RODNEY SCHNURR REMEMBERS THE MOMENT HE KNEW his wife likely wouldn’t be teaching physical education after all.
“When I realized she was the equivalent of a two-star general, when she hit that status, I knew there was no way she’d be throwing out volleyballs now,” Rodney ’75 said of wife, Mary “Lynn” Schnurr. “I thought she was going to be a middle school gym teacher. I had no idea that ‘Combat Barbie’ was going to show up, but she just took off with her career.”
A 1975 Virginia Tech graduate with a bachelor’s degree in education, Lynn spent 34 years as a civilian working in military intelligence at the Pentagon. She had 13 separate assignments to both Iraq and Afghanistan and was instrumental in getting the latest technology into the hands of soldiers during a time when wartime strategy was rapidly evolving. Lynn retired as a senior executive and one of the highest-ranking women in U.S. Army Military Intelligence in 2013.
“We were ready for more force-on-force battles, tanks and planes [in the early 2000s]. When we went into battle in Afghanistan, we had to quickly adjust our methods and add enhanced technology to fight the insurgency,” Lynn said. “My job was trying to create new technology and solutions to help our military fight a new type of battle.”
This summer, Lynn’s career work was honored when she was inducted in the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, an elite group of 279 military intelligence professionals.
It was a really exciting time because we were turning out new capabilities rapidly. I was making the trips with army generals and was asking the soldiers first-hand: ‘What are your challenges? What are you unable to do? What do you need to do your job better?’”
Lynn Schnurr ’75
Launching with a start in education, Lynn’s career took a direction that might surprise some, but she said the path fell right in line with her family’s history and her passion for helping others.
“My dad was in World War II and the Korean War. My brother was in Vietnam and Desert Storm. So, I’m not surprised I ended up with a career as part of our military,” she said. “Sometimes you start your career, and you have no earthly idea where your endeavors may take you.”
Following her retirement in 2013, Lynn transitioned into the defense industry and became the vice president for defense intelligence at General Dynamics. Today, Rodney and Lynn are happy to live in Blacksburg. Lynn serves as a mentor to some of the Virginia Tech volleyball players and the couple attends many of the Hokie athletics events.
“I had the opportunity to get a great education here at Tech. It was a wonderful learning environment; the social aspect was great; and I’ve always really loved Blacksburg,” Lynn said.
Lynn grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and said her family’s military history, along with her brother graduating with a doctorate from Tech, influenced her decision to become a Hokie. While a student, she met Rodney, a running back for the Hokies football team who would later graduate with a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the Pamplin College of Business.
The Schnurrs married in 1975 and Lynn began searching for a teaching job. She worked for a short while as a substitute teacher and a driver’s education instructor before accepting a position with the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in the Department of Interior. She found advancement opportunities there to be limited and proceeded to network, landing a job as legislative correspondent for Congressman Nick Rahall, of West Virginia. After a few years in the position, she applied for an internship in computer science for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command in 1981.
“There were three positions available, and I was selected for one of them. That is how my career in Army Intelligence started,” Lynn said.
During the next 34 years, Lynn ascended the army ranks and played a critical role in getting lifesaving technology into the hands of Army soldiers. She visited troops on the ground to help implement wartime technology solutions in the fields of communications, data, infrastructure, open-source intelligence, and biometrics. Lynn credited her success in part to her interest in getting to know soldiers and understand their needs.
“When I was writing a program for something, I found my real interest was learning about the function,” she said. “I wanted to better understand what the need was, so I could give them a better end product in the field.”
As the Army G2 director of information management and intelligence chief information officer, Lynn developed and implemented the Land Intelligence and Reconnaissance Network, a tool that fostered collaboration between the Army and other intelligence communities. She also led the efforts of the Joint Intelligence Operational Capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, assuring that operational and intelligence data was available for Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Lynn was particularly proud of helping soldiers on the ground access HIIDE devices (Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment). HIIDE uses biometrics—fingerprints, iris recognition, and facial features—to identify people quickly and cross check them with a database of potential threats.
“People in Afghanistan don’t have identification cards,” Lynn said. “When our soldiers were out on patrol, it was very dangerous because someone could be a policeman by day and a bomb maker by night. We needed a way to identify the population. So, if a soldier was using the HIIDE device, he could center on a subject’s face, and if the person was already in the U.S. database as a ‘bad guy,’ a red border would signal to the soldier there is impending danger.”
Vince McCarron, who worked with Lynn for 20 years in Army intelligence, said her people-first approach was evident both in how she managed her job and her motivation for the work itself.
“[Lynn] always looked out for her people, got to know them personally, and understood what their capabilities were—and then took risks with them,” McCarron said. “And she always thought about the soldiers, the analysts, what she could do to better support them, and she worked tirelessly to make it happen.”
Part of that tireless work included travel to Afghanistan and Iraq from roughly 2003 to 2013 during a time when technology and combat methods were quickly evolving.
“It was a really exciting time because we were turning out new capabilities rapidly,” Lynn said. “I was making the trips with Army generals and was asking the soldiers firsthand: ‘What are your challenges? What are you unable to do? What do you need to do your job better?’”
While he did worry about his wife during that time, Rodney said he found peace in her travel companions and her own fierce nature.
“I was worried about Lynn going to Afghanistan and Iraq, but the comforting thing was that she was always with a three-star or four-star general, so she was afforded maximum protections,” Rodney said. “And she’s pretty tough, so I knew she wouldn’t be afraid.”
Ryan Schnurrs ’02, their son, said he was in high school in Northern Virginia when his mother first started traveling overseas for her work.
“I understood the danger of what she was doing, but I always knew she was very passionate about her work,” said Ryan, who went on to earn a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Virginia Tech in 2002. “Everything she was putting out there in technology was to keep our soldiers safe.”
Ryan, who is now employed as a technical writer in Charlotte, North Carolina, worked with his mother at General Dynamics after her retirement from the Pentagon.
Today, Lynn remains an executive consultant with General Dynamics and is involved with the intelligence community in helping the nation’s soldiers.
As a retiree in Blacksburg, Lynn still may not be tossing out volleyballs, but she has taken on the role of mentoring some of Virginia Tech’s volleyball players.
“She’s one of the first people I reach out to for advice and to help me keep going and push through things,” said Talyn Jackson, a senior setter studying public relations.
Lynn said she enjoys getting to know the student-athletes and feels it’s very important to share insights she’s gained from her career and life in general. She is also an Advisory Board member of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and is chair of the Advisory Board for the School of Public and International Affairs.
“I think everything we can do to share knowledge and experience with our young people is really good and beneficial. Sometimes in the world we live in now, with so much social media, young people miss out on simply talking to one another,” Lynn said. “I wanted to give back because that’s what we do at Virginia Tech.”