If you have seen the movie, 12 Strong, or read the book Horse Soldiers, you know a little bit about Mark’s work. Both in the military and out of it, Mark has played a pivotal role in our countries defense. In this interview, we talk about his work in special operations immediately after September 11th, as well as his career since his military service as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict. Mark works with a $13B budget and a 70,000 person team. This is a great interview for those of you looking to learn about government contracting roles or becoming a Senior Executive Service government employee, or those of you looking to hear some INCREDIBLE military stories.
Mark Mitchell is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. For those of you who have read the book Horse Soldiers, or seen the movie 12 Strong, you will be familiar with some of Mark’s incredible work. Mark started his career in the U.S. Army, where he served for over 28 years, most recently as a Colonel. Mark was among the first U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11 and advised the Northern Alliance prior to the fall of the Taliban regime. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the November 2001 Battle of Qala-I Jangi in Mazar-e Sharif.
This episode is sponsored by Lockheed Martin. At Lockheed Martin, veterans are at the center of everything they do — in fact, one in five of their employees has served in uniform. Lockheed Martin is proud to help men and women like you successfully transition into civilian careers. Join Lockheed Martin and you will find opportunities to take on the same kind of long-term challenging assignments you tackled while in the military. Whether you’re on active duty, transitioning or already embarking on your civilian career, Lockheed Martin’s Military Connect is your online community for professional support. You can find out more at https://lockheedmartin.bravenew.com
StoryBox- People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
From Army Green to Corporate Gray: A Career Transition Guide for Army - good examples of resumes - https://www.amazon.com/Army-Green-Corporate-Gray-Transition/dp/1570230692
PCS to Corporate america - #1 resume and interview book he knows of - https://www.amazon.com/PCS-Corporate-America-Military-Interviewing/dp/0940672855
Glassdoor - a good reference point for salaries and setting expectations around how much you can earn
GI Jobs - Top 100 military friendly companies. https://www.gijobs.com/
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from the Pentagon is Mark Mitchell. Mark Mitchell is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. For those of you who have read the book Horse Soldiers, or seen the movie 12 Strong, you will be familiar with some of Mark’s incredible work. Mark started his career in the U.S. Army, where he served for over 28 years, most recently as a Colonel. Mark was among the first U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan after 9/11 and advised the Northern Alliance prior to the fall of the Taliban regime. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the November 2001 Battle of Qala-I Jangi in Mazar-e Sharif.
What was it like to serve in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11?
Before 9/11, I had just come out of Special Forces Battalion Command and I was then working as the Battalion Operations Officer. My Commander had directed me to plan an exercise in the west of the United States. So in the first days of September, I was TDY looking at different sites to host this exercise. 9/11 was my first day back in the office after that. I worked out in the morning and went to our dining facility. When I walked in, one of the planes had already struck the first tower. A few minutes later, the second plane struck. I knew immediately that whatever happened, our Special Forces team would be involved in it. Sure enough, for the next four or five weeks, we worked every day. In mid-October, we started going over there. We landed in the heart of Afghanistan slightly south of Mazar-i-Sharif. All of our training had prepared us for that but it was surreal.
I remember waking up that first morning wondering what was going to happen. There was a lot of work to be done. In our Special Forces training, we had done exercises that were almost exactly like we were now facing in Afghanistan. It was an exhilarating and also terrifying experience. But none of us wanted to be anywhere but there, serving our country. It was a huge privilege.
One of the things that people don’t know is that every Special Forces Team that went in that first wave carried a piece of the World Trade Center with them and we carried them in with instructions to bury them in places in which we had inflicted a defeat upon the Taliban or Al-Qaeda. We passed up the coordinates of each location where the pieces were buried and that was eventually printed on a full color map. That map was framed and presented to the FDNY and NYPD. I delivered a copy to the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
I can’t imagine what an incredible experience that must have been.
It really was - and it was an opportunity to put all of our training into practice. Every day was like, “Wow we’re really here and this is really happening”. The rapid success we enjoyed was also really satisfying. To see the Taliban being crushed before us with our Afghan allies. It was an amazing and satisfying feeling that we had done something for the nation. We felt very well prepared for what we faced. We could anticipate different situations and felt confidence in our training.
There were some surprises - mainly on our own side. When you go into training, there’s necessary fictions that you can’t replicate. For example, the ability to provide lethal assistance to our allies is usually a given in training but wasn’t always a given in real life. But some of our other partners were able to provide that and that was really helpful.
Did you face any challenges as you switched from a military career to a civilian career?
My last duty assignment was in the White House in 2014. I worked as a Director for Counterterrorism. In my portfolio was anything related to hostage situations. That year, we had many cases of American citizens being taken hostage by ISIS. So that was a difficult and time consuming year for me. The demands of working at the White House can be extreme. You don’t necessarily have a staff under you so you have to do everything for yourself. I usually arrived at my desk by 7 am and didn’t leave until 9 pm. It’s an all-consuming job.
One of the challenges I faced was simply finding the time to plan my transition. When I scheduled my TAPS course, I went to the transition course during the day and then would go back to work immediately after. That cut into my ability to think about what I wanted to do after I got out. I just didn’t have time to plan. But we had already decided that we would be staying in the DC area.
Especially as a Special Operator -- one of our strengths is planning, leadership, international experience. But going into the private sector, we lack expertise in a particular industry. So the biggest challenge for me was just finding the time to plan and think about where I would fit in.
I encourage people to take TAPS about two years before you get out and then take it again closer to when you get out. Going to TAPS when you still have a couple years left will allow you to starting thinking about what you want to do after the military. After I left the military, I was at a fabulous company but there were parts of me that still left me feeling unfulfilled.
Do you have any advice on successfully finding work/life balance?
When I finally left the White House, I felt so privileged to have been there. I was able to have my retirement ceremony in the executive building overlooking the White House. But by the end of my year at the White House, I was mentally and physically exhausted. I gained 30 pounds that year from all the stress and lack of physical fitness program. I had 90 days of terminal leave and took all of that as a time to recover and rest.
So I would tell you that if you want to stay in a job for more than a year, you need some sort of balance. When you go into working in the White House, you know it’s going to be a very high operational tempo. But overall, if you don’t make time for yourself, you’re not going to be of any value to your organization or your family.
Can you explain your current role as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict at the Office of the Secretary of Defense?
We’re part of the Under Secretary for Policy. In Policy, we have 5 Assistant Secretaries. Within the office of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, we have responsibility for combatting terrorism and engaging with international organizations such as disaster relief groups. We also work with counter drug programs. It’s a broad portfolio that spreads across all of Special Forces.
What is your normal day like?
My day starts about 8 o’clock with an intelligence briefing. We have briefers from the DIA that give us an update each morning. That takes 20-30 minutes. The day begins in earnest after that. It’s a lot of inter-agency coordination and preparing our leadership for inter-agency engagements. We put together read-ahead packages and do many external meetings with our foreign counterparts.
The day for me is usually a lot of meetings and reviewing packages such as letters to Congress or briefing packages for high level officials. We have a lot of interaction with our colleagues on Capitol Hill as well.
You’re day is clearly very busy and I’m incredibly grateful for your time.
I’m always happy to help veterans making the transition out of the military. If I can be of any assistance, I’m always happy to do that.
What advice do you have for people that might want to pursue government service after the military?
It’s a great career path even if you don’t start out as a Senior Executive. There are ways to get promoted. I have a friend that started as a GS-13 and is now an SES. One of the challenges that we face is that we have been under personnel caps. It’s much more difficult these days to get in but if you aspire to be an SES, start looking immediately at the core qualifications. It’s highly competitive but it’s also highly rewarding. Even if you don’t want to be an SES, there are great GS jobs available.
On the contracting side, there’s a lot of opportunities to feel connected. Many of our contractors are engaged in extremely important work and they contribute a great deal to our operations.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?
There are a lot of great organizations out there that seek to help veterans transition. I encourage you to reach out to these organization. The COMMIT Foundation is a fantastic organization and there are many others as well.