Photo by Nick Stone
Lieutenant Colonel Heather Mack, a Hickory Hills native, received a Defense Meritorious Service medal from Eric Fanning, former Secretary of the Army, as she officially retired after 24 years in the Army at a ceremony held earlier this month in Washington D.C.
By Dermot Connolly
Hickory Hills native Lt. Colonel Heather Mack recently retired from a 24-year career with the U.S. Army, during which she spent time in war zones while her spouse simultaneously went to battle on the homefront for gay rights in the military.
Her parents, Ed and Judy Mack, are 54-year residents of Hickory Hills, where Heather attended St. Patricia Elementary School and Queen of Peace High School in Burbank before graduating with a law enforcement degree from Western Illinois University in Macomb in 1995.
“I wanted to work for the FBI or the EPA, but there was a hiring freeze at the time, so I went into the Army as an active-duty commissioned officer,” she said, explaining that she was advised to go that route as a steppingstone to her eventual goal.
“And 24 years later, I am here,” said Mack, who now lives in Alexandria, Va., with her spouse, Ashley Broadway, and their children, Carson, 9, and Carley, 6. The whole family, including Heather’s parents, and Ashley’s mother, Rita Nigaglioni, attended her retirement ceremony in Washington.
During the ceremony, her father, an Army veteran himself, officially retired her, removing her combat and command insignia from her uniform, and replacing it with the insignia identifying her as retired.
“He’s done that every time I have received a promotion. My parents even flew out to Korea to do it,” said Mack.
“We’re very proud of her. The ceremony was amazing but the traveling can be overwhelming,” said Judy Mack this week.
During her nearly quarter century in the Army, Mack’s overseas assignments included a year in South Korea from 2005 to 2006, and another year in Kuwait from 2011 to 2012. “I went there as part of the draw-down (of troops) in Iraq,” she explained.
Mack also spent a brief period in Egypt. Her last big assignment was to Afghanistan where she was in charge of putting together a task force and training civilians to do the work necessary to finding as much as $2 billion in equipment that had gone missing.
“It does blow your mind when you think about it," she said. "Some people thought it was a paperwork mix-up but it was more than that.”
“My experience there wasn’t like a lot of soldiers,” she said, explaining that she wasn’t in the trenches. “I was treated like a VIP. We found more than $1 billion in equipment so I had to brief a lot of dignitaries. I was treated really well.”
But she and her spouse weren’t always treated that well. Before the 2010 repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law, the longtime couple had to keep their relationship secret for Mack to keep her job. Even when it was appealed, and they married in Washington D.C. in 2012, Broadway was not allowed to join the Ft. Bragg Officers’ Wives’ Club, because she didn’t have a military ID — something she couldn’t get because same-sex marriage was not yet legal under federal law.
“That was a support group for spouses and she was denied that,” said Mack.
So, Broadway lobbied for the changes that eventually came about.
“We did help change the policy of the U.S. Department of Defense,” Mack said.
That is why it was especially meaningful to have Eric Fanning present her with the Defense Meritorious Service Medal at her retirement ceremony.
“He was the former Secretary of the Army, the first openly gay head of any service in the military,” she noted.
“I set one goal for myself when I started this career, to make the Army just a little bit better than when I arrived, and I think I have done that,” said Mack, who hopes to come back to visit her parents more often in Hickory Hills, now that she is retired.
She also has a brother, Brian, who lives in Orland Park.
“But Hickory Hills has always been with me on my travels,” said Mack. “Something I always display wherever I go is a certificate Mayor Mike Howley presented to me as part of a tribute to service members in 2004."