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Nothing Is Impossible: Major General Heidi V. Brown
By Naomi Iniguez
A woman’s place in society is constantly evolving. As women continue to occupy traditionally male jobs and careers, gender neutrality and equality has become a hot issue in the military. Women have begun the long battle to demonstrate that their gender does not affect their ability to perform.
Some believe that the integration of women into the military has led to a decrease in professionalism and competence in soldiers. Yet others such as New York Times journalist Steven Lee Myers maintain that women continue to transition into the field as they endure the same situations that male soldiers do. Women’s military involvement in Iraq has proven just that. Retired Army Col. Peter R. Mansoor agreed that women “have earned the confidence and respect of male colleagues.” These female soldiers, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, have served in combat roles once assigned only to males. Women have conducted raids, patrolled streets with machine guns, driven trucks down bomb-ridden roads and disposed of explosives.
Image caption: A portrait of Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown shows her many military awards and decorations. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)
Lizette Alvarez of the New York Times wrote that until the beginning of 2013, a big issue that prevented the further advancement of women was a Pentagon policy that allowed women to lead — but not serve with male troops in combat. This policy, among other obstacles, led to a scarcity of opportunities of advancement for women in higher positions. Even with all these barriers set in place, some women have shown that in a combat zone there is no difference in gender. One of the most important figures in this ongoing battle is El Paso native, Army Major General Heidi V. Brown.
Donna McAleer, Military Writers Society of America’s Gold Medal Award winner, recollects Brown’s early life in the book Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line. McAleer wrote that a major influence throughout Brown’s life was her father, William Brown. A field artillery officer, William Brown served in both World War II and the Korean War before retiring as a major. It was while serving in Germany that William met his wife Virginia, who was working in Regensburg at the time with Special Services. Their family, Heidi Brown and her five siblings, spent their time in both Fort Bliss and Germany until her father’s retirement. After his retirement, the Browns permanently settled in El Paso. El Paso’s close proximity to Fort Bliss would increase the military influence that surrounded Heidi Brown through her childhood.
Being the second youngest of six children would also impact her future decisions. Early on in high school, Brown envisioned becoming an Army doctor. While Brown made the choice not to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Course (JROTC) during high school, both her older brothers, Brian and Robert, were involved in the military organization at Austin High School. They and their sister Anne, as well as Heidi, had military careers.
As Brown explored career options after high school, she realized that the Army might pay for medical school if she became a soldier. However, Congress opened all military academies to women in 1976, a year before Brown graduated from Austin High School. The Air Force Academy actively recruited Brown for its swim team, and her uncle Dan Graham encouraged her to pursue admission there. He was not happy about West Point, his alma mater, opening its doors to women.
Among all the options presented to her, Brown selected West Point, with its rich two-century-long history, over her other options. Looking back at her decision, Brown said in an article by Kari Hawkins on the U.S. Army home page, “When the Army’s service academy opened for women, it didn’t even dawn on me what that might mean.”
During her time at West Point, Brown competed with the Army swim team that began as a club and would later finish third in the New York State Women’s Intercollegiate Swimming and Diving Championships during her fourth and final year.
During her last year on the swim team, Brown learned an important lesson she still applies to her life. After not being named the team captain, Brown began to skip practice in protest. Her swim coach, Dr. Sue Tendy, warned Brown that one more absence would lead to suspension from the team. Testing her authority, Brown missed practice the following day. True to her word, Tendy suspended Brown two weeks before Christmas break. As a result, she also was not invited to attend a training camp in Puerto Rico. Instead, Brown was to train at home during vacation and rejoin the team in January.
Brown told McAleer, “It was a real lesson in respecting authority. … I learned that leadership and discipline are essential in working as part of a team. To this day, this lesson is present in all I do and how I lead my soldiers.”
Before leaving West Point, Brown was hit with the hard truth that graduating in the bottom ten percent of her class would limit her options coming out of the Academy. In 1981, Brown was part of the second coed graduating class and was the first female graduate from El Paso. When deciding on her choice for a military specialty after graduation, Brown settled on the Air Defense Artillery, a combat arms branch.
In 1989, according to McAleer, Brown and Mary Finch, a fellow graduate of the Academy, became the first women at West Point Academy to serve as Tactical Officers, the primary leadership developers for each company of cadets. Before officially taking this position, Brown returned to graduate school and earned her Masters of Education from the University of South Carolina.
Brown later went on to become the first woman to lead a Patriot Missile Battalion and the first woman to command an Air Defense Artillery Brigade. According to Hawkins, in 2003 she commanded the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade during the invasion of Iraq, which Kari Hawkins notes as her most memorable position as a commander.
During this mission, Brown’s father died. After he was diagnosed with colon cancer, time became precious for William and the rest of his family. Yet the illness did not stop his support for Brown. He optimistically told his daughter, “I will live to see you take command.” William arrived in an ambulance at the ceremony the day Brown accepted command of the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade.
Virginia, Brown’s mother, was also one of her strongest supporters. Virginia’s obituary stated that she “believed that her legacy was her children.” In fact, her daughter has insisted on using the middle initial “V” in her formal name to honor her mother.
While preparing to depart to Iraq, Brown was hit with the news that the cancer had won. William Brown died the morning of August 18, 2002. While finishing the preparation for the mission, Brown and her family flew to Virginia to bury her father at Arlington National Cemetery.
Through not only emotional but technical struggles, Brown led her troops into the initial march into Iraq in 2003. She had received three battalion units, one Patriot battalion from Fort Bliss, one from the V Corps in Germany, and the third she was given once they were in the war theatre. These battalions had previously not worked together nor with her. On March 20, 2003, after a month of battle rehearsals, these units prepared their movement towards Iraq. The units quickly began to face obstacles: vehicles began to sink into the sand and the units had to spend precious time bringing them back onto solid ground.
McAleer wrote that the 507th Maintenance Company of Fort Bliss, the last unit in the convoy, detached from the main convoy as soldiers recovered vehicles still trapped in sand and repaired others all along the cross-country route. On March 23, 2003, the 507th Maintenance Company lost its way and was ambushed in the Iraqi town of Nasiriyah. Nine members of the company were killed and six were kept prisoners of war by Iraqi forces. The remaining five members were wounded but were not captured, according to the El Paso Times.
El Paso local Shoshana Johnson was one of the soldiers captured by Iraqi troops. In an El Paso Times article by Diana Washington Valdez, Johnson commented that the military could have done more to prepare the unit and prevent it from taking so many casualties. Johnson and the other eight members remained in captivity until Special Forces soldiers worked with Marines to locate and rescue the POWs. After three weeks, Marines were able to liberate these captured soldiers.
McAleer wrote, “While Heidi would not change the maneuver, she would change the outcome.” And when the brigade redeployed in June 2003, Brown implemented training that included convoy live-fire excises. Later realizing the lack of preparation the 507th Company had received, Brown believed that the training would save lives of soldiers on the battlefield.
Brown next served as Executive Officer for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs at the Pentagon and then returned to Fort
Bliss. She became the first woman to become Chief of Staff of the Air Defense Center and Fort Bliss, a position she held until 2008. Although disappointed she was not promoted to the rank of brigadier general upon her arrival at Fort Bliss, Brown held on to hope that “nothing was impossible.”
In January 2009, Brown’s patience finally paid off. After being nominated in 2008 by President Bush for a promotion, Brown became the first woman in the Air Defense Artillery to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general and also became the first woman general on the I Corps Staff.
Besides being the first in many of the positions she has held in the Army, Brown’s hard work is reflected in the numerous awards she has received. The United States Strategic Command Web site lists Brown’s awards and recognitions including the Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit (four oak leaf clusters); Meritorious Service Medal (six oak leaf clusters); Army Achievement Medal (four oak leaf clusters); and the Bronze Star Medal (one oak leaf cluster). Each oak leaf cluster denotes a subsequent award of that decoration. These are medals given to individuals for their meritorious and heroic service in different situations. She is also authorized to wear the Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge and Secretary of Defense Identification Badge, among others.
Brown’s contributions have also focused on her hometown, El Paso. Brown received the League of Women Voters of El Paso’s BRAVO Award in 2004. This award is “presented to individuals who have shown exemplary dedication to the community by their work for the betterment of El Paso.” Brown has worked with other El Paso organizations, including the Center against Family Violence. In 2012, she gave $250,000 to establish the William G. and Virginia Maxell Brown Center for Pediatric Audiology Development and Learning located in the El Paso Children’s Hospital. The El Paso Children’s Hospital Foundation home page noted that several of her siblings had dealt with hearing issues, and as a result, Brown wanted to dedicate the only center of its kind in El Paso to this underserved area of health.
General Brown credits her success in the military not to her gender but to her ability to lead and command other soldiers. Brown told McAleer, “I am going to do my job like any other battalion commander, not based on my gender but on my experiences. My intention is to leave the battalion I command better than I found it.” It is this attitude towards gender neutrality that shows why Brown has become so successful. General Brown has always viewed herself not as a woman but as a soldier in command, an opinion that she continues to stress as she moves through the ranks.
Image caption: Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown is given a tour of operations by Col. Stephan Richmond during air defense training in 2012. (Photo by Sgt. Tyler Placiew, U.S. Air Force)
As a woman in the military, there have been times when Brown questioned whether she wanted to continue her career. In an interview with Rachel Martin of National Public Radio (NPR), General Brown mentioned that many women leave their military career to seek time for family or other related choices. Brown instead found herself living with her golden retriever Sandy, and she explained how different she felt compared to other commanders: “I’m female. I’m single. They [commanders] are all male. They’re all married. They all have kids. I have a dog.”
Yet once the moment of hesitation passed, Brown remembered why she continues to serve. She said in an El Paso Times article by David Burge, “It’s very rewarding to know what you are doing is for the security of our homeland and the protection of our allies. … This is my passion, serving in the military. I can’t think of doing anything else and I don’t want to.”
On the Army home page, General Brown in 2012 explained to Hawkins, “I love working with soldiers and they never cease to amaze me. ... Because of them, I love serving. I will serve until they tell me to leave.” True to her words, General Brown has been serving for more than three decades and has continued her career in the branch of air defense artillery.
In another NPR interview with Rachel Martin in 2011, Brown acknowledged that artillery or infantry command jobs in combat are what lead to fast promotions, which is one factor that puts women at a disadvantage. In the immediate past, women were most often “coded out,” or denied higher positions in combat, because of policies set by the Pentagon. As a result, the lack of women in ranks above Brown’s brings back to reality the lack of equality that is still present within the military. Four years ago, Brown said in her interview with Martin, “Gender now shuts the door for me.”
Brown served as the Director of Test for the Missile Defense Agency in Huntville, Ala., for the last three and a half years. Contrary to her belief that she had hit the glass ceiling in the Army, Brown was promoted again in 2012 to Major General (two stars). In February 2015, she became Director of Global Operations, U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, according to Burge. Another first, Brown serves as an operations officer, a position that is normally occupied by a two-star Air Force general or a two-star admiral. When Burge asked how she felt about the new position, Brown replied, “If you are first and you don’t succeed, you are probably the last.”
There is only one woman in the Army who has reached the rank of four-star general, the second highest rank in the Army (a five-star general position is only occupied at time of war). In 2008, Ann Dunwoody became the first female to be awarded the rank of four-star general in the military. Dunwoody, however, served in logistics, not combat. She retired from the Army in 2012.
The Pentagon slowly has begun to integrate women into different combat positions in the military. In January 2013, the U.S. military ended its policy excluding women from open and direct combat jobs as announced by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He set the goal to integrate women as much as possible by January 2016. As U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a CNN article by Chris Lawrence, “Thousands of women in the military have already found themselves in combat situations.”
Pentagon figures in 2013 revealed that of 976 generals and admirals in all branches, 69, or 7.1 percent, were women, according to the CNN online article “By the Numbers: Women in the U.S. Military.” According to Arwa Gunja and Mythili Rao of Public Radio International, as of 2015, women make up nearly 15 percent of the U.S. military active duty forces and now serve in 95 percent of all military positions. As of August 2015, two women, both West Point graduates, were in the final phase of training to become Army Rangers, the first time the elite unit has extended this opportunity to female soldiers.
Through changes in the Army and other branches of the U.S. military, more women are being given opportunities to achieve higher ranks. And in the article by Lawrence, a senior defense official agreed, stating, “We know they [women] can do it.” Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown has done it!