Honoring Our Veterans, Leveraging Their Skills and Service to Strengthen U.S. Diplomacy

10 minutes read time
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers remarks and participated in the annual Veterans Roll Call at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 2018.
The pledge of allegiance is recited as U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo delivers remarks and participated in the annual Veterans Roll Call at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on November 9, 2018.

Honoring Our Veterans, Leveraging Their Skills and Service to Strengthen U.S. Diplomacy

The U.S. Department of State honors those who have served in the United States’ armed forces on Veteran’s Day, and each and every day,  by providing education, fellowship, and job exposure to veterans and transitioning military to become the diplomats of tomorrow.

Unity in our country can be found in the respect and gratitude citizens display for our service members every Veterans Day. Here at the U.S. Department of State, we understand the important role our U.S. military plays around the world. Veterans hold a unique and valuable perspective that can contribute greatly to the diplomatic efforts of the State Department, and for this reason, we have taken steps to help our veterans prepare for the next chapter of their lives, while utilizing their distinct capabilities. As we celebrate Veterans Day, we recognize their contributions, both while in service and upon their return home.

Secretary Pompeo poses for a photo with Veterans Innovation Partnership "VIP" Fellows at the State Department.

In recognition of a veteran’s natural potential as a source of talent for diplomacy, we launched the Veterans Innovation Partnership (VIP). VIP serves America’s veterans and prepares them for diplomacy and development careers by providing them a year-long fellowship, complete with education and employment resources, while simultaneously enhancing America’s global leadership through the fellows’ unique expertise. To date, the program has supported 49 veterans in one-year, professional fellowships, with another 20 fellows selected for the 2018-2019 cohort. With every military branch represented, VIP Fellows have implemented direct field experience into policy-making, allowing 80 percent of the past cohorts to continue careers in foreign affairs at State and other U.S. agencies. Through the mutual support of the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships and the Bureau of Human Resources, the VIP Fellowship continues to provide veterans access to careers and opportunities in foreign affairs.

A former VIP Fellow and now partnerships specialist in the Office of Global Partnerships, Christine Johnson says:

“VIP offered me the opportunity to not only experience the career I dreamed of but also open the door into a new world where my skills, both military and medical, could be put to service in a more influential way.”

Christine is also an officer on the Veterans@State Employee Affinity Group Board, where she helped plan this year’s 16th Annual Roll Call event at State, in which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took part in a military style roll call with veterans represented at all levels of military rank who now hold careers across all State bureaus and our U.S. embassies abroad. This event is a display of the comradery that is unique to veterans and presents them with an opportunity to reflect on their service to our country and shared experiences together.

As we celebrate all our U.S. veterans and their significant contributions, we shine a light on another exceptional example of a veteran who has adapted her skills and experience to serve on the front lines of diplomacy here at the U.S. Department of State.

Ambassador Birx addresses an event commemorating the 15th anniversary of PEPFAR.

Ambassador-at-Large Deborah L. Birx has a three-decade-long career that has focused on HIV/AIDS immunology, vaccine research, and global health. As the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Birx oversees the implementation of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and all U.S. government engagement with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Serving as the U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy, she aligns the U.S. government's diplomacy with foreign assistance programs that address global health challenges.

Ambassador Birx began her career with the U.S. Department of Defense as a military-trained clinician in immunology, focusing on HIV/AIDS vaccine research. She reached the rank of Colonel and was awarded two prestigious U.S. Meritorious Service Medals and the Legion of Merit Award for her groundbreaking research, leadership, and management skills.

In recognition of Veterans Day, Ambassador Birx shares her insights as a veteran and a leader in global health.

How does being a veteran shape you as a leader today?
I am proud to be the first veteran and the first women to serve as the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy, with the privilege of leading PEPFAR.

But I can still recall vividly my residency and fellowship training at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, which began in Feb. 1980, and then in 1985, when I began serving there as the Assistant Chief of the Hospital Immunology Service for the Army.  These were some of the darkest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States.  At that time, we knew little about the disease except its deadly end stage.  We didn't understand what the virus was doing in the body to destroy the immune system – we only saw the devastating consequences, which we were initially unprepared to confront within our families, communities, and institutions.

Stigma and discrimination made the work more challenging and more urgent.  So we had to lead by example.  At Walter Reed, my colleagues and I faced our own fears of HIV and embraced those living with and affected by the disease with the open arms of compassion, care, and creative research.  Many other individuals far braver than any of us did the same in their own communities and countries.

At the same time we were confronting disease on the front lines of care at Walter Reed, the military required leadership training, personnel management trainings, budgetary planning, strategic planning, and integration of the lessons learned from history to the work of today.  As a young doctor and researcher, these trainings – on top of seeing patients, doing research, and as new mom – were daunting and if not absolutely required I would never have completed them every year.  But these management and leadership trainings have has been critical to all of my subsequent jobs.  And the acquisition and budget training has enabled me to understand procurement and how to make government work more effectively and efficiently.  My 29 years of active military services gave me the background, the abilities, and the respect for the concept of teamwork and decision making that have made me the person I am today.

What was it like being a female in the military?

When you constitute less than three percent of the active force, as was the case in 1980, it teaches you how to function in a very male dominant world.  You learn how to make your voice heard when it's a different tone and tenor then most of your colleagues and what many were used to hearing.  Frankly, it taught me I had to be better, stronger, and more diligent than my male counterparts to succeed and ensure my patients got the best care I could deliver.  On the other hand, I was privileged throughout my entire career to be mentored and supported by many men who looked beyond my gender to my capacities and abilities and I am so grateful to each and every one of them.  They were my role models and taught me leadership grounded in humility.

Where are we with the combat against AIDS globally? And, where do you see Global Health going in the next decade?

It was the military that first recognized the connection between global health, the health of allied forces around the globe, and the ability of the U.S. military to accomplish its mission.  It is out of a concern for the active forces' readiness that the U.S. military invests in infectious disease research and ensures they know all of the infectious disease and environmental threats to any and all deployments and how to mitigate their impact on the warfighter.  This research occurred alongside the brilliant work on shock and ensuring any injured soldier has the immediate access to lifesaving technologies. 

So, if you look at the progression from where were we just 33 years ago, when we finally had a diagnostic test for HIV, to the first HIV medicines becoming available in the late 1980s, to the discovery, in 1996, of the amazing three-drug cocktail that has since saved millions of lives, it's remarkable.  And then, at the dawning of this millennium, to have in your hands the ability to save lives with these new drugs and there being essentially no access to them in any country that wasn't high income.  We were confronted with the stark reality that around the world an entire generation was dying and the very fabric of societies were being ripped apart.  That is when the United States stood up with a call to action delivered by our congress and the landmark announcement of PEPFAR in President George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address. 

Now, fast-forward 15 years, and PEPFAR has saved more than 16 million lives, prevented millions of HIV infections and brought the world closer than ever to controlling the HIV pandemic – community by community, country by country.  We have in our hands the tools to control this epidemic around the globe and it is our collective job to bring these tools to an impactful scale, which we have.  Globally, new HIV infections and AIDS mortality have dropped dramatically thanks to the American people's generosity.  And with our continued laser focus and the incredible increase in host country spending on HIV/AIDS, we can make the impossible possible. 

This foundational work done through PEPFAR also gives us the confidence that we can tackle any future pandemics, as we have the roadmap and ability.  It gives us and our partner countries the confidence to use all health resources in a new data-driven cost-effective manner, which ensures resources are directed according to real need rather than perception, making PEPFAR a model of effectiveness and efficiency.  Together, I believe we have created the laboratory networks and relationship with communities that will serve not only global health but also as the backbone of the global health security agenda. 

Last week, I was at an event with the Director of Services from the Eswatini Ministry of Health.  I have never been prouder of what PEPFAR has accomplished when she said that because of PEPFAR the ministry and communities have learned to use and analyze data not only to make their health program more impactful but also to align precious country resources to equitably meet the broader health needs of their people.  This is the power of data and the transformational impact PEPFAR has had. 

What advice would you give veterans joining the State Department?

At its soul, the State Department has a deep respect for the role of the U.S. military within the broad missions of the Department.  I have been treated with the utmost respect for my prior military services and my service to the country is recognized here.  The State Department also appreciates the importance of leadership and teamwork in accomplishing its mission.  The Department's structures in Washington and at embassies around the globe are also similarly organized around a clear chain of command, which supports a mutual understanding between the U.S. military and the State Department.  

About the Author: Jim Thompson is Director of Private Sector Engagement in the Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry is also published in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.

For more information: