“In there, even admirals fetch coffee for other admirals.”
That is one of the few pieces of wisdom I was given before reporting for duty in the Pentagon in 2014. The message was clear: As a junior servicemember, you are to be seen, not heard.
Unfortunately, the military does not do a good job preparing its people for “cubicle duty” or staff work. This is especially true for the Pentagon, where a strong “get out of here as quickly as possible” mentality exists. Staff duty is a dreaded, required interlude between tactical tours. And for junior personnel coming to the Pentagon by choice, the stigma is exacerbated.
Military operations may be the lifeblood of service, but junior officers and enlisted personnel can have an impact while working at the Pentagon. Leveraging the networks and practices that have worked for young Americans in other industries, junior personnel are uniquely poised to make the most out of their Pentagon tours and posture the Department of Defense for future reform.
What Do You Do Here?
Junior officers in the Pentagon fill a number of roles. During my two-year tour there, I was a flag aide (aide-de-camp, in ground service parlance; “loop,” in the vernacular), protocol officer, and speechwriter. You may also find yourself as an action or requirements officer, or any other flavor of staff job. Enlisted personnel fill a wider variety of roles depending on the office.
In any of these positions, you must be a master of the details. This means crafting meticulous timelines for senior leaders, knowing and controlling who is allowed to see your boss, and answering phones, among many other tasks. You are the person who will carry the bags, make sure everyone is in the same uniform, and memorize the number of “ruffles and flourishes” afforded to each rank.
This generally means being the first one to the office in the morning, and usually, the last one to leave at night. No, it is not as exciting as executing air-to-air basic fighter maneuvers or a parachute jump mission. But it is still an essential role in our service.
Who Should Come Here?
Too many promising young servicemembers look past the Pentagon as a duty station. Some see an unorthodox assignment away from the “fight.” Others see a boring office job.
As a result, servicemembers who go to the five-sided building are often looked at forlornly by their peers. For rigid military personnel commands, these tours have the reputation of being a place where junior military personnel can “die on the vine.” But if you are the right kind of person, it does not have to be this way.
There are some people who are content to do the minimum work required and go home as early as possible. These people should not seek orders to the Pentagon.
Then there are those who are content to check the boxes prescribed by their service’s personnel command in order to move smartly up the career ladder. These people should not seek orders to the Pentagon, either, if they can help it.
But for those who believe that having a positive impact on the service — making it better than they found it — is more important than those other things, a Pentagon tour can be both educational and fulfilling. Those people who write, work, tinker, and toil outside of working hours to understand, improve, and lead their service should seek orders to the Pentagon.
How to Survive
Accepting orders to the Pentagon is the easy part. Coming to work for the first time at a place that employs more than 25,000 people can be daunting. But there are ways to avoid getting lost.
First, prepare for the hours and check your ego outside the parking lot. Regardless of your background, you will come to the building with virtually no experience compared to the thousands of senior officers, enlisted, and civilians who work there. You might have been the top performer from your operational command, but this is a fresh start. Nobody owes you anything here, and worse, if they smell opportunism, you’ll find yourself on the fast road to irrelevance.
Regardless of your role, the Department of Defense and each individual service department is a huge machine. Everyone has a boss, everyone has a different way of doing things, and — whether you like it or not — that often means a very long work day. Politics are everywhere, the building has its own language, and the bureaucracy is as maddening as you read about.
Second, and most important, forget that you are a junior servicemember. You will not be able to fix the acquisition system on your own. You may not be able to affect defense policy or programming. And you may not be able to avoid working 14-hour days or even have a spare moment to think for yourself. But you can ask questions and learn. You can get your hands dirty and have a go in the arena.
For all their years of service, Pentagon leadership does not know where the idea that saves our acquisition and personnel systems will come from, nor how to rule the seas and skies in an era of unmanned, autonomous platforms and payloads, nor when the next great leap in computing and cryptography will be realized. Your engagement, your influence, and your ideas may seem inconsequential to you. But there is a fine line in history between inconsequential ideas and transformative ones. Respectful, constructive engagement by junior servicemembers can be our nation’s critical military advantage.
How to Succeed
As a junior servicemember in the Pentagon, there are plenty of ways to have an impact. I offer three lessons for a successful tour.
First, stay connected. The most important path to success is to link up with others in the area. Washington DC has a vibrant junior military community, with everything from social events to professional development opportunities at think tanks, on Capitol Hill, or in the building itself. Find and get to know those like-minded, dedicated senior folks who have hammered the iron on both the operational military and government civilian side of the forge. Do not allow the demands of your office desk to keep you under siege.
Second, read, learn, and write. Assignment: Pentagon is a good place to start. If you find yourself in an acquisition role, Defense Acquisition University can be useful. If you’re in an aide or staff role, getting your hands on your service’s rules and regulations for that position is a must.
But don’t let your reading be only job-related. Secretary Mattis once wrote that his reading “lights what is often a dark path ahead.” As a staff officer, revisiting Meditations by Marcus Aurelius got me through some tough times. Finding time for your own personal reading is not only therapeutic. It can help give you perspective on the issues you may face.
Similarly, writing can help you understand and engage with the world around you. Hand-in-hand with the vibrant, local junior military community is a good group of brainstormers, proofreaders, and co-authors who can bring fresh ideas and help you overcome your hesitancy to stick your neck out.
Good writing opens doors. Your rank might make you feel inconsequential, but if your perspective is constructively articulated, you may find a receptive audience and make a few allies. The only way to make our military better is by sharing in the hard work it takes to ensure we have the best policies, processes, and procedures to fight and win.
Finally, get involved. You may be tempted to collapse on the couch in front of Netflix reruns after working hours, and while there are times for that, a successful tour means finding time to actively contribute to causes you care about. Some choose to pursue avenues completely outside of the military, such as volunteer work, athletics, or graduate school.
But if your passion is making our services better, there are plenty of ways to engage. The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum connects innovative individuals both inside and outside the services. Bunker Labs and 1776 help connect local veterans with creatives and wicked problems across the country. The Atlantic Council and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy are excellent venues to stay engaged with international relations and foreign policy.
Don’t limit yourself to what already exists, either. After a few months of duty, I started a monthly happy hour to discuss innovation, defense policy, and connecting problem solvers. It may not have radically changed lives, but it was a good way to stay connected, learn how to get involved in the broader national security and defense community, and enjoy a support group that helped make the tour bearable.
For the senior officers and government leaders reading, use your junior talent in the Pentagon. They are capable of much more than fetching coffee, carrying bags, and making copies. Some of the most interesting, forward-leaning work in the building the past few years has come from small groups of junior officers, enlisted, and civilians.
In the end, the Pentagon is not the dark dungeon its critics make it out to be. Junior officers and enlisted personnel can have successful, rewarding tours there if they stay humble, stick together, and stick their necks out. The future of the Department of Defense relies on young men and women in the building who can break through the stigma of box-checking billets and drive real reform as early in their careers as possible.
Roger Misso is a naval officer. He is also an aviator, speechwriter, husband, father, and aspiring 50-states marathon runner. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1), and the Harvard Kennedy School.
Image: U.S. Army/Glenn Fawcett