USAMMC-E’s top female Soldier honors mother’s memory in service

By C.J. LovelaceMay 1, 2024

Maj. Brenda Sunner in 2018
Maj. Brenda S. Sumner is pictured in 2018 while serving as aide-de-camp to the 44th Army Surgeon General, now-retired Lt. Gen. Nadja West. Sumner is currently serving as deputy commander for operations and the senior female Soldier at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- U.S. Army Maj. Brenda S. Sumner joined the military as a tribute to her late mother, following her unexpected death in 1999.

“Joining the military was the only thing she ever asked me to do that I didn’t do,” said Sumner, a native of Fresno, California. “Serving is my way of honoring her memory.”

Now 24 years into writing her own Army story, Sumner continues to draw on the wisdom of her mother and other influential leaders who have impacted her life as she serves as deputy commander for operations, or DCO, and the senior female Soldier at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe.

USAMMC-E, a direct reporting unit to Army Medical Logistics Command, is the theater lead agent for medical materiel, or TLAMM, for U.S. European Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Department of State activities. It also provides Class VIII support forward to U.S. Central Command.

While she’s been in the role for over a year now, Sumner “started to make an impact … about two days into her job,” according to USAMMC-E Sgt. Maj. Andrew Colburn.

“Her knowledge over the business on [Kaiserslautern Army Depot] really impacted how we communicated to AMLC and all of our partners,” said Colburn, the organization’s senior enlisted leader. “It was a large hole in USAMMC-E’s operations that she quickly adjusted and plugged.”

Colburn commended Sumner for her achievements both as DCO and in her prior role as chief of USAMMC-E’s Distribution and Transportation, or D&T, division, a role she excelled in during an extremely tumultuous time for the organization that involved numerous real-world missions simultaneously.

“She has a deep concern for the workforce and consistently places them and the mission over herself,” Colburn said. “She’s truly a selfless leader who, in my opinion, is not just a role model for other females, but for all Soldiers.”

Sumner’s contributions and achievements have been noticed throughout the organization and beyond, as she was recently selected for promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Maj. Sumner with husband in 2017
Maj. Brenda S. Sumner is pictured with her husband, Bill, a retired 23-year Marine Corps veteran, following her 2017 promotion to major at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Sumner, who was recently selected for promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel, currently serves as deputy commander for operations and the senior female Soldier at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

USAMMC-E Commander Col. Deon Maxwell said he noticed Sumner’s impact on the unit “almost immediately” when he took command in 2022.

“She is a compassionate, dedicated and trusted leader whom I would not hesitate to add to my team again if afforded the opportunity,” Maxwell said. “Her talents and technical expertise have been recognized by senior leaders across this theater, which is why she was recently selected to take those talents to the 68th Theater Medical Command this fall. The team will miss her here at USAMMC-E and the 68th TMC will surely benefit from her leadership.”

‘No limitations’

Growing up in California’s agricultural San Joachin Valley, Sumner was the first of 15 children in her ethnically diverse family to graduate high school.

“My mom was married many times and she didn’t discriminate,” Sumner said. “Caucasian, Hispanic, African, Asian, Filipino … we’ve got them all in my family and I love it.”

Sumner said her mother’s education stopped at eighth grade when she became pregnant with her first child.

That’s not to say Sumner’s mother lacked in smarts. Sumner said she instilled a strong work ethic in her children, a trait that Sumner credits for her success in the military.

“And my grandmother was a survivor of the Great Depression,” Sumner said. “She taught me the value of growing your own food, making your own clothes, planning ahead and never taking anything for granted. I had and still have a lot of very strong women in my family.”

Those role models, coupled with a love of education, set Sumner on a promising path.

“My mother instilled in all of us a sense there were no limitations except the ones we set for ourselves,” she said. “I grew up believing that.”

Maj. Sumner with mother
Maj. Brenda S. Sumner, left, is pictured in her younger years with her mother, Mary K. LaBarr. Sumner, who is deputy commander for operations and the senior female Soldier at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe, credits much of her success in the Army over the past 24 years to her mother and other strong and influential women in her life growing up. (U.S. Army photos courtesy Maj. Brenda Sumner) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

‘Be the best’

Soon after graduating high school, Sumner received a congressional scholarship offer to West Point, but ultimately decided to turn it down.

She said it was more of her mother’s dream to see her serve.

“I didn’t know anything about the military,” she said. “I only pursued it because my mom wanted me to. Declining to attend the academy was probably the biggest fight my mom and I ever had. She knew she couldn’t help pay for college. But to me, I just wanted to do things my own way and on my terms.”

Sumner went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in applied health sciences and community health from Azuza Pacific University in southern California in 1996.

Three years later, her mother, Mary K. LaBarr, passed away unexpectedly.

“A week later, I was in the recruiter’s office,” Sumner said.

Already with a degree in hand, Sumner said she had the option to commission, but she chose to enlist.

“And I committed to four years, then the Army said they would pay off my student loans,” she said. “To me, that was just a huge bonus. I was going to enlist whether they offered the loan repayments or not, because I knew it is what my mom would have wanted.”

Sumner served in numerous roles over seven years in her enlisted career before she earned a direct commission into the Medical Service Corps in 2008.

Her first assignment as a medical logistician came with the 6th Medical Logistics Management Center, where she served as a medical logistics system analyst and deployed as the accountable officer to the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2015-2016. While at the 6th MLMC, Sumner also earned the Medical Logistician of the Year award in 2017.

Sgt. Sumner in 2005
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Then-Sgt. Brenda S. Sumner is pictured in 2005, when she served as a medical supply sergeant with the 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, Washington state National Guard. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Capt. Sumner in 2013
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Then-Capt. Brenda S. Sumner is pictured in 2013 when she was assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), 62nd Medical Brigade, as an operations planner. She later assumed HHC command, which she held during a deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2013-14. (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

While Sumner’s career could be headlined by her achievements as an officer, it was her years in the enlisted ranks -- something that would have made her mother proud -- that set the stage for a successful career as she developed into an influential leader herself.

“She believed that to be the best at anything, you’ve got to start from the beginning,” Sumner said of her mother. “She was always that way. Whether my mom realized it or not, she was a phenomenal leader and inspiration. She would say things like that all the time.

“And to think back on it now, I wish my mom would have written a book.”

Right role, right time

Centrally located in Europe, USAMMC-E has played a vital role in several important real-world missions over the past four-plus years, including the global response to COVID-19, the Afghan refugee crisis, Ukraine support through presidential drawdowns and several humanitarian support missions.

Sumner found the right role at the right time, joining the USAMMC-E team midway through 2020 as the organization’s COVID-19 support posture went into high gear. She was named the organization’s first female D&T chief.

“This team is phenomenal,” she said, crediting the workforce of nearly 300 during an especially chaotic time. “Everybody else went to telework, quarantine … while we pushed medical materiel globally. We basically went to 24/7 ops with all the same exposure risk as anybody else. It was pretty intense, really long days.”

That started what would become “back-to-back-to-back” real-world support missions that tested USAMMC-E’s resolve. Between it all, the center seamlessly executed a relocation from Pirmasens to its new location at Kaiserslautern Army Depot.

She described the barrage of missions as “like getting sucker punched with one hand tied behind your back and being in front of a firing squad.”

“We seemed to get one hit after the next without a reprieve,” Sumner said. “But this team, they never wavered.

“They stayed engaged and motivated,” she added about the workforce, comprised largely of German locals. “This workforce is so dynamic. They have an amazing commitment to the warfighter. And there’s a lot of pride in that. Part of that is my mom talking because she was very patriotic, but I feel very happy that we’ve got such a dedicated workforce.”

Distribution Chief William Crews, who joined the USAMMC-E team shortly after Sumner’s arrival in 2020, described her as “a driven leader” and called her “our guide in the perfect storm of world events” in recent years.

“She embraced the challenges and provided a sense of unity of motion,” he said. “We were truly a multifunctional team that strove to meet the defining goal of being better every day, ensuring we got the right medical materiel to the right place at the right time -- every time.”