Tom Smart, Deseret News
In this 2012 file photo, Donna McAleer gives her concession speech following a failed run for Congress. West Point graduate McAleer said the nomination of Maj. Gen Michelle Johnson as the first woman to lead the U.S. Air Force Academy is a "phenomenal pick."

PARK CITY — The nomination of Maj. Gen Michelle Johnson as the first woman to lead the U.S. Air Force Academy is a "phenomenal pick," says West Point graduate Donna McAleer.

Johnson, a 1981 graduate of the Air Force Academy, was nominated Friday as superintendent of the academy, located near Colorado Springs, Colo. The three-star general has served as a pilot, an academy professor, and adviser on cyber security as well as a NATO chief of staff for operations and intelligence. 

"When you look at her resume, she's got a broad range of experience. It starts with gaining that tactical competence at the junior officer level, the operational experience at the mid-grade level and the strategic responsibility at the senior level," said McAleer, a former Utah congressional candidate.

McAleer said knows Johnson from their membership in AcademyWomen, a professional organization that supports women from nation's officer development programs. McAleer is a 1987 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Johnson's nomination, which requires Senate approval, was "a strong, educated pick to lead our next generation of Air Force officers," said McAleer, who served as a commissioned Army officer in Germany at the end of the Cold War and has worked in business and nonprofit leadership professionally. 

The Air Force has been ahead of other branches of the military in removing restrictions of women in certain roles, McAleer said. As a result, female Air Force officers have had access to a wide array of opportunties.

For instance, the Air Force dropped gender restrictions on fighter pilots following the first Gulf War, McAleer said. 

"An airplane doesn't know gender. Dropping bombs doesn't know gender. Targeting targets doesn't know gender. The Air Force made a strategic decision to open up those branches to women and now we're seeing women have excelled in those branches and can compete now at the highest levels. This is important for junior officer development and development of our Air Force as a whole," McAleer said. 

McAleer, who was a member of the national bobsled team, said she hopes Johnson's nomination will also signal a sea change at the Air Force Academy, which has experienced a growing number of criminal sexual assault and misconduct cases. Charges have been filed against six cadets since January 2012. 

"If we look at the DOD (Department of Defense) reports on sexual harassment, the academies are not faring very well. I think this (nomination) sends a very different message. I do think we're going to see some changes," McAleer said.

Last year, Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz was picked lead the Coast Guard Academy, the first woman to lead a service academy.

Johnson's nomination coincides with an announcement by the Pentagon to open thousands of combat opporunities previously not available to women.

"This is an issue not only for recruitment but for retention and readiness as a whole," McAleer said.

McAleer said she looks forward to the day that the appointment of women to key positions in the nation's military is not the stuff of news reports. 

"It's significant but soon we hope it becomes commonplace," she said.

Stosz's appointment and nomination of Johnson remain significant milestones.

"This is just huge. It's a strong message and it's the right right message," McAleer said of Johnson's nomination. "This is an educated and thoughtful nomination of an appointee to lead that institution."