The impoverished despair that fueled Baltimore's riots is personal to Major Gen. Linda Singh – and so is the city's healing

By Susan Keating
May 05, 2015 10:10 AM
Maryland National Guard

Major General Linda Singh was scarcely two months into her role as leader of the Maryland National Guard when she was tasked with restoring peace in a setting that touches her literally at home: Baltimore, where she reports daily to work.

Called in by Governor Larry Hogan in response to civil unrest in the wake of riots and looting surrounding the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, Singh may have been new to her post – but not to the dynamics of despair and deprivation.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Singh, 50, spoke about her personal background and how it applies to situations she encountered in Baltimore.

A Tough Childhood

“Ten of us lived in four rooms,” Singh says of life in her grandmother’s house in rural Frederick County. “We had no running water, no indoor toilet. We walked to the spring with a bucket and had to fetch water from a spring. We heated it on the stove. I didn’t have new toys or new clothes. To me, that was normal.”

Family circumstances prompted the young girl to leave home at age 15, working to pay for a rented room while also attending high school. Soon even that proved too difficult, forcing her to leave her rented room.

Linda L. Singh as a child in Frederick County
Courtesy Major General Linda Singh

“I stayed with friends. I slept on porches, or in the back office of a pretzel stand at the mall,” she says. An honor roll student who played varsity basketball, the teenager struggled. Her grades slipped. She dropped out of one high school, and then another.

Still, she did not sink into despair. “I had to keep my inner fortification,” Singh says. “I had to keep going and keep pushing.

To War and Back

“I joined the National Guard at age 17,” Singh says. “Eventually I deployed to Kosovo and Afghanistan. I learned there how important it is to understand other cultures and people – to recognize we all bring skills to the table.

“I learned to negotiate,” she adds. “I learned how important it is to be genuine with other people, and to treat others with respect.”

Lessons Applied

When Maryland’s National Guard was called up to keep the peace in Baltimore, Singh took the assignment both seriously and personally. “I didn’t sleep well during those first days,” she says. “This has been tough.

“We live in the United States,” Singh adds. “We train to go to other countries. When you have to resort to protecting your own cities, when we have to get on the streets in our own home, that’s tough.

Major General Linda L. Singh
Maryland National Guard

“This is home to me. A lot of my troops live here. Now we are on a mission, right here directly at home. We don’t take that lightly.”

Singh applies lessons both from her childhood and from her service toward her current mission.

“I have insights into what some of the people are feeling,” she says. “I have insights into the sense that everyone is against us; no one hears us; no one cares. The experiences are very similar to my own.

“The people being most prominent in this situation have power for leadership,” Singh adds. “If we can find a way to tap into that in a positive, constructive way, that would help us move forward.”

The last of the National Guard troops are expected to pull out of Baltimore by Tuesday after a week of peacekeeping in the city. Singh hopes that in her time there, she’s inspired kids to strive for better.

“When I saw little children, I make a point of asking, what do you want to be when you grow up? I want them to think about goals. I want them to know they can succeed, just like I did.”