TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Opportunities come at all stages in your life; it’s what you do with them that often shapes your future.
While stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, and at 22 years of service, I received an e-mail from my assignment team that was just that—an opportunity. It stated, “You have been selected to work in the Defense Attaché Service at the U.S. Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan.” Not knowing much about that region of the world, it was a daunting task trying to explain to my wife over the phone. After some convincing and quite a few web searches, we accepted the assignment and were ready for our next adventure.
I learned that a normal assignment in the DAS requires a four-year commitment. The first year is usually dedicated to prepare you for an assignment to a Defense Attache Office. Monday through Friday for four hours a day, I learned how to speak Azerbaijani. It took me six months to complete language classes and I ended up being such a good student that I went through four different teachers. After a long grueling stint of four-hour days, language classes were complete and I was fluent at stating my name in Azerbaijani.
After language, I was required to attend a 13-week course at the Joint Military Attaché School located at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington D.C. At JMAS, I learned what it meant to be a diplomat and an operations coordinator in a DAO. The students were being stationed all over the world from large embassies like London, England, to small embassies like Yerevan, Armenia.
Our Defense Attaché Office in Baku at the time was comprised of a Senior Defense Official/Defense Attaché, Marine Attaché, Navy Attaché, Operations Coordinator, an Army Operations non-commissioned officer, an Air Force OPSNCO and two locally employed staff.
Our LES were the bedrock of our office, maintaining the continuity for a shop that changed out every two years. Our office represented the Department of Defense to the host-nation government and military, assisted and advised the U.S. ambassador on military matters and coordinated other political-military actions within our area of responsibility. We served as part of the embassy staff and contributed significantly to the U.S. diplomatic mission abroad.
I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but I did know it was an opportunity. One that would take my family and I out of our comfort zone and be a challenge. As for being the OPSCO, the job description and duties were ever-changing.
As OPSCOs and OPSNCOs, our primary duties were to provide overall operational, financial, administrative and logistical support to the DAO. We also led the planning and execution of DoD distinguished visitor tours and coordinated all U.S. military/civilian diplomatic aircraft landings and overflights. One of the good things about our small office was that the enlisted side of the house could cover down on each other’s tasks if someone had to take leave or went on a temporary duty. If you were motivated, there were plenty of opportunities to work directly with the Department of State. Just to name a few, you could be on the embassy hiring committee, joint awards committee, Interagency Housing Board and the wellness committee.
One of the most memorable highlights of my two-year tour was being the control officer for the ambassador’s trip to the regions of Azerbaijan. It was just after my arrival and forced me to work with and get to know every section in the embassy. We provided a solid schedule of events, a safe route and constant communication with the host nation. I learned a lot on how the embassy team came together to make the mission happen. The highlight of the trip was handing out water bottles at a vocational school. I showed off my limited Azerbaijani skills and all the kids loved the fact I was trying to speak their language. I tell you, a little time and effort pays great dividends in establishing relationships.
Another great highlight was our team had the pleasure to facilitate two top-level meetings in Baku; one with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and another with the Supreme Allied Commander. Both generals came to visit the Russian Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces. Enabling such high level meetings made it easy to see firsthand how important our jobs really are.
In 26 years, this assignment was one of my most challenging assignments, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. My family and I made the best of it and created life-long memories that have and will continue to shape our future. If an opportunity comes your way, don’t be afraid to accept the challenge.