Interview with Kris Fuhr: West Point grad, marketing director, mother, military wife

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Kris Fuhr has spent her adult life covering the career front and busting SOP. In military speak that's "standard operating procedures." In career terms, Kris has taken on the military, corporate marketing, motherhood, and the high-pressure/low-recognition job of soldier's wife.

Kris graduated West Point in the top one percent of her class and later served overseas, eventually commanding a military intelligence company on the inter-German border. Post-military, her career steered through Kraft business management, marriage to a soldier (a National Guard battalion commander currently in Afghanistan), and motherhood. Currently Kris also heads the Provident Films team that helped propel the $500,000 movie, Fireproof, to the number one independent film at the box office for 2008.

In this interview, former army officer Kris Fuhr touches on West Point, faith, and leadership through life.

Why would a high school girl with a bright future choose to go into the military?

For a woman in 1980, West Point was a chance to be a pioneer, to break ground, to face challenges that leveled a lot of men in their tracks. And I was always up for a challenge. Women weren't lining up for the military in 1980, but my father told me it would lay a foundation for a lifetime.

So your father nudged his little girl toward a military academy. What did other people say?

In those days, my going to West Point was the equivalent of saying I was running off to be a camp follower. Most girls were joining Kappa Kappa Gamma, not the army.

Did you believe you would go to war?

We knew there was a chance of war, but it was the old way of war—not the insurgency operations we face now.

Did you consider yourself a feminist?

No, I felt like someone who wanted to take on a challenge to prove that, even though I was a little skinny girl from Texas, I could rise and compete among the best of the best.

And graduate at the top of your class.

I loved West Point. I loved the leadership challenges, the physical challenges, the profs and the broad education—the humanities and sciences. From West Point, doors open that lead to every corner of the world. It drew out all the gifts, all the little seeds that God put in me, made me realize all I could be.

Were you a Christian when you started?

I loosely was, but I was increasingly involved in spiritual activities as a cadet. We laugh—at West Point a lot of people became nominal Catholics because you could go to mass on Saturday and sleep in on Sunday, the only day off. I attended a number of spiritual retreats sponsored by Catholic wives at West Point, as well as several orders of sisters in the area. Those weekends allowed me to draw closer to God in the company of godly women, and West Point is a manly place. Those wives and sisters nourished our souls as women, not just as followers of Christ.

The military academy didn't advance your femininity?

You don't want to stand out, but by virtue of being a woman, you do. We were issued skirts, but no one wore them. And knee-high boots, but no one wore them. As best you could, you wanted to be one of the guys.

And something there opened a new place in you spiritually?

One kind of retreat was called Caritas, Greek for "gift." Cadets from previous retreats would write notes and pray for us. So out of the blue comes a note from someone you know, but not spiritually. Later you see that person and wrap your arms around them because it was so encouraging. It opened a place in my daily life to encourage people in their faith and pray with them and be unafraid to say, "God has you on my mind today."

What is the faith factor in the military?

The military's a high-pressure environment where you frequently deal with life-and-death circumstances—and where people talk about their faith a great deal. It's a community of spirit that often connects back to a community of faith—maybe not the same paths, but a common connection of serving a higher purpose. Now I'm in the field of making Christian films. Traditionally, the home of movies is Hollywood, where God is rarely part of the daily conversation. Once while working on a Christian movie with a mainstream studio, a woman at the Hollywood studio had a tragedy occur, and I called and told her I was praying for her. She was 38 years old, and it was the first time someone had ever said that to her. Over the phone, she broke down and wept.

When you tell someone you're praying for them, you're not asking for their religious views or to come alongside in your faith. It's a basic level of compassion to lift another person's concern to God.

Another full-time occupation of yours is battalion commander's wife. Your husband's in Afghanistan with the men, and you're here serving the wives. Will you talk about that?

The military has a chain of command that is mirrored in the families. In the National Guard, the mothers and wives watch out for and take care of each other in family readiness groups. Just as my husband leads his men in combat, my job as his wife is to watch out for and lead and take care of families while the men and women are deployed.

When does that get hard?

It's hard every day. There's a saying at West Point that someone always has it worse than you. It's hard when someone is wounded or killed. A wife who loses her soldier is living the worst nightmare of every military wife—and you're supporting her as she endures your worst nightmare. Soldiers in general are strong people of high character who have innate goodness, and it reflects back to their families. Families link arms and support each other. If the families are strong, the soldiers can focus on their missions.

You must witness some amazing examples of community.

When I put my son to bed, we pray for my husband and his men. And I know many people are praying for our soldiers. It helps because the "prayers of many" are powerful.

Especially when you're scared.

Worry gets you nowhere and praying does something. Military families pray Psalm 91—the soldier's psalm—over their loved one every day. "Place us under your wings and cover us with your feathers."

Your military background gives you empathy.

I understand what the men are going through. I can explain to families what their soldiers are facing and maybe give insights into something a husband or son has said. Sometimes I can help navigate the system to resolve concerns or issues.

What do you think the general public doesn't get about the U.S. military?

I hear people say, "They volunteered to go." Be thankful—if they hadn't volunteered, other people would be forced to go. It helps preserve your freedom and the option your loved one has to not choose to fight.

Here's your chance: what aren't we civilians doing for the military?

First let me say that so many people are doing for the military. If you want to do something, like anything else, when there's stress—a birth or death—don't ask what they need. Just do something. Mow the grass; carry out the trash. . . . Just step in alongside a military family and help bear the work of running a home while the solider is gone. Military families are around you, and you may not even realize it.

Families and soldiers pay a huge price to serve the country. I think many do feel appreciated, but you can't thank someone often enough for their service. I see a guy in the grocery store in a WWII vets hat and I make a point to thank him. He can't hear thank you enough for leaving his family for three to four years to serve the country.

Why did you leave the military?

I didn't quit the military; I resigned my commission. Jacqueline Kennedy said if you fail at raising your children, it doesn't matter what else you do right. I left because I wanted to be a mother and knew that being a soldier and a mother was not going to work for me.

Can you compare soldiering to parenting?

In many ways, they're very similar. You've got these young people in front of you. Your job is not to be their friend but to protect and teach the skills they need to survive in life.

As a soldier and a business manager, what do you know about parenting?

I know that authenticity is important; both soldiers and children can tell when you're faking it. To quote a movie I like: "You have to lead your heart." It's not about you anymore; it's now about the children in your responsibility. It doesn't mean they're the center of the world, but neither are you. You put personal goals aside to best launch your children into the world.

I understand how the military shapes leadership—how does your faith influence it?

Many of the leadership principles they ask for in the military are principles of faith: treat others as you want to be treated . . . be honest and upright . . . set the example . . . don't ask others to do what you won't do yourself. In our movie marketing team, if someone is hot and tired and dirty, we're all hot and tired; no one is above doing the smallest or biggest task.

When I was at Kraft, I worked in management with a lot of MBAs. To conduct an in-home test for a new salad dressing, we had to make over a thousand bottles of dressing by hand—follow a recipe. It was oily, garlic, gross. So it wouldn't take my research guys a full two days, I went over to help them do it. The next day, the head of Kraft R&D came over to meet me. In all his years there, he said he'd never seen a single marketing person come over and help.

You were showing servant leadership.

It's hands-on leadership. In the army, you don't eat until your soldiers have eaten. You don't rest until your soldiers have rested. [laughs] You also get the motto: you don't need sleep . . . it just makes you feel better.

Would you say you know your calling in life?

I'm 45 and still understanding it. I'm amazed that in my life I've been so many different things. I pray with my son every night, "Help us find ways to serve You," and I'm still seeing what the next one is.

Military and Christian films and parenting all seem to have a built-in higher purpose. Can a person work at Kraft and serve a higher purpose?

A person can show anywhere that God is part of her life, not by dropping his name but by demonstrating a loving and servant heart. People notice. We see that difference on the Sherwood film sets—no prima donnas, no drama off camera. Everyone there has a servant heart. You can cultivate that idea without being overt.

Faith means to serve not just your interests but others' interests, to reach out to the weak, to acknowledge that you're imperfect. As a military wife, I try to be honest about the human condition and to acknowledge that we all have problems. In Fireproof, the great moment was to say, "You're not alone in your struggle." You can deliver that message anywhere.

Image of Kris Fuhr courtesy of The National Guard