For someone who spent her career in the United States Navy — a branch of the armed services that deals mainly with ships — airplanes have had a lot to do with the life of retired Vice Adm. Nancy Brown.
First, there was the way that the Marion native chose a college.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college. I’m not sure why,” said Brown, 65. “I guess my parents instilled that desire in me. When I got ready to make the decision, my dad said I could life at home and go to SIU or I could go to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. I went to Stephens and graduated in three years.”
How she got to Stephens involved an airplane.
“My dad was a pilot, a very early aviation pioneer. He was one of the original American Airlines pilots and he owned his own plane when he was young,” she said. “I don’t know if it was true or not, but he used to tell the story that one day he had engine problems and he had to land in this open field. There, sitting on the fence was a young woman in English riding attire and with her horse. He found out that she went to Stephens College and he was always so impressed by that he said if he had a daughter, he wanted her to go to Stephens.”
Brown says she always knew she wanted to go to college, but nearing the end of her studies in American history, it dawned on her that she had never considered life after college. Armed with a teaching certificate, she returned to Marion to look for a job. Trouble was, lots of other new graduates returned, too, and teaching jobs were hard to find.
“I was pretty depressed. One day my dad said to me, ‘Why don’t you join the Navy?’ and the reason he picked the Navy was he thought they had the best food,” she said.
She said she convinced a recruiter to let her enlist and was chosen for Officer Candidate School.
“I packed up my little car and headed to Newport, Rhode Island,” she said. “At that point, I don’t even think I knew that the Navy had ships.”
Brown considers herself fortunate to get into communications for the Navy — working with radio contact, radar and satellite transmissions.
“I wanted to be as close to the action as I possibly could, and this was as close to an operational environment as you go get because at the time women couldn’t go on the ships.”
Communications was a good fit for her. In fact, after Brown was given command of a communications station, the Navy also decided that it should be an area of emphasis and that there probably should be an admiral in charge of communications.
“They started looking for somebody and I was about the only one at that time who had experience.”
She was selected to be a vice admiral in 2009, one of just 15 female admirals in the branch. The post and her leadership skills led to experiences she will never forget.
“Every disaster we’ve had, it seems I’ve been in the middle of it,” she said. “I was the first female flag officer on the ground in Iraq; I lived in one of Saddam’s palaces; when Katrina hit, I was responsible for reconstituting communications.”
Brown also completed two tours of duty at the White House under President Clinton. As the highest ranking military member at the White House, she was ultimately responsible for all of the military support provided to the military branch of government including communications, Air Force One (another airplane circumstance) and presidential security details.
Brown considers herself lucky.
“It wasn’t my planning or forethought, it was luck. I just always seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” she said, acknowledging the same fortune during the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. A meeting she was scheduled to attend where and when the plane hit was moved to a different building just hours before.
Upon retirement in 2009, Brown and her husband Peter Hesser (a decorated U.S. Marine) returned to her family’s Centennial farm. She says she began to look for ways to give back.
“The first thing I got involved with was the VFW and the American Legion, trying to do what I could. Then I got involved with the honor guard rituals team doing funerals.”
Again, airplanes came into play. She said this time it started with a local news story about Honor Flights — a program that takes military veterans to Washington at no cost. She knew she had to be involved.
“I didn’t even know that there was an Honor Flight here. I had been involved in other places, so I volunteered and the next thing I know, I’m on the board and I’m working full time to help. It was a lot of work getting to where we could actually do the first trip. But, I tell you, that morning at the airport, seeing the veterans, how excited they were and interacting with them, hearing their stories, made it all worth it.”
Accompanying the veterans, she continued to give back.
“When’s the last time an admiral offered to get you water?” she asked the guests, then proceeded to bring each one a bottle of water.
Using her skills and contacts, she made the trip special.
“One of the veterans was a SeeBee, part of the construction unit in the navy,” she said. “I asked one of the police officers escorting our bus if we could drive by the memorial for the SeeBees and he suggested taking this veteran in the squad car.”
Brown said the veteran was taking in the police car with lights flashing to the memorial.
“I have pictures of him touching it and he’s in tears. I still get emotional talking about it. To be able to do something like that is very special,” she said.
Brown is planning the second Honor Flight and hopes to continue to offer two trips each year.
“I want to make sure that every veteran who wants to go, gets a chance to go.”