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Today we’ll hear from Gary, our Student Stories blogger in the PhD program, who will return to the U.S. Marine Corps after he completes his Fletcher studies.  Though I’ve often watched as a parade of limousines and police cars escort a dignitary to Fletcher, I had never thought about the behind-the-scenes efforts to make the visit happen, and I’ve learned something from Gary’s post!

One of the great benefits of being a student at Fletcher is the visits of many senior officials and policymakers.  This includes not only leaders from the diplomatic, political, and business realms but also senior military leaders.  For my service, the U.S. Marine Corps, the fall semester saw a “bumper crop” of such visits.  During October and November, the International Security Studies Program (ISSP) hosted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fletcher alumnus General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. (the senior uniformed officer in the entire U.S. Armed Forces); the 37th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Robert Neller (the senior officer in my service); and Lieutenant General David Berger, the commander of the largest field command in the service, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific.  Between them, these three officers brought more than 120 years of combined service in the Marine Corps to the table.  However, I’m not going to talk about what they presented during their visits — in part because two of the lectures took place at ISSP luncheons, which are conducted off-the-record — but instead I’ll take a look “behind the scenes” at what goes into making a visit for one of these senior military officers happen.  (The Boston Globe carried an article about General Dunford’s visit here.)

ISSP Fellows with Dr. Shultz and General Dunford, November 14, 2017. (Gary is second from the right.)

General Dunford and his former professor, Richard Shultz, and the ISSP lecture.

As one might expect, a great deal of coordination typically goes into a visit by a senior leader.  Planning begins months in advance.  ISSP mails out the official invitations.  For last semester’s visits, this step took place before I even arrived on campus in September.  After that, suffice it to say that there are a lot of emails exchanged and phone calls placed to work out visit itineraries, menus, locations where people can change from civilian clothes to uniforms or vice versa, and more.  Sometimes the group emails a questionnaire with the questions they need answered for their planning process to move forward.  If one of the senior officers is arriving via nearby Hanscom Air Force Base, then there are additional considerations involving the base protocol officer, base operations, and so on.  If they arrive via Logan Airport, there is a different set of considerations.  There is local coordination for security and ground transportation.  For an ISSP fellow designated as the AO (“action officer”) for a visit, one of the key things to learn right away is the key contacts on the visitor’s staff — it might be more than one person.

For ISSP military fellows (who spend a year at Fletcher on a non-degree basis), coordinating these visits provides an opportunity to interact with the “brain trusts” behind the senior leaders.  Depending on where they are, these groups have different names — Action Group, Staff Group, etc. — but are composed of some of the sharpest young officers in the ranks.  For General Neller and General Berger, their teams consisted entirely of Marines, but General Dunford’s staff features officers from across the services and some Department of Defense civilians.  These organizations house planners, subject-matter experts, advisors, and speechwriters.  In addition to the planning groups, the senior military officers also have aides de camp in charge of coordinating logistics and other general-purpose matters.  It can end up being a pretty large retinue of folks when all is said and done — half a dozen people, or more.

After completing their studies, Fletcher graduates in uniform can end up working in these commander’s groups, based on their developed skills in diplomacy and negotiation, oral and written communication, and statecraft.  For example, the director of General Berger’s Commander’s Action Group, LtCol Sea Thomas, attended Fletcher immediately upon graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy.  (He was a MALD classmate of Fletcher Professor Rocky Weitz!)  On General Dunford’s Chairman’s Action Group, LtCol Todd Manyx (ISSP Commandant of the Marine Corps Fellow in 2007-08) serves as a special assistant, and Army COL Abigail Linnington, who holds a Ph.D. from Fletcher (2013), is the director of the organization.  From the outside looking in, these groups appear to do meaningful, relevant work directly for senior leaders whose voices count.

General Neller engages in a small-group discussion with military officers after his November 28, 2017 ISSP luncheon.

It was a great professional honor for me to meet and interact with these three senior Marine Corps leaders. It is not all that often that a mid-grade officer such as me has the chance to meet top leaders.  I had served with General Berger previously in Fallujah, Iraq in 2005, so it was great to catch up with him now that he has ascended to near the pinnacle of his profession. During General Dunford’s visit, Professor Hess did me the great honor of providing an introduction to the general, and we spoke briefly, comparing our experiences as Marine Corps fellows at Fletcher.  However, the highlight for me was riding with General Neller from the airport to Fletcher, ostensibly as the “on-site lead,” bringing the senior officer up to speed on the “lay of the land” before he steps out of the vehicle and begins the luncheon event.  That did happen, but I also had the chance to chat with my service’s top officer about family, hopes for future assignments, and challenges and opportunities for the Corps.  That’s not something that happens every day — except maybe at Fletcher!

When high-level visits happen, things can get pretty exciting.  You must remain flexible when things change, sometimes even as the visit is already in progress, such as if a flight is delayed and you need to adjust the agenda in real time dynamically.  But once the visits end, things return to normal fairly quickly.  Then it’s back to classes — until the next visit!

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The second of the new Student Stories bloggers is Gary, who started the PhD program in September.  Today he shares the long road that he took to Fletcher.

My path to Fletcher started in 2012.  I was living in the Denver, Colorado area and I’d just completed a two-year stint on the Olmsted Scholar Program, studying for a master’s degree and living in Taiwan with my family.   It was time to pick my next big “stretch” goal.  After doing some research, I discovered that one lucky Marine Corps officer per year was assigned to a fellowship at The Fletcher School.  From the Fletcher website, it looked like a dream come true – immersed in international affairs, surrounded by students from all corners of the globe, making connections and building relationships.  How could I make it happen?  I knew that because of my rank and career timing, it would be a few years before I would be eligible for the fellowship, but in the meantime, I wanted to fill any gaps in my resume to make myself as competitive as possible.  Reflecting back now, this sounds a lot like the advice that Fletcher’s Office of Career Services has provided to all the first-years as we navigate the excellent Professional Development Program, designed to prepare us for post-Fletcher careers just as we begin our studies here.

I reached out to that year’s Fletcher Marine Corps fellow to ask how I could maximize my competitiveness for the fellowship.  He wrote back almost right away — his advice was just to keep on doing what I was doing.  And make sure to rank Fletcher at the top of my list when it came time to complete my “dream sheet” ranking of schools and fellowships available for majors, the next military rank higher than mine at the time.  While I was happy to have received a response so quickly, I was a little disappointed with the answer — was there really nothing I could do to prepare as I waited several years to become eligible?

In the summer of 2016, I had been promoted to the appropriate rank and it was time, at last, to fill out my “dream sheet.”  Of all the excellent options, I ranked Fletcher #1, just as I had earlier been told to do.  In the meantime, I had completed an additional master’s degree and been published in a few outlets to maximize my competitiveness.  I put some thought into a rationale for why I should be chosen over all the other majors in the Marine Corps for this opportunity, wrote it up to accompany my dream sheet, and hit send.  More waiting ensued.

The news came through in December 2016.  I was in Okinawa, Japan, near the end of a three-year assignment.  I logged into my email early one morning, and there they were, the results of the selection board – I was going to Fletcher!  Later, I would be told that because of Fletcher’s foreign language proficiency requirement, the officer selected for the fellowship was the first one picked from the entire cohort of several hundred officers.

After the elation of being selected for Fletcher had subsided a bit, I analyzed the situation.  Of course, I still needed to apply and gain admission.  Typically, the Marine officer at Fletcher pursues the one-year mid-career MA degree program, which is ideal for obtaining a great master’s degree while keeping officers close to their normal military career track.  This was the path taken by the Marine Corps’ most famous Fletcher alum, General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and things turned out well for him!  However, coming into the fellowship I already had two master’s degrees and had recently begun looking for a way to get started on a PhD.  I knew that Fletcher had a great PhD program, but by the time I received notice from the Marine Corps, the application deadline had already passed.  I reached out to the Admissions team, and they agreed to allow me to submit a late PhD application.  I turned my focus to producing a quality application and submitted it as soon as I could.  I’d already been waiting years for this opportunity, but I would have to wait a little longer for the results.  No matter what happened, I was bound to have a positive outcome: in either the MA or PhD program, I would be at Fletcher the following fall.

When the admissions result came back in March 2017, my unit was in the midst of a major theater military exercise involving many foreign partners in Japan and Korea.  I had to read the notice a couple times to make sure my eyes were not playing tricks on me.  Every time I looked at the letter, it still said the same thing: I had been admitted to the PhD program!  I excitedly told my boss, who relayed the news to our organization’s commanding general and, during the busy ongoing exercise, I soon had a brief meeting with Lieutenant General Lawrence Nicholson, who congratulated me in person and told me to do great things, study hard, and make the Corps proud.

Now, as what I believe to be the first active-duty U.S. Marine Corps officer in Fletcher’s PhD program, I continue to work to define the administrative parameters associated with the opportunity.  As I mentioned earlier, Marines typically get only one year at Fletcher — not enough time to make much headway on a PhD.  But I was pleased by the flexibility and openness I found as I worked with key Marine Corps stakeholders.  To my delight, all parties reached an agreement allowing me to have a second year at Fletcher.  During the two years, I should be able to complete the three semesters of coursework required for external PhD admits and the written and oral comprehensive exams in my two concentration areas (International Security Studies and Pacific Asia), and defend a dissertation proposal — ambitious but not impossible to achieve, if planned and executed properly.

Unlike most other students writing on the Fletcher Admissions Blog, as a career military officer with over 18 years of service, I also come to Fletcher with my family, a wife and two sons.  We’ve greatly enjoyed the few months we’ve had in the Boston area since moving here in July and are looking forward to taking advantage of the diverse range of opportunities and activities in our home community of Arlington and in the surrounding towns, cities, and states.  One simple thing we enjoyed over the summer was easy access to great biking on the Minuteman Bikeway.  Now fall’s brilliant foliage and crisp, cool morning air is a great treat that we haven’t always been able to enjoy as we have moved between Hawaii, California, Taiwan, Colorado, Japan, and now Massachusetts.

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