Her again . . . Dragon Slayer

Sailing on the Chesapeake

1992.  There I was, almost asleep in the ‘Big-Blue-Bedroom.’  The ‘Big Blue Bedroom’ at the Air War College was the auditorium, shared by all the different levels of education at the college.  I was in the mid-level or ‘Field Grade’ Officers course.  Our class was 550 strong majors or newly minted Lieutenant Colonels.  The bedroom had room for 551.  I was four months into Air Command and Staff College.  The Persian Gulf War was over.  It seemed like every week, another pilot and classmate were getting an Air Medal or Bronze Star.  

“All stand for the reading of the Citation. . .”  

Anyway, I had settled into my chair, the auditorium was dark, and I needed a nap. I really can’t remember who the Chuck Yeager-type speaker was. There was always some Chuck Yeager type as our speaker. “There I was at 30,000 feet. Fuel low, and I was almost out of munitions.” “Hard bank to the right, fire!” I had just settled in for another lesson in ‘Air Power.’


Then, louder than he should have been, louder than was acceptable in the ‘Big-Blue-Bedroom’ came a voice from the row behind. “What a manly maneuver!” I wish I were that strong.” “I wish I were a man.”

The words came from my bunkmate in the ‘Big-Blue-Bedroom.’  He was trying to sleep just like me.  But the bravado of warfare filled the air, and everyone needed to pay attention.  Like me, he must have had a bit of a hangover.  Anyway, lecture be damned, he wanted to sleep.  Shit!  Now I’m awake.  “What the hell is he talking about?” I asked my bunkmate in the row behind.  “Who knows?  Go back to sleep, Space Cadet.” He said.  

My bunkmate for that lecture was an F-16 Pilot.  One of those decorated for their actions in the Persian Gulf War.  Maybe flying at 40,000 feet makes you see more clearly.  Anyway, he was an F-16 Pilot.  His job was ‘Air Support for the Army.’  You might know the F-16 as a highly maneuverable fighter/bomber.  A single-seater.  The plane flown by the Thunderbirds.  Designed for air-to-air combat and air superiority, the F-16 was a jewel in the Air Force crown.  But more like a rock if you only flew ground support missions.  Real pilots wanted to fly twin-engine F-15s.  Real men flew the F-15.  In the grand scheme of the Air Force hierarchy, he might as well have flown satellites.  In the eyes of the Air Force, we were both second-class citizens.  All we wanted to do that day was get a quick nap before happy hour.

You could taste the disdain in his voice as he said it.  You could feel the disdain for the Air Force culture, its bravado and hubris.  “A real man. . .”  “What a manly maneuver.”  What he really meant was the opposite.  Reaction time, good coordination, yes.  But manly, no.  Manly had nothing to do with it.  

Today, women fly jets, they fight in combat, and yes, they die.  Be careful what you wish for; it might come true.  My young F-16 pilot bunkmate had broken the code.  Gender didn’t make the pilot.  Gender didn’t make the officer or airman.  Holy shit, I thought, now I had twice the competition.  By now, my bunkmate in the ‘Big-Blue-Bedroom’ was fast asleep.  I surveyed the auditorium, 550 chairs filled, a third of them women.  Now I couldn’t sleep.

During the Persian Gulf War, while I did some crazy, “it just might work, maybe” kind of experiments.  She didn’t have the time.  As the lead quality control engineer for the Navy’s Cruise Missile mission planning system, she was already at war.  In January of 1991, the air war over Iraq began.  The first targets destroyed in the air war were by Navy Cruise Missiles.  The first targets destroyed were her targets.  The first missions flown in the war were, in part, planned by a woman.

Her first job after we moved to D.C. was to develop imagery compression algorithms on a Cray-Supercomputer.  The mandates of her interim security clearance meant that she could do all the math, know the intimate details of the satellites, but she could not know who was funding her work.  Being from the government agency funding her, I tried to explain how I was the person she was ultimately working for.  She reminded me that, “She didn’t have a need (or want) to know.”  I tried to remind her of how, even if indirectly, I was the one paying her salary.  This did not go over very well.  

Full Stop, Readers.  I’d really appreciate it if, occasionally, you’d take my side.  

“Sure, he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.”

A master’s degree in Engineering. George Washington University

Her professional career began in Falls Church, Virginia, working with a small group of absent-minded professors.  She was a math major and quickly settled in writing Fortran and Assembly language code.  Her Top-Secret compartmentalized security clearance would take months to come through.  Her supervisor and everyone else worked in ‘the vault,’ but without the proper clearance, she would occupy a small windowless office outside the little breakroom alone.  Little did she realize that working alone in that small office would prepare her for the next twenty-three years—a woman engineer, often the only female in a male-dominated profession.  

I have no idea what the work environment is like today.  I suppose it’s better.  Hopefully, sexual harassment and discrimination are not as prevalent.  In the 80’s and 90’s, if you were a working professional and a female, you have plenty of stories of discrimination and harassment.  And so did she.  

I could spend this chapter on the harassment she endured or the discrimination she suffered. But, to do so would diminish from her professional accomplishments.  I will say that during one of her performance review cycles, she was given a huge raise.  At the time, she had already been made vice president of her company for Quality Assurance.  She had a six-figure income plus.  Then she got a raise.  A big-ass raise.  Not a new lamp or new couch kind of raise but a new sailboat kind of raise.  Apparently, HR had reviewed every employee’s records.  Every single 46,000 of them. To them, she had been shortchanged compared to her male counterparts for several years.  Sometimes, institutional discrimination is hard to see.  Your mother was promoted and compensated well.  Often at the limits of what her supervisors could offer.  Still corporate HR felt she deserved more.  The corporation could face a discrimination lawsuit.  HR wanted to make things right.  To do so, they gave her ten to twenty percent raises every year for the next six years.  This was not for merit or effort. This was to make her whole.  Equal, not 3/5ths of a man, but whole.  

Her work workmobile

She left the Falls Church office in a cloud of dust.  Crystal City was closer, and the work was tailor-made for her.  She joined a group supporting the Navy’s Cruise Missile Program office.  Her job was to ensure the missile’s mission planning system worked as designed.  It was detailed, exacting and when she explained it to me, boring as hell.  I wanted to eat a bug.  She loved the procedure, the process, the discipline.  I saw centipedes crawling into my mouth.  Her job was to ensure that a missile launched from a rolling ship or submarine could hit a pickle barrel from 5,000 miles away.  She was good at it, very, very good at it.  The Navy program office loved her; her company loved her.  She was meticulous and unrelenting.  

When the Navy wanted a new system, she designed a review process to ensure all the Navy’s requirements would be met.  Her input and exit criteria during the design process are now standard benchmarks in the software development industry.  Years later, her approach would be patented.  Her software process is now a US patent.  

She left the Navy Cruise Missile Program to work on software quality control for a new nuclear reactor for the Czech Republic.  The safeguards she built are still in use.  When the British needed a new air traffic control system, they came looking for her.  While I took care of Jennifer and Jason, she jetted off to London for ‘high tea.’

The work to ensure an orderly transition to the new millennium almost killed her.  As the lead software engineer at the Pentagon’s Y2K office, she was well over her head.  Five engineers had been fired before her, and now she was the one hired as the lead engineer.  She was the only one who knew anything about software, and now she worked in the top DoD office commissioned to ensure an orderly transition from 1999 to 2000.  A small leap for us normal people, but a tall leap for those pencil-neck morons who build software.  Do you use the Julian calendar?  How about the Greco-Roman Calendar?  Every single software program in the Department of Defense used a slightly different standard of time.  So, when the year 2000 comes, whose system won’t work?  Will it be the logistics systems ensuring our troops are fed?  Will it be the financial systems to pay our troops?  Our troops like to get paid.  Preferably on time.  How about our Intelligence systems?  Would they go dark?  

I tried to help her as best I could. She was working twenty-plus hours days. She went to meetings with all the top brass at the Pentagon. She’d come home and say, “My meeting was with a bunch of generals.” I think they were wearing green. Is that the Army? She knew nothing. She didn’t know military rank, protocol, or politics. She only knew software. I tried to explain. Her job was political, not technical. She thought I was a Martian. The year 2000 came and went. Some systems didn’t have their internal clocks set. Some did. A few agencies of the DoD made emergency changes. Thanks to her, the military finance system found an error and a fix just in time. The troops got paid. Other agencies were too arrogant to listen to her. Many of their systems stopped working at midnight of the new millennium. Sometimes, even if you are a superhero, you can’t save the world.

Her lead engineers at the Postal Service. Notice the number of women engineers.

When her management wanted to land a big contract with the US Postal Service, a 400-million-dollar contract to provide the engineering talent for the entire Postal Service, they asked her to be the program manager.  SAIC, her company, won the contract and overnight, hundreds of people worked for her.  A person here, a person there, she had barely been a supervisor, let alone a manager of hundreds of workers.  Luckily, she had me to fall back on.  Someone with management experience—and, dare I say – talent.

“You’re screwed,” I’d say.  I had nothing.

The US Postal Service is not like any other government agency.  Half public, half private, it is the largest US employer save Walmart.  Postal Service distribution centers house sorting machines larger than a football field.  Her engineers oversaw all that.  

When a few anthrax letters were received and postal workers died, she led an effort to build a biohazard detection system. The system she helped create was one of the most complex and technologically innovative this country has ever produced. It was a moonshot effort of biochemistry, robotics, and good old software best practices. The machine was all her. It looked like the robot in the Disney movie Wall-e. For her work, she was awarded the Postal Service’s Engineer of the Year Award.

She left her professional life as quickly as she entered.  When she was done, she was done. She’d accomplished great things, led great people, inspired change and done her bit, but she was done. 

“Hey, honey, it’s Sunday, and I don’t have an ironed shirt for tomorrow.  What’s going on?”

Someone put apple juice in her Chardonnay. Thanks alot Donovan!
Her cowboy boyfriend at the Calgary Stampede
Her friend Leslie. Just two mountain gals.

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