Providing security in an insecure environment

By Rose Schneider

To put it simply, Roxanne Brunnel leads an interesting life. She is a mother of three, a student, has a husband stationed at Fort Riley and is a contractor for ManTech International in Iraq.

In March 2011 she was hired by the U.S. Department of Defense as a Betss-C operator site lead in Iraq. Since then she spends 330 days each year overseas. She takes advantage of her time off when possible and enjoys coming home to be with her children and husband when he is not deployed.

As a Betss-C operator, Brunnel works with high-powered cameras that provide force protection at bases. (The term BETSS-C is an acronym for Base Expeditionary Targeting Surverillance System-Combined.) She is one of only a handful of women in her location, which makes her job exciting, challenging and sometimes dangerous.

When a significant number of soldiers was at her base, Brunnel didn’t have indoor plumbing; at times she had to walk two blocks in the middle of the night to use a bathroom. She has also become accustomed to using baby wipes to wash off in the 140-degree summers since taking four showers a day wouldn’t be feasible, especially at times when the water was contaminated.

In a telephone interview from Iraq, Brunnel said that as a woman in a predominantly male environment, she sometimes fears for her safety.

“Last year I was worried about being raped or taken,” she said, pointing out that most soldiers don’t have much female contact. But more recently, many of the troops have gone back home.

Still, she said, “I always carry a knife.”

Before taking a job as a Betss-C operator, Brunnel worked for Best Buy in the computer and camera department.

“Taking the job was unique because no one had any prior experience; I had to be trained on two towers with generators, she said. “I started with four girls in my class and finished with just me graduating — not all women grasp circuitry and electronics.”

Her husband, Chris, who has been in the military for 13 years, was a little hesitant at first at the thought of her taking the job.

“He really liked me being around and he misses me emotionally and physically…it has been a big sacrifice especially being a mother,” she said.

Brunnel quickly realized that she would have to minimize her emotional attachment after leaving her family in order to survive in Iraq.

“You’re sad the first couple of weeks but once you get here you have to close yourself off in a way…if you had that emotional outpouring you wouldn’t make it,” she said. “People here become your family and friends — I have so many brothers here.”

Roxanne and Chris do find time to Skype when they can. Brunnel also speaks via the Skype online video communication service with her three children, ages 11, 9 and 6, as often as possible and sneaks in a phone call when she can.

“I call every Sunday unless there is a sandstorm, the Internet is down or something happens where I am in a secret environment because of my clearance level,” she said. “I do little stuff for them and tell my husband about places to take them so he can say, ‘Mom wanted me to take you here.’”

Brunnel still takes care of paying the bills and making sure everything is running smoothly from Iraq. She recently ordered her children’s birthday gifts and is always researching classes and activities Chris or the nanny can take the children to.

“I have access to a computer all day so I get on and do things to involve myself,” Brunnel said.

The children have a live-in nanny to substitute for the absence of both parents when Roxanne is in Iraq and Chris is deployed. Brunnel will be coming home in a few weeks and plans to take the children hiking in Colorado while she is home. She is also looking forward to seeing her husband one last time before he gets deployed to Africa.

The thought of moving back to Kansas permanently or to the states in general has crossed her mind, but Brunnel has found it hard to find a comparable job. She is over-qualified for many positions but doesn’t have her bachelor’s degree — although she is in her junior year of college. There are unfortunately not many jobs for women that fit those qualifications. Moving to the U.S. would also mean taking a “massive pay cut” from her current position.

“I have to try to take this experience and figure out how to apply it to a civilian job,” she said. “So far I couldn’t even find a job on Fort Riley.”

Some day she hopes to obtain a job with the State Department. But until then Brunnel plans to continue learning about other cultures and languages and see her family when she can. Despite the challenges — good and bad — she really loves her job.

“We all need food, shelter and love,” she said. “Not everyone one here wants to kill Americans; when you sit down and speak to someone —whether you can speak their language or not —smiles can mean a lot.”

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