“The most important lesson I have learned is to be fearless"
Interview by Alessandra Zocca
Jessica DeJesus, Programme Security Officer at NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Management Agency (NAGSMA) and Major, United States Marine Corps Reserve Exercise Support Operations Officer at Headquarters Marine Corps C4 (Command, Control, Communications, Computers).
PWI – Jessica, I was interested in your profile because of the variety of positions you have covered and for the interesting mix of military, communication, project management and security skills. Would you like to tell me more about your current job?
I’m the Programme Security Officer for the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance Management Agency. Our agency is in charge of the acquisition of unmanned surveillance aircraft for NATO. As the Agency security officer, I am in charge of the information, industrial, and personal security.
My main tasks are to develop security instructions between the contractor and the nations who are participating in the program, ensure our staff members and participating industries have the proper security clearances, and ensure that our participating industries adhere to NATO security standards.
PWI – How has your career evolved and in which countries? Which has been your favourite country to live in and why? By the way, where are you from?
I spent half of my childhood in a small town called Guayama in the island of Puerto Rico. I spent my high school years in Rochester, NY where my parents and my immediate family live. I grew up in a bilingual and bicultural home because we’re very Latino and very American at the same time. I have two mother tongues: Spanish and English.
Jessica’s first platoon in Okinawa (Japan) in 2003.
My first post overseas was Okinawa, Japan in 2003, which I have very fond memories because it was my first duty as a Platoon Commander, I was 24 years old and in charge of 50 Marines. We got to travel to Thailand and Australia to do multi-national training exercises. I had great colleagues who I still keep in touch with. One of my favorite experiences.
Since then, I’ve worked at Quantico, Virginia in 2004, then I did a combat tour in Baghdad, Iraq in 2005. After my deployment, I returned to the US but shortly thereafter I went to Seoul, South Korea for 6 months and then left active duty military service in August 2006 to pursue my master’s degree in Brussels. I continued my military service as a reserve officer where I have done shorter duties throughout the world to include Senegal, South Korea, Thailand, Chile, Hawaii, and Dominican Republic. After I finished my Master’s in Business Administration from Boston University, I returned to military duty for a year to work in Stuttgart Germany in 2008.
I can’t pick favorites since all the experiences have given me so much! I did enjoy my time in Okinawa very much. I loved my job and the Marines I served with. I also have fond memories of Senegal as we did a humanitarian mission there and found it very rewarding. Now I have been in Brussels for 5 years and I am very happy with my life here. It’s very hard to choose!
PWI - Do you think having such a wide variety of jobs has helped your career? In what way? If a young woman asked your advice would you recommend to her that she have a wide variety of jobs, or would you advise her to specialise?
In the military sometimes we get stuck doing jobs out of our specialty because of the “needs” of the Marine Corps. I think it is a positive to go out of your comfort zone because when you see the big picture everything is interconnected.
My specialty in the military was telecommunications but by doing jobs as an executive officer and an analyst I got to see how our projects support the bigger picture. Now I am working in security which is also expanding my knowledge base. Given my experiences, I believe that expanding is the best choice, it gives more options and it also expands your network.
I currently have two jobs: my civilian job at NATO but I also serve 45-60 days a year in the Marine Corps Reserve. This is quite challenging because I still have to adhere to the Marine Corps training standards which means I have to keep current with my military job although I do not perform it every day as I used to.
Group of Marines Jessica was in charge of in Accra (Ghana) for a training exercise in 2010
PWI – What are the most important lessons you have learned in your professional life? What have you learned from the different cultures you have encountered? What has been the biggest surprise you have had from all your encounters with these cultures?
The most important lesson I have learned is to be fearless. The worst thing that someone can tell you is no, so don’t be afraid to make questions. To be diplomatic, to learn how to pick your battles.
When I was younger, I was not very good at this. Now that I am older, I don’t let my emotions take over so quickly and give myself time to put forth a sound argument.
What I have learned from working with different cultures is that we are not as different as we think we are. It is amazing how many similarities I have seen between my colleagues from other countries and cultures. It’s essential to come in with an open mind. That has been the biggest surprise.
PWI – What inspired you to take up a military career? I have always been fascinated by people that put their life at risk for their ideals and for the benefit and the security of other people.
After the first year of college, I wasn’t feeling very challenged with my university studies and decided to join the Marine Corps at the age of 18. Once I became a Marine, a lot of things came into perspective, I took more challenging courses at the university, and I set goals for what I wanted in life. I became inspired to become an officer when I saw the lack of Latinos and women in the leadership positions. I believe I had what it took to lead young men and women from all races and walks of life and that in a way they can see themselves in me.
When I became an officer, it amazed me to know that the life of men and women who had voluntarily chosen to serve our country was in my charge and how awesome of a responsibility that is. As a military officer, we are not politicians. It is a challenge sometimes when people criticize what we do without knowing about the oath we take and how we serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.
PWI –Based on your experience have you noticed differences between female and male leadership? Do women contribute with extra or different qualities/skills in the military profession?
In my opinion, leadership is very personality driven. To be honest, I don’t see much of a difference in the Marine Corps between men and women. I think instead of men vs women I see it as people. I worked as the executive officer for a woman who is a two star general. She just had a different personality than her male predecessor but I felt the difference was not gender related but their individual personalities. I have also been very fortunate to have great relationships with other female Marines. We always support each other and maintain a good network.
I also think the current wars have been a defining moment for women in the military. It has proven that women can do as much as men and that every job in the field matters in order to get the mission accomplished.
Military life must affect family life – do you think the families of male and female soldiers are affected in the same way? How can military women balance their profession with their family/children?
I am single with no children, but from seeing my friends and their experiences it can be difficult from both sides. From my experience, I see that men have it a little easier as they can more easily find a spouse who is willing to stay home with the children and move frequently. As a single woman, it is difficult to meet a man who understands the responsibilities of being a Marine. I was married for three years to a civilian engineer and it was challenging for him to understand my duties. We started our divorce proceedings when I was in Iraq. It was a difficult experience. Every situation is unique. I have seen many of my female colleagues make it work with children and marriage as well.
Beside your job, I see you have a lot of interests. For ex. you are the Vice President of Membership for the Brussels Toastmasters club, why does this interest and what does your role consist of?
I believe that my life not only revolves around my job and I like to have activities beyond my work.
I enjoy Toastmasters because I learn new things every time I go to a meeting. Being the VP of membership also allows me to interact with people who want to join the club and inform them about what we have to offer.
I also write a blog, Adventures of a Puertorican Girl in Brussels (www.puertoriquenainbrussels.com)
about my experiences living in Brussels and my travels throughout. I love to run and I have been participating in marathons and other races throughout Europe. I recently ran the Madrid Marathon. Finally, I enjoy baking and make cupcakes and cakes for my friends and acquaintances (www.truelovecupcakesbrussels.com
). Just as in my professional life, my personal life is very diverse as well.
PWI – Anything else, Jessica, that you would like to tell me about you?
Many people see my lifestyle and they say how “lucky” I am. My lifestyle has not been luck but making decisions, some of them risky to have what I want in life. I have made both good and bad choices, but even with the bad, I have learned from my experiences and even at times they have opened the door to bigger things. So I just tell people that “I’m not lucky but resourceful”.
Jessica DeJesus was born in Rochester, NY but was raised in Guayama, Puerto Rico until the age of 14.
She graduated from East High School in Rochester, NY and earned her Bachelor of Arts from the State University of New York at Albany in 2000.
She joined the US Marine Corps Reserve in 1997 and accepted her commission to Second Lieutenant on active duty January 2001. She graduated from the Marine Corps Communication and Information Systems Officer Course in 2002 and has served in various roles in the telecommunications community in Okinawa, Japan, Quantico, Virginia, Baghdad, Iraq, and Seoul, South Korea.
She left active duty in 2006 where she continued her military duties as a reserve officer while earning her Masters of Science in Business Administration and Management from Boston University. Her reserve duties brought her to Thailand, Korea, Senegal, Hawaii, and Germany as an Exercise Support Telecommunication Officer.
Upon earning her Masters in 2008, she returned to active duty and served in Stuttgart, Germany.
Upon completion of her active duty service in 2009, she subsequently began her current civilian role as the Programme Security Officer at NAGSMA and serves as a reserve Major in the US Marine Corps Reserves, supporting military exercises worldwide. She currently lives in Brussels, Belgium.
Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NAGSMA, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.