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The Roger Jones Award: Theresa M. Whelan

Theresa M. Whelan

When I was in middle school and high school, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer like my dad. But I also shared my dad’s interest in history, which led to a personal interest in current events and, generally, what was going on in the world at large. Through the process of picking colleges, I realized that history and international affairs, not engineering, were the things I was most passionate about. I also had a strong desire to find a career that would allow me to serve and protect my country. In my freshman year, I thought a path to a career in international affairs might be through the military, so I enrolled in ROTC—but my history of childhood asthma became an issue.

While in ROTC, a military science professor, who served as my mentor, opened my eyes to other options—in particular, the intelligence career field, which would allow me to do exactly what I had hoped for: serve my country and pursue my international affairs passion. I was fortunate, right after college, to be hired as an analyst by the Defense Intelligence Agency, which gave me the opportunity, through my intelligence analysis work, to contribute—at least in a small way, I hoped—to the U.S. foreign-policy–making process. Occasionally, even though I was a young analyst, I had the chance to interact directly with policy makers themselves. This eventually led to the job of my dreams as a foreign policy analyst in the Department of Defense’s (DOD) policy-making community within the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

I am proud, and privileged, to be a civil servant, and to have some influence on the shaping of U.S. foreign policy. I am particularly proud to have had the opportunity to help create AFRICOM, a DOD unified command for Africa. Standing up a command doesn’t happen every day and so it’s tremendous to be part of something as historic as that. This development represents a significant shift for the country—and how we look at Africa. It is my hope that the Command’s work in expanding and improving our defense partnerships with African nations will help them strengthen their abilities to create secure and stable environments in Africa. In the interconnected world we live in, this is not only good for Africa—it’s good for the U.S.

As a career civil servant, whether you’re dealing with intelligence analysis or policy analysis, it is always important to tell it like it is. Be a straight shooter: give your bosses all the angles—everything they need to know to make the hard decisions. Be objective and straightforward. I try, in my work and as a leader and manager, to honor the golden rule with colleagues and subordinates. I also try to promote an environment that engenders mutual respect. All the people I work with bring tremendous talents or experience to the job. In particular, my colleagues who are military or former military have had experiences and challenges in the field that, as a civilian, I would never have. I have incredible respect for them and their knowledge and experience, as well as their leadership. As a leader and manager, I don’t suppress that respect but rather use it to the best advantage of my organization. I need to position people to do what they do best. Without their hard work and support, I’m nothing as a deputy assistant secretary of defense—I’m just another policy analyst.

I approach mentorship in a similar way: I look after my colleagues, and most especially my younger subordinates and others behind me who are the future of the foreign policy career cadre. My mentors were a key to my success; mentoring others is how I pay off that debt. It is hard, though, because you can’t tell people what decisions to make; they have to discern and decide for themselves. You have to find a way to draw it out of them. It’s important to make time for these connections, no matter how busy you are.

As a civil servant, you need to be careful as you rise in government; you have to remember who you are. You need to be wary of letting your position or your title define you. The operative word in the term “civil servant” is the second one: servant. You serve your department’s Senate-confirmed leadership. You serve your subordinates as their leader, and most importantly, you serve the citizens of this country. I may not wear a uniform—but I approach my service to my country as if I did. I’m proud of that.

I was inspired recently by words that Dr. Henry Kissinger wrote in tribute to a great American public servant, Peter Rodman, the former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, following his untimely death: “He sought fulfillment, not glory; he served to do, not to be.”

Theresa Whelan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, oversees U.S. defense policy for Africa, excluding Egypt. She participated in the design and construction of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), a unified command created in 2007 to promote a stable and secure African environment in support of U.S. foreign policy.

A career civil servant since 1987, Whelan has spent her career at DOD, first at the Defense Intelligence Agency and then in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where she held several positions in the Office of African Affairs, including director, prior to her present position. She also served previously on the Balkans Task Force, first, as NATO team chief during the Kosovo crisis, and later, as the deputy chief of staff. Whelan has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Rank Award.

A childhood transplant from southern California to Virginia Beach, Theresa Whelan holds an MA in national security studies from Georgetown University, an MS in national security strategy from the National War College, and a BA in international relations from the College of William and Mary. In 1995, she was awarded a fellowship at the Council on Excellence in Government.

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