International Engagement through Navy Foreign Area Officers

By Capt. Elizabeth Thomas
Student, Joint Military Attaché School

Captain Thomas speaking at the U.S. Embassy Memorial Day Ceremony at the American Cemetery in Mexico City in 2008.

I joined the Navy to go to sea. I grew up on black and white, World War II movies. Nothing was more fascinating or inspiring to me than the Victory at Sea series. But I never really considered the Navy as a career. Women didn’t join the Navy. Then one day in 1983 I walked through my high school counselor’s office and saw a poster for the U.S. Naval Academy–at the forefront of the poster was a female midshipman. Six years later I graduated from Annapolis with orders to my first ship, USS Niagara Falls (AFS 3), homeported out of Agana, Guam. I found myself deploying to some of the same waters I had followed in Victory at Sea.

As my career as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) progressed, I began to notice the ways that the U.S. Navy engaged with foreign governments and navies. Operations Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Restore Hope, and Allied Force, involved the navies of numerous countries. This cooperation didn’t just happen — it had to be developed and then practiced. As an exercise planner on the staff of Commander, Sixth Fleet, I worked with navies around the Mediterranean to design bilateral and multi-national naval exercises to increase maritime interoperability. Later, I worked at the Navy International Programs Office (NIPO) with the navies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Horn of Africa countries to purchase ships, equipment and training to increase their naval capabilities.  The more I engaged with foreign navies, the more I found we had in common. The bonds of the sea and the life of a Sailor, are a common denominator that transcends traditional language and cultures. This maritime bond pulls navies together in times of crisis — we see that bond today as the navies of the Pacific, from Malaysia to the Peoples Republic of China to Australia, India, Vietnam and the United States, help search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

It was in pursuit of this common maritime bond that I left the Surface Warfare Community in 2005 to become a Foreign Area Officer (FAO).  My first assignment as a FAO was to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, where I served as the Navy Security Cooperation Officer. As a FAO, I used my experience as a SWO to help the Mexican Navy arrange boiler inspections and repairs for its four ex-Knox class frigates.  I used my Masters Degrees in international relations to facilitate maritime interoperability discussions between the Mexican Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Navy. I used my Spanish language skills to relate my experience as a female officer to men and women in the Mexican military. After Mexico, I reported to the Navy Staff (OPNAV), International Engagement Branch (N52), where my experiences as a FAO in Mexico helped build the Chief of Naval Operations’ international engagement strategy for the Western Hemisphere. Most recently, I had the privilege to spend six months on the staff of the Inter-American Defense College (IADC) where I interacted with a faculty and student body from over 13 countries within the Organization of the American States. Just as a SWO develops professionally through tours on multiple ships, my next assignment to South America, will build upon my experiences at NIPO,  Mexico, OPNAV, and the IADC. As a FAO, I still go to sea, but it just might be with a foreign navy — which is just fine with me. I joined the Navy to go to sea.


By Cmdr. Stacey Prescott
Asia-Pacific Desk Officer, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, International Engagement Division

Commander Prescott attends a Corps of Foreign Naval Attachés reception

Little did I know when I reported to the Naval Academy in 1993, that my Navy career would afford me so many opportunities to travel the world and to make a difference. We all know, “join the Navy, see the world,” but how many people actually get to do more than just see the world – get to live in different regions of the world and truly experience all that makes each country unique?

Following commissioning, I reported to flight school in Pensacola, Florida and started a very rewarding career as a helicopter pilot. My first fleet assignment was out of San Diego, California, where I completed two deployments flying the SH-60B Seahawk and enjoyed multiple port visits throughout Asia. It was these short visits that helped me discover that different cultures view various issues in slightly different ways, and I wanted to learn more. When I transferred to shore duty, I enrolled in University of San Diego’s (USD) Master of Science in Global Leadership (MSGL) program, where my desire to serve in foreign relations solidified. Shortly before graduating from USD, the message announcing the rebirth of the Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program was released, and I knew that I had found my new career path. I transferred to FAO in 2006, and haven’t looked back.

Following initial FAO training, I was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Singapore to serve in the Office of Defense Cooperation. It was there that I experienced first-hand one of the most valuable skills FAOs contribute: the ability to understand a situation from a partner nation’s point of view and to communicate that information in a way the Navy or DoD can understand. Most Americans evaluate situations through an American lens, and our partners do not always understand the American point of view enough to adequately explain their true concerns. FAOs provide that necessary link to translate these perceptions and influences to both sides to better inform decision-making, and surprisingly, this skill is necessary even when both countries speak English.

Now that I am working on the Navy Staff, my experiences while serving and living in Asia continue to shape how I prepare our senior leaders for international engagement. My ability to effectively communicate between cultures has helped me earn the trust of both DoD organizations as well as our international partners, and has built a strong base for my ongoing relationships with various navies in Asia. I also know that when I go back overseas, my time on this staff will enhance how I conduct engagements in-country, due to the greater appreciation I now have for the inner workings and objectives of higher headquarters. As the FAO community continues to mature, the experiences and relationships FAOs forge through cycling between overseas and staff duty will augment the Navy’s ability to adapt and respond to the myriad of challenges we will face in the future.

I am truly very fortunate to serve as a FAO in the U.S. Navy and look forward to many more unique opportunities in the years ahead!

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International Engagement through Navy Foreign Area Officers