Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Many active-duty officers in nonmilitary jobs. Service spokesmen say it's a way of using expertise

Recruiting posters don't say ``Join the Navy and See the Interior Department.'' But that's exactly where the Navy sent Lt. Howard Hills. While some fellow officers have been treading the decks of destroyers, Lieutenant Hills for the last five years has trod the halls of the bureaucracy as legal counsel to the Department of the Interior's Office for Micronesian Status Affairs. ``It remains to be seen whether this off-the-beaten-track job will help or hurt my career,'' he says.

Hills is just one example of what Pentagon officials say are hundreds of active-duty officers who have nonmilitary government jobs.

About these ads

The roles of two former National Security Council officials, Vice-Adm. John Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North, in the Iran-contra affair have raised questions about the propriety of officers working in civilian executive-branch offices. But service spokesmen defend the practice as a way to use military expertise.

Hills, for instance, did not end up in his present post because of the whim of an assignment computer. Before joining the Navy he was a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to Micronesia. He then worked for Micronesian governments and married a Micronesian woman.

``This assignment is the fulfillment of a long-held dream,'' he says.

Many military officers spend time working in traditional military jobs outside the Pentagon's purview. Hundreds work out of American embassies overseas as military attach'es, or are attached to such multinational bodies as the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Middle East.

The jobs of Hills and others are different. While in many instances they are related to military affairs, they are considered nontraditional jobs and are carried on personnel records as ``outside Department of Defense (DoD) positions.''

The Air Force lists 160 officers and 30 enlisted personnel as serving in such jobs. The positions range from Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers to White House drivers and physicians.

The most sensitive of these jobs involves dispensing a military viewpoint in White House forums where foreign policy is formed. Admiral Poindexter and Colonel North have departed from the National Security Council staff, but many officers remain. Army records, for instance, list five officers detached for NSC duty, out of the service total of 134 officers working outside DoD.

About these ads

There is also a White House Military Office staffed with aides from all the services. These positions lean toward liaison with the armed forces and logistics planning for presidential projects.

Most outside positions are far from the center of executive-branch power, however. Some are very far. Army Maj. Michael Christiano spends six months each year in Antarctica, as part of his work with the National Science Foundation's office of polar programs. As terminal operations officer for the United States McMurdo Sound research station in Antarctica, Major Christiano plans movement of supplies. In addition, hundreds of Navy personnel man the ships and fly the aircraft that are McMurdo's lifeline.

Because of armed forces training, officers are often expert in operations research, the practical application of which is moving lots of people and heavy equipment long distances over nasty terrain. Military people are often assigned to other branches of the government to help with this sort of thing.

For instance, beside Christiano, the Army has a warrant officer who is a logistics specialist working with the State Department's foreign disaster-assistance office. Officers from all services help the Federal Emergency Management Agency plan for disaster relief.

A number of government agencies that must work closely with the Pentagon have separate sections heavily staffed with officers. At the Department of Energy retired Adm. Sylvester Foley Jr. oversees construction of nuclear warheads as assistant secretary for defense programs.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also has a strong military presence. Astronauts are usually military officers, though surprisingly not all have been Air Force or Navy jet pilots. Three Army officers are currently astronauts, with one - Col. Sherwood Spring - having already spent 150 hours in space on shuttle missions. In addition, many space agency engineers are officers. There is even an Army research psychologist detached for NASA duty.

Generally, the executive agency in question requests the assignment of military people to outside DoD positions. In most cases the Pentagon continues to pay their salaries. The services usually cooperate, though sometimes personnel planners grumble about the loss.

``When I was a first lieutenant in Vietnam, a signal officer in my unit was taken away and assigned to the Agency for International Development because somebody discovered he had a peculiar expertise in some agricultural field,'' says an Army lieutenant colonel now serving in the Pentagon.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.