ANNAPOLIS — Maj. Gen. Linda Singh leads the state’s military operations and serves on the governor’s cabinet, but her road to success wasn’t an easy one. The 29th adjutant general of Maryland dropped out of high school and was homeless for a time before enlisting in the National Guard.
This year, a week before Veteran’s Day, Singh, 51, addressed youth from the Department of Juvenile Services to motivate them to turn around their own lives from what might seem like a low point.
“Hanging out in the streets … that gets you nowhere. Other people in the streets are going to lead you right to the next street corner,” Singh told them. “You are going to have to say, ‘I’ve had enough, I am going to take control, and I am going to be somebody.’”
During her first time speaking to juvenile services youth, Singh shared her life story with department veterans, staff members and about 20 teens from various placement centers in the state who all gathered Nov. 4 at Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, a detention center in Parkville.
Singh, dressed in a full camouflage military uniform and her hair tied back, stood behind the lectern in the Hickey School gymnasium to address the rows of teens sitting to her left, wearing matching gray sweatshirts and khaki pants.
Singh grew up in Frederick County, living with her grandmother from 3 months old to 9 years old, before moving in with her parents. The then-honor roll student who played basketball had dreams of going to college at the University of Maryland to study engineering — but after moving, she said, things got challenging.
“My mom and I did not necessarily see eye to eye,” she said. “I love my mom dearly, but we did not see eye to eye.”
Living at home became increasingly difficult. She frequently got into arguments with her mother, and became a victim of sexual assault. She ended up leaving and lived on the streets, engaging in poor behaviors, including drinking and smoking, at a young age, she said.
Singh said she had the idea to turn around anything that happened to her into a learning experience instead. So on June 3, 1981, at age 17, she enlisted in the National Guard.
“It’s the choices that you make that will really help you move forward,” Singh said. “Your past does not define you. … Whatever has happened in my past helped to shape who I am, and it did not define who I was meant to become.”
Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Singh as the leader of the Maryland National Guard this year and she assumed the role on Feb. 28. She told the youths that this was her most rewarding experience, having now accomplished so many things she hoped for.
Singh said it’s important to hold oneself accountable for mistakes and to use them as a way to move forward, but also to recognize what one has to offer.
“Each and every single one of you are special. You just have to figure out what your passion is,” she said. “You need to become the best at what you do. You need to become comfortable with who you are, where you’re from — never forget where you’re from.”
Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Sam Abed introduced Singh, mentioning one experience he had seeing her on television following the riots earlier this year in Baltimore City. She helped bring the city out of disorganization, he said.
“It really was a chaotic situation, and the governor called the state of emergency — the next person on the TV screen was General Singh,” Abed said. “And almost immediately, I felt comfort, and I felt safe.”
Abed said the point of bringing someone like Singh to talk to the youth is to bring someone relatable, who won’t just lecture and tell them what to do.
“We’re in the business of teaching these kids that they have opportunities beyond what they’re dealing with now while they’re with DJS,” Abed said. “You don’t get more successful people than Linda Singh, and not only that she’s successful, but within a group of leaders, she’s a leader. that’s a really important thing for our kids to see. “
Ayranna, an 18-year-old at the J. DeWeese Carter Youth Facility in Chestertown, got the opportunity Wednesday to attend Singh’s lecture and said it’s already had an effect on her.
“What (Singh) had to say was very true, our life is based on our choices,” she said. “You can either learn from them or just keep making the same mistakes.”
Ayranna said she realizes that as an 18-year-old, the severity of any mistake she now makes can be serious. But hearing Singh’s story gives her inspiration.
“I’ve been in certain situations, I’ve gotten in trouble and I knew that if I keep getting in trouble, I’m going to eventually go nowhere,” she said. “This stuck with me.”
The event was dubbed a “salute to our veterans” from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services’ C.H.A.M.P.S. program — Changing Habits and Making Progressive Strides — a rewards and intramural sports program that aims to foster relationships and secure positive behavior.
The department took the day to honor about a dozen of its veterans, presenting them with a gift and recognition from Singh. Two boys also made a poster in honor of Veteran’s Day and presented it for the crowd.
“A lot of people don’t always realize that it’s not always where you come from,” Ayranna said, “It’s about where you’re going.”