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I'm an Airman Engineer: Diversity in CE civilian force

At center, Brenda Cook, deputy base civil engineer at Langley AFB, Virginia, reviews the phasing plan on an airfield ramp project on the base with civil engineer squadron members. (Courtesy photo)

Cook is given an update while checking on the progress of an emergency roof repair on a Langley hangar. (Courtesy photo)

Cook takes a look at a hangar roof undergoing an emergency roof repair. (Courtesy photo)
Brenda W. Cook
Deputy Base Civil Engineer
Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.

    So how does a female chemist get the opportunity to help co-lead a civil engineer squadron in a male-dominated career field at one of the Air Force's premier installations? The short answer is through hard work, perseverance, good fortune and a healthy dose of fearlessness.

     While my story began as young girl from Arkansas, sitting on a perch high up in my favorite Mimosa tree and planning a future, the twists and turns along the way to eventually becoming the deputy base civil engineer of Langley Air Force Base (Joint Base Langley-Eustis) show that being a bit different is not a bad thing. My path to this position is one many would consider "non-traditional" in the sense of the typical or anticipated civil engineer career field progression; however, it has nonetheless met the test and proven equally successful as those following a more traditional route.

     So, what exactly does "non-traditional" mean? In my case, it means I came up through the ranks in a different way. My career path was on the environmental side of the house and rather than holding a degree in engineering; I am a degreed chemist. I attended the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas, and earned a Bachelor's of Science degree and later took advantage of tuition assistance and went to Christopher Newport University for a Masters in Environmental Science degree.

     My association with the Air Force began under Tactical Air Commend when I was hired as a contract environmental analyst - an "intern" so to speak - through a University of Tennessee contract in 1989 designed to provide professional staffing. Later, as Air Combat Command stood up in 1992, I was selected for one of the permanent positions in the same branch as a physical scientist-1301 doing the exact job I had for the previous two and a half years.

     I spent the next 13 years in what I thought was the best job in the Air Force preparing environmental assessments and environmental impact statements for aircraft bed downs and realignments, establishing airspace and training ranges and construction projects at a variety of ACC bases. I was also fortunate enough to work on noise and sonic boom research that provided experiences that are among the highlights of my career. This work supporting the Air Force's flying mission was both exciting and challenging, but in 2005, I was given the opportunity to interview for the deputy base civil engineer position at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho; a base I had supported through environmental analysis for a number of years. The interview went very well right up until the base civil engineer learned I was not a degreed engineer. While he did not have a problem with it, per se, he felt like it was a bridge too far at that time and a battle he didn't have the time to fight.

     Nevertheless, back at ACC, another opportunity presented itself and I became the environmental flight chief for what was then the 1st Fighter Wing. Enabling the mission while protecting the environment at America's oldest operational base with the first operational wing of F-22 Raptors! What could be better? A mere one year later, when the sitting deputy base civil engineer transferred to the Pentagon, I was asked to backfill the position as a detail. After a records review by the CE career field manager confirmed I met the educational requirements of the job (yes, chemists do qualify with the right course work), I served in the position through temporary promotion and detail which earned me the 0801, general engineer job series. Once the position was advertised, I threw my hat in the ring and after careful screening and a boarded interview, I was selected for the permanent position in 2007.

     Looking back, what significantly helped me succeed along the way was taking advantage of the wide range of opportunities surrounding me. I learned as much as I could from those around me ... my mentor and supervisor, military leaders, and my civilian and military colleagues as well as the professional scientists, academicians and civic leaders I encountered through my work.  I availed myself of the Air Force tuition assistance program to earn a Master's degree, completed Air War College by seminar and attended leadership development courses. I raised my hand to be involved in cross-functional initiatives like tiger teams, special projects, and research and development studies, which further opened the aperture of my professional development. These opportunities propelled me to grow and reach out for the next challenge.

     Years ago, the gentleman who brought me into federal civil service and became my primary mentor, the late Al Chavis, told me "work hard, work smart and be the best you can be ... everything else will fall into place." For me, those words of wisdom have come to fruition because, with each opportunity I've been given and with each position I've held, I've considered it to be hands down the best job in the Air Force! That does not mean as a female and a chemist there have not been challenges and detractors along the way, but in the end, it is commitment, hard work and perseverance that mattered most.

     It is an honor to work for the Air Force and to be a part of the civil engineer career field for over 23 years. Each and every day I do my best to pay it forward in support of the mission and its people. I find great joy in mentoring and grooming the next generation of civilian civil engineers and I take that responsibility very seriously. As leaders, I feel it is our duty to encourage, motivate and hopefully, inspire those that follow us to "work hard, work smart, be the best you can be ... and be fearless along the way."

(Editor's Note: This article is part of the "I'm an Airman Engineer" series for CE Online. The series focuses on individual CE Airmen to highlight their careers and the diversity, knowledge, career fields and people within our community.)