An Introduction to the Pentagon
In this week’s blog, USF in DC Fellow, Ethan Tan, writes about being an intern this last semester in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs, supporting the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense in their relationship with Members of Congress. Read on to learn more about his experience in the Pentagon and his new perspective on public service.
My first day at the Pentagon was right after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and in the middle of the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) debate, which is the annual defense authorization bill passed by Congress that authorizes the Department of Defense to operate. As a result, my first days and weeks in the office were a steep learning curve to understand the inner workings of national security and defense policy.
Prior to this semester, I did not have much experience in the defense sector, only having taken one course on U.S. Foreign Policy, so naturally, I was scared and worried that I would not fit in or be “smart” enough to work at the Pentagon, much less draft memos for senior Pentagon officials and military leaders. Luckily, my supervisor and mentor, Elsa Alvarado, who I previously worked with on the Biden presidential campaign taught me the basics and my supportive coworkers and interns were friendly enough to show me the ropes.
What they say in the news about the Pentagon is true, it is a huge building that is very easy to get lost in. During my first few days, I took the time to explore the world’s largest office building. The Pentagon is very much its own city with its own CVS, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, snack bars, Popeyes, McDonald’s (where my team does weekly McFlurry runs), Panda Express, and countless other stores including a gift shop for your Department of Defense merch and swag needs. Moreover, there are dozens of displays documenting American military history events, figures, and topics from the American Revolution to the modern day. You get to see and learn something new each day.
One of the first things I noticed when I started working was the different culture and vibe that the Pentagon has, especially when it came to the hierarchical culture. It was honestly a culture shock when I, the intern, was being addressed as “Mr. Tan” in work emails or by others around the building. As the Pentagon is the home of the Defense Department, there is a large number of both civilian employees, senior executives, and service members; so seeing a three-star general while walking to the bathroom or the Secretary of the Navy walking past your office is not a rare occurrence.
Having no family or close friends that are in the military or who have served meant that I had very little prior exposure to the military. So every day was a learning experience figuring out what each branch of the military does, what are the pressing defense priorities, and what is Congress talking about military-wise? And after learning about these issues, writing memos to brief senior Pentagon officials to include the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense has been an experience like no other. In addition to having to learn quickly on the job and always constantly writing, the internship has taught me a lot about time management and prioritization as I’m often working on multiple projects at once where deadlines could change at an instant due to political pressure.
Being at the Pentagon alone has given me an enormous amount of opportunity that I never thought would be possible. I have written products that senior Pentagon officials have read; I have seen the Lloyd Austin (the Secretary of Defense), Dr. Kathleen Hicks (the Deputy Secretary of Defense), and Gen. John Hyten (the then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) speak at Pentagon events for staff and around the hallways; and I have been a part of history working on issues that defined both American and world history this year such as the Afghanistan withdrawal.
My supervisor, Elsa, and other coworkers have helped make this internship experience a truly unique DC one: to karaoke nights; to going to the Congressional Baseball Game where President Joe Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff made an appearance; and walking with coworkers from the Pentagon to Arlington National Cemetery to lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it was an inclusive environment where I was able to meet other people and take in only-in-DC events. On top of that, I was finally able to meet my coworkers from the Biden campaign, most of whom I only knew through team Zoom meetings and the mutual bond of losing sleep on a campaign.
When it came to cultivating relationships, which is key and highly valued in Washington, having access to the Pentagon and its people, through networking conversations has changed my perspective on public service and has forced me, in a good way, to reevaluate my plans as I graduate in the next weeks and end my USF career.
My supervisor-mentor, specifically, as a Latina woman of color has not only been a valuable resource navigating the political world but helped introduce me to other people of color who have been inspiring to hear from and encouraged me to reach out to others and to challenge norms and “be at the table.” Having Elsa as a mentor in a space and an environment that has historically lacked both Asian American and Latino representation has motivated me to challenge myself and push my limits knowing that people that look like me belong in government and can make and influence policy.
I have also been fortunate to meet unique senior officials like USF alum Patty Barron ‘80, who currently is serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy where we talked about our USF experiences and how it has changed our lives, and I met our office’s senior leader, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs, Louis Lauter, who personally knew Leo McCarthy and reminded me of Leo’s desire and dedication to ethical public service.
Overall, walking into the Pentagon has never gotten old and is something that I will miss as my time in Washington has come to an end. Although I did not plan to do USF in DC in my final semester, I would not change a thing and encourage any USF student remotely interested in government to come out to DC and take advantage of what USF has to offer and engage civically on the opposite coast.