NORFOLK -- Erin Juergens, a logistics management specialist with the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was doing what she did best just before boarding a plane from Virginia to South Bridge, Mass.: last-minute packing.
In one section of the blue suitcase – a wedding gift from her husband’s grandparents in Germany – was her favorite outfit. A tall patent leather and regular leather two-and-a-half-inch pointy heels, gray and black slacks with matching trim fit suit coat, and a mostly striped in green, blue, pink…although mostly blue blouse, and black leather belt with a shiny silver buckle.
Was there anything overlooked?
Yes, her cold-weather clothing. She repacked to make room and started searching through closets for old boxes that were covered in dust and wrapped in faded brown packing tape. That’s where she kept her gloves, hats and scarves. It was midnight when she finally finished, placed her suitcase next to the front door and called it a night.
The late pack doesn’t seem to fit the profile of a logistics manager.
Not that anyone would fault her for that – she’d aspired to be a country singer. A marine biologist. A cowgirl, complete with Wrangler shirts and rattlesnake belt.
It didn’t seem like logistics was her thing.
And, from the way she tells it, it didn’t seem like the Corps of Engineers would have ever been, either.
Juergens was born in Chisago City, Minn., a small farming town of 4,967 people. But, as the daughter of an Air Force weapons officer, the Land of 10,000 Lakes wasn’t a permanent home.
Maj. Patrick Fox was later transferred to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. Juergens was only two years old when her family moved to Newport News, which is where she, her two brothers and parents Peggy and Pat now call home.
There, in her Newport News home, Juergens began to get her hands on books.
“When she was growing up, reading was always a part of her life,” said Juergens’ mother, Peggy Fox. “What I remember the most was Erin’s love for reading and writing: ghostwriter, mystery stories, Harry Potter – anything that was fiction fascinated her.”
During road trips, Juergens’ favorite game was to write a sentence for a story. Another person had to write the next line, and the story was built line by line. Juergens’ mom remembers those stories because they were “truly interesting and took on different and unique twists.”
Juergens love of literature kept her up at night, long after her family was asleep.
“I would stay up late, reading a book under my covers with a light, writing short stories and helping classmates and friends with their writing assignments,” she said.
As she grew, so did her aspirations: The 5-foot-7 strawberry blonde moved effortlessly across a hardwood floor in a flowing evening gown as a ballroom dancer, her shoulder-length hair framing her face -- a few strands slightly covering her blue eyes. The 26-year-old also had dreams of traveling the globe as a photographer for National Geographic.
“I still love photography … and still have that dream,” she said. Today, she considers herself an amateur photographer.
But time changes people – and their aspirations, and it was her love of writing, Juergens said, that eventually led to the Corps of Engineers.
"I guess you could say the Corps chose me,” she said.
Juergens was working toward her degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Virginia when she spoke to an Army recruiter at a career fair about intern programs.
The recruiter told Juergens about travel, promotions and a variety of jobs that were available to college graduates who were interested in being an intern. Knowing, simply, that the Army uses English was good enough for Juergens.
“I really wanted to have a job straight out of college,” Juergens said, “So I chose that career path and have been with the Corps for three years.”
Juergens began at the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division in 2010 and joined the Norfolk District in the spring of 2012 as a logistics management specialist.
It is how she found herself packing that blue suitcase that had once crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Germany, traveled to exotic destinations like Mexico, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. Next stop: Massachusetts.
Juergens appears quiet and introverted – the way one would expect an ardent reader to be – which can come across as impersonal or cold. But she’s always been that way, according to her mom.
“She was quiet,” Fox said. “But when Erin talked, we listened.”
And Juergens talked; talked her brothers into sledding; talked about going to different places.
So, Juergens would pack suitcases during the summers when the family would go on some kind of adventure at least once a week -- climbing to the top of the Old Cape Henry lighthouse, going to a movie, the Fort Monroe pool and beach, driving to the Blue Ridge Mountains, visiting local museums and so much more.
“She was the one who talked us into taking those trips.” Juergens mom said. “She’s always been a leader.” Juergens’ mom said.
Juergens was recently one of two Corps employees and 144 participants from all branches of the U.S. military chosen to attend the Department of Defense’s Civilian Emerging Leaders Program. About 600 applicants applied to the course, which develops “emerging leaders” in the acquisition, financial management, teamwork and human resources communities.
Juergens explained that that the course was “mentally complex.
“There’s a lot of self-reflection and learning that isn’t always pretty,” she said.
The course is career-advancing: the scope and variety of the executive education program allows students to create a custom curriculum that fits their evolving business needs. Long days full of activities with lengthy requirements wore down those attending, Juergens said.
“You start to see it among the social interactions as people’s patience grows short, but that’s really part of the experience, too.”
At one point, faced with blow-up dice, hula hoops and rock-climbing ropes, Juergens had one clear thought:
“I’m no Tiger Woods.”
Teams at the course had to construct miniature golf courses using tape, markers, paper, poker chips and other unexpected items, and then play each others’ courses. The true goal of the challenge was teamwork.
Juergens’ mother said, as the oldest, Erin was “an inspirational person that loved the adventure of trying new things” – which is probably how her golf course was built with hula hoops that would “teleport” the golf ball closer to the hole and how rolling six on the dice would earn players an automatic hole-in-one.
“We … built [the course] so people would feel good about winning,” Juergens said. And so, a true leadership trait was born: make people feel good about their accomplishments and give them more self-confidence.”
Back at the Norfolk District, Juergens spends most of her days tracking and paying for supplies, reviewing and approving contractual services and reconciling bills from purchases. Then there’s the property accountability, assisting with vehicle reservations, and overseeing and maintaining the physical condition Norfolk District building that overlooks the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk.
After that, she still finds time to read.
Her Kindle is loaded with books such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Adventures in Wonderland, and Phantom of the Opera, but she is still buys hardcover books – and donates them when she’s done so “someone else can enjoy it.”
There are a few books with which she cannot part. Her most treasured books are Misty of Chincoteague series, a history of Disney movies, several Irish books her husband Andrew gave her -- Riders of the Purple Sage, and a collection of Robert Frost poems where all the margins are filled with notes and observations.
Juergens’ nightstand is typically topped with a book: now, a bookmark dangles from the pages of a work about Michael Collins, the beginnings of the Irish Republican Army, and Irish/British espionage tactics.
“Reading gives me solace -- I think it helps me be a better listener, a better person, a better leader,” she said.
Juergens is a leader ready to write her own adventure, by first packing her blue suitcase.