By William Roulett
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we at the National Guard Memorial Museum reflect on the life of Major General Roberta V. Mills. Mills accomplished much in her 83 years, including a 33-year career in the US Air Force (USAF) Reserve and Air National Guard (ANG). She was the first nurse appointed to ANG Assistant for Nursing, Military Airlift Command, and the first ANG Nursing Assistant to the Chief, USAF Nurse Corps. More notably, she was the first woman to be promoted to the ranks of Brigadier General and Major General in the history of the National Guard of the United States.
Roberta Mae Vilven was born in Alma, Kansas, in 1938. At seven, she moved to Houston, where she later graduated from high school in 1956 and Sacred Heart Dominican College in 1960 with a Bachelor of Science in nursing. From 1961 to 1963, she earned her Master of Science in nursing from St. Louis University. Meanwhile, Mills was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the USAF Reserve in 1962.
A citizen-soldier, Mills pursued dual careers as a civilian and ANG nurse. While in St. Louis, she worked at St. Mary’s Hospital before moving to Memphis, Tennessee, where she worked at Methodist Hospital, City of Memphis Hospitals, and Baptist Memorial Hospital. She rose to the position of CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association and Assistant Dean at the University of Tennessee’s College of Nursing.
Like Captain Norma Parsons-Erb, the subject of one of our Minuteman Minute videos, Mills paved the way for women in uniform. She served as a clinical nurse in the USAF Reserve until transitioning to the Tennessee ANG in 1966. In 1985, she received the ANG Outstanding Nurse of the Year Award, which led to her selection as the first ANG Assistant for Nursing. Subsequently, she was named the first ANG Nursing Assistant to the Chief, USAF Nurse Corps. In that position, she earned her first star during a Pentagon ceremony on April 27, 1992, the first woman in the National Guard’s 356-year history to do so.
Mills was reassigned to ANG Assistant to the Director of the ANG in 1993. She earned her second start while serving as Assistant Director in 1994, once again the first woman in the history of the National Guard to do so. She retired in 1995 after 33 years of service.
She married Major General Dan C. Mills, also of the TN ANG, in 1970. Roberta and Dan believed in the importance of preserving the history of the National Guard, and both donated to the National Guard Memorial Museum. As a significant donor, she was inducted into the National Guard Educational Foundation’s Legion de Lafayette in 1993. The National Guard Memorial Building’s Wall of Honor immortalizes her name.
Roberta Mills passed away on April 20, 2021. Her estate saw to the donation of several uniforms, awards, and other objects to the National Guard Educational Foundation, where they joined her husband’s collection. The NGEF currently displays some of her things in a temporary exhibit in our museum.