By Kevin Fleming, ASC Public AffairsMay 2, 2016
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. -- Throughout her career she defended the Army in court, walked among Soldiers in theater, mentored numerous Army leaders, and worked the halls of congress. This week, she retired.
Kathryn Szymanski, chief counsel, U.S. Army Material Command Legal Center, retired with almost 37 years of federal government service during a ceremony in Heritage Hall, April 28. Szymanski served as a member of the Senior Executive Service for 21 years.
As the chief counsel for AMCLC, Szymanski led lawyers responsible for supporting the U.S. Army Sustainment Command, the Joint Munitions Command, the Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center, the Army Contracting Command-Rock Island, and other U.S. Army Materiel Command entities on Rock Island Arsenal.
"She's been a true leader that people from all across the Army could look up to for mentorship and as a person to emulate," said Maj. Gen. Kevin O'Connell, commanding general, ASC, during the ceremony.
Szymanski said she decided to work for the federal government in 1979 when she became interested in a posting for a law clerk position with the U.S. Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Michigan. She said she was looking for an interesting job, the government was paying well for law clerks, and she was available in July when the command received its funding.
"It just looked like interesting work," she said. "I was not a kid coming directly out of college; I'd been in graduate school for two years in New York and after that, in California. I had some tough times before applying, and I was not looking for an easy job -- just interesting. And, it turned out to be very interesting."
Over the next 16 years, she quickly advanced her career until she was selected for an SES position in 1995.
Szymanski has been awarded many distinctions throughout her career, but she said her two Presidential Rank Awards really stood out.
In 2000, Szymanski was awarded her first Presidential Rank Award for work she did helping to gain Congressional support for the Logistics Modernization Program. The LMP was created to streamline and to update the Army's logistics infrastructure. Today, the LMP is an organization and computer interface that integrates a range of modern and legacy Army logistics systems into one.
"[LMP] had a really rocky road, but it's finally a success," she said. "A lot of it was that we just did not give up on it."
She said getting support for LMP involved a lot of legwork.
"We did seven or eight Congressional visits in one day -- my brain was mush," she said. "I was on the train between New Jersey and Washington so often that the conductors knew my name. That's when you know you've been on the train too much."
In 2004, Szymanski worked on the Fay Report with retired Gen. Paul Kern, former commanding general, AMC. The report was the culmination of an internal Army investigation about abusive interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. For her work on the report, Szymanski was awarded her second Presidential Rank Award in 2005.
"That was a lot of really hard work; that was a really hard job to do," she said. "But we produced a product that I thought was very good."
She said the experience was intense and educational.
"The work I did on Abu Ghraib -- that's probably one of the highlights of my career," she said. "Getting that report out and having that experience was really eye-opening -- just really seeing what can happen when leadership fails in the Army. And leadership did fail, [non-commissioned officer] leadership, officer leadership, civilian leadership, you name it -- it failed."
When President Obama took office, one of the first things he did was to sign an executive order that in part outlawed the use of torture for interrogation. He used the Fay Report, among other sources, to justify his decision. Kern stood behind Obama during the signing.
"I have to tell you, I was pretty proud of that because I knew some of my work went into helping that decision be made," said Szymanski.
Szymanski took part in many prominent legal cases, including a case that involved a contractor who attempted to fraudulently sell the Army loads of ammunition manufactured in China. Other cases, she said, saved the Army millions directly as a result of her team's ability to win in court.
While Szymanski said she enjoyed the legal aspects of her career, she also said that the opportunity to mentor and lead others was equally rewarding.
"I have to tell you, the law is only 50 percent of what I found so satisfying. The other 50 percent is the opportunity to coach and mentor," she said. "If someone asked me, 'What did you enjoy most?' that's it. I enjoyed that the most -- mentoring, coaching, and identifying talent."
O'Connell said her leadership and ability to mentor others added to Szymanski's legacy.
"I think Kathi's legacy will be all those lives she touched that have gone on to very high positions, even up to the (SES) level," he said.
Szymanski said one of her most memorable experiences was from when the then Gen. Benjamin Griffin, commanding general, AMC, took her on a trip to theater during the Iraq War. Griffin attended the ceremony.
"We started in Germany and went through Saudi Arabia," she said. "Walking around Saudi Arabia as a female accompanying the four-star was pretty interesting."
Eventually, she said, they ended up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"That whole trip -- you want to talk about big experiences in my career. I remember talking to the kids driving the trucks on the midnight runs from Kuwait up the supply line to places in Iraq, turning around and coming back on a 40-hour trip down there, all the time getting shot at and having to be careful of IEDs."
While in Iraq, Szymanski said she met Linda Villar at a meeting only a short time before Villar was killed during a mortar attack in Baghdad. Villar was the first AMC civilian logistics specialist killed in theater, and her death had a profound effect on AMC personnel.
"When you talk about experiences that one really stands out," she said. "I don't often talk about those things because it chokes me up."
Szymanski said that while she sacrificed a lot in order to accomplish the mission, it was nothing in comparison to the sacrifices of others.
"When you look at my sacrifices for this job, I didn't do anything in comparison; I didn't do anything like they did," she said. "I didn't lose my life fighting for my country."
Szymanski, who served with about 20 general officers over her career, said it was interesting to see how AMC has evolved.
"All of the generals I worked with were looking to move AMC forward, and ensure we weren't just considered an institutional portion of the Army -- that people got recognized for the operations side," she said. "It's interesting to look back and see all the building blocks of all the generals and what they did."
As one of the few female SESs in the Army, Szymanski spent a significant amount of time advocating for more diversity in federal service and in leadership. She said a lot has improved, but there is more room for the Army to get better.
"I see diversity as being defined across the full spectrum, not just race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the other big issues right now," she said. "Diversity is just good business. When you don't have people coming in with new ideas and a different view of the world, you're just stuck in groupthink."
Szymanski said she worked hard as an SES, but that she enjoyed what she did.
"I've sacrificed leave, I've sacrificed Broadway tickets, airline tickets, but this career as an SES has not been a sacrifice," she said. "It's been a blast, it really has. It's been a lot of fun most days."
Szymanski said she will miss her colleagues and the work.
"I've worked with some incredible attorneys, some incredible generals, some of the most intelligent people I have ever met," she said. "It was also the work. It's interesting work, it's value-added work. You have a direct impact on the Soldier in a lot of ways."
Immediately after retirement, Szymanski said she hopes to reconnect with her husband and move to Stratford, Connecticut. She said she has not lived in the same geographical location as her husband for more than three weeks since 1987. She also said she intends to keep working, just not in the federal government.
"It is time for a different challenge," she said. "I can go do something else, but have the safety net of having a pension so if I fail it won't be so financially devastating."
She said she also thinks her retirement will benefit the command.
"Somebody new will come in, and they'll come in with a new viewpoint," she said. "They'll have a different personality, and to tell you the truth, that's coaching and mentoring on an institutional scale."
Szymanski said she was grateful and that she hopes she paid it forward.