Army path leads to breaking down barriers
June 13, 2012
Looking over her 31-year Army career, Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown has failed miserably at meeting two of her goals.
As a 1981 graduate of West Point's second coed class, Brown set her sights on, one, branching from air defense artillery to military intelligence as soon as she could and, two, leaving the Army after five years of obligatory service.
"Those are two goals I did not accomplish," she said with a smile. "I failed miserably at those two goals because I fell in love with the air defense artillery branch and the Army. My career has been an absolutely phenomenal experience. Does it stretch you? Absolutely. I've done things I didn't think I could do."
And the Army is happy for that.
Ever since her Army career began in 1981, Brown has been breaking down barriers. Her graduation and commissioning into combat arms, air defense artillery, made her the first woman from El Paso, Texas, to graduate from West Point. She went on to be the first woman to command a Patriot missile battalion. As the commander of the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, she was the first woman to command an air defense artillery brigade and to lead that brigade into combat during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She was also the first woman to serve as a Fort Bliss, Texas, chief of staff and the first female general officer in the air defense artillery branch.
Brown, the director of test for the Missile Defense Agency, is responsible for planning, programming, budgeting, staffing and managing a Ballistic Missile Defense System test program to support the fielding of an integrated and effective capability for the war fighter. She was promoted to major general in January while serving at the Missile Defense Agency.
"I saw my first female general at West Point (the general of the Women's Army Corps) and then I didn't see another female general for years," Brown said. "People do react to you very positively. They tell me 'I'm bragging about you.' I take things seriously, but not myself. When I look in the mirror, I still see second lieutenant Brown. I just don't get wrapped up in it all. For me, it's not a big deal."
Brown, who insists in all public correspondence on using her middle initial for Virginia in honor of her mother who she is named after, is one of the Army's up-and-coming female generals. She was assigned to Redstone in 2011 on the heels of the Army's only female four-star general, Gen. Ann Dunwoody, commander of the Army Materiel Command, coming to Redstone with AMC's move.
Yet, for Brown, it's not a gender thing.
"People who are qualified and want to serve, they serve," she said. "There are opportunities to serve regardless of gender.
"I know the Army is looking at the potential of expanding opportunities for women in the infantry, armor and field artillery branches. I think that's great as long as they are qualified."
She has proven her qualifications time and time again, with a Legion of Merit with four oak leaf clusters and a Bronze Star Medal among her recognition awards.
Brown's artillery career has included several command positions, including serving as a battalion commander for the 52nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 32nd Army Air Defense Command; a Patriot battalion commander for the 43rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 108th Air Defense Artillery Brigade; commander of the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, III Corps; chief of staff and deputy commander of the Army's Air Defense Center and assistant commandant of the Army's Air Defense School at Fort Bliss; and deputy commander for sustainment at Fort Lewis, Wash., and deputy commander for sustainment for the Multi National Corps-Iraq.
"Personally, what I've experienced in the Army has been wonderful," she said. "It has offered me all the opportunities in the world. I've commanded. I've gone to grad school. I've gotten to do everything I've wanted to do and more. I've loved what I've done so much that it's kept me in the Army."
With each assignment, Brown has stretched her leadership and decision making skills. And that goes without saying at her current assignment.
"This is the hardest job I've ever done," she said. "The depth and breadth and speed in which we do things is challenging. In test, we are working with three different commands and the strategic importance of what we do can really cause you to pause.
"It's exciting. It's huge. It makes me think deeper about the decisions we make, and their second and third order effects to our nation and other nations."
Another challenging assignment involved commanding Soldiers in combat. In 1983, she commanded a brigade during the initial invasion of Iraq, making her the only woman to command a combat arms brigade in combat. She led battalions providing air cover and artillery support to U.S. ground forces fighting their way toward Baghdad across Iraq's southern desert. Her troops shot down Iraqi Scud missiles. Several of her Soldiers, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, were ambushed and taken hostage, in the first major crisis of the early days of the invasion.
Then, on the other side of the war in 2009-10, Brown was equally challenged as she served as the commander in charge of the responsible withdrawal of troops from Iraq. She oversaw the retrenchment of the nation's vast military enterprise, a task made more difficult in a country still simmering from insurgency and rising political tension ahead of a January national election.
As a Soldier, she has never backed down from a challenge. While the Army's air defense artillery branch is her passion, Soldiers have kept Brown in the Army.
"I'm passionate about what I do. I follow my heart. As long as I love what I'm doing, I'm going to keep doing it," she said.
"I love working with Soldiers and they never cease to amaze me. They are resilient, innovative, creative and remarkable. When they are put in very difficult situations they are absolutely amazing. Because of them, I love serving. I will serve until they tell me to leave."
For that reason, she is especially looking forward to this week's softball games with the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. She will be a member of the Team Redstone team that will play against the wounded warriors in their first game on Friday at 5 p.m. at the Metro Kiwanis Sportsplex on Patton Road just north of Drake Avenue.
"Soldiers are a special breed," Brown said. "And I think the resiliency of our wounded Soldiers is amazing. They're tough and they can accomplish a lot of things. Beating a bunch of us is probably going to be way too easy for them."
Even before she joined the Army, Brown was familiar with that resiliency. Her father retired from the Army a year before she was born, although she enjoyed many of the Army's family benefits growing up in El Paso, near Fort Bliss. But while her brothers participated in JROTC in high school, Brown's route to the Army's service academy was set only when she found out about the opportunity it could provide.
"When the Army's service academy opened for women, it didn't even dawn on me what that might mean," Brown said. "I wanted to be a doctor, and I wanted to go to college and medical school and do it on the Army's dime."
During her four years as a cadet, she learned what it was like to stand up for herself even when male cadets saw her as a threat. She learned to adapt and be strong. She learned to seek out those who looked past her gender to the Soldier she wanted to be.
"There were not a whole lot of role models out there for women, and I relate more to men," she said. "There were not many female influences at the academy and in a combat arms branch dominated by men. Today, I think a lot of folks are gender neutral. I am grateful for my family upbringing, values and experiences, and for the opportunities I've had because folks were gender neutral."
She's seen the Army evolve from a time when women Soldiers had to leave the service when they got pregnant to an Army that works with female Soldiers who want to mix motherhood and a military career. Through the years, she has supported fellow female West Point cadets in the telling of their own stories, even adding her own testimonial in a compilation of West Point stories from female cadets called "Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point's Long Gray Line" written by Donna McAleer.
"I've seen the significance of impactful leadership, the leadership that makes a Soldier do the right thing even when others aren't looking," she said. "One of the best things the Army did was come out with Army values. My Army values and the values my parents raised me with are one in the same. But sometimes it's breaking glass for some because they didn't grow up that way. Army values do more than change behavior. They change attitudes."
Even with strong values to back her up, there have been some rough spots along the way for Brown. There was a point in her career when she thought about leaving the Army, when the command climate of her unit made her uncomfortable and wonder if she should pursue another career path. There were times in her career when her fellow female West Point graduates made decisions to leave the Army to focus on their families, causing Brown to question where she was going in life.
But she knew deep down inside that, no matter what, she had more to give to the Army.
"We all have to make sacrifices, every one of us. Whether male or female, we have to make choices to stay where we are or to get out," she said.
"I don't fault anyone for their choices. Do I think women sacrifice more than men to be in the Army? Certainly, during nine months of pregnancy they do. That's a very unique and gender specific experience and sacrifice. Or, when they feel they are sacrificing their family for their career. That's particular to the individual. Some will leave because of that while others have stayed and felt good about their career because they have found a balance. It's about the choices we make."
Brown's family has made a lot of choices in service to their country. Her oldest sister is a colonel in the Army Reserves. She has twin brothers, one a retired Army lieutenant colonel and the other a retired Air Force colonel. She also has a sister who is an active duty nurse at Fort Bragg, N.C. And another sister is a teacher. Brown has served in theater at the same time as a few of her siblings.
Throughout her career, Brown has followed three personal rules -- do your best, don't try to be someone you're not and set your own boundaries.
"I want to continue to serve," she said. "The Army has more than fulfilled my expectations. And the support we get from the public makes what we do every day to serve our country an absolute joy."