Many Germans were surprised in December when Ursula von der Leyen was named the country's first female defense minister.
Some people questioned whether a medical doctor with seven children, who championed Germany's generous parental leave policy, was the right choice to shepherd the country's military through the challenges of being a newly minted volunteer force.
Others wondered whether a woman with no military experience could even do the job. The public TV network ARD posted a controversial, photo-shopped image of von der Leyen in a skimpy, Lara Croft-style outfit wielding a gun in each hand.
But von der Leyen — a veteran politician from Lower Saxony who held two previous cabinet posts — has made a career of exceeding everyone's expectations. She quickly shifted the debate in Germany from her qualifications to her plans for the military, including sending more German troops into conflict zones.
Germany's allies – including the United States — have for years demanded the European country take on more responsibility when it comes to ensuring global security. Von der Leyen's predecessors agreed, but were never able to deliver because other German officials refused. The resistance stems from the staunch pacifism that is pervasive in German society since World War II.
Some observers say von der Leyen may be better able to change German minds than previous defense ministers.
"I think she is a person who has the necessary skills to be successful in any political job because she is smart, she is emphatic, she is very disciplined and she knows the rules of the game," says Elisabeth Niejahr, a correspondent for Die Zeit newspaper who has covered the minister for more than a decade.
Open To More Foreign Missions
Von der Leyen recently told Der Spiegel magazine that Germany needs to take on more foreign missions because "due to globalization, distant conflicts are now much closer to Europe."
She suggested in the interview that she and others in German government were wrong to abstain from the U.N. Security Council's vote to intervene in Libya in 2011.
"I saw the aggravation it triggered among our allies, I have learned from the Euro crisis that it is important to discuss things to the end...to find a compromise that all can support," she said.
In the article, Von der Leyen added: "Europe must speak with a single voice in the future when it comes to security policy, but that only works if responsibilities and risks are fairly divided among the partner countries."
But sending more German troops into war zones will take more than a change of German public will, says Tobias Wachner, a 37-year-old retired German captain who served four tours in Afghanistan.
"Only a few soldiers are going to missions so they are very stressed," he explained, adding. "They face problems like PTSD and so on. So having the military people available" to deploy is paramount.
A Time Of Change
The German military is undergoing structural and funding reforms that have hampered recruitment and sent morale in the 185,000-member-force to its lowest level in 25 years, according to a recent report to parliament from the body's commissioner for the German armed forces.
A separate study by the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences found that more than half of 18,500 German women in uniform report being sexually harassed.
Von der Leyen's plan to reverse such trends is to turn the military into one of the most desirable employers in Germany. She plans to do that by creating a family-friendly workplace for troops, including more part-time opportunities and day-care and making sure those in uniform and their dependents have all the support they need.
That message resonates with Lt. Col. Andre Wuestner, who heads the German Armed Forces Association.
"Soldiers are happy, because in the last four years all they've heard about are cutting costs and structural reforms," he said. "The individual was left dangling in the background. Now people are front and center and it's a great strategy, because the best equipment won't matter if there are no soldiers to use it."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Diplomats and defense officials are in Germany this weekend attending the Munich Security Conference where they'll discuss the civil war in Syria, Iran's nuclear program and other issues. U.S. officials will meet with Germany's new defense minister. Ursula von der Leyen is the first-ever woman to lead Germany's military. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, the appointment of a medical doctor with seven children to run the military hasn't gone over well with everyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAPID GUNFIRE)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Most Germans think of military service as a dangerous job requiring a lot of training, as captured in this TV report. But the country's feisty new defense chief hopes to get Germans to see their armed forces in a new light.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL PLAYING)
NELSON: As an attractive employer offering daycare to dependents on bases like this one in the German capital, as well as other benefits to help soldiers balance their work and personal life.
URSULA VON DER LEYEN: If in the element of this...
NELSON: Speaking on a German talk show, Ursula von der Leyen said making the military more family friendly is among her top priorities. When the moderator asked the defense chief what she actually knows about defense issues, she thought about it for a moment and then said: I know I didn't serve in the military...
LEYEN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: The exchange highlighted von der Leyen's persona as a smart, witty and composed politician. Die Zeit newspaper correspondent Elisabeth Niejahr has covered the popular, petite minister from Lower Saxony for more than a decade.
ELISABETH NIEJAHR: She has changed German politics. She has really put agenda and family issues on the agenda and saw a lot of people a lot of people, especially women, like her for that.
NELSON: One of them is Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has appointed von der Leyen to three Cabinet posts. Niejahr says the two women are close allies who made it to the top of Germany's male-dominated political arena despite their relatively late start in politics. Unlike many other veteran politicians here, von der Leyen also spent a lot of time living abroad, including four years in Northern California. Niejahr says you won't find von der Leyen at Berlin parties schmoozing with the political elite. Instead, she spends as much time as she can at home with her family.
NIEJAHR: Some people admire her for that but at the same time they hate her for that because she's shows what everybody else is doing and spending their time telling their wives, darling, I cannot be home tonight and all, is not necessary.
NELSON: Von der Leyen also made headlines when she said she will run the defense ministry from her home in Hanover whenever she's not traveling or needed in Berlin. Some analysts here view her appointment to the powerful ministry as a key steppingstone to the top German political post once Merkel retires. It could also be her demise, as it was for her two predecessors. The first one was ousted for plagiarizing his doctorate degree, and the more recent one was reassigned to another ministry following a failed drone project. Niejahr says there's a good chance she could fail on her way to the chancellery.
NIEJAHR: But having said that, I think she is a person who has the necessary skills to be successful in any political job, because she is smart, she is emphatic, she is very disciplined, she knows the rules of the game, she's very good with media and she's very clear about priorities.
NELSON: One priority von der Leyen will talk about this weekend is likely to be a tough sell. She wants more German troops involved in international security operations. That's something Germany's allies have been demanding but it's very unpopular with the pacifist German public. Still, von der Leyen appears to be resonating with German troops, including Captain Jennifer Zauritz.
CAPTAIN JENNIFER ZAURITZ: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She's a 12-year veteran who's expecting her third child in May. She was thinking about leaving the military but she's reconsidering that decision after von der Leyen's pledge to create more part-time positions and other family-friendly opportunities. Many male soldiers are also welcoming von der Leyen's plans. Lieutenant Colonel Andre Wuestner heads the German Armed Forces Association.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL ANDRE WUESTNER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says since conscription ended several years ago, German government officials have concentrated on cutting costs, reforming the military and trying to buy new equipment. That's hurt recruitment in a new all-volunteer force, especially of higher-skilled Germans who are lured away by private companies offering better pay and family friendly environments.
WUESTNER: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Wuestner says von der Leyen's attempt to turn the military in a more attractive employer makes sense because there is no point in outfitting the military with the latest equipment if there aren't enough soldiers to use it. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Munich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.