By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
Stephanie Dawson, the Port Authority’s acting chief operating officer, has had her share of professional successes over the years. But few can match her latest honor – selection by the United War Veterans Council as one of the grand marshals of the 2016 Veterans Day Parade, commemorating the 15th anniversary of 9/11.
“Getting a chance to serve as a grand marshal in the Veteran’s Day parade is like having the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch for your country. It’s a huge and proud honor,” said Dawson, who is a colonel in the New York Army National Guard.
The New York City Veterans Day Parade has long been considered America’s Parade, the nation’s largest such event with nearly 40,000 veterans, military personnel and supporters marching up Fifth Avenue from 23rd Street to 53rd Street.
This year, for the first time, three grand marshals were chosen for the November event. New York City Police Detective Nelson Vergara and New York Fire Department Battalion Chief Joseph Duggan also were selected. Like Dawson, they are “dual-hatters,” a term used by the military to describe veterans who were first responders on 9/11 and also participated in post-9/11 operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Dawson came to the Port Authority in 1995 as a technology consultant, joining the COO’s office in 2005 as an assistant director for capital programs. She oversaw a $1.2 billion capital program, delivered the agency’s first integrated project management system and created the Project Management Office, before being promoted to chief of staff and eventually acting COO.
The first Veterans Day Parade in 1919 welcomed home U.S. troops who had served in World War I. The soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an all-African American unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, were among those returning veterans. Nearly a century later, Dawson would assume command of the unit, the first woman to lead a brigade in the history of the New York Army National Guard.
Dawson conveys an unmistakable pride in her association with the 369th. Today the unit is an ethnically diverse “sustainment brigade.” But in 1917, the regiment served in France, where it earned the prestigious Croix de Guerre from the French army for six months of “brave and bitter fighting.” The infantry unit, which sustained 1,500 casualties, saw more frontline service than any other American unit in World War I.
“Given the stellar lineage and history of the unit, it really was unbelievable that I had the opportunity to serve as its commander. I was the right person with the right skill set at that point in time,” Dawson said.
As the executive officer of what was then the 369th Corps Support Battalion on 9/11, she worked at Ground Zero. “Of course, on 9/11, the 369th was not an infantry regiment, having become a battalion logistics organization,” she said, “we spearheaded battalion relief, security, transportation and provided logistical support during the immediate aftermath of 9/11.”
She assumed command of the 27th Rear Area Operations Center as it was being mobilized for overseas deployment in February 2003. During Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Dawson was promoted to Lt. Colonel and later given responsibility for redeployment/deployment, and absorbed other regular army, national guard and reserve personnel into operations at the airport, seaport and other theater-level logistics at Kuwait headquarters.
Throughout her military career, the diminutive Dawson has been lauded with dozens of ribbons, military decorations and even the Bronze Star for heroic service during her combat tour in Iraq.
Dawson hung a picture of Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, the nation’s first African American brigadier general and a former commander of the 369th Infantry, on the wall behind her desk at the 369th HQ in Harlem. “It’s a constant reminder, she said, “of the obstacles that he had to overcome and the leadership he had to demonstrate.”