Susan Lawrence faces down adversity

Army gave 18-year-old Lawrence a path from Ida Grove, Iowa, to the Middle East

Hitting the half-century mark affects people in different ways. Some view life as half over and others see it as just beginning.

For Army Brig. Gen. Susan Lawrence, director of command, control, communications and computer systems for the U.S. Central Command, turning 50 completely changed her outlook because on that day, nearly two years ago, she learned she had breast cancer.

Lawrence handled that event like she has dealt with the many other challenges she has met and mastered in her Army career. She had surgery followed by 15 weeks of chemotherapy and more than 30 radiation treatments while she was vice director of command, control, communications and computer systems for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

During that year Lawrence woke up at 4:30 a.m. every day, arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for treatment by 5 a.m. and was at the Pentagon by or before 7:30 a.m. — about the time many people in Washington, D.C., are working on their first cup of coffee.

Lawrence credits her mother, Patty Conard, for teaching her how to persevere through the kinds of difficulties that can cause other people to give up. Lawrence’s years in the Army as a noncommissioned officer and a stint in the Airborne taught her other lessons that aided her battle with cancer, she said.

Lawrence originally planned to pursue a Navy career. In 1972, at the age of 18, she wanted to join the Navy and see more of the world than the cornfields that surrounded her hometown of Ida Grove, Iowa, a small farming community of about 2,000 people in the northwest part of the state.

But Lawrence said the Navy recruiter who interviewed her did not take her seriously, so she wandered over to the Army recruiter. Her decision to join the Army led to opportunities to see more of the world in the past 34 years than she had ever imagined.

Lawrence’s journey from Ida Grove to the Pentagon is an old-fashioned success story from the heartland of America, the kind less celebrated in a era when cyber-whiz kids seem to rule the planet from cubicles located someplace in California.

If Hollywood made a movie of Lawrence’s life, it definitely would not be Goldie Hawn’s comic tale of a woman harassed by a tough commander in “Private Benjamin.” It would be a gentler piece shot in black and white with a kindly Jimmy Stewart-like mentor who helps guide a raw young recruit toward her future.

Lawrence’s first assignment took her far from Ida Grove to Fort Richardson, Alaska, where she landed a job as a stenographer for Maj. Gen. Sidney “Mickey” Marks. Marks and his wife, Sybil, became Lawrence’s mentors in the early stages of her career.

She said Marks encouraged her to acquire additional education, which led to her decision to take a series of night school and correspondence courses and finally enroll as a full-time college student. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., and a master’s degree in business administration/information systems management from the University of Georgia.

When Marks’ tour ended in Alaska, he was transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C., and took Lawrence with him. At Fort Bragg, Lawrence said, she discovered the downside of having a paratrooper as a mentor.

She found herself headed straight down to the ground after jumping out of an aircraft as part of her initiation into the ranks of the Airborne. Marks “did not want any ‘leg’ working for him,” Lawrence said. “Leg” is shorthand for “straight legs,” a paratrooper nickname for those who do not jump.

After five years in the enlisted ranks and two years as a full-time student at Campbell University, Lawrence was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps. She began a series of assignments in tactical units, starting as a platoon leader in the 2nd Infantry Division and culminating as commander of the 7th Signal Brigade in Germany in 2000.

Lawrence then moved on to senior staff assignments. But at heart, she said, she still feels close to the tactical communicators and units with which she served.

About the time she was diagnosed with cancer, Lawrence was selected to be a director at Centcom. “I was prepared to be diverted, as this was a warfighting command,” she said. But Gen. John Abizaid, Centcom’s commander, was supportive. He told Lawrence that if she could cope with her cancer treatments, he still wanted her to join Centcom.

In her current assignment, Lawrence is responsible for providing communications and information systems for U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan, Iraq and 25 other countries in the command’s area of operations. That area covers an arc that runs from Ethiopia through Tajikistan in central Asia and to Pakistan in south Asia.

To support Centcom’s leaders, Lawrence is working with the Defense Information Systems Agency to upgrade the permanent communications infrastructure. The upgrade will establish broadband fiber-optic and satellite connections to Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar.

Lawrence said she spends 60 percent of her time at Centcom’s facilities in Qatar and the other 40 percent at the command’s headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. Wherever she is, Lawrence said, tactical communications is at the forefront of her thinking.

“We always have to remember the first tactical mile,” Lawrence said. She is an advocate for frontline soldiers who need broadband communications as much as the generals at a command post, she said. In “today’s fluid battlefield, we need to figure out how to take care of the young sergeants,” she added.

If the Defense Department is going to take care of young sergeants in the field and generals at the command posts, it cannot acquire information technology systems at the glacial pace at which the services acquire tanks and airplanes, Lawrence said. “We have to learn how to acquire IT faster,” she said, so that DOD systems can keep pace with advances in the commercial world.

Lawrence has traveled far, but her hometown still matters, said Sam Spears, chaplain of the Ida Grove American Legion Post. Lawrence has been a member of the post for more than 25 years, Spears said. She urged him to become more involved as the post commander, a job he relinquished in early July. Although Lawrence travels a lot, she still views Ida Grove as her home. At the town’s American Legion post, Lawrence “is just one of the guys,” Spears said.

Maj. Gen. Robert Nabors, a retired commander of the Army Communications-Electronics Command and the Army 5th Signal Command, who is now an EDS vice president, said Lawrence’s story explains why she has done so well in her career and in her battle with cancer.

Lawrence “grew up in the part of the Army that was very macho,” Nabors said. “She cut her teeth in a very tough part of the Army when women had not been as fully assimilated as they are now.”

Susan LawrenceCurrent position: Director of command, control, communications and computer systems at the U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

Work history: Lawrence joined the Army as a private in 1972. She was commissioned in 1979 and held a variety of posts with tactical signal units. She took over as Centcom’s director of command, control, communications and computer systems in June 2005 after a tour as director of command, control, communications and computer systems for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon.

Education: She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., and a master’s degree in business administration/information systems management from the University of Georgia. She has also attended the Army War College and the Army Command and General Staff College.

Family: She is married to Neil Sonne, her scuba diving instructor.

Musical tastes: She has eclectic music interests, but she grooves on vintage Motown.

Off-duty activities: Lawrence enjoys escaping to a country retreat in Bedford, Pa., where she owns 40 acres. For her next adventure, she plans to take a cruise to Alaska, her first duty station.

Management tip: “Take care of the young sergeants in the field.”