Disclaimer: This story is my own personal story, and my own personal recommendations and advice. This is not endorsed by the US Government, Department of Defense, US Army, FAO Proponent, FAO Branch at HRC, the Command and General Staff College, or the satellite campus at Fort Lee, VA. It does reflect my own opinion, a personal evaluation of my career path and experiences, and what I would recommend to any high quality officer or potential officer of the US Army.
Growing up, I was an army brat, the son of a light infantry scout platoon sergeant. My dad was both my mentor and hero. Before I was in high school, I knew that it was in his footsteps that I wanted to walk, wearing the uniform and leading men into combat. Although I was never pressured to be in the military, it was a sort of family tradition. Both of my grandfathers had served during WWII and one served in Korea as well. I am not sure why (duty, honor, prestige), but I always knew that I wanted to be an officer. More specifically, I knew I wanted to be what I described as a “military diplomat.” This would be my dream job, if I could only learn how to be or who were eligible to actually be the army’s diplomats. In my first year at The Citadel, and my first year in ROTC, I learned that there were military diplomats – Foreign Area Officers. I have since been designated as one with a focus on the region known as Eurasia, or those countries which were within the former Soviet Union. In other words, I have the coolest job in the Army!
What other job allows a Soldier to be the representative of the US Army or the Department of Defense large to our partners and allies, international organizations, and the populations of the country to which a FAO might be assigned? What other job in the Army allows for a Soldier to build relationships, trust, and ensure access throughout the world on a full time basis? What other job allows the Soldier to advance US security interest through enhancing our allies and partners military capacity? What other job allows a Soldier to advise commanders of Joint and Army Commands, US Ambassadors, and others in the interagency community? While there may be a few Soldiers in some fields that could answer once or twice, “Mine,” I am certain there are even fewer that could answer “mine” to all of these. These are but a few of the responsibilities of FAOs that are assigned to positions as attachés, in Offices of Defense Cooperation, as Pol-Mil advisers to different staffs and agencies, and to a number of other positions throughout the US government.
The positions described above are those that FAOs eventually serve in, but only after approximately three to four years of training and education. “What?!” That’s right! You, if you choose to accept the challenge of being a FAO, will enter 3-4 years of training to serve in the capacity mentioned above. So, what is this training? Nothing like you have every experienced before!
If you follow the traditional path you will experience, and relish, everything that FAO has to offer then you will have similar experiences to mine and several other senior and new FAOs. Read on to understand how even in training I have had the coolest job in the Army.
In 2008, after my command, I was notified that I would be assigned to Monterrey, California where I would learn my target language – Russian. You might learn French, Mandarin, Arabic, Italian, etc. The type of language determines the amount of time you will spend in training, but for Russian it was almost a year at the Defense Language Institute.
After my language training, in 2009, I was sent to the Marshall Center in Garmisch, Germany. There I participated in the Eurasian Security Studies Seminar (a resident course), a Foreign Area Conference, and had the opportunity to make several friends with partner and allied soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and civilians. The Marshall Center also served as my “home base” for internships at U.S. embassies in the former Soviet Union and regional travel to other countries. While there, I conducted two internships – one at the Office of Defense Cooperation in Kiev, Ukraine and the other in Astana, Kazakhstan. This allowed me to understand what it was like to live in a foreign country, work in embassies in different parts of the world, and to see what the difference was in USEUCOM and USCENTCOM. Where I did not do an internship, I conducted regional travel via planes, trains, and automobiles. I got to meet people; visit different museums and other cultural sites; and, most important, understand what kinds of infrastructure and capacity each country had to support the US’ and its allies’ interests in the region. Not only that, I was immersed in the Slavic culture and the Russian language. This gave me real world, practical experience that proved valuable when I moved on to my third phase of training – getting my master’s degree in Russian and East European Studies at Indiana University.
The FAO is expected to get a master’s degree in regional studies or international security studies after their In-Region Training. HRC has the approved schools list and there are limitations and restrictions to the program, but the officer has the option to select from the list or propose a new program and university for approval. At this point, the officer spends 12-18 months at a university to get their degree. I got my degree, per requirements, in 18 months from Aug 2010-Dec 2011.
After all of this FAO related training, FAOs are then sent to Intermediate Level Education at a satellite campus. This experience is awesome, especially if you are in Staff Group D at Fort Lee, VA. Here at Fort Lee, in Staff Group D, there are three FAOs including myself (2012). We have had the opportunity to work and learn from other officers in branches like Special Forces, Aviation, Military Intelligence, Infantry, Armor, Chaplain’s Corps, Medical, Military Police, ADA, logistics and Artillery. We have guys in my class that are in different functional areas – PAO, FAO and Acquisitions. Active Duty train and learn from National Guard guys and vice versa. ILE has been a great experience!
Depending on the FAOs next assignment, there is follow on training that help the FAO understand the “nuts and bolts” of their assignment – attaché, defense cooperation, etc. After this, the officer is assigned to their first assignment.
While it doesn’t happen for everyone, this is the first time that I have received my first choice on any preference list for assignments – I am currently slotted to be the deputy chief of the Office of Defense Cooperation at the US Embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. Really?! Two years in Bulgaria, in a joint assignment, to do the things I mentioned above? That’s Right! Like I said, I have the coolest job in the Army.
You too could have this job! If this interests you, I recommend that you look for more information on how to become a FAO. Go to the FAO website! Learn how to become a FAO! I’m telling you – I have found the coolest job in the Army, my dream job – a “military diplomat,” or a Foreign Area Officer. Check out the FAO HRC Website!
If anything, I hope this story has sparked an interest. I hope that you understand that there are many opportunities out there (although I only spoke about FAO); and, if you have a particular skill or desire to gain one and/or fill a role other than your operational branch look at the different functional areas and/or different Career Field Designation. Granted, your opinion of the “coolest job” might be different than mine – but you need to find it, if you haven’t already! And, when you get it – treasure every part of the journey!