As “Baby Shark” set the mood on the way to preschool, my 3 year old son innocently asked from the backseat one day, “What do mommy and daddy do for work?” The question puzzled me for a minute. How do you explain to your little one that you shape and pursue political initiatives to facilitate the sale of military equipment to other countries? So I just said, “Daddy is a doctor and mum is an arms dealer.”
Since arriving at the Pentagon over 15 years ago, I have struggled to explain – and sometimes to rationalize – my work.
Since arriving at the Pentagon over 15 years ago, I have struggled to explain – and sometimes to rationalize – my work, even to adults. My friends and family, not to mention my young children, feel like I’m some kind of secret agent – the female version of Jason Bourne! Christmas dinner conversations with my family of doctors, lawyers, and Wall Street guys always turn into jokes, “So you’re like a warlord?” “Can I buy you some weapons?”
The problem has only worsened in the past three years since my family left the comfort of the nation’s capital, where the notion of selling defense equipment to other countries is more easily understood by politicians. and the political activists who inhabit Washington. Here in San Diego, I constantly find myself trying to awkwardly explain my job to my neighbors, my children’s teachers, and other parents.
While it is true that I have been on the ground in countries in the midst of civil war and had access to classified information, the truth is much more mundane. Although I once had a secret transaction in a former Soviet republic, it revolved around … a breast pump.
When my firstborn was 4 months old, I led a Pentagon delegation to Ukraine in 2014 after the takeover of Crimea by Russian-backed insurgents. Our mission was to finalize the controversial transfer of hundreds of US military vehicles to help fight the invasion. The geopolitical stakes were high and our suite of active and retired military personnel was formidable.
While on an air connection to Eastern Europe, I discovered that my portable breast pump – which I had spent a small fortune on after frantic Google searches late at night – was not working. I hit the self-proclaimed “Breastmilk Pump Ferrari” on the Polish airport lounge floor in a futile attempt to extricate it. I was there, beaten by two battery-powered suction cups.
Desperate after several failed attempts, I timidly approached a male military colleague for help. As we tried to pry open the back of the pump with a butter knife, a steel-eyed Navy Admiral joined our efforts as others in the airport lounge watched with fun.
With the irreparably defective breast pump, I sent a desperate email to a senior US Embassy official in Kiev asking for help finding a replacement when I arrived.
Hours later and in excruciating pain, a male driver sent by the Embassy approached me without commenting and handed me a crumpled brown paper bag like we were actually in this bad novel thriller that so many people imagined my life to be. I opened the bag to reveal the secret contents: a manual breast pump – torture in the form of 1960s lactation technology.
I knew then that my aspirations to continue breastfeeding my son were disappointed. But as my firstborn grew up and my second arrived, not only did I become more pump-savvy, but I stayed engaged in the work I do.
My son’s question about my job was just the first in a series of questions I would face. Last year, I made my Zoom appearance in her first year class as a mystery reader – an opportunity for parents to be a surprise guest reader in the class. Once my identity was revealed, the teacher asked me to talk a bit about my work. Once again, I was lost.
As I tried to explain what I was doing, I could see the frowns and confused looks of the children – and the teacher – appearing on the Zoom screen. Tempted, although I was to go for the effective “arms dealer” response, I instead chose Dr. Seuss’ book that I had planned to read, “One vote, two votes, I vote.” , you vote, ”and I explained that I was working with the government officials described in the book.
“Arms dealer” could be a much simpler way of putting it. But it also lacks a lot of the big picture of what I’m doing. I am part of the national security apparatus – “the blob,” as some call it without affectivity in Washington. Now in the private sector, my role is to work with the U.S. government to facilitate the export of certain military systems to trusted partners and allies by helping my company navigate the political and regulatory constraints imposed to ensure that the he US defense industry is working for the good for the security of our nation.
These transactions remain essential to the pursuit of US national security objectives. As I wrote in a recent Defense News article, U.S. defense exports build capacity and confidence between countries, allow us to share the security burden with Allied armed forces, and ensure our mutual security. .
Defense exports can also serve as leverage for broader foreign or security policy objectives, such as gaining access to a certain region for U.S. forces, securing diplomatic victories, and signing bilateral security agreements. or multilateral. And these sales can help push back the Chinese and the Russians. These adversaries seek to gain a foothold in key countries through their own arms sales, which come with long-term training and other ties that build relationships that last for decades.
As I tried to explain what I was doing, I could see the frowns and confused looks of the children – and the teacher – appearing on the Zoom screen.
These abstract goals became very tangible when my husband, a US Navy medic, deployed. As his ship crossed the Pacific – crossing paths with Chinese forces – sailors and marines on board carried out exercises with partner forces. I was convinced that informal and formal security agreements, of which US defense exports are a key pillar, between the United States and countries in the region would ensure safe passage. And as his ship entered the Persian Gulf during growing tensions with Iran, I knew from my own experience that neighboring countries were ready to support the ship with equipment and training provided by the United States in the event of further aggressions from Iran.
So at the end of the day, I can’t wait to talk about my job and look forward to explaining more to my kids as they get older and better understand the intricacies of national security. Until then, Mom will remain an arms dealer.