“Duty, Honor, Country.” Many will recognize those words as the motto of the United States Military Academy. But they are also the credo that guides many of America’s greatest public servants. On Friday night, the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA) honored one such servant, former Chief of the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Cyber Command, General Keith B. Alexander. The William Oliver Baker Award is given every year by INSA, “distinguishing an extraordinary individual for their sustained commitment to excellence in intelligence and national security affairs.” Past awardees have included Leon Panetta, George Tenet, Charles Allen, Robert Gates, Gen. Michael Hayden, and Sen. Barry Goldwater.
The award ceremony highlighted Gen. Alexander’s life of service and leadership. Both in his own words and from the praise of his peers, the evening highlighted the virtues of a life in service to our nation. As the national security and intelligence industries fight for the next generation of talent – especially in tech – Gen. Alexander is a perfect example of what young people need to see: how to live a life of purpose.
internships allow young people to contribute to the Real-life mission
Though he graduated from West Point, served in the U.S. Army for over 40 years, led the NSA for an unprecedented eight years, was the first chief of U.S. Cyber Command, and has worked closely with U.S. Presidents, Gen. Alexander does not enter a room with bravado.
In a brief meeting with the press before the awards ceremony, the general at once went around and introduced himself to all the journalists, shaking their hands and inviting them into informal conversation. After fielding several questions about the current state of America’s cybersecurity and Chinese intellectual property theft, ClearanceJobs had the opportunity to ask him how America can recruit the next generation of public servants to protect America.
“You know, I loved working at NSA and Cyber Command because we got young people in as interns. It’s the most amazing thing if you can get them a clearance and they go solve problems.” The NSA has long been known for their exemplary recruiting of interns, entry-level talent, and skilled tech talent in general. Gen. Alexander credits this early participation with getting young people involved in the mission.
“They got introduced to things that they’d think, ‘Well, I got Top Secret [clearance] and I can’t tell my mom or my dad. But what we did was amazing. We saved the life of somebody or did the most amazing thing.’ And so the more we can intern with young folks and show them what they’re doing, help them understand the rules, the way that we approach these things, the integrity that we put into the process of all those things…I think that’s what we’ve gotta do with young folks coming in.”
Life is bigger than how much money you make
When asked why young people should choose a career in national security over a higher-paying job in the tech industry, he talked about his role in the rescue of American Jessica Buchanan, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2012.
“You’ll make more money – but life is not always about making money. There are higher purposes in life and there are things that you can do that are much better than money. I’ll tell you, we sat in and we helped on the Jessica Buchanan rescue. All the people that worked on it, knowing she got home safe, when they went home that night, they felt they did the right thing. You don’t get enough money for that. You can’t write a check for that.”
Gen. Alexander has passed this ethos down to his family. The father of four (and grandfather of 16) explained that one of his daughters is a social worker who helps abused children. She isn’t in it for the money, but for the mission it serves. “It’s a good thing to do. Our nation needs people like that.”
Duty, Honor, Country: Gen. MacArthur to Gen. Alexander
As he spoke on how to inspire the next generation to public service, Gen. Alexander recalled a speech given by General Douglas MacArthur upon accepting the Thayer Award at West Point in 1962. The famed general, too, repeated the school’s motto when encouraging America’s next generation of leaders.
“The motto, ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ – that’s what I see in our military and intelligence community. When I look out at the way our nation is going, it really makes me proud to know we can serve as examples for those young people coming up. To see what selfless service is about, what is good for the nation. You know, for 40 years I was in the army, but the fact is I loved the people, what we were doing, and the mission.”
“So for building out the ranks and enticing and encouraging young people to come in, that’s the story we have to tell. That’s what this is all about. Because life is short – knowing that you made a difference. After a while, you can make so much money and you say, ‘But what did you do with your life that you would say that was worth doing?’ I think that’s what we’ve gotta do with young folks coming in.”