Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Adrienne (Hegman) Brandicourt

Next up in the Women Who Inspire series, Adrienne Brandicourt! Adrienne is one of my Naval Academy classmates who flies in the stratosphere academically, but at the same time, is as down to earth and sweet as you please. . . .

Adrienne (Hegman) Brandicourt graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and a minor in German. She reported to Headquarters US European Command (EUCOM) Data Services Center (J6) in Stuttgart, Germany, where she did computer systems design for the EUCOM Intelligence Support System development branch. Following her service in Germany, she reported to Naval Ocean Processing Facility, in Dam Neck, VA, where she served as SURTASS (Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System) watch officer, legal officer, and admin officer. Adrienne lives with her husband, Harry (also USNA class of 89) in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has four children—Benjamin, Annie, Isabelle, and Elliott.

AW: There are so many things I want to ask you, but I’ll start with the basics. Why the Naval Academy?

AB: My parents took us to Washington, D.C., when I was around twelve or thirteen, and we also visited the Academy on that trip. I absolutely fell in love with it. I liked the water, the sailboats, the YP’s, and the Yard.

AW: What did your parents think about your decision?

AB: My parents were thrilled when I told them I wanted to go the Naval Academy. But many other people thought differently, and I often heard, “You can’t do that.” “Why do you want to do that?” “You’re not an athlete.” At that point in time, many people I knew questioned the role of women in the military. I suppose that pushed me to want to do it even more, but really, it came down to the fact that I just loved the Academy. I had applied to four other schools, but the Academy was my first choice all the way through.

AW: Did you have any idea what you wanted to do in the navy before you got to the Naval Academy?

AB: I thought I wanted to be on a ship. Of course, at eighteen, I didn’t really know what that meant. But I was game for it. I thought it was fantastic to know I was going to go to school for four years and then I’d have a job waiting for me right afterwards.

AW: When did that idea change, do you think? About pursuing surface warfare after graduation?

AB: It changed first class year, when I studied abroad in Germany. I did a semester at the German Military University [Bundeswehr Universit├Ąt] in Munich, and it was an amazing experience. So on service selection night, there was a billet available for computer systems design, which was my major, and the job was located in Germany. I really wanted to go back, so I took it.

AW: I never knew you studied abroad! What an amazing opportunity! So what was this like? Was the university comparable to the Naval Academy? Do they have service academies like we do? Did you have to do everything in German?

AB: Yes, everything was in German. And the idea of service academies is the same, but it’s executed differently in Germany. They have two military universities—one in Hamburg and one in Munich—and all five branches (army, navy, air force, support and medical) of the Germany military are represented at each place. It was a lot more relaxed than the Naval Academy was. We wore civilian clothes most of the semester. I think they wore uniforms maybe twice a year.

AW: No uniforms? I can’t even imagine! When you had to wear a uniform, what did you wear?

AB: Well, this is an interesting story. We had just one formation while I was there. It included marching to a given location, listening to a speech and marching back. And at the time, there were no women in the German military—

AW: Wait, wait, wait. Come back. There were no women in the German military?

AB: Not at the time, no. But I think, ultimately, this was one of the reasons I was able to study abroad here. No one had ever done it before, but because I was a woman, it worked out. The Germans were trying to figure out how to integrate women into their military, and this would be a temporary, very small, trial project, which wouldn’t attract loads of attention.

AW: So you were the only woman there?

AB: I was—in the classrooms, that is. But we had women all around, because the guys’ girlfriends were able to visit whenever they wanted, and in many cases, lived there with them.

AW: Seriously? Their girlfriends could live with them? That’s quite a bit different from the deal we have over here.

AB: Yeah, no kidding. It was like going to a regular university. It was open. No curfew. The dorms were beautiful and you got a huge room to yourself—

AW: A room to yourself? Seriously? I can’t even. . . .

AB: [Laughs] I know! There were about sixteen rooms to a building and they all centered around a big kitchen and living area. Oh, and there weren’t women’s bathrooms or showers. Everyone shared and it wasn’t a big deal at all.

AW: Wow. So different. How were you treated, then? And how many men attended at the time you were there, do you think?

AB: It was pretty small. I think there was a student population of about 2,500. I got along well with everyone—you have to remember I was grouped in classes with nerdy computer science people—who were all really, really nice. And—you’ll love this—my German computer science buddies all loved to swim! I always thought of you—yes, you—when I was there, because we’d go to the pool in the evenings and swim and swim and swim!

AW: Okay, so that’s excellent. Any other memories that stand out from that time?

AB: One thing that was really cool was that I got to work on a research project called PROMETHEUS, which at the time, was the largest research and development project ever in the field of driverless cars. I worked on it with my research adviser, a professor at the school, named Ernst Dickmanns. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be working with him, as he was a pioneer of driverless cars in the 1980s.

AW: Wow. So cool. But before I go off on another tangent, I want to go back to the story you were going to tell me earlier about the uniform and marching to formation.

AB: Oh, yes. We had an O-3 [the equivalent of an army captain] in charge of my military exchange program. I showed up for the march to formation in my SDBs [Service Dress Blue], and I wore pants, because we were going to be marching. The O-3 said no, absolutely not. They were not going to have me in pants. They wanted everyone to know they had a female exchange student, so I needed to wear a skirt and heels. I argued and eventually, we compromised. Yes, I would wear the skirt, but not the heels. First of all, you don’t march in a skirt, but no way do you do it in heels!

AW: I’m glad you stood your ground on that one! So let me skip back to where this whole conversation about Germany started—to your service selection to EUCOM in Stuttgart. What was your job and how did you find your experience there as a whole?

AB: EUCOM was a joint command—army, navy, air force, marine corps—and a high ranking command. There were plenty of women filling various roles, but not many junior officers, male or female. I was lucky to speak German, and was able to keep in touch with my friends from the Bundeswehr Universit├Ąt in Munich. I worked with a team of Air Force personnel designing the collections management portion of a new computer system for the Intelligence Directorate.

AW: Were the systems you designed in operation by the time you left?

AB: Actually, the technology was changing so fast, that it was probably out of date as we were working on it. As we were writing code, we were constantly considering switching to other platforms and/or languages. They were still working on it when I left, and I don’t know when they went operational.

AW: Let’s see . . . . Switching gears completely. You married one of our classmates, Harry Brandicourt. Did you meet in school? And when did you start dating?

AB: We met the summer of youngster cruise, but didn’t really start dating until we were in Germany. Although, actually, I guess we were dating by service selection night, because he selected nuc surface [Surface Warfare Officer (nuclear)], but arranged TAD orders in Germany first before beginning his training, so he could be near me. After he returned to the states, we dated long distance. We got married when I had about six months left in that tour.

AW: And were you able to get co-located after that?

AB: Yes. We were able to arrange it so that we were both in Virginia Beach. This was definitely a compromise for both of us, because career-wise, what we each really wanted was in California. But it would have meant one of us living in Los Angeles and the other in San Diego. It just wasn’t worth it to us to live that far apart, even though technically, it would be considered co-location. Ultimately, I’m so happy I prioritized us being together over the job.

AW: Even though it wasn’t your first choice in jobs, your next assignment does sound interesting. Where did you work and what did this involve?

AB: I was at the Naval Ocean Processing Facility Dam Neck, VA, and it was an IUSS [Integrated Underseas Surveillance System] Command, with both SOSUS [Sound Surveillance System ] and SURTASS [Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System ] watch floors and facilities.

AW: Looking for submarines, then.

AB: Yes. We would receive, read, and interpret data and brief the commanding officer at least once per day. Plus, we’d coordinate with the SURTASS ships to put their arrays in the best possible location to identify and track a given submarine.

AW: I know we just scratched the surface of what you did in the navy, but I’ll try to wrap up the interview this way. You have four kids now. Have any of them entertained the idea of going to the Naval Academy?

AB: My two oldest? Definitely not. One wants to be a high school teacher, and the other, a social worker. The third said, “If nobody in this house is going to make money, I had better!”

AW: That is hilarious!

AB:  My youngest, though, occasionally talks about going to the Naval Academy. We’ll just have to see. It’s tough at only eighteen to know what you want to do. You think you know what you want to do, but you may or may not. I tell my kids that it’s cool to have an idea what to do, but it’s also good to realize it could change. And that’s totally okay.

AW: If you had to do it all over again—going to the Naval Academy—would you?

AB: I would absolutely do it again. I thought the school experience was wonderful. I learned so much I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. All of my company-mates were great. People ask me now if it was difficult, and I say, no, it was fantastic. I grew up a lot faster than I think I would have otherwise, which I appreciate. It taught me a lot about determination and fortitude, and also how to do things I wasn’t good at. That was a hard lesson, but a good one. So yes. I’d definitely do it all again.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Nod to Swimming - A Sport that Fosters Equality

If I give a nod to swimming, I must offer a bow to my coach,
Bob Gillett, and his wife, Kathy.
Kathy taught me to swim at the age of four, and Bob took the
reins from there, coaching me for the next thirteen years,
through high school. I don't think I can ever thank Kathy and
Bob enough for their guidance. I learned strength and
perseverance through swimming--and yes, equality--and truly,
this has been the foundation for everything else. 

When I stepped onto the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy for Induction Day in the summer of 1985, women comprised just ten percent of the incoming class of midshipmen. In a recent radio interview, I was asked if I felt intimidated by the prospect of entering the Academy as a member of such a small minority. My answer was no.

Certainly, I was intimidated about a lot of other things at the Academy. But worried or nervous because I was a woman? No. And it wasn’t that I was extraordinarily brave or some super woman who was going to bust in, kick ass, and take names. No, I wasn’t intimidated, because up to that point, I didn’t know I could be. Or should be. Or was supposed to be.

I believe this was due in large part to my competitive swimming background, where girls and boys were treated equally from the get-go. We swam in the same lanes, performed the same workouts, raced the same events, and completed the same strength training routines. We practiced before school, after school, and on weekends. We suffered, rejoiced, complained, and commiserated, day after day, week after week, year after year. Equal all the way. Taught the same. Tasked the same. Evaluated the same.

Fortunately for me, this was reinforced at home, too. Equality in my family just was. My mother was a physician, my dad a dentist, mutual respect always. Never did they intimate that girls and boys were different in terms of intellect, drive, or resiliency.

And this constancy in example continued when they dropped me off for swim practice—a place absent of “motivational” speeches like the following:*

Gentlemen, the cheerleading squad is over there!

Come on, ladies, let’s move it!

You wear a jock strap, not a skirt. Now, get out there and play like it!

Man up!

Cheerleader practice starts at five. If you want to stay on this field, you’d better hit somebody!

*No prizes for guessing what male-dominated sport produced these quotes.

Don’t get me wrong. We swimmers got our asses chewed if we were screwing around or not making sets or whatever, but no one’s gender was degraded in the process.

So when I finally left home to attend college across the country, I did so—naively, I guess—without thought to gender.

It was a surprise—a big surprise, actually—when I arrived at the Naval Academy to find the men’s and women’s swim teams practicing separately. Men on this end of the pool, women on that end. What?

And then, those other things. When women were separated in our physical education classes to learn self-defense, while the men learned boxing. Or when we were made to climb over a shorter wall on the obstacle course named—cringe!—the “Women’s Wall.” [Oh, that’s hard for me to write]. Or when my female classmates who entered the U. S. Marine Corps following our graduation four years later, arrived at The Basic School in Quantico, VA, and were assigned to an all-women’s platoon.

Separate. That other group. Over there. Those lesser ones.

I do believe the military services are attempting to move in the right direction, adopting physical fitness standards based on job requirement, not gender, and integrating men and women into the same units. So we’re making progress.

But we would make so much more—not just in the military, but everywhere—if we established the gender equality mindset far earlier. When our children are still kids. It could be track and field. It could be co-ed soccer. It could be equestrian. Taekwondo. Cross country. Triathlon. So many thoughtful options exist for parents—sports that foster equality between girls and boys early on, avenues that allow our children to grow up knowing no differently.

Was I intimidated going to the Naval Academy because I was a woman? No. And it’s my hope that your daughters will be able to answer in the same manner, regardless of the challenges set before them.