Because you're not going to call. You can't. You're frozen. You're lost. You're not even going to think to call. You know, there's one woman who just came to my house and literally was there to answer the door and answer phone calls for those, that first week. There was a woman who came to my house a month later to help me take down my Christmas tree. Another woman came to the house because I had wanted to collect up,
18:30 - 18:54
I had 27 nieces and nephews. And so it was a huge loss to my extended family as well as my own family. And I wanted to send each of them, Mike had probably 40 or 50 t-shirts from different PT units that he, units he had been. And I wanted to send every one of them one of his T-shirts with one of those, the little memorial bracelets. And that woman helped me do that.
18:54 - 19:15
Mail those out. Yeah. When people can just do something for you. And, you know, my financial adviser would call me maybe once a month just to check in. And I think that we could all do that to people we know going through a loss just because once the funeral and all the hoopla is over and all the family leave, it's about the following months and it's the months after that.
19:15 - 19:50
All those first anniversaries of, that are that are hard to do. And even 20 years later, I find myself sometimes on, like, Mike's birthday wondering, is anybody going to call me today? It's good advice for us all and thank you for sharing that. OK, so it's almost like, let's go to episode 2, because I have a feeling that we can have multiple episodes of this conversation. And for those of you listening as part of one big episode, terrific. Hang on, because now it's going to get even more interesting, right, that there's, let's talk about your experience at West Point.
19:50 - 19:53
You were there in the 1980s.
19:53 - 20:26
I think that's right. One of the first cohorts of women to attend West Point. You had said it was three years ahead of you that the first women attended West Point, so you were in the freshman class when the seniors were the first women. So what was that like? Did you feel like you were supported as one of the first women at West Point? I was very lucky in that my experiences there were good. I had a really good four year experience there academically, physically, spiritually. I had a lot of support.
20:26 - 20:52
I had a great sponsor, a colonel and his wife, who were kind of my surrogate parents. So my experiences while I was a cadet were actually pretty good. But I have to say that looking back at my experience now, I have a very interesting perspective because of some of my subsequent experiences. So I did start in 1979. The first class graduated in 1980 that, following year.
20:53 - 21:19
So I was able to watch those trailblazer women. But then to see the change just in those four years was really amazing, that the women that were coming in were so much stronger and more confident and each successive class came into West Point. But not only that, the leadership, while I was at West Point was really good. They were very supportive of what was happening, but it wasn't always like that.
21:19 - 21:45
The senior general on post, the, we call the superintendent, you would think of as the president of the college, he was brought in specifically because things weren't going that well. The first women started in 1976. And those first couple of years were really tough, mainly because that general who was the president of the college, the superintendent had said women aren't coming here, over my dead body.
21:45 - 22:14
I mean, he was on record as saying that officially and the Army spent a number of years fighting this change that, you know, the Ford administration said we're going to make, we're going to look at this. We're going to, we think this should happen. And then when I came back, by the time I had my cadet experience, then you came back. I did. I came back as a colonel. And now you come back and here you're assigned to be the special assistant to the superintendent for diversity and human relations, right?
22:14 - 22:45
That's right. And it was the first time they just created the position. There had been a number of problems at some of the other academies with, you know, sexual assault and with diversity. And so West Point was trying to get ahead of the ball game. And so they brought me in specifically for this job. And at the time, it was actually the compassionate reassignment that the army gave me leaving away after Mike's death. But it gave me a really interesting perspective to see what was going on at West Point at the time.
22:45 - 23:04
And I think there was a cyclical period where there were times things were going really well, you know, in the early 70s, they didn't want women there. And then the women were brought in. And I think there was a huge, great effort, some great leadership to say, let these, these women are going to be successful and it's going to happen.
23:05 - 23:33
And then to the point where a decade later, the first female cadet was announced to be the number one cadet leading the Corps of cadets, which was a big position for the women cadets. But then, unfortunately, I think when the men of the early 70s became the leaders of the institution, about the time that I came back as a colonel, there was this unconscious bias that they still had. And so there were some difficulties.
23:33 - 24:06
And on top of it, you had, the military was now struggling with the decision to open combat arms positions to women. And so there was all this re-engage discussion of, should women be in combat arms? So unfortunately, if you have some units in the army who don't have women in them, they think they're elitist and they think they're better than the rest of the army. And so when that broke, when that final barrier broke, that was a huge change. And so now I think we're finally starting to see some real successes.
24:06 - 24:30
Plus, we also got beyond, now the people leading the academies are from the 80s eras and even entering into the 90s era. So these are men and women, both men and women now, who have spent their entire career, to include when they were cadets, having leadership from both men and women in a very impactful way.
24:30 - 24:55
So it was interesting for me to see that gradual up and down change. Yeah. And you had said West Point, you felt like led the way. I mean, first of all, you saw it very early on, then you came back many years later. And I think what you're saying is obviously there's fits and starts. But if you look back at where we are today in 2021, compared to when you entered West Point as one of the first classes, and I don't have the stats on this.
24:55 - 24:57
I wouldn't expect you to have the stats.
24:57 - 25:31
But there are women in combat positions today. I think there's been women that have become Navy SEALs and Marine Rangers, right, the highest level, most elite units out there. I mean, I have the utmost respect and they're passing the tests that are not in any way adjusted for them. Correct. The same kind of physical requirements. It's unbelievable. I have no words for that. I just have the greatest awe and respect for these women. So it feels like we should have come a really long way with those achievements.
25:31 - 25:47
Oh, yeah, we, it's amazing. And those women are still trailblazers. You know, you might think I'm a trailblazer, but I think these women are, continue to be trailblazers because this was an area that I couldn't do. You know, now these women are, like you said, they are rangers, they're in the special forces.
25:47 - 26:19
I have two classmates, male classmates that, one is like the senior officer in the special forces community. The other is the superintendent at West Point now. And both of them would tell you, you know, to the letter, that the standards are just as high, if not higher. In fact, I tell a great story where, many years ago, actually, if this is a little bit of an old story, but it's a great story where I want to say, it was probably in the 90s, the late 90s, there was a woman who was the head of the Department of Physical Education.
26:19 - 26:43
They used to call it the master of the sword. And it was very unusual. It's the first time a woman had been in that position and people would say, oh, the old graduates rolling over in their graves. But some of the old grads would come to, back to the academies for reunions. And in one case, some of these disgruntled old grads were, well, you know, are these women competing at the same physical standards as the men?
26:44 - 27:05
And this woman, who was the head of the Department of Physical Education, showed two slides on the screen and they were two different PT standards. And she said, I'm showing you two standards. One is the average of the men of the class of 95, and the other is the average of the women of the class. And the women have higher scores.
27:06 - 27:15
So yeah. Working for it. Oh, interesting. So interesting. Well, just amazing.
27:15 - 27:17
Your life journey. Your career journey.
27:17 - 27:50
Jeanette, it's been such an honor to sit down and talk to you and thank you so much for sharing, you know, so much real personal tragedy. Right. And professional accomplishment and all of your learnings within both. I listen to you and I think that in our conversation I hear silver linings, right? I hear silver linings and I hear parallels between your personal journey and your professional journey in many ways. And before we close out, I just wonder if maybe you want to comment on those and how you view that, where you did see silver linings in this journey?
27:51 - 27:56
Oh, yeah. I think that I'm an eternal optimist. Always see the glass as half full.
27:56 - 28:26
There always is something, you know, even during this pandemic, you know, even the things that have happened to our country, what happened at the Capitol two weeks ago, when there was that riot. But I think that when you look at the way the country has turned it around and had that beautiful inauguration ceremony where they transformed the Capitol into such a beautiful show of what democracy is, I think that our country is just trying to move forward as a leader in the world.
28:26 - 29:00
I hear you and I second that. One last question for you. I know we've gone probably longer than we should, but I do ask this question of all of our guests, this concept of funding your favorites, which to us means when you think about intentionality with your money, are there some life lessons or experiences that you'd want to share? You already talked about how with your kids you spent so much time teaching them. And I think that was really notable. But don't want to answer for you. So do you want to comment on how you think about intentionality with money and funding your favorites?
29:01 - 29:15
I think the key to that question is intentionality. I think you have to be intentional. And if you're not being intentional, you kind of are anyway. You know, if you're not being intentional, that's a decision that you're making.
29:15 - 29:29
If you're not paying attention to what you choose to do with your money, then that is a decision. So I think you want to consciously think about it hard, strong, and consider what your options are.
29:30 - 29:52
I would really encourage financial independence as a woman. You know, if you are in a relationship, I would still encourage you to have your own funds and your own, make your own decisions, because then you will be in a better position should you find yourself by yourself again like I did, you know. So I think encouraging financial independence is the first step.
29:52 - 30:15
And then having it, having a plan and making it happen, just taking it away first so that you can have a portfolio at the end of the day. I think that would do it, that would lead you to financial success in the end. Thank you so much, Jeanette. It's been really a pleasure to spend this time with you and hope to see you again soon. Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
30:17 - 30:41
If you enjoyed the podcast and haven't subscribed to our show, please go to Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you listen to subscribe and rate us. You can also find us on Twitter at BernsteinPWM or find me, Beata Kirr, on LinkedIn. Bernstein: Making money meaningful for individuals, families, and foundations for over 50 years. Visit us at Bernstein.com.
- Beata Kirr
- Co-Head—Investment & Wealth Strategies