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Dr. Claudette Owens serves as the director of the Future Warfare Center Operations Directorate, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.
Another kind is the everyday hero. This type of hero seems to tackle all of life’s challenges with kindness, understanding, and a smile and improve every situation.
Dr. Claudette Owens is such a hero. She has served more than three decades as a Department of the Army civilian; raised three children through more than 30 years of marriage; serves multiple pastor roles at her church; experienced both overt and more subtle racism firsthand; and still focuses on loving and lifting others up.
“Life is always bigger than us,” Owens said. “We’re not put here for ourselves. We’re put here for everything and everybody else.”
Owens was born during the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans, and raised in Southern Alabama’s Frisco City by her adopted parents, Osia and Inez Carmichael. Her love of learning began early. She would accompany her mother on substitute teacher duty, and the young learner was reading by the age of 3. What also began early was her love of space and science.
“I was the kid growing up during the space age, and I can remember standing out on my parents’ back porch steps looking up at the sky like they did in (the movie Hidden Figures) trying to see if I could see the astronauts as they were going to the moon,” Owens said.
She became an accomplished student, doing so well that she received a full scholarship to the University of Alabama. However, a recruiter from Alabama A&M visited her town and discussed the advantages of Historically Black Colleges and Universities with her and what the up-and-coming city of Huntsville could offer. That conversation changed the course of her life.
While working on her bachelor’s degree in engineering at Alabama A&M, Owens met her future husband, Dr. Edward L. Owens. Married 34 years with three boys and three grandchildren, they pastor a Baptist church in Decatur together. Her husband is the senior pastor and Owens is the worship arts and music pastor and the family ministries pastor.
After earning her degree in engineering technology, Owens started her career at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center as a part-time technician, but instead of working in a lab, she delivered mail, though she is not sure why.
“I used to cry, because people I had graduated with were going in the building with their briefcases going to do engineering work. I had to carry mail, and I was so hurt,” Owens said.
She soon moved to a co-op position while working on her second bachelor’s degree in electrical computer engineering at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and in 1987 she found herself faced with job offers from AMRDEC, NASA and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.
“I remember God saying, you could go back over there (AMRDEC). You know what’s there. You could go with NASA, but all of them at NASA – we were all the same age; we were all going to be fighting over promotions,” Owens said. “Or you can go to SMDC.”
In May 1987, she joined the command working on advanced technology and became among the first young black female engineers at USASMDC/ARSTRAT.
“I got to work on a lot of the technology that is now being used in a lot of our systems we have,” Owens said. “My direct supervisor was Doyce Satterfield, and he said to me ‘Well, we’re working advanced technology, and I can see you’re a young lady with a very bright mind. So, I’ve got two high goals we’re going to set. 1) You’re going to take my job one day. And 2) you’re going to get your PhD.’ The job I had at (Decision Support Directorate), that was his position, and he and his wife were at Alabama A&M when I marched across the stage to get my PhD in physics.”
Owens said one of the first, and favorite, projects she worked was virtual reality technology at SMDC’s Advanced Research Center. Another passion about cyberspace and cybersecurity stemmed from her networks and communication security background. She even created a tiger team to coordinate efforts between the command’s Future Warfare Center and Technical Center.
The Tactical Operations Center, she said, is one of her most memorable programs. She said that they used to take demos to conferences, and a former colleague, Norven Goddard, had started working on a new one in 2001 that he had taken to a conference shortly before 9-11. Following 9-11, senior Army leaders called SMDC. Owens and her supervisors retrieved the TOC blueprints and shortly after, the TOC went into operation defending the National Capital Region.
“That was probably the first time I ever got to see the reality of what we do and the importance of it,” Owens said. “I knew about the missiles, but I’m not on the battlefield, so I didn’t really get to see except for on the news what the Soldiers were exposed to, but this I got a chance to see.”
Owens currently serves as the director of SMDC’s Future Warfare Center Operations Directorate, but whatever challenge she tackles, Owens said, she wants to be relevant and value-added. In addition to her scientific contributions, Owens is a frequent contributor during the command’s special observances often sharing personal stories and uplifting messages. Sometimes she shares memories of growing up in segregated Jim Crow South Alabama, and sometimes she shares modern versions of a more subtle but pervasive type of racism.
Owens recounted a recent situation where a woman in Walmart grabbed her purse and pulled it closer when Owens walked by.
“I know as human beings we tend to demonize things that we don’t understand. She didn’t know me. If she had known me, she never would have done that. And some things are never going to change for some people, but we can’t put everybody in the same box,” Owens said. “Sometimes we see something go wrong with one culture or one person, and we immediately demonize the whole thing.
“When we look at somebody and we demonize the whole thing, that’s wrong. Even when my own people give their thoughts of the Civil Rights Movement, all you have to do is go back and look at the history – there were black faces, white faces, Jewish faces, Baptist faces, Catholic faces, women – everybody was a part of that, just like they’re doing now. Yes, they were marching against some injustices that were done by the white race, but there were also white people who supported the civil rights movement and helped make sure that those injustices were undone,” Owens said. “That’s what we have to remember, that there’s a balance. You can’t demonize.”
Owens said she loves people and she extends a measure of grace and understanding to all she encounters.
“I just want everybody to understand, African Americans are great people,” Owens said. “We all fall short. We all make mistakes, but if we just start to, as Dr. King said, look at the person, look at the individual, look at the character.
“That’s what I teach my people at church: get the whole story. Part of the truth is still a whole lie.”