By Ms. Lacey Justinger (USAG Hawaii)July 21, 2008
Col. Heidi V. Brown received the Legion of Merit during a July 1 ceremony following her departure from serving as the deputy commander and assistant commandant of the Fort Bliss Air Defense Artillery Center.
The Legion of Merit is awarded for commendable service and achievements, and Brown used the opportunity to review aspects of her Army career.
"It's been a fantastic branch and I love it," she said. "Air defense artillery has expanded greatly and there are lots of opportunities for women that other combat arms didn't have. That's why I stayed in. I knew I wouldn't have a desk job."
Brown spent her childhood in El Paso and has served at Fort Bliss multiple times. While sharing memories associated with Fort Bliss, Brown said this will probably be her last assignment here and that leaving will be bittersweet.
Brown took command of the 31st ADA Brigade in 2002. She then deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom to serve as a commander of Germany's 6th Battalion, 52nd ADA, and 69th ADA Bde.; and Fort Bliss' 5th Bn., 52nd ADA, and 11th ADA Bde., which included the 507th Maintenance Company. In 2003, a convoy of 507th Soldiers was ambushed. Several Soldiers were killed, many were wounded and others were taken hostage. As a memorial, Brown wears a bracelet with the date inscribed.
"You turn the worst circumstances into something you can learn from," she said. "Time heals wounds, but you never forget. You live with it - with what happens in war - forever.
"Everyone expected that nothing bad would happen to our units - no Soldiers, no air defenders would be killed," Brown added. "I prayed every day that I would be able to bring my Soldiers back. That's what's hard. I lost Soldiers. A commander is responsible for all the things a unit does, what goes well and what doesn't."
That one event permanently altered the way the Army trains and deploys, Brown said. It is now mandatory that all vehicles in theater have radios and global positioning systems and are up-armored. Training improvements focus on convoy procedures, convoy live-fire actions and weapons qualifications. Soldiers also must at least be familiar with how to operate crew-served weapons in case they need to use them.
"It transformed the Army, and rightfully so," Brown said. "The enemy uses different tactics than what we trained for, so we change the way we train. Everyone came away from the first part of the war and said, 'We need to change the way we're doing stuff.'"
Brown said her unit did not even learn about improvised explosive devices before they deployed because the Army had never encountered them before.
"I didn't even know what an IED was," she said. "We have changed a lot. We learn out of every war. Now, we are ruthless in how we train for IEDs."
Brown said she plans to keep these adjusted preparation requirements and lessons learned in mind during her next assignment supervising Soldiers' training. Brown will serve as the deputy commander for sustainment at Fort Lewis, Wash., and will deploy in 2009 to oversee the Iraqi national election, convoys, detainee operations, maintenance and logistics.
"It's a very interesting job - an incredible job - and I'm so looking forward to it," she said. "It's going to be phenomenal. I have a lot to learn before we deploy. I'm a sponge and I'm going to soak it all up."
Brown has served and supported her country during Desert Storm, Desert Thunder II, Desert Fox and the ongoing operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.
"I wanted to go because I had the experience," she said. "I'm not a warmonger, but that is what we trained for. Watching the war, you felt like you needed to be there."
Looking back on the ambush of the 507th, Brown said she would not have made any different decisions, and added that the correct choices were made based on the information that was available at the time. She said sometimes everything is done that can be done and the enemy will still make some gains.
"I've thought about it for five years," she said. "In my heart, I know I did the best I could. Would I change the outcome' Oh, my God, yes. Would I trade places with them' In a heartbeat. Whether it be the (prisoners of war) or my Soldiers who were killed, I would have traded places with them if I could have. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about each and every one of them."