Serving With Success On Two Sides Of A Career
January 23, 2013
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- For 27 years and counting, Stephen Strand has served the nation in a dual-hatted career.
And throughout that career, Strand has had to rely on the flexibility of his civilian employer -- and the support of his family -- to fulfill his dream to lead Soldiers as a Reserve officer.
Combining a rewarding civilian career with military service has been challenging. But working for the Department of Defense as both a government employee and a contractor has made it easier when duty has called this Reserve officer away from his civilian mission.
"As you progress in your civilian career, sometimes the Reserves can become too demanding and you have to make a choice," Strand said. "My ambitions on the civilian side do conflict with my ambitions on the Reserve side, and I have had at times to prioritize one over the other.
"I really haven't pursued further leadership positions at work because my Reserve duty does require a lot of my time and energy. It's important to me to do quality work, but right now my commitment to the Reserves keeps me from taking on even more responsibility."
During the work week, Strand is the lead engineer for Platform Integration and Launchers for the Army's Small Guided Munitions program, which is part of the Joint Attack Munition Systems Project Office, Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space. On the weekends and during deployments and various missions, he serves as the deputy commander of the 926th Engineer Brigade based in Montgomery.
"The 926th is the largest engineer brigade in the Army," Strand said. "We have six battalions with 5,300 Soldiers, 39 facilities in eight states throughout the Southeast and 47 deployable elements. We've always got somebody deploying, somebody about to come back and somebody getting ready to go.
"My role as the deputy commander is to get out among the units. So, I spend a lot of weekends visiting our companies and mentoring their command teams. I spend time with Soldiers, review their facilities and do informal command inspections. I make sure each company is making progress in the area of readiness and I make sure they have everything they need to deploy."
In May, he will be promoted to commander of the 368th Forward Engineer Support Team, a unit of 36 Soldiers based in Decatur, Ga., that works closely with the Corps of Engineers and that oversees the work of eight engineering units along the East Coast.
An Auburn University graduate, Strand chose the Reserves over active Army duty because he wasn't particularly keen on all the moves required by a full-time Soldier's career. At the time, he didn't realize Operation Desert Storm, two wars and military missions throughout the world would call him away from home.
"As it turned out, I ended up moving fairly often and I ended up with quite a bit of active duty time," Strand said.
"My career has included all levels of leadership, from enlisting and then going to college as an ROTC cadet. In the '80s and '90s, I did a lot of trips to Central America, Germany, the Bahamas, Egypt and other places in support of various engineering missions."
He was a lieutenant when he met and began dating the woman who would be his future wife. She got an inkling of what military life would be like from the beginning of their relationship.
"At the time I asked Claire out, the next day I deployed to Costa Rica for two weeks. So, we had to wait two weeks to go out on that first date," he recalled.
"From the beginning, Claire has been really supportive. The pace has gotten higher and higher over my career, particularly because the world has changed, and she has been there for me the entire time."
Strand was working at the Anniston Army Depot when he deployed as an Army civilian to Operation Desert Storm, where he oversaw all the processing of tanks shipped from Germany to theater and then issued to combat units. He was the only production engineer involved in the effort, and he was charged with tracking tanks through a process that involved new paint schemes and modifications that enhanced performance in a desert climate.
After returning from Operation Desert Storm, Strand moved to Redstone Arsenal in 1991 to work for the Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space.
"That's when my Reserve duty started involving more assistance missions predominantly for the State Department to help smaller countries," he said. "We were becoming far more integrated in what the active duty units were doing."
He left his government civilian career in 2003 to work for a newly formed small business, where he wrote software for Adtran. Unfortunately, a deployment to support the initial efforts in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 926th Engineer Group later that same year ended his entrepreneurial career.
"We worked under the 101st, which was Gen. (David) Petraeus' unit. We did reconstructive projects in Mosul," Strand said of the Montgomery-based Reserve unit. "I really enjoyed the opportunity to be an entrepreneur with a new company. But while I was deployed the small business collapsed."
When he returned, Strand rejoined the Army civilian work force, returning to the PEO for Missiles and Space. But soon in 2007, he deployed again as the battalion commander of the 478th Engineer Battalion based at Fort Thomas, Ky.
"We deployed to the Al-Anbar Province in Iraq at the height of the conflict there," Strand said.
"We were there for the Anbar Awakening, which was the transition from the Sunnis fighting against U.S. forces to Sunnis realizing we were trying to help. Everything really changed dramatically when that happened, and we eventually moved on to the Kirkuk Province."
During the Anbar Awakening of 2007, Sunni Arab tribes in the western province turned on al-Qaida in their midst, joined forces with U.S. troops and dealt a blow that many credit with turning the tide of that conflict.
The engineering battalion commanded by Strand, which included about 1,000 Soldiers, was responsible mainly for route clearance. It also included a construction company and a bridge company.
"The construction we did was not so much in support of Iraqis, but for the forward operating bases," Strand said. "Most of the unit was involved in route clearance, and I was right out there with them because a leader needs to be where the unit's main effort is.
"The battalion received a meritorious unit award. We were engaged with the enemy many times and we located well over 200 IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Most of those we disposed of in the safe way, but we did have a few that detonated."
Nearly 30 Soldiers in the battalion received the Purple Heart for injuries they sustained in theater.
"All of our Soldiers came home. Most everybody was completely whole. We had a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and even after all this time those injuries are still a concern for those Soldiers," Strand said.
"But the important thing is they came home. The battalion ahead of us lost six Soldiers and the one after us lost three. We were fairly fortunate. We trained hard and had some luck, too."
The Reserves has changed significantly since Strand first entered service.
"We are now in a rotation of deployments that keeps the pace very high," he said. "In the mid-'80s, the Reserve component was set up in tiered readiness levels, so some units had more than others depending on where they fell in the war plan.
"In the '90s, slightly before Desert Storm, the Reserves became far more centered around combat service support. The theory was that active duty units would not go to war without Reserve units in support of that effort. It elevated the Reserves to the strategic level, and we became operational forces."
As units that are rotated for deployments every five years, "every Reserve unit now has its turn to be ready for a deployment," Strand said. "The integration between the Reserves and the active component is much tighter, and every Reserve unit gets full attention at the training level. The changes of the '90s provided for a lot more depth of talent in the Reserves."
Now, as active duty components reduce their numbers, the Reserves are gaining an even larger responsibility in support of the Army mission. And that also means the Reserve leadership is busier than ever, with Strand spending three weekends a month and six to seven weeks a year among Reserve units.
"My wife is as much an Army wife as an active duty wife. My family is a military family. Our children -- 17-year-old William, 15-year-old Katrina and 12-year-old Michelle -- are military children. They all know what it is like for their Soldier to be gone on the weekends and deployed to theater," Strand said.
"They have grown up with me deploying often. Many of the deployments for the smaller missions have been three or four weeks long. But I also spend a month away in the summer at training. And last year, when I was participating in the War College distance learning program, the kids had a dad who worked during the day and then spent his evenings on the computer in school."
Yet, Strand's family does find time to do things together. He is especially proud of his son recently becoming the fourth-generation Eagle Scout in the family. And he is both proud and surprised that his two oldest children are considering military careers.
He is also proud of the Soldiers he has led and who are now under his current command.
"Our Reserve Soldiers are well-trained and very dedicated to serving the nation," he said. "They are highly motivated Soldiers and I think part of the reason for that is the rotation cycle. Motivation is higher when you are training for a deployment.
"When I first joined the Reserves, most reservists were Vietnam veterans. Today, most of our reservists joined after we started going to war in Iraq. And nearly all are either Iraq or Afghanistan war veterans."
Strand often encourages others to consider a Reserve career.
"If you want to serve the nation in a military role where you can still keep your civilian life, then this is the way to go," he said.
"The Reserves offer plenty of opportunity. Reserve units are seeing more and more theater support and cooperation missions that the active duty Army just can't get to. These are missions that combatant commanders need done to help a region's infrastructure or to help with training or to help with medical aid. They are humanitarian missions in nature and the Reserves are well-suited for that role."
The Reserve component (including the National Guard) provide the Army with 80 percent of its engineering units. In addition, the Reserve component provides much of the Army's military police and medical units as well as most of its logistics elements.
But to continue in such important roles, the Reserve component must have the cooperation of its Soldiers' employers.
"Most Reserve Soldiers will migrate to employers that are supportive of their service," Strand said.