I first met Army Captain Elizabeth Van Heusden in July, 2011, at the Military Police Captains Career Course at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. During the six-month course, she was my workout buddy and I coaxed her into writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month. Upon graduation, I started work on an ongoing project to write a nonfiction book about women in command, looking at female military police officers who have had the experience of leading law enforcement Soldiers in a variety of environments. CPT Van Heusden was one of the first of my acquaintances whom I approached.
CPT Van Heusden assumed command of the 557th Military Police company July 6, 2012, at Camp Humphries, Korea. Since that time, she has been in a leadership position for a unit that executes law enforcement duties, and is also responsible for training in a variety of other missions. Her previous leadership experience includes platoon leader and executive officer time, including 12 months deployed to a contingency environment.
In the following conversation, we talk a little bit about some of the expectations CPT Van Heusden had when she first took command, some of the challenges she met along the way, and some of the experiences she has had, being stationed in Korea and pursuing her athletic challenges such as running a marathon in China.
My first question to CPT Van Heusden centered around some of the expectations she had going into command. When she took command, her first sergeant – the senior enlisted Soldier in a company – had been in his position for a while. When he rotated out, the new first sergeant had actually been previously stationed with a transportation company. There were some challenges in that she had to synchronize her expectations and the fact that her command team partner had different ideas of how things would be run.
“When you get a previous 1SG [first sergeant] to work in your operations section, they have preconceived notions of how that section works,” said CPT Van Heusden. “There is a fine line between the operations and what the XO [executive officer] should be managing.”
From my personal experience, I knew CPT Van Heusden to be an extremely proactive, highly motivated individual. When asked about some of the command issues that surprised her, she replied that even as a newly-commissioned lieutenant, she had seen a difference between coming from a competitive commissioning environment and then arriving at a unit where some Soldiers – not all, but some – might have less motivation to do more than the bare minimum.
Knowing how the operations section of a headquarters works is also key, she said.
“As an LT [lieutenant] you only have to tell the operation what you want them to do and they make the ammo and land request,” said CPT Van Heusden. “As the commander, I need to know how that section works to make the platoons successful.”
Another challenge is the fact that most Soldiers are assigned to Korea for only one year. This can sometimes make for interesting personnel situations.
“I have been forced to have a 2LT [second lieutenant] as the XO,” said CPT Van Heusden. “Not being in the Army, and then being thrown into a pivotal role of XO has been a challenge.” She added: “Me and 1SG are doing the best we can, but there have been some interesting situations with the XO and outside agencies.”
In addition to her regular duties as commander of the 557th Maddawgs, CPT Van Heusden is a marathoner and is currently training for a half ironman distance race that she will be running as a team this month. (In fact, we have even discussed doing a marathon together in Russia next summer. We’ll see…) I asked her what it was like to run a marathon on the Great Wall of China. Her reply:
“It was rough. Even adding stairs (a lot of them) to the long runs was not enough to prepare for the challenge of climbing stairs at mile 20. You first ran 5KM up hill to the start of the wall and were on the wall for 7 Kms. Then you were in the local villages for [several kilometers] and then 20-something KM and then 7 KM on the wall again and then the last 5 KM are the same as the first 5 Km you ran, but downhill.”
Lastly, we talked some more about the phenomenon of being a female military police officer, and the challenges of leading as woman in the Army. Particularly I asked if she had some lessons learned to share with young leaders, and especially young female leaders.
“Be confident in who you are,” said CPT Van Heusden. “BE you. There are some people (especially civilians) that have not worked or are still reluctant to work with or for females. I have had a few encounters and have found that if you are confident and assertive then they know you are in charge.”
In a previous conversation, CPT Van Heusden had mentioned that when she took command, she had been afraid to joke around or be herself, for fear of not being taken seriously. Due to the mentorship of another female commander, she learned that it was best to be honest about who you are as you lead your unit during your time in command.
I look forward to future conversations with CPT Van Heusden, as well as future work on this project.