In this interview, we talk to Major Holly Harris, the U.S. Army FA-59 Liaison Officer for the Basic Strategic Arts Program (BSAP) at IWP. At IWP, Major Harris has been taking classes while administering BSAP. This summer, she will be working for the White House in the Office of Management and Budget.
Please tell us about your previous educational background prior to IWP.
I actually completed much of my undergraduate work while an enlisted Soldier on active duty in the Army. Oddly enough, I left college after a couple of semesters to join the Army and shake things up a bit. What I didn’t realize is that my military occupational specialty, 98G-Korean Linguist, would involve going through 63 weeks of college level language training for the Army…without the option to skip class.
After completing the challenging Korean Language Program at the preeminent Defense Language Institute, Foreign Language Center, I deployed to Korea. When I returned to the U.S., I decided to go Green to Gold and become an officer. This required finishing my undergraduate degree.
So, my undergraduate degree is from the University of Maryland Baltimore County — a school I chose largely for expediency and because I am from the D.C. area. I had a bit more flexibility in my graduate study. After commissioning into the Aviation branch and deploying to Iraq, I competed for and was selected by the Army for a Harvard fellowship. I applied and was accepted by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and received my Masters in Public Administration from Harvard in 2011, shortly before I began working at the Pentagon.
When did you know that you wanted to join the Army?
My father was a Marine Corps veteran disabled in Vietnam and suffering from kidney disease, so I grew up in a relationship with the military. My youngest memories in D.C. were of time spent by my father’s bedside at Walter Reed, through dialysis and an organ transplant. I was always inspired by the people I met there — by their dedication to a higher, noble cause. It wasn’t until I was in my first semester of college that I seriously started thinking about following that example. I absolutely wanted to serve my country, but I also wanted to prove to myself that I had the right stuff, a Soldier’s heart. It was part brash youth, part love of country, part timing. I never thought I would stay in for the full twenty years, but here I am: Year 18 and counting.
Could you share with us a little about the work you have done in your Army career thus far? When did you become a strategist?
Sometimes I feel like a GI Jill of all trades. As an enlisted Soldier, I was a Korean and French Linguist. The Army taught me Korean and I had taken French in school since third grade. Being a linguist was exciting and very rewarding. I have a great interest in other cultures, and I am fairly intuitive with these particular languages. It was also great fun in Korea to watch peoples’ expressions when I spoke to them in the Korean. I enjoy doing that still.
I entered the Green-to-Gold program, which is an officer producing program, in 2000. Prior to commissioning, cadets have to choose three branches. I had worked extensively with pilots as a linguist, and put Aviation at the top of my list. Aviation actually has to be the first choice for a cadet to even be considered. Cadets also have to take an aviation-specific test. I guess I did better than I thought. I will never forget the call from my commander, letting me know I’d been selected. It kind of blew my mind.
In addition to working as a linguist and pilot, I also spent time in Army recruiting, one of the “Three Rs” of recruiting, readiness, and retention. I was both a Human Resources officer and an Executive Officer for a recruiting battalion, and I take great pride in knowing that I helped bring some really talented officers into the service. I know that we helped some of those youngsters completely change their lives — taking them out of poverty and some pretty tough home conditions and bringing them into the Army family. My favorite officer candidate competitor? A kid who did some breakdancing as a part of his board interview for Officer Candidate School.
What I like most about my Army career is that my path was through the ranks from private to NCO and now I’m a commissioned officer. The breadth of my personal and professional journey allows me to connect well with other Soldiers because I can usually seize upon some shared experience in my repertoire.
I became a strategist after competing for a fellowship at Harvard sponsored by Functional Area 59, Strategic Plans and Policy. Once selected by Harvard, fellows complete an MPA and have a follow-on tour requirement at the Pentagon in the Strategy, Plans and Policy Directorate. I had no idea what I was getting into as a young captain, but it was the beginning of a whole new chapter of my life. I went from flying helicopters to writing policy, or at least being a part of a policy writing team. I never imagined that I might be able to make an impact at that level. I am, likewise, humbled that I will be able to work at the Office of Management and Budget for the White House this summer.
How did you get involved in flying Apache helicopters?
Ah, the Apache. Beautiful aerial weapons platform. Unique and impressive capabilities. I knew from day one of flight school that I wanted to fly apaches. Airframes are as uniquely compelling as college majors: The Poli-Sci majors are distinct from Theater majors, who are quite different from the Engineering majors. The time I spent at Fort Rucker, “snow birding” prior to my flight school class start date, gave me an opportunity to engage with pilots of every ilk. I used to drive to training air fields to watch helicopter maneuvers and I fell in love with the Apache and its mission as quickly as I identified with the Apache driver-type.
At this point, I feel pretty confident that I can tell you what airframe someone flies just by talking to them, and sometimes just by taking a look at them….kind of the same way that you can tell a hard science major from liberal arts. Of course, there’s the old joke: Three pilots walk into a bar. How do you know which one flies an Apache? He’ll tell you.
I like this joke for a number of reasons. First, clearly it’s not always a “he” who’ll tell you. Second, I hope that I have never been “that guy” who uses an occupational specialty as a calling card. That seems so 80s! I used to really enjoy going out in Dothan, Alabama and having guys try to pick me up with the old “I’m a pilot” line…to which I always responded, “Oh, you too?” This is funnier if you have ever been to Dothan, where you can’t walk five feet without bumping into a flight school student or a young local who wants to marry one.
Seriously, though, I am grateful for what every airframe brings to the fight. I was overjoyed to get to fly the Apache mission because it speaks to me personally, but I am thankful that other people feel that same joy when flying their airframe. Ultimately, pilots are chosen by order of merit list for airframes, based on their preference and the needs of the Army. I feel extremely lucky — for the opportunity to fly Apaches and for the outstanding men and women with whom I flew. My favorite ‘huh’ moment? When a brigade commander got on the radio during a military exercise to tell me to get off of the tank because women were not authorized on combat vehicles (if an Apache isn’t a “combat vehicle,” I don’t know what is). I was acting as an Aviation liaison to an Armor unit at the time. That was many years ago, and I am proud to say that the Army has really evolved in that respect.
I understand that you have been passionate about gender issues/getting women more involved in the military. Can you tell us about your thoughts in this area, and about any work/research you may have done on this topic?
I think my interest in the gendered aspects of conflict prevention and resolution formed during my time at Harvard. I reached back to the Pentagon to get clarification on existing programs for one of my research papers, and was dismayed that no one seemed to be exploring the gender issue. My specific question was, “What are we doing in transition operations with women and children to prevent the next generation of jihadis?” It was a crude question, but the resistance with which I met encouraged greater exploration.
When I started my follow-on tour at the Pentagon, I was presented with the opportunity to staff the National Action Plan for Women, Peace, and Security to the military Services. This National Action Plan captured the President’s determination to bring gender aspects into every level of operations and marked a vast departure from legacy approaches to gender specific challenges.
I am working on my own theory of the geography of conflict, based on gender repression. I also believe that female engagement is necessary in stability operations and planning considerations. Women are an often overlooked strategic asset. Understanding their stabilizing presence in families and communities, and their increasing importance in war-torn nations where the male population has been decimated, is a strategic necessity.
What do your responsibilities as BSAP liaison at IWP involve?
This is a uniquely rewarding job. My responsibilities here involve smoothing the transition for Army officers entering into the Basic Strategic Arts Program, serving as their intermediate rater for military evaluations upon the completion of their program, and as a resource for them during their studies. I also work with the IWP staff to resolve issues, plan programs like the Strategic Fellow Broadening Program, and to facilitate our shared goals for collaboration and development. The added plus is that I still have access to the wealth of educational offerings here at IWP and the opportunity to engage with senior Army fellows. It is a wonderful opportunity to broaden my own horizons and experience while helping others “pull back the curtain” on so many Army programs and opportunities.
What are your studies focused on here at IWP? (What program are you in, what classes are you taking this semester, and is there any research that you have conducted/plan to conduct that you are particularly interested in?)
I successfully completed the Basic Strategic Arts Program last semester, so I am not currently taking classes for credit. While in the BSAP program, however, I took the FA-59 approved complement of courses designed to broaden Army officers and augment their tactical — and sometimes operational — experience with strategic perspective. I am currently engaged with Army Intermediate Level Education requirements, and I continue to apply a gendered lens to all of my coursework submissions.
What have been some of the most useful/relevant things you’ve learned here so far?
The coursework I completed with Professor Tsagronis will certainly be a foundation for me going forward. His class on the National Security Policy Process will be a real resource for me in my work at OMB, where I know that stakeholder analysis will be vital in consensus building efforts. Understanding the importance of who writes the first memo about a policy initiative was a particularly compelling takeaway from the course. The critical thinking and analytic skills within the Institute of World Politics BSAP program will serve me well in the future.
When do you plan to graduate and do you have any specific plans for post-graduation?
I have already received my Graduate Certificate in Strategic Studies. I will remain here at IWP as a liaison officer until I begin my fellowship at the White House (Office of Management and Budget) in August.
Above: Holly celebrating at her promotion ceremony.