By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Elizabeth Vlahos
Special to American Forces Press Service
BALTIMORE, Feb. 22, 2010 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff helped to honor the accomplishments of Army and Navy members here Feb. 20 during the 24th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards gala.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen presented Army Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his leadership and mentoring throughout his 39 years in the Army.
Ward is the only active-duty four-star African-American general, and is only the fifth African-American to achieve this rank. Mullen spoke warmly of Ward as he presented the award, saying he represents “the best of the best.”
“I’ve watched him influence [and] lead people in peace and war,” Mullen said, “and everyone I know thinks the world of who he is and who and what he represents. He’s a dear friend, an exceptional soldier, [and] a wonderful family man.”
“It’s truly humbling to enter the ranks of the Lifetime Achievement Award winners,” Ward said, crediting his success to the “women and men who make our nation great by the contributions they make each and every day.”
Ward stressed the importance of a strong education.
“This is a time when we see so many challenges, but in those challenges reside such great opportunities,” he said. “Those opportunities are at the hands of these men and women who, having a sound education, can achieve success in life because of mastering that fundamental. A college education teaches people how to unlock the totality of their potential.”
Maria V. Thorpe, head of the avionics system integration branch at Naval Air Systems Command, was the first Navy Department employee to be honored at the gala, receiving the Community Service Award for her volunteer efforts.
Jeremy D. Laster, a structural engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans district, was recognized as the Most Promising Engineer or Scientist in Government for his work in the design and development of the Hurricane Risk Reduction System in New Orleans.
“Jeremy Laster is a bright young star in the Corps of Engineers,” said Army Lt. Gen. Robert L. Van Antwerp, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, as he presented the award. “He’s emerging as one of our most outstanding young engineers and leaders.”
Van Antwerp recited a litany of Laster’s many projects, including the development of structural designs, flood walls, coffer dams, and the evaluations of foundation requirements for difficult soils in southern Louisiana.
“When I was in high school,” Laster said in his acceptance speech, “my tenth-grade chemistry professor told me something that changed my life. ‘If I were in your shoes, I would go to Jackson State University [and] major in engineering.’ … Well, I took his advice, and I stand before you tonight, and I will continue to stand before you, as a structural engineer for the Corps of Engineers,” he said.
Steffanie Easter, assistant commander for acquisition at Naval Air Systems Command, and Sharon Smoot, assistant deputy commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, received Professional Achievement in Government awards.
“It’s an extreme honor. … I am humbled,” Easter said. “An individual has to work hard and prove themselves, but it’s also very helpful to have people that support you. I’ve had great mentors throughout my career who have encouraged me to do things that I would never have even considered doing, people who have pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to do more than I had ever dreamed of. I am thankful to all of them for this honor, because it’s really theirs as well as mine.”
Smoot noted that she and Easter do some speaking engagements together. “We take everything that everyone has poured into us in our careers and we try to pour it into the work forces here, in encouraging our children to enter into [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers and STEM fields,” she said. “We really do go out and reach out to community, those we oversee in our day job, and even further out from that to ensure that we have a future work force out there to support the Navy’s requirements.”
Davede Alexander, former director of strategic outreach at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., received the Diversity Leadership in Government award.
“[Davede’s] outstanding record led to his nomination as director of the newly established Strategic Outreach Office [in 2005],” said Navy Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, who presented the awards to all the Navy honorees. “Today, this department has generated dramatic results, increasing awareness and interest in the Naval Academy, and producing a spectacular 40 percent rise in applications for the Class of 2013 over the previous year.
“Through nationwide marketing campaigns, encouraging young people to become leaders and professional engineers at the Naval Academy,” he continued, “Davede is helping young people find the Navy and all its great opportunities.”
Alexander noted that he and his mother started in humble surroundings in Savannah, Ga.
“God -- ironically, through the U.S. Army -- issued us a tremendous husband and father,” he said. “Our new life experiences spanned from Germany to Washington, D.C. Through those experiences, I learned that diversity means more than trite descriptions like race or ethnicity.
“It goes far beyond that,” he continued. “It includes varied talents, unique experiences, intelligence, perseverance, confidence [and] leadership. Those terms are the ones that actually legitimize the concept of diversity. … When you look beyond color, and actually go after talent, the outcome really isn’t that surprising.”
The Black Engineers of the Year awards program recognizes servicemembers, students, executives, educators and professionals who demonstrate outstanding performance and help to shape the course of engineering, science and technology for the future.
(Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Elizabeth Vlahos serves at Defense Media Activity Anacostia.)