Photos courtesy of Alicia Cory from ShoTcha Photography
It was 1983 when she joined the military. The army, more specifically.
It was just five years prior, in 1978, that the WAC (Women’s Army Corp) was dissolved and women were integrated (nay allowed) in the military.
And, what’s more she stayed active duty military for 20 years until her retirement in 2003.
If you hadn’t caught it yet, let me say it - that’s a big deal. Not many of us know someone who spent 20 years in the military let alone a woman who spent 20 years in the military.
“What was your role in the Army?” I asked as we sipped coffee in the cozy lobby of my office. “Obviously, it probably changed within a 20-year career.”
“I went in for languages, German and Russian, and started off life as an interrogator.”
“Maybe you should be interviewing me,” I said laughing, but I was only half kidding.
“I don't write a blog.” She joined my laughter.
When she spoke she looked down at her hands. Not timidly, but rather they seemed to keep the conversation moving forward; each progressive point of her story punctuated by the movement of her hand along an imaginary timeline on the table.
Berlin during the Cold War
“It was during the Cold War,” she glanced furtively at me, “so I'm old and..
“Well, the Cold War really wasn't that long ago,” I assured her, “I remember the Berlin Wall coming down. When was that? ‘87?
“Was it?” Goodness. I need a better memory.
“So, I was on the East/West German border working with the German Border Police and folks who successfully crossed the border from the Soviet Union into Western Germany, or Germany as we considered it.
“Holy buckets,” I said at a near whisper. She was living history.
“I would debrief them and so forth,” Christine added.
“Were they Asylum Seekers?”
“So, what’s playing in my mind is something like what you’d see in a movie: an interrogator getting information out of a spy and whatnot.”
“Well,” she laughed, “you are getting information from people but not like you're thinking of in the movies. In my early years I was working with German officials through weeks and months of questioning people who came from the Soviet Union to try and figure out if they were there legitimately.”
Christine would ask asylum seekers questions such as ‘How did you get here when other people couldn’t?’; or, ‘Was your journey facilitated and will you go back or are you really here?’.
“So a lot of the conversations were about validating and vetting what they had to say. Determining their motivation for fleeing.”
“So, why was the US government involved at the East/West German border?”
This may sound like the question of a clueless person, but when I was in high school history class, The Cold War had just recently ended and the books hadn’t been written describing why the Berlin Wall was there or the dynamics of its destruction. Maybe they did, and I wasn’t paying attention, but we seemed to focus on what life was like in America during the Cold War. The fear of nuclear attack, in particular.
“We were essentially protecting the West German border,” Christine explained. “When World War II ended, the East/West German border was where we stopped the Soviets. Otherwise, the Soviet Union would have pushed through the rest of Europe. We had troops all along the continuum between free Europe and the Soviet Union. The Germans didn't have enough military power to protect their border from the Soviet Union and so ever since World War Two we were there protecting their border.”
I could only imagine the stories Christine must carry with her of refugees fleeing for their lives desperate to live in the free world.
“We didn't act outside of their purview of the Germans. We worked in coordination with them. After the war and after the wall fell, because I spoke German and Russian, I worked in refugee resettlement areas. At that point my role shifted to much more of a strategic one. We were concerned with managing the flood of people coming from the former Soviet Union who were worried the perestroika wasn't going to stick and the wall would go back up. So, they were coming out in droves. Very similar to the Syrian refugee crisis right now.”
From someone who knows
What do you think of our current refugee situations?” I asked tentatively. It’s a risky question these days.
“You know,” she paused considering her words carefully, “I think we're called to welcome people, so I don't think we should ever stop refugees. We should never say to somebody who's fleeing their home, who has nothing, to turn around and go back so you can die there. I don't think that's what we’re called to do as Christians.”
“So, your faith informs your worldview on that?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. But even if I didn't have faith, I think human compassion would guide that view. From the sidelines, it’s easy to say that we shouldn't be taking all these people in but that's because most haven't seen it up close. You haven’t seen the misery. You haven't seen the devastation; haven't seen the kids. Once you see them it's very different.”
“Did you witness that sort of thing on the east west border?”
“Yes. Yes, you saw people leaving everything. Not that they had a lot under the Soviet Union - they really didn't have a lot. They were fleeing out of panic that the wall would come back up and they would get stuck there.
“Still, having seen countries in chaos, I believe there is a need for balance and law & order. I don't particularly feel like we should have people circumventing immigration laws and I think people should do things the right way, but, they are probably pushed to do things the wrong way because we're not compassionate enough.”
A Woman in a Man’s World
"Tell me what it was like for you, as a woman, in the military which, at the time, was and probably still is, male-dominated.”
“Yes. It was a male-dominated environment my whole 20 years.”
“Women weren’t even allowed in combat in ‘83 when you joined, right?”
“They weren't even technically allowed in combat through to when I retired although they were in combat. And, what is the definition of a combat zone became a big topic of conversation throughout the ‘90’s and into the 2000s and it really ratcheted up after 9/11. After that day how do you define a combat zone? And, we had women who were Prisoners of War but technically couldn't get recognized for that because they weren't technically a combat person. So yeah, very male-dominated environment.”
“How did you handle that?”
In my mind, I have this image of what a successful woman looks, acts, and sounds like: She’s bold, strong, confident, maybe wears bright red lipstick and tan high heels. She speaks firmly. Christine, though confident and well spoken, doesn’t fit that stereotypical image. In fact, during our interview I had to turn up the input volume on my voice recorder as her voice was considerably softer than my own. Yet, she exudes quiet and well poised confidence.
“You can't consider yourself always in competition with men or you’ll come off like you're over trying. You just have to focus on skill,” she said in response to my question.
“I had some great women mentors who gave me great advice and they showed me what it looked like to mentor other women. Because there were certainly those that didn't.” I nodded in agreement as she continued.
“As a woman, and for a while, a single parent, I had to prioritize my work. As a result of that, I got a lot of promotions. I was able to secure assignments that a lot of people never had the opportunity to do. I was really blessed with a wonderful career and part of that was being ready and available for every opportunity as it came along and willing to say yes to opportunities.”
Christine went on to describe how in the later part of her career she saw the emphasis shift from prioritizing work to prioritizing family - and, not just women doing so, but men, as well. It seems changing roles within families and marriages has helped to level the playing field for women as men take on a greater role in caring for children.
“So I would have guys come in and say, ‘hey I'm on tap if my kid gets sick today and he just got sick, so I gotta leave.’ Then you start realizing it's a whole generation that's going to say they like to work but kids and family come before work.”
Still, one thing that was consistent in all of her years in the military and with the Bureau was that men filled up most of the ranks.
“And they still do don’t they?” I asked.
She nodded in agreement and said she could count on one hand the number of women who did the sort of work she did. She saw changes; however by the time she started doing consulting work with the FBI. About 10-25% of new agents were be women.
“Prejudice comes in all kinds of forms and one's not better or worse than the other,” she said, “but I was struck by the fact that even up until the last day I was in the military and all the way through my consulting work with the FBI, I would be in conversation with a group of people and somebody would inevitably begin a sentence with ‘no offense, but…’ It would go on to be this conversation about how they didn't really see women as appropriate for this role or that role and I got to the point where I would say, okay, I would like you to hit pause and rewind. Now, I would like you to replace ‘women’ with some other people group. Say 'no offense, but - insert the people group - I don't think they should bla bla bla.’ And so tell me why you think having a bias against a gender is different than having a bias against a particular ethnic group. Help me understand why is it that you feel this ways because I think that would help us not to take offense, because I am a little offended.
“Of course, in my early days I was quite sarcastic. Back then when people would say ‘no offense,’ I’d say ‘oh, no offense, but I'm thinking that your intellectual capacity doesn't really qualify you for this conversation, but I don't mean to offend.’ Eventually, I realized that's a conversation stopper not starter. I had to learn to temper my sarcasm because it was quite biting and often devastating for the receiver. And was not helpful.”
Ah, sarcasm. I’m still speaking that language. More often than I should.
And Then there were three (letters)
“So, you mentioned doing consulting work with the FBI. How did you end up doing that and what did that look like?” I asked.
“Well, for the last 10 years my military career when I was stationed in D.C., I worked directly with the DIA, CIA, NSA, and FBI even though my paycheck came from the Army. I probably worked with the Bureau less than any other because my focus was on languages and refugees, so I mostly worked with organizations that were working to re-establish relationships or resettle people groups.”
I soon discovered it was this work with the aforementioned three letter agencies that led to her work post-military.
“Before I retired from the military, I was approached by some General Officers that I had worked with and they said that if I was going to retire then they would like me to help them start a business in line with what I had done in the military and, in particular, the work I’d done with the three letter agencies. I had a master's in business, but I had never worked outside of government.”
Christine was concerned her experience wouldn’t translate to the private sector. Turns out; however, that not having to fight the bureaucracy of government makes a person more efficient and expedient. She jumped in and five years later, it was a 21 million dollar business and growing.
By that time, Christine and her husband, George, were a D.C. power couple. She’d helped to build a 21 million dollar business and he was a senior official in the federal government (and a former counterintelligence special agent).
“We were high-fiving and going in different parts of the world and lots of fun stories around that, but we had outsourced our life. Our daughter had a nanny, we had somebody cleaning the house and doing the yard. We joked that the only thing we hadn’t outsourced yet was vacations.
“And, it was about that time my husband and I came to faith and the more we grew in our faith the more we realized we weren’t living the kind of lifestyle we should be leading. We weren’t parenting our daughter just as we hadn’t really raised our oldest daughter. And then my husband's mother had a significant heart operation, his father had colon cancer and we were losing a brother-in-law to cancer and it was all here in Rochester (MN). My husband felt like we needed to refocus and the only way we could do that was if we divested of what we were doing and move back to Rochester, George’s hometown. He wanted our focus to be on faith, family, friends, and fitness. I told him I that that sounded wildly implausible.
Christine had grown up in D.C. so it was understandable that she wouldn’t want to leave.
“He said there were some big obstacles but if he could make it happen would I be in?
She said she would.
So, her husband began the job search. There were only two or three job openings for senior officials in the federal government in all of the state of Minnesota so the task of job hunting was fairly easy. He interviewed and within six months was hired as the head of TSA in Minnesota.
The next obstacle was selling a spectacular home in D.C. shortly after the real estate bubble had burst in 2008.
“There were 16 houses in our area on the market when we listed our house. The first person who walked in bought it.”
It may seem strange that Christine, an extremely successful woman, would pick up and seemingly follow her husband, but she’d seen marriage upon marriage, relationship upon relationship, crumble around her in D.C. and she knew this was not what she wanted for herself. She understood the desperate need to refocus.
So, Christine was full in as she divested in the 21 million dollar business, packed up everything and moved to Minnesota.
“How many years has it been since then?”
“Ten. But I kind of had a false start in Rochester because when I got here I tried to integrate in the community, but quickly realized that my specialty wasn't a business here.
“Then, George decided on getting a second Masters through Naval Postgraduate in Monterey, CA. I’d flown out with him to Monterey and we were sitting around a fire pit one evening. One of the instructors was describing how he needed somebody with the experience and schooling that I had to join them for a gig. He asked if I was interested and George encouraged me to go for it. That contract led to another contract and another and I ended up doing the work I’d done in D.C. but now on my own.
“On one of those gigs I ended up meeting a guy who was running a contract for the Bureau (FBI) and he said I should look into that sort of contract.”
You see, after 9/11 the Bureau had to become proactive in their work investigating issues before they happened. Christine explained, “They realized they needed to connect in the community in such a way that people would come to them when they saw somebody was going to blow up something and let us know about it. They had to have a completely different mindset If they wanted to develop relationships that would lead to that kind of knowledge.”
“So, the federal bureau of preoperative investigation?” I chided.
Working for the bureau as her single source client seemed a much more efficient route then having to go through the administrative nightmare of having multiple clients.
“I ended up going single source and did so for five years. I would go to a location outside of Quantico (the FBI Academy) and we developed and taught curriculum. And so, when I say I had a false start in Rochester, it’s because I was sort of here, but living out there for months at a time.”
“It sounds like you were doing what you did in D.C. but with a different home base.” I noted.
“Yeah, we were back to outsourcing life. But, God works in very strange ways. In the meantime, George had been asked if he would consider retiring from the government and begin pastoring at our church.”
“Oh, my. How did that come about?” It seems some of the best ministers have interesting ways of getting there.
“We were on a trip in Athens with the pastor of our church, John Steer, and his wife, Gretchen, and John started this conversation about George retiring and I remember thinking I didn’t need any more changes.
“Long story short, George did retire from the federal government and now he's been the Pastor of Administration at Autumn Ridge Church for the past three years.”
Where you going with this?
“So, how did it come about that and your husband came to faith?” I was curious.
Christine went on to explain that she and George had been married in a Methodist church and even after investing themselves in administrative leadership in their local church they found themselves feeling as if faith was simply a matter of rote routine. A friend suggested they visit Bay Area Church outside of Annapolis.
“From the very first time we went in there we were overwhelmed with the sense that every single sermon was spoken directly to us and what was going on in our lives.
“We joined a small group and started really reading our Bible and reevaluating our lives. It was through that process that we came to faith. We realized the lives we were leading didn’t align with what we were reading. There was no doubt to us that God’s plan for his people was not to be chasing the dollar.”
“And, God's not done with us. We're still growing,” she added with a smile.
Indeed she is. During her consulting work with the Bureau, Christine decided to earn her Doctorate degree and pursue a career in higher learning. Now, she is Director of the Kabara Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and Assistant Professor of Business at St. Mary’s University in Winona, MN.
I asked Christine what advice she would have for women such as myself - especially those of us who work in male-dominated environments.
“I think I'm more confident than ever that God has created us with gifts and talents that are unique to us and we're supposed to use them. And so I think that, historically, roles are evolving and continue to evolve. There was a time when somebody like me wouldn't have had the opportunities I’ve had, but we have them now. And so now we've been given these gifts and talents, are we going to use them or not? I feel really strongly that whatever gifts and talents God has given you are to be used and used well.
“And, you know, you hear people ask do you want to be on the right or the wrong side of history? Well, history itself is often nothing but a series of people doing the wrong thing.”
After that, there was really only one question left.
“Christine, who you are?” I asked.
“So, that’s evolved with time.” She paused for a while looking down at her hands and collecting her thoughts.
“I'm a follower of Christ. I'm a professor. I love to share knowledge. I'm a wife and a mother and a grandmother. Those are all roles, of course.
“My family says I'm too serious. My husband says if he tries out a joke on me and I think its funny he knows it'll be really good for someone else.
“I think I'm tremendously reliable and loyal.
“But you know, I think I'm a person who's really at a point where I'm enjoying life.” She became more confident as she spoke. “Yeah, you know, I think I'm somebody who feels like God's put me here for a reason. Because, who knows?”