Suzanne M. Fournier will retire at the end of May from her post as chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She has held that position for the last three years, through a period of challenge and controversy that has seen the Corps supporting troops in two wars—which means working beside and among them with weapons in one hand and construction equipment controls in the other—and fighting floods, and searching its soul after the heartbreak of Hurricane Katrina. She has advised the leaders of the Corps on presenting the ancient American institution’s face and message to the public, through what has to be one of the most difficult periods of its history that has encompassed the abrupt and early retirement of one of its chiefs, Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, and through the rapid rebuilding of billions of dollars worth of ravaged flood defenses after the calamity along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans.
Fournier is concluding a 24-year career.
That number should stop you—24 years. Twenty-four years ago Suzanne Fournier was a housewife thinking about returning to work after 16 years of child raising. In ceremonies on May 7, 2009, in Washington, D.C. she was celebrated in retirement ceremonies as the chief public affairs strategist for an organization with a staff of 34,000 spread across 100 countries, supporting troops in distant wars and pushing a $30 billion construction program. “That’s a lot of communicating that’s got to be done,” commented the chief of the Corps of Engineers, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp.
In addition to a large number of public affairs colleagues, most of Fournier’s family attended: husband Gil of 43 years, many of their seven sons and daughters, with spouses, a hefty representation from 20 grandchildren and a bevy of nieces. They filled the first three rows of the auditorium. Daughter Annette Fournier sang a beautifully phrased rendition of the Star Spangle Banner, delivered with warmth and thoughtful purity. Throughout the event, babies babbled and toddlers chattered and fidgeted and competed for attention while accolades and gifts were delivered and a line of generals expressed the appreciation of the nation.
Just 24 years ago, according to Fournier’s youngest son, Daniel, who spoke at the ceremony, his mom had seen the youngest of her seven children safely enrolled in school after years of homemaking, diaper washing and coaching babies toward the great wide world.
Twenty-four years ago Fournier was weighing her options. She was good at wallpapering and thought of opening a business in the trade; but she also hankered for a return to federal service. Prior to family-building with Gil she had worked as a secretary at an Air Force base in Offutt, Utah. Her return-to-work job-hunt soon had her banging a typewriter at a U.S. Army Recruiting Center, in Omaha, Neb., and editing the unit’s newspaper.
She did well and won an award, and then won some more, and she began to chart a new course for her life. That took her away from her family for a 9-week public affairs training—the most wrenching separation, she says, of the many that were to follow. As she said in her own remarks at the May 7 ceremony, her motto then was “fake it until you make it, and when you decide what your destiny is, chart your course and you’ll get there.”
She and Gil moved to Huntington, W. Va. and she started serving the Corps of Engineers. Promotions followed, and so did the moves from posting to posting—which is the Army way.
The slide show that blinked on the screen above the stage while the audience filtered in showed the usual childhood grins and smiling-young-mom shots, but they also showed the combat fatigues and helmet photos from her 8 months in Iraq, which was heralded by a local newspaper as “Grandmother of 15 Heads For Iraq.”
“She talks the talk, and she walks the walk,” Van Antwerp says.
Her skill-development didn’t stop with public affairs. Well-wishers say that, in addition to her professional and domestic abilities, she also is known of as a high-energy gardener who relocates 10-foot trees and builds her own stone retaining walls. Van Antwerp says she is reported to be “proficient with a nail gun and a tile cutter,” and once put an industrial oven to the test that was supposed to be capable of baking 16 pies at once, by baking 16 pies at once.
It’s always uplifting to see people succeed, but it is especially so when they expend their energies on our behalf. In the case of the Corps, as a federal employee, she was on our payroll, working to improve our understanding of the work of our employees, the Corps of Engineers. It is a major undertaking. As one of her colleagues remarked with a sigh, “God knows, helping engineers to tell their story is a challenge, every day.”
She got parting gifts, including a brown tabletop model of a castle—the “Engineers Castle,” the icon framed on the flag of the Corps that flies on offices–and on battlefields—around the world. Her model was cast from Mississippi mud in remembrance of the Corps roots, said Deputy Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Merdith (Bo) Temple, who presented it.
In the end, Suzanne had the stage and took the moment to talk about two things; the strategy that one of her grandchildren pointed out she always uses on picture puzzles, and the second, about her hero, the Union Army Col. Joshua Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric who volunteered for service in the Civil War.
At Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, Chamberlain commanded a regiment perched on the side of a hill at the extreme southern tip of the Union line. His orders were to hold at all cost, or see the entire Union line rolled up from the end. Heavily outnumbered, Chamberlain and his men fought off waves of assaults until their ammunition was gone.
Quoting from the book by Michael Shaara, Killer Angels, Fournier then told how Chamberlain, “the professor of communication,” …“with clear directions,” instructed his men to “fix bayonets, anchor on that bolder over there and swing in a line like a door,” And then the vastly outnumbered remnants of the 20th Maine charged down the hill and at their attackers, routed the assault, secured the flank and turned the course of battle, and—perhaps—the war.
And on picture puzzles, Suzanne says her grandchild noticed she always worked the same way: She never started until she first turned over all the pieces, sorted them out and studied the picture on the box to fix a clear vision in her brain.
Today, Fournier pointed out, the Corps faces many great challenges, even as its public affairs foot soldiers work to sort through all the new and puzzling means of communications, such as the rising flood of social media and other new tools for information delivery. It is time to examine and plan, she suggested, but it is also time to move. “Fix bayonets,” she said, unable to resist one last command as she headed into her final days as a leader within the Corps. “It’s a challenging time. Lets charge down that hill together!”
Just think. We are talking about a woman’s third career; early career, family raising and Corps—and limiting ourselves to the last 24 years. Multiply that by a husband, seven children and 20 grandchildren and see what the math brings.
We are a fortunate nation.