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ASU alum serving as Arizona's first female adjutant general of the National Guard

Arizona State University alumna Kerry Muehlenbeck was appointed the first female adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard in April.

August 04, 2021
Arizona State University alumna Kerry Muehlenbeck has had a unique career trajectory: She’s taught justice studies, practiced law and served in the Air Force. Now, she’s taken on another new role as the first female adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard.

Brig. Gen. Muehlenbeck, who graduated from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a PhD in justice studies in 2010, had served for nearly 30 years when Gov. Doug Ducey appointed her adjutant general and director of the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs in April.

In her role as adjutant general, Muehlenbeck leads an 8,300-member department and is responsible for managing the day-to-day activities of Arizona's Army and Air National Guard, Joint Programs and the Division of Emergency Management. 

Muehlenbeck’s passion for serving in the military began when she joined the Air Force shortly after she graduated from Indiana University with her Juris Doctorate in 1992.

“When I got through law school, I still didn't quite know what I wanted to do,” Muehlenbeck said. “Most of my friends were getting offers to work at big firms, but those just never appealed to me. I saw a ratty poster in the basement floor of our law school that said, ‘Join the Air Force — become a JAG.’ So I did my research and I interviewed with the (judge advocate general) officer and I ended up joining the Air Force right out of law school.”

She was stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson and stayed there for four years until she got the urge to go back to school. She went on to receive a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of San Diego in 1997.

She then returned to Tucson to work at the Pima County attorney's office, and took a part-time position as a drill status guardsman with the Arizona National Guard. Muehlenbeck said she began feeling restless again because she hadn't quite discovered what she wanted to do, but her ongoing urge to teach remained. She left her job at the Pima County attorney's office and moved to Phoenix to teach at ASU. She went on to enroll as a student as well.

“I sailed through my classes in three years and then I was still searching for what I was going to do with the rest of my life. This whole time I was in the military, going to several military schools. So I always had that as a part-time career,” she said.

After completing her PhD in 2010, Muehlenbeck taught justice studies at Mesa Community College and served as a faculty associate for ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“I've always been a teacher at heart,” Muehlenbeck said. “I hope I continue to be a teacher in my new role too. I know it's a different capacity — I'm not teaching law to undergraduates and I'm not teaching criminal justice — but I think part of being a leader is teaching some key components in whatever area you sit.”

Muehlenbeck said her time at ASU allowed her to expand on her knowledge to become a more well-rounded individual. 

“I was always comfortable as an attorney knowing the black-letter law, but now to blend it with social science: To see how law existed in society was just a different approach for me,” she said. “It was a well-rounded approach. I needed the rounding out. The program and the professors were what attracted me there.”

While at ASU she also gained a number of mentors with whom she remains in touch today.

“The faculty I encountered were good mentors from a personal standpoint in terms of trying to define my interests, where I wanted to go and how I could be useful. While I of course learned the subject matter from them, I think I learned how to be a better person as well,” she said.

Reflecting on her career and what led her to where she is today, Muehlenbeck said that some of her greatest successes have come from her failures.

“I'm proud of my failures. You need to fail so you know which direction to go next. Don't be afraid of failures and fail early because if you don't fail early, they get more painful as you get older,” she said. “I think when you branch out and try new things, you prime yourself to take advantage of different opportunities. When you're young you should try to put yourself out there to experience as much as you can, because half of the battle of figuring out what you want to do is figuring out what you don't like. Sometimes it's a process of elimination.”

Looking toward the future, she said she is honored and humbled to serve as adjutant general and is eager to pick up where her predecessor, Maj. Gen. Michael T. McGuire, left off.

“Gen. McGuire left us in a good place and I hope to continue some of the great things he implemented while adding to his playbook,” she said. “I think I will approach this job much like I approach teaching in the classroom. Encouraging folks to think outside of the box and to fail without fear of repercussion. Failure isn't a bad thing all the time. Sometimes it's a good thing because it creates the next best thing.”

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