May 10, 2022 – Navy Captain Brenda M. Holdener will be honored with the 2022 Collinsville High School Alumni Achievement Award during the school’s commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 14, 2022.
Captain Holdener graduated from Collinsville High School (CHS) in 1978 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. She graduated with honors from Oregon State University in 1985 with a B.S. Construction Engineering Management; graduated from the Naval War College in 2000 with M.A. National Security and Foreign Affairs; and graduated from University of Colorado-Colorado Springs in 2002 with Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security.
In 1980, Captain Holdener received a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship. She was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy in 1985, and completed Naval Flight School training in 1988, earning the Wings of Gold as a Naval helicopter pilot.
She recalls: “I completed Naval Flight School training as a helicopter pilot with my brother Michael A. Holdener, also a 1978 CHS graduate. We were the first brother-sister team to complete Navy flight school school together.”
Captain Holdener was deployed with the Navy multiple times on a variety of ships to the Mediterranean, Northern Atlantic, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, as well as Japan, Korea, Guam and Australia in the Pacific Theater. Her assignments included combat helicopter pilot, navigator on the USS Dwight S. Eisenhower and USS Kitty Hawk, and command center director for North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
In 2001, she became the Commanding Officer of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron Two (HC-2), a helicopter squadron with 450 personnel and 14 H-3 helicopters.
Captain Holdener became the 17th commanding officer and first female commander of the USS Wasp, a multipurpose amphibious assault ship in 2010.
At the time she was inducted into the Oregon State University Academy of Distinguished Engineers in 2013, she recalled, “My construction engineering management degree was broad enough to help me excel as a helicopter pilot and a ship’s commanding officer. The engineering background made the technical aspects easy, and the business background kept me thinking about efficiencies in large organization management.”
“I’ve been able to influence and lead 1,100 young men and women on a daily basis as the commanding officer of a ship. If I was able to help only one of them to reach their goals, then I was successful at my job,” she added.
Captain Holdener retired from the U.S. Navy in 2014 after 31 years of active military service.
Her retirement gift to herself was to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. “It was 2,189.2 miles, took 173 days with 34 of those days hiking zero miles. I started March 20 and ended September 10. It was definitely one of my greatest accomplishments,” she says. She has also hiked 169 miles on the Florida Trail, and 369 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Most recently, she hiked 175 miles coast-to-coast across Costa Rica.
Twice during her long career, Captain Holdener notably participated in Congressional hearings. Her first appearance was related to the Navy’s involvement in Operation Desert Storm. In 1991, she was part of a panel discussion regarding the combat exclusion law which prohibited women from serving in combat positions (the law was subsequently overturned).
In addition to her military service, Captain Holdener was an alternate on the East Territory Select Side for USA Rugby, and a member of the Combined Services Select Side Women’s Rugby Team. She was nominated for consideration on the USA Rugby Board of Directors.
Captain Holdener currently lives in Alaska. She says, “I’m living my dream in Alaska. When there is a season, I work as a hiking and whale watching guide, and a whale watch boat captain. My happy place is anywhere outdoors – hiking, kayaking, camping, etc.”
She was active in high school athletics in the late 1970s at CHS, including volleyball, track and basketball. Holdener recalls being a member of the first Lady Kahoks basketball team her senior year. She notes there are many more options for female athletes today than when she was in high school, and is impressed with the long list of today’s Kahok competitive sports.
Captain Holdener says CHS Volleyball Coach Jean Willmore was the person at CHS who was most influential in her career path. Coach Willmore encouraged her to go to college; and as a way to get tuition paid, she encouraged her to visit a Navy recruiter. Holdener says enlisting was her best option to pay for college and led to her degree in construction engineering management.
Her advice to Collinsville High School students is: “First and foremost believe in yourself! You can DO and BE anything you want to be. It is usually not the physical aspect or how smart you are. It is more mental. How bad do you want it?
“Follow your passion. Follow your dream. Follow your heart and go for it! If you are not happy with what you are doing, change your trajectory and go do something else. Life’s too short! Trust me. When I was in high school I had no idea I would become a helicopter pilot or in command of my own ship. Anything is possible,” she said.
Captain Holdener wants to honor the women who came before her and made her accomplishments possible, “Cheers to the many women who have gone before me to open up the doors of opportunity for me.”
Collinsville High School 2022 Commencement is Saturday, May 14, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. in Vergil Fletcher Gymnasium at Collinsville High School, 2201 South Morrison, Collinsville, Illinois. The ceremony will be livestreamed and archived on the Tomahawk Studios YouTube channel.