Cedar Falls soldier to receive general's rank

Posted by Pat Kinney on Tuesday, June 11, 2024

CEDAR FALLS --- A career Army officer born and raised in Cedar Falls will officially be promoted to brigadier general in June 2024.

She is Col. Beth Behn, the Army's 33rd Chief of Transportation, a position she has held since June 2022. She is the daughter of former longtime Cedar Falls school board member Marlene Behn and late businessman Parke Behn, co-founder of Professional Office Services. 

Col. Behn is a 1990 graduate of Cedar Falls High School. She graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. in 1994, after which she was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army's Transportation Corps.

She'll receive her general's star Jan. 5 in a ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Army outside Fort Belvoir, Va., near Washington, D.C. 

It's something she never envisioned upon entering the service three decades ago.

"I always aspired to serve. I don't think I ever envisioned a career," she said. "But I got hooked being given a significant amount of responsibility for accomplishing a mission, taking care of people. To me that was rewarding and fulfilling work. And I continued to have those opportunities along the way. Every time I reached what would be a natural jumping off point to do something else" outside the military, "there was another great opportunity that seemed like a good fit for me professionally, for our family personally, so we kept going along.

"I've benefitted from great leaders I've worked for, worked alongside," she said. "I've tried to pay that back to those who've worked for me. Filled with gratitude for the people I've worked for, worked alongside and worked for me.

"Promotions are not a culmination. They're the beginning of a new phase of responsibility," she said. "This new promotion is about rolling up my sleeves and doing the work that's expected of me." 

Behn has held various duty assignments including deployments to Haiti in 1995, two deployments to Iraq and one to Kuwait as well as Afghanistan. She is a multi-time recipient of the Bronze Star as well as the Legion of Merit.

"The military has given me the opportunity to go to a lot of places around the world," she said. "Learning about other cultures is something that I cherish and have had the opportunity to do. But it's also made me appreciate the security, the freedom, the prosperity we have here. A lot of us could take that for granted if you don't get out and see that's not the case in other parts of the world.

"I have often felt, when in Haiti, or later in Iraq or Afghanistan, we always wear the American flag on our uniform; and I think for a portion of the populations in those different areas, the presence of Americans has been a symbol of hope," she said. 

"To be candid, as you know, we have not been successful in the long term in a number of those places. We have not brought the changes we hoped," she said. "But in the periods I've personally been there, I've drawn strength from knowing an interacting with citizens of those countries who are glad we were there, trying to make a difference and trying to make improvement."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Behn was at what was then Fort Hood, Texas now Fort Cavasos, getting ready to load and send off her heavy equipment truck platoon from Beaumont, Texas to Egypt for a regularly scheduled joint exercise with Egyptian forces called Operation Bright Star. But when a second hijacked airliner crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, " I knew I wasn't going to Beaumont that day," she said. Troops were put on alert and possible deployment.

"It was a wild time," she said. "I remember going to formation on Sept. 12, and we'd all been given a statement to read to reassure out soldiers that our country had come under attack, but this is why we're here, to defend against those sorts of things.

"Sept. 11 injected a dose of reality in all of us," Behn said. Previously, there'd been a number of humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, "Lots of my generation had service in those late '90s missions. It wasn't that we hadn't had experience, but not in places where people were shooting at us, necessarily. It certainly changed with Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Behn also has been an assistant professor of history at West Point. She holds master's and doctorate degrees in history from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She was a featured scholar on the Public Broadcasting Service's “American Experience” program documentary, "The Vote," on the centennial of women's suffrage in the United States. She studied President Woodrow Wilson's conversion to support of the suffrage movement as part of her doctoral studies.

The Transportation Corps is responsible for the movement of personnel and material by truck, rail, air, and sea. As U.S. Army chief of transportation, based at Fort Gregg-Adams, formerly Fort Lee, Va., Behn is commandant of the U.S. Army Transportation School, in charge of doctrine, training, and professional development,

Among her different overseas deployments, "Baghdad was not a safe place in 2006," she said. "Our bases had a pretty steady flow of indirect fire, insurgents firing rockets a bases." On her second Iraq deployment with the 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, that unit came under control of the 34th "Red Bull" Infantry Division, made up of Minnesota National Guard troops. It also has Iowa units, including the Waterloo-headquartered “Ironman Battalion,” which had been there on previous deployments. 

"I've always been proud to have a little bit of 'Red Bull' in me," she said.

A young Beth Behn playing soldier (Photo courtesy Marlene Behn)

Behn and her wife, Dr. Julie Shappy, a health professional, were married in 2002. Behn is grateful for the congressional repeal more than a decade ago of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy from the early 1990s regarding sexual orientation and military service.

"That was challenging. I can't sugar coat that and say it was no big deal. It was a huge deal," Behn said of the period prior to the policy’s repeal. "I could have left at any time and done something else. But I've always felt called, and felt like that was the right place for me to be, that my time and talents were supposed to be devoted to military service. 

"I did my best to navigate that," she said. "But it wasn't easy for me, it wasn't easy for Julie. Super grateful that our nation recognized we need to leverage the capabilities of all those who are willing to serve. Unit cohesion is not based on what you do outside of work. It's based on the trust you build in the trenches, both literally and metaphorically, with your brothers and sisters in arms."

" 'Don't ask, don't tell’ was repealed in the fall of 2011,” Behn said, “I was able to add our kids to all of our military insurance coverage and medical care. I was able to put, finally, a picture of our family on my desk like everyone else had. And we went back to work. The policy changed and people got on board. That's what we do. We follow the orders of our elected officials, and we have civilian control of the military. That's a cornerstone of our democracy."

In 2012, she and Shappy were among those invited to the "A Nation's Gratitude Dinner” for Iraq veterans hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012, honoring 64 military personnel from various branches of service.

Behn's mother, wife and two teenage children all will participate in her "pinning ceremony" Jan. 5 marking her promotion, when her colonel's eagle badge of rank is replaced with a brigadier general's star.

"Julie and my mom are going to take the old rank off and the kids are going to put the new rank on," she said with a chuckle. "We have to rehearse it, but that' s the current plan.”

It is “right and fitting that they do so,” she added.

”It is a family deal,” she said. “I would never have the opportunity to get this promotion if I didn’t have a supportive, resilient, flexible family. We’ve done 12 moves in a little over 20 years.”

Behn also is the granddaughter of a U.S. Navy World War II veteran.

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.