Honoring our Heroes, fueling momentum by balancing space, time and resources at Arlington National Cemetery
When the U.S. government needed a visionary to provide disciplined leadership through some of the 21st century’s greatest engineering crises, they turned to a straight-shooting female senior executive from the state of Kentucky.
For over 15 years, Karen Durham-Aguilera has set the vision for critical military missions and implemented game-changing strategies as a member of the U.S. Army’s Senior Executive Service.
Most wouldn’t envision that the path to senior leadership in the Army would be paved by working construction projects in Alabama, Louisiana and other locales, but such was Durham-Aguilera’s path—one achieved through great persistence.
After graduating from the University of Louisville, where she simultaneously earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering, Durham-Aguilera worked a few years in the private sector, where her performance fueled a meteoric rise in the civilian ranks. She then began her career with the U.S. Army.
“I started working for the Army Corps of Engineers because I needed a job, and they were hiring,” Durham-Aguilera says. “I then spent about 18 years in engineering and construction, managing large-scale programs and operations.”
After her nearly two decades with the Army Corps of Engineers, Durham-Aguilera received a promotion to the Senior Executive Service, a job equivalent in pay and status to a general officer in the military.
“As a senior executive, Arlington National Cemetery is my fifth assignment,” she says.
Her previous assignments have included directing the reconstruction of Iraq and the systematic repair and improvements of a hurricane flood risk reduction system in post-Katrina New Orleans. These high-stress, high-visibility assignments prepared her to serve as Arlington’s executive director, a role responsible for all Army cemeteries.
“In Iraq and especially in New Orleans, I had a ‘burning platform.’ That is, I found a cause or a goal that everyone was driven to accomplish,” Durham-Aguilera explains. “If your team doesn’t feel like they have a role in such a goal, then you’re not going to make that goal.”
The “burning platform” she inherited at Arlington National Cemetery is the honoring of the 400,000+ veterans and their dependents buried at the cemetery, while providing family-focused support for the numerous new burials quickly filling the cemetery.
“This is a very big place. It’s 624 acres,” she says. “We average nearly 30 burials each weekday, and about 10 on Saturdays.”
This rapid pace of in-ground burials and above-ground inurnments has stressed the national cemetery’s capacity. Experts predict that the cemetery can only remain open for new burials for another 20 years or so under current eligibility rules.
“The recent National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 requires the Secretary of the Army, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, to establish revised burial criteria—essentially eligibility criteria—by September 30, 2019,” Durham-Aguilera explains.
This new policy could usher in radical change at Arlington National Cemetery. While the cemetery has tightened and loosened eligibility rules throughout its existence—which dates back to the American Civil War—this time, the cemetery cannot expand its way out of the problem.
The newest round of scrutiny started in 2016 when Congress directed the Secretary of the Army to provide a report detailing the status of the cemetery along with recommended courses of action to keep it open into the future—about 150 years. Once generated (in February 2017), the report provided a benchmark to legislators and illustrated how the cemetery was reaching capacity at an alarming rate.
Durham-Aguilera has led the cemetery to refine this information with extensive survey data.
“Almost 230,000 people took our public survey this year, which describes how important Arlington National Cemetery is to the nation,” she says. “Overwhelmingly, the results said, ‘Keep Arlington open and active and keep it special for those who were killed in action, Medal of Honor and Medal of Valor recipients, and Prisoners of War.’”
These results were published for all interested parties and are informing the Secretary of the Army and others as they work through the public rule-making process ahead of the September 2019 deadline.
Durham-Aguilera has also championed the use of geographic information systems (GIS) at Arlington to digitally track every single grave at the cemetery, changing the military cemetery industry.
“The use of GIS technology and our system is cascading across all the cemeteries in the Army,” she explains. “Further, we are giving that same type of help to Veterans Affairs and the American Battle Monuments Commission, which has led to pilot projects in Manila, Panama and Normandy.”
As Arlington National Cemetery embraces change and innovation, Durham-Aguilera discusses how she leads the organization through the fast-paced, seven-days-a-week operation with realistic expectations of work–life balance.
“No one can be truly successful if they do not strike a work–life balance,” she states. “If they don’t find it, they’ll burn out. They won’t be able to handle stress.”
In 2010, seven years before Durham-Aguilera joined the organization, cemetery staff showed all the signs of employee burnout.
A series of stories surfaced in the press detailing serious lapses in cemetery record-keeping and operational mismanagement, leading to the removal of several senior cemetery leaders and the creation of the executive director position at Arlington National Cemetery.
The first executive director instituted an ambitious plan to set the cemetery back on track. When Durham-Aguilera took the job, she decided that deliberate changes to the work pace and flow were necessary to preserve the health of the organization and its people.
“After being here several months, I realized we had to adjust our pace—slow it down. Adjusting our pace, however, meant coordination with all military resource and with families,” she explains. “We had to say, ‘There are simply certain days we aren’t scheduling burials.’”
They established training days during which senior leaders conduct a town hall to address issues facing the cemetery and catch up on required training that can fall off calendars in more hectic periods.
“You must always take care of your team and the people around you,” Durham-Aguilera says. “Everyone needs to be watching.”
This team mentality is a key tenet of Durham-Aguilera’s leadership philosophy.
“You must engage your team to be successful. It goes beyond the mere delegation of responsibility,” she explains. “It means underwriting risk, because not everything will go well all the time.”
Durham-Aguilera relayed an experience she had with a former two-star general under whom she served. She urged him to take a course of action that proved, in retrospect, to be the wrong decision. Instead of blaming her for the error, the senior leader chose a different response.
“He took the blame from those above us,” Durham-Aguilera recalls. “It was just amazing to see him underwrite the risk. That’s what you have to do with any team you truly lead.”
Risk abounds in her role as a leader tasked with the strategic vision and leadership of Arlington National Cemetery and 39 other Army cemeteries. Durham-Aguilera discussed how she stays focused in an organization with one of most important missions in the U.S. government.
“It doesn’t matter how many times I hear the playing of ‘Taps,’” Durham-Aguilera says, “I always get chills. To be here, you have to truly believe that it is an honorable duty—that it is an honor to be here.”
Sometimes Durham-Aguilera’s duty includes ceremonies involving interactions with the President, Vice President, international heads of state and military leaders.
“When discussing leadership development, I often say that you should always have a job you get to do. If you don’t feel like that, then you need to go do something else,” she remarks. “With the specialness here—that honor, that passion—it’s not something I have to do. It’s something I get to do. I get to be here. I get to be the executive director.”
From humble roots in Kentucky and multiple years in Louisiana, Karen Durham-Aguilera has leveraged hard work, a disciplined approach to collaboration, and her commitment to underwriting risk to provide the strategic leadership necessary to honor America’s military heroes.
As Arlington National Cemetery positions itself for another 150 years as an active burial ground, her process-driven leadership, framed by innovation and metric-based assessments, will serve future leaders as a case study in leading during the tumultuous changes of the 21st century.