Army missile engineer, leader retires after 45 years
July 19, 2012
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Ask those who worked with Senior Executive Service member Robin Buckelew about the legacy of her 45-year civilian career with the U.S. Army and seasoned scientists and engineers will talk about her role as a mentor and her attention to details.
Buckelew retired in July from her role as director for Weapons Development and Integration within the Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center.
AMRDEC Director for Missile Development Steve Cornelius said Buckelew emphasized building expertise in the workforce and making sure young engineers had hands-on experiences that would be useful to program managers and the Army.
"It takes a long time to develop that expertise, and one thing I think she did really well is that she really cared about bringing up that younger generation and giving them the opportunities to do that hands-on work where they really learn their craft."
Buckelew was honored at a retirement ceremony July 12.
"We'll never know how many lives have been saved, how many crises averted, how many battles won as a result of the things that Dr. Buckelew and her team has done, but I can tell you this: the number is high, " said AMRDEC Director Eric Edwards at the ceremony. "When you look back on your career, that's quite a legacy to leave, and I think we're all very proud of you for that."
Buckelew began her federal service in 1967 at a coop student. In fact, it may have been her start as a young coop that led her to actively recruit students to AMRDEC and to retain 80 percent of those she recruited.
"In 1965, I enrolled at the University of Alabama," Buckelew said, "and went to see my freshman adviser. He said, 'Are you majoring in aerospace engineering?' and I said 'Yes.' He said, 'You'll never make it.' Maybe he was right, because that seems like about two minutes ago, and here I am quitting."
She proved the adviser wrong in 1970 when she graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering. She later earned a master's degree and a doctorate from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
The first decade of her career was as an aerospace engineer with the U.S. Army Missile Command. In the early 1980s, Buckelew transitioned to the Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command and then the Strategic Defense Command, where she served as chief engineer and program manager over several projects. She entered Senior Executive Service in 1993.
"All but four years of he 45-year career have been spent at Redstone Arsenal," Edwards said. "She spent four years in the Pentagon doing a couple of assignments, but most of that time has been here. … Nineteen of her 45 years of service has been at the senior executive level, and for all the engineers in the room that's 42.22 percent of her career.
"If you think what's happened on Redstone and the Army and the nation since 1993 and for someone to have been a senior leader in the Army during that time, you can only further imagine the impact she has had in the leadership role she has played."
In 2001, she became director of WDI. "If you think about anything on a missile, those are the functions which her directorate does and has done for many, many years," Edwards said. "That sounds real impressive and looks really good on a chart, but let me put it in an operational context. When you're watching the news you see they talk about a missile strike from an unmanned system. That's most likely a Hellfire, and the integration of that missile onto that unmanned system was born out of her organization and as a result of her leadership."
In the area of aviation, WDI helps equip aircraft with new technology, like the Kiowa Warrior Reduced Weight Missile Launcher. Edwards said, "The most rewarding thing that somebody like Dr. Buckelew or her team could have is the email from that Soldier in Afghanistan that talks about how great that system is, and at the end it says, 'You guys rock.' If you look at any tactical missile system -- TACMS, Javelin, TOW, MLRS, Guided MLRS, Patriot, any of those things -- there's technology out in the field today in the hands of Soldiers that are the direct result of her leadership."
Those within WDI describe Buckelew as a leader in the true sense of the word. "Among her remarkable traits has been her willingness to serve her employees by seriously considering their needs in conjunction with the often demanding and time-sensitive mission needs," said Dr. Jay Loomis, an AMRDEC senior research scientist who works science and technology in the area of radio frequency sensors within WDI.
"Her attention to detail and 'getting it right' were also a hallmark of her tenure," Loomis said. "She always took the time to carefully read through all the Directorate's individual annual performance evaluations while at the same time collaborating with Israel and South Korea on complex internationally important defense capabilities."
WDI senior research scientist Dr. Paul Ruffin recalled Buckelew's attention to detail quite well, especially when it came to reviewing his technical papers. Ruffin was surprised that Buckelew would read the entire documents, which were sometimes 20 pages long.
"The reason I know she reads them is she always has comments," Ruffin said. "One time I tried to pull one on her. I put two papers in there to get them both approved at the same time thinking that she would go through and just approve one of them, get tired of reading and approve them both.
"She read both of them," Ruffin said, showing his surprise. "She said, 'What is this? Two papers?' She's so thorough."
It was Buckelew who secured Ruffin's promotion to Senior Research Scientist. "Before she got here they kept telling me they were going to get me promoted and nothing happened," Ruffin said. "When she got here, the first thing she did was get me promoted. She told me, when she was getting ready to retire, I said, 'I know that you never told me this, but I believe that you got me promoted.' She said, 'I wasn't going to tell you that either, but I did.'"
Buckelew looked into it and the paperwork was lying on someone's desk, he said. She was questioned as to why the Army should choose Ruffin over the other applicants. "She said she came in and took all the applications, went line by line and showed how my application exceeded the rest. I said, 'You mean to tell me you did that for me?' I said, 'I might have to hug you for that.' That just touched me, when people go to bat for you like that.
"She could have just said, 'OK I did what I should do and it's in their court,' but she didn't leave it there. She's the type of person if that she wants something to happen, she will go the extra mile and make it happen. I never will forget that."
Buckelew entered the engineering world at a time in history when there weren't many female engineers, especially in the Army. Steve Cornelius was division chief under Buckelew for about six months before entering Senior Executive Service and moving to Director for Missile Development. Cornelius said Buckelew made a point to be a mentor, especially to women.
"She's gone out of her way to talk to organizations and personally to other female engineers to give them perspectives on her career and advice. I think she's done that for men as well but especially for women. When she came up in this field, that was rare, and she probably had to go through a lot. She learned a lot of lessons that she passed forward."
Cornelius praised Buckelew's ability to easily grasp new concepts, even those in which she was not trained. "Because of her experience and her education she's very intellectually curious about what's going on technically in many areas," Cornelius said. "One thing that she brought to the table was the ability to grasp concepts that she may not be trained in formally, but because of that training she does have and a vast array of experience from a lot of different areas, she was able to discern those issues very quickly in very complex subjects."
One of the many women who worked under Buckelew was Julie Locker, the associate director for sensors, guidance and electronics within WDI. Locker described Buckelew as instrumental in pushing science and technology efforts for future capabilities. "Over the years, as director for WDI, Dr. Buckelew has been an advocate for advanced degrees for our workforce. Because of her efforts, many young engineers have gone on to obtain their master's and PhDs. This, in effect, has helped secure a strong future technical capability for AMRDEC."
Locker will also remember Buckelew's interest and influence relative to physical fitness. "Dr. Buckelew runs at least four miles a day," Locker shared. "She has influenced a lot of individuals within the directorate to achieve a healthier lifestyle in terms of diet and exercise."
At the retirement ceremony, Buckelew was presented several awards, including a 45-year pin, which Edwards commented is a rare accomplishment. Other awards of note received throughout her career include the Office of the Secretary of Defense Award for Excellence in 2005, and the Superior Civilian Service Award, in 1992 and again in 2006.
In addition to an outstanding Army career, Buckelew is married to retired NASA engineer William Buckelew. They raised two children, a son, Leon, and daughter, Christina. Attending last week's ceremony was her son, two of her five grandchildren, and her husband, who was presented with the Commander's Award for Public Service, for outstanding dedication and selfless service to AMRDEC throughout his wife's career.
"If you remember anything about me after I leave here," Buckelew said, "I'd just like it to be two things: that I listened and that I always tried to do the right thing."