Folks at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C., held a retirement ceremony for Suzanne M. Fournier recently. She retires at the end of May. She has been the chief of public affairs there for three years, through a period of challenge and controversy that has seen the Corps supporting troops in two wars, fighting floods, searching its soul after Hurricane Katrina and building billions of dollars worth of 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.

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Twenty-four years ago Fournier was a housewife thinking about returning to work after 16 years of child raising. The other day she celebrated her retirement as the chief public affairs strategist for an organization with a staff of 34,000 spread across 100 countries, supporting troops in two 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.

Present “the truth, well-told,” were her orders, says Van Antwerp. To do that, she had to influence dozens of local public affairs staffers in Corps divisions and district offices scattered around the globe to translate those instructions into the minutia of day-to-day communications and relationships with the public, policy-makers and the media. 

Committing to always deliver the truth, well-told, through so many individual voices engrossed in so many local situations is an ambitious undertaking, but it was one she embraced and strived for by influence and example.

From the standpoint of the media, her success varied, which is no surprise.  The media is a many-headed beast with just as many appetites for access and detail. The consumer press is frequently satisfied with packaged tours and photo ops; Engineering News-Record’s editors just can’t ever seem to get close enough to the grit, details and action, so we are harder to satisfy. Our editors are always seeking immediate access to supporting documentation, images and primary sources, such as the consulting engineers, contractors, subs, machine operators, laborers and suppliers, so we can tell our readers not only what the job is, but also what it is “like” to work on it. 

We are difficult to satisfy, but to Fournier’s credit, her door was always open to our appeals for help in cutting through the mush to get to the meat of the story.  And my general sense of the relative transparency of the Corps is that it has been improving for several years, a trend dating back to the invasion of Iraq and then the tenure of Van Antwerp’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, who realized the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the doubts about the Corps could only be addressed by openness and truthful communications.

Our attitude at ENR is, you give us the truth and we will take care of the “well–told” storytelling business. I credit Fournier with buying into that relationship with ENR, and credit her, and her commander, with helping to maintain the trend toward access, openness and transparency. I hope their successors always do likewise.

But back to that 24-year, second career:

At the retirement ceremony in Washington, which I dropped in on since I was in town, the tableau was one of a celebration of service to the nation.

In addition to a large number of public affairs colleagues, most of Fournier’s family attended: husband Gil of 43 years, most 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-Spangled Banner, delivered with warmth and thoughtful purity. Babies babbled and toddlers chattered and fidgeted while accolades and gifts were delivered and a line of generals expressed the nation’s appreciation.

Just 24 years earlier, according to Fournier’s youngest son, Daniel, who spoke at the ceremony, his mom had gotten the youngest of seven children safely enrolled in school and was ready for a new direction, after years of homemaking, diaper washing and coaching babies toward the great wide world.

Fournier started weighing her options. She was good at wallpapering and considered opening a business; 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 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 and baby shots, but they also showed the combat fatigues and helmet photos from her 8 months in Baghdad, 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, though. Well-wishers say that, in addition to her professional and homemaking skills, 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 your behalf, and in the case of the Corps, as a federal employee, she was on the taxpayers’ payroll, working to improve our understanding of the work of the Corps of Engineers, which 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 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, Fournier 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 her hero, 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 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 Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Michael Shaara, Killer Angels (1974), 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 so the outnumbered remnants of the 20th Maine charged down the hill and into their attackers, broke the assault, secured the flank and turned the course of battle, and, perhaps the war. 

And on picture puzzles, Fournier says her grandchild had noticed she always worked the same way: She never started until she had turned over the pieces, sorted them out and studied the picture on the box to fix a clear vision of her goal in her mind.

Today, she 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, video and other new tools for information delivery. Under her guidance, they have been turning over the pieces and fixing in mind Van Antwerp’s instructions “to deliver the truth, well-told.” Speaking to her public affairs colleagues in the audience, she could not resist one more command and said, with clear directions, “Fix bayonets. It’s a challenging time. Lets charge down that hill together!”