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First Woman to Command a Brigade in Combat Looks Back on Army Career

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown receives a U.S. flag from Army Sgt. 1st Class Yudelki Mackenzie, a member of USSTRATCOM Joint Color Guard, during her retirement ceremonyat Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Feb. 24, 2017. (STEVE CUNNINGHAM/U.S. ARMY)
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown receives a U.S. flag from Army Sgt. 1st Class Yudelki Mackenzie, a member of USSTRATCOM Joint Color Guard, during her retirement ceremonyat Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Feb. 24, 2017. (STEVE CUNNINGHAM/U.S. ARMY)

For more than 35 years, El Pasoan and Army Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown has broken gender barriers and served as a role model during a history-making military career.

Brown, 57, officially retired from the Army on Saturday.

When she got an opportunity during her career, she made the most of it, Brown said.

"You just want to be afforded the same opportunities everyone else is afforded," Brown said during an interview. "That is the first step. Don't discount me. You can pick me last if you think I'm not good enough. Just pick me and give me a chance and let me show you what I can do."

"That's what all of us want," Brown continued. "It doesn't matter if it's gender, race, religion, whatever it may be. Just give me a chance and treat me like everyone else."

During the Iraq war in 2003, she commanded Fort Bliss' 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade and became the first woman to command a brigade in combat. The 31st ADA Brigade is now headquartered at Fort Sill, Okla.

Her most recent assignment was as the director of global operations for U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. She was the first female combatant command operations officer and first U.S. Army soldier to serve in that position for Strategic Command.

A retirement ceremony was held for Brown on Feb. 24 at Offutt, but her effective retirement date was Saturday.

Brown, an Austin High School graduate, was also the first El Paso woman to attend and graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

It all added up to a career full of firsts and ground-breaking moments.

Brown said she doesn't view herself as a role model just for women, but for everyone.

"I don't self-limit," Brown said.

Richard Dayoub, the president and chief executive officer of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said that Brown "embodies the qualities of a true leader -- selfless devotion, perseverance, loyalty, integrity and humility."

Brown did five tours at Fort Bliss, her hometown installation, including serving as a battalion and brigade commander and as deputy commander for the installation.

Brown will settle in Locust Grove, Va., where she and her wife of three years, Laura M. DeSimone, own a house on Lake of the Woods.

DeSimone is director of acquisition with the Missile Defense Agency at Fort Belvoir, Va. and still has about six years until she can retire, Brown said.

Brown's initial goal in retirement is to oversee a major renovation of their lakefront home. She is also planning to write a book about her experiences in Iraq called "From Bliss to Baghdad."

Brown had hoped to continue her service with one more assignment, but she had reached her mandatory retirement date based on time in her current rank.

Retirement, though, is "liberating" in a way -- to get an invitation, look at her schedule and now be able to do it, she said.

While she is settling in Virginia, she will always consider El Paso to be home and "not some place I'm from," Brown said.

She plans to visit often and maintain her many friendships she has made her throughout her life.

"There is something about looking out that window and seeing the 'A' on the mountain and knowing that is my high school (Austin High) and all the different memories," she said.

"This is a very special community; I never want them to lose that," Brown said.

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