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Women's History Month: Foreign Affairs Officer

Navy leaders and pioneers

"From the Revolutionary War to current conflicts, women have played a crucial role in the security of our nation and the success of the U.S. Navy. Join us as we celebrate Women's History Month by profiling women leaders and pioneers across the Navy."



Captain Elizabeth Thomas, American Legation United States Naval Attache, Quito, Ecuador

Q: Why did you decide to join/serve the Navy?

A: I joined the Navy because I liked ships.

As a child, I remember being fascinated by the navy ships pictured in films like Victory at Sea, Midway, and Sink the Bismark. But growing up in Northern California, the Navy didn't look like a career path that was open to women. Then one day, as a high school sophomore walking through the counselors' office, I saw a poster for the U.S. Naval Academy with a female midshipman featured front and center. Everything changed. Suddenly the Navy was an option for me. I applied and was accepted to the Naval Academy and on service selection night in 1989 I selected surface warfare. I was going to serve on the ships I had admired so much as a child.

Q: Who have your role models or mentors been that have influenced you or helped to guide you?

A: I've been fortunate to have had many mentors and role models throughout my career.

As a junior officer on my first ship, USS Niagara Falls (AFS-3), I looked up to Lt. Cmdr. Pam Markiewicz who was the operations officer and first lieutenant. In my eyes, Lt. Cmdr. Markiewicz had done it all and was a pioneer for women at sea. I modeled my early career after hers, studying the same masters at Naval Postgraduate School, operations research, and seeking the most challenging assignments at sea to broaden my professional development.

In 2005, I requested to change my designator to Foreign Area Officer (FAO), a new designator in the Navy that was just starting up. My first assignment as a FAO was to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City as the Navy Section Chief. In Mexico, I worked with an outstanding Army Officer, Major Michael Rayburn, an Army FAO who taught me what it means to be a FAO. A Foreign Area Officer is a first responder who uses language skills and cross-cultural expertise to solve problems for both foreign and U.S. militaries. He or she enhances access to a partner navy or looks for opportunities to develop access where there is none.

I think senior officers need mentors as much as junior officers. When I worked on the Navy staff, I had the opportunity to work for Captain Lisa Franchetti. It was the first time I had worked for a woman since USS Niagara Falls. Captain Franchetti, now Rear Admiral Franchetti, taught me how to write a FITREP on myself. We are told time and time again that we are responsible for our service records-for ensuring that our records are accurate and up-to-date. But that advice also extends to how we write about ourselves in 17 lines in block 41. Sure, it is only a first draft, but you should give your reporting senior the best of starting points. Sometimes you have to promote yourself.
Four photo collage of Capt. Thomas (L-R) family photo; with foreign military; on patrol boat; with foreign military

Q: Please tell us a story about someone, perhaps in your family or otherwise, who has influenced you or challenged you to become more than you ever thought you might.

A: My mother, Judy Thomas, is a teacher. She comes from a small coal-mining town in Ohio.

My mother is left-handed. Back when mom went to elementary school being left-handed was considered wrong and something that must be corrected. Fortunately, my grandmother was a reader, and she read, probably in Reader's Digest, that left-handed people did not need to be corrected. My grandmother put a stop to the teacher's correction and to this day my mother has the most beautiful handwriting, with her left hand.

I come from a family of strong women. My mother taught me that everything you do, from a math test to a decision paper is a reflection of yourself and should always be your best effort. She also taught me that you always have options and to see unexpected challenges as opportunity. I am who I am today because of my mother.

Q: Please tell us which past assignments are the most memorable to you and why.

A: My first assignment as a division officer was onboard USS Niagara Falls (AFS 3) homeported in Agana, Guam.

Guam is a long way from the United States and in 1990, before the internet and cell phones, it was even further. I completed two deployments while stationed in Guam, the first during Operation Desert Storm and the second during Somalia Relief Operations. It was everything that I had imagined a Navy tour at sea to be: typhoons, port calls, underway replenishments at sea. I remember standing watch on the bridge in the Persian Gulf and looking out to see four aircraft carriers.

We conducted an underway replenishment one day with a battleship on either side. It was hard work, much harder than I had anticipated from watching those films I loved so much as a child. I learned a lot about people and how they react under pressure. I learned how I react under pressure. I learned a lot about leadership. I also learned that there is more to the Navy than ships. It was on USS Niagara Falls that I met my first U.S. military attache and I began to look for opportunities to serve overseas as a representative of the U.S. Navy.

In 2001, I was assigned to the Sixth Fleet Staff as an exercise planner. I worked with foreign navies throughout the Mediterranean planning bilateral and multilateral naval exercises. I was in Turkey planning a search and rescue exercise with the Turkish and Israeli navies on September 11, 2001. I remember vividly the shock on my counterparts faces as the towers fell. The world became a much smaller place that day. Exercise planning seemed to take on a new sense of purpose, a need to improve interoperability in order to confront a new threat to world order.

My tour at Sixth Fleet reinforced my desire to work with the International Community. Although the FAO Community did not yet exist, I like to think that my tour at Sixth Fleet was my first FAO assignment.

Q: What does being a leader in the Navy mean to you?

A: Listening. Observing. Knowing your people.

Remembering what it was like your first year in the Navy.