The Value of Military Training for Diplomats: A Personal Story

Understanding our military, its role and its importance in interagency decision-making, should be a high priority for diplomats—especially for those beginning their careers.


When colleagues first approached me to suggest I write for this issue of The Foreign Service Journal about my military background and how it affected my Foreign Service career, I was reluctant. But as I reflected on the subject, I decided I could offer some observations that might prove useful to the new generation of Foreign Service personnel who, for the most part, have never done military service or had much contact with members of the armed forces.

I graduated from college in 1970 with a political science degree—and as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force following three years in the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. It was not until later, though, that I realized just how much that training I’d received, both in AFROTC and during my eight years as an Air Force officer, would benefit me throughout my State Department career.

Leadership and Motivation

Many people have the impression, probably from TV and the movies, that the military services are hierarchal organizations run by senior officers who give orders to subordinates who immediately say “Yes, sir!” and then salute and do as they’ve been told. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however.

While orders or directives are expected to be followed once a decision has been made, military leaders at all levels are encouraged throughout their careers to lead by example, seek the input from everyone assigned to work on a project, recognize when a decision isn’t producing the expected results, and have the courage to bury the ego and correct course. These expectations place a premium on developing strong interpersonal skills, and finding ways to acknowledge and reward individuals to generate unit pride and build teamwork.

Military officers begin from the start of their basic training to read about and study principles of leadership from both military and civilian sources. In my college ROTC program the guest speakers included psychologists and corporate executives who explained what leadership meant to them and how good leaders had contributed to their companies and society’s well-being.

Military officers begin from the start of their basic training to read about and study principles of leadership from both military and civilian sources.

We role-played scenarios on dealing with difficult people and motivating those who only wanted to do the minimum. And we learned early on that if we weren’t attentive to our personnel, then our enlisted staff and junior officers might leave, costing the service well-trained people who might be hard to replace.

The fastest way for a senior military commander to be disciplined or even fired is for an inspection team to report that the organization has low morale due to poor leadership. The same thing can happen when a State Department Inspector General team uncovers problems at an embassy that is poorly led by an ambassador and deputy chief of mission. Until recently, inspectors were mandated to write a special performance report on ambassadors and DCMs that carried much weight on promotion panels, for better or worse. In the case of a career officer, a bad report would make it difficult, if not impossible, to be assigned to a follow-on senior position. As director general, I received briefings on bad post inspections and, as required, consulted with the bureau assistant secretary to see if removal from post and/or referral to a suitability review board was warranted. (Those cases, which thankfully were rare, more often involved political appointees.)

Training and Continuing Education Requirements

All branches of the U.S. armed forces put a premium on training, whether it is professional development courses that must be completed at each stage in one’s career or technical proficiency programs required to ensure officers stay abreast of developments concerning, for example, equipment modifications. Just as the Foreign Service Institute has the A-100 course for FSOs and similar introductory training for specialists, the armed services have their own “basic” training regimens, which are followed by further specialized training.

The difference is that the military requires completion of certain courses as a precondition for promotion, reassignment to a job with more responsibility, or even as a requirement for reenlistment or continuation of a career. In my case, as a junior captain I had to complete course work at the Squadron Officer School, either by attending a facility or via correspondence, if I ever expected to be promoted to the rank of major. And Air Force majors know that they have to attend the Air Command and Staff College if they expect to be promoted to lieutenant colonel or colonel, and one day be selected to attend a war college or other high-level institution. Similar requirements exist in the other services, as well.

These courses stress managerial skills along with leadership development, and also focus on how policy decisions are made at high levels of our government. They offer a broader perspective on the military’s national security role and train mid-level and senior officers for positions at headquarters, in the Pentagon, or as senior military advisers on Capitol Hill, at embassies, etc. I completed Squadron Officers School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and also took Air Command and Staff College classes by correspondence. The knowledge I gained was invaluable, giving me, among other things, an early understanding of the importance of the interagency decision-making process and consensus-building techniques.

Nothing like these programs was ever offered during the first 10 years of my Foreign Service career. In fact, aside from Spanish-language training immediately following A-100, I never returned to FSI for anything until I took the deputy chief of mission course a decade later! Today, thankfully, this has changed. Foreign Service personnel can take a broad and impressive array of professional development courses that, if not directed to do so like the military, they are expected to take as part of their own career advancement. In 2014, State introduced a Career Development Program that established certain course requirements for promotion to the Senior Foreign Service.

There’s another aspect to the military’s approach to training that sets it apart from the State Department. Every military organization has a base or post education office that offers more than just the required professional development courses. That resource helped me obtain my master’s degree in business during a two-year assignment at Andrews Air Force Base, which helped a lot when I did commercial work throughout my diplomatic career.

Military personnel deployed on unaccompanied assignments, especially to combat areas, can continue working toward a degree, even as their family members back home have similar opportunities and assistance. Post education offices assist dependents with enrollment in off-campus programs at an array of educational institutions; college counseling programs are available for teens; and guidance counselors are available for service members and their families.

The message was very clear to me more than 30 years ago and still resonates today: Education should be pursued continually by everyone in the military community, and learning should always be valued as a means to broaden perspectives, increase knowledge, and strengthen and update existing talents.


Former military personnel make up about 20 percent of the State Department Foreign Service, according to the department’s Bureau of Human Resources. State currently employs more than 7,100 veterans both as contractors and as federal employees, about 3,200 of them as members of the Foreign Service.

The Veterans@state employee affinity group represents this large and diverse unit. With 573 members, the group serves as a link among military veterans at the department, as well as between veterans and State’s diversity management program, human resources staff and senior management.

Veterans@State strives to promote the full and equal participation of veterans in internal networking, career development and community service. The group assists in veteran retention, recruitment, morale, skill development and training initiatives. In addition to advocating for the rights of military veterans, the group helps to spread awareness of the qualities and contributions veterans bring to work at the State Department.

The group is active in a number of areas, including:

  • Offering guest speaker series.
  • Supporting the Wounded Warrior Program, the Center for Women Veterans and the Veterans Employment Initiative.
  • Facilitating community service (e.g., Homeless Veterans Initiative, Operation Stand Down, WWII Honor Flight, Vietnam Veterans Memorial).
  • Hosting an electronic forum for networking and information exchange.
  • Sponsoring the Department of State “Day Room” at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • Partnering with the interagency community on veteran activities.

To ensure the long-term success of veterans employed at the State Department, Veterans@State focuses on:

  • Establishing a vibrant and active community of current and former military veterans and supporters of veterans at State.
  • Providing guidance and support to members on opportunities for training, rotations and career development by way of panels, forums, etc.
  • Establishing a sponsorship program for new military veterans.
  • Connecting military veterans with other State employees for mentoring.
  • Informing supervisors and employees about the program and opportunities.
  • Promoting outreach with senior officials in the department.
  • Encouraging timely advancement.
  • Educating the department workforce on the contributions veterans bring to the workforce.
  • Advocating for increased veteran employment.
  • Collaborating with the Department of State Employee Assistance Program to improve veterans’ retention and positive work experience.

For more information, email

—Brittany DeLong, Assistant Editor

Interagency Experience

I alluded earlier to the benefit of military training as a valuable means of early exposure to interagency decision-making. Working with personnel from different military services gave me important insights into how to write effective memos, negotiate and, where necessary, present leaders with a fait accompli to get what I wanted (yes, I admit it!).

I also learned the meaning of “turf”—and not the kind made famous in the Astrodome. Any time you’re in a meeting with representatives of different agencies, one way to analyze what’s really under discussion is to recognize what turf is being protected or advanced, and modify your negotiating strategy accordingly. I learned these lessons as a new lieutenant and captain years before joining the State Department. My experience has been that junior military officers have many more opportunities to gain this experience than new FSOs, who normally begin their careers overseas in consular and reporting jobs and aren’t exposed to the interagency community until a Washington assignment comes along.

The other major fact about interagency work today is that on key policy issues, the big players at the table will surely be Defense Department representatives, whose knowledge and experience give them the inside track on shaping and implementing foreign policy. This asymmetry is compounded by the lack of senior State Department leaders with military experience. How many State personnel today would truly be comfortable participating in a meeting at the Pentagon? Imagine being seated at a table with high-ranking officers from different services, flanked in the second row by officers of lesser rank or civilians serving as note takers or advisers.

For those like me, and the senior FSOs I knew when I first joined the State Department, almost all of whom had served in the military, that was no big deal. We would immediately recognize the different ranks and know the difference between an Air Force or Army captain and a Navy captain, and recognize at least some of the acronyms used in the discussion. Not having this background, feeling a bit outnumbered, and being unsure of what particular service’s interests are being promoted or defended, can be a daunting challenge, to say the least.

Some Practical Suggestions

Four decades into the era of an all-volunteer military, it is likely that those assuming senior State Department positions in the future may not have the background that I had when I joined the Foreign Service in 1981. In some ways that might be a good thing, but understanding the role of our military and its importance in interagency decision-making should remain a high priority for diplomats—especially for those beginning their careers.

So how can this happen today? Here are some ideas.

Never pass up a chance to sit in on a meeting where military personnel are at the table helping formulate recommendations on how to resolve a problem.

First, do what we already do well when we prepare for any challenge: read, read and then read some more. The past decade has seen numerous books about the military’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the decisions that were made on how to fight those wars. Going further back, there are countless books and articles about the Vietnam War, which resonate for me when I reflect on the wasted years of training and equipping a military that in 1975 capitulated, in many places without a fight.

These sources can help us figure out what went wrong and how we missed it. Perhaps we did not pay enough attention to culture, history, corruption? Understanding these issues leads to the question of how and when we should even use our forces, and therein lies the nexus of diplomacy in the military engagement process.

The second thing to do, especially if you’re a junior person at an embassy, is to get to know your military colleagues. If you have had little or no contact with anyone serving in uniform, go to your defense attaché, introduce yourself and just say you’d like to learn more about what his or her office does in the country where you’re serving. You’ll probably get a warm welcome, a briefing and, along the way, the chance to get to know the office staff, their backgrounds and what they like or dislike about military service. You will probably discover that your military colleagues are welltraveled, well-educated, and have useful information and contacts to share.

Finally, never pass up a chance to sit in on a meeting where military personnel are at the table helping formulate recommendations on how to resolve a problem. Observe and listen carefully! To serve effectively one day as a senior diplomat, it’s essential to gain as thorough an understanding as possible of our colleagues in uniform and the way they approach national security issues.

Of course, these steps are just a start toward gaining a better understanding of our military, its history and role in policy formulation. But they are sure to increase your knowledge of our military, which will help your career as much today as it did mine.

George M. Staples served from 1981 to 2007 as a Foreign Service officer after spending eight years in the Air Force and two years in the private sector. His diplomatic assignments included posts in Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa, and at NATO, where he was the diplomatic adviser to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General James Jones. He served as ambassador to Rwanda, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea. Ambassador Staples’ last assignment was as director general of the Foreign Service. He now teaches and consults at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of International Diplomacy and Commerce.