From the Fall 2016 edition | Back
By Christopher J. Almont ’91, senior executive service
On Aug. 30, 1987, I traveled from Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, to Blacksburg, Virginia, to join my Charlie Corps buds for cadre week with the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. I enrolled in Air Force ROTC, but had no illusions of being a pilot. I could barely see past the nose on my face. I was majoring in international studies, which set me apart — this was Virginia Tech, after all.
I remember being braced up in the hallway in Brodie as Cadet 1st Sgt. David Sikora ’89 asked us our majors.
“Mechanical engineering, cadet first sergeant!”
“Aerospace engineering, cadet first sergeant!”
“Physics, cadet first sergeant!”
“International studies, cadet first sergeant!”
If I had grown an extra eye, I couldn’t have seemed stranger. With that major and no chance to fly, it was probably inevitable I ended up in intelligence. This was fine with me because not only did the career suit the major, it was the support field closest to operations.
When I arrived at Virginia Tech, Ronald Reagan was president, and the Cold War was still very much a thing. None of us had any reason to believe the Soviets would soon be a memory. While the Soviet Union’s fall was a good thing, it kind of upset my plans to be commissioned, get assigned to Europe, and ski the Alps while we all waited for the Soviet Bear to come through the Fulda Gap.
Instead, my life took an unexpected turn when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. The response, Operation Desert Storm, for better or worse, signaled a 25-year U.S. involvement in the Middle East. I watched the war on TV in Blacksburg in the last semester of my senior year. That summer, I sat on my couch watching as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was outlawed. In December, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. Suddenly all of us embarking into the profession of arms (and quite a few who had already devoted much of their lives to it) were left to wonder, what now? I had no idea then that Kuwait’s liberation charted the course of my career.
Christopher Almont before his fifth and final F-16 ride at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in August 1996.
In March 1992, I reported to intelligence officer training at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. Because I’d grown up outside Philadelphia in the heart of the largest urban concentration in the world, San Angelo seemed like another planet. It sits 90 minutes south of Abilene, down an asphalt ribbon running through the West Texas desert, and the only man-made things for miles were the road and the power lines overhead.
Turns out, it wouldn’t be the last desert I’d see in my career.
At Goodfellow, I learned of the 609th Tactical Intelligence Squadron, U.S. Central Air Forces, or CENTAF
(now AFCENT), the air component of CENTCOM. The Middle East was shaping up to be a growth industry in national security, so upon graduation from Goodfellow in September 1992, I set off for Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina. I had no idea that I’d specialize in Middle Eastern defense and security for the next 24 years (and counting).
Operation Desert Storm was 18 months in the rearview mirror, and most of the vets from that conflict had or were moving on, but Saddam remained. I arrived at the start of Operation Southern Watch, the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.
Nominally, Southern Watch protected the Shia in the south from the Iraqi air force. In reality, we were there to remind Saddam that if he went back to his old ways, the airpower that had pounded his army into powder was just over the horizon.
When I arrived, I distinctly remember being told to expect the operation to end when the Clinton administration took office in January 1993. But Southern Watch became the focal point of my life until I left Shaw in 1996, and the operation itself did not officially end until 2003.
While at Shaw, I deployed for Southern Watch three times: twice to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, while with the Air Intelligence Squadron, and once to Bahrain with the 78th Fighter Squadron. Riyadh was good to me. I learned a lot there, became a command briefer — a skill that’s carried me through my entire career — and, oh, yeah, met my wife, Darlene, in the Eskan Village chow hall in April 1993. She deployed there from Misawa Air Base, Japan, and served with me in the J2. We didn’t date until she got a permanent change of station to Shaw, but we’ve been together ever since. How many couples will get to tell their grandchildren that they met in Riyadh?
Around 1996 we decided two Air Force officers in the same career field was getting untenable. We had already done several successive deployments (we called it “passing each other on the tarmac”) and decided it was time to move on.
Before I left, I managed to squeeze in some unique experiences. The gold souk and “The Edge of the World” in Riyadh, Petra, and the Dead Sea in Jordan (think the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”). A day on the USS Nimitz in the Persian Gulf complete with a catapult launch. Five rides in the back of an F-16 while serving in the 78th (and I only got sick twice!).
I also deployed with the 78th to Shaykh Isa Air Base in Bahrain in October 1995. This was the test deployment for the Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) concept. The mission was to deploy from bases in the U.S. to a bare-bones airfield, set up operations, and be flying over the objective, in this case southern Iraq, in 36 hours. We did it in 30.
We lived in tents and operated out of a rickety shack on the edge of the flight line. While there, I worked side-by-side with the pilots planning missions over hostile territory. It was the model for every subsequent AEF deployment since, and it was great to be a part of it.
In September 1996, fresh out of the Air Force, we left for Washington, D.C. After nine months full-time in grad school, we decided it was time for a child — and raising children takes money — so I re-entered the workforce as a contractor for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. While scripting modeling scenarios was interesting for a time, I knew it wasn’t something I could do forever. When I found a vacancy for an Iran air defense analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, I made the move back into the federal workforce, this time as a civilian.
Before long, I added Iran’s air forces to my portfolio. From there, I became a senior forces analyst, covering all services, and then I was promoted to GS-15 and became the senior analyst for all Iran issues. The work we did supported policymakers, decision-makers, planners, and warfighters.
In 2009, I even had one more chance to deploy, this time to Baghdad as the senior intelligence officer at the headquarters intelligence staff under Gen. Raymond T. Odierno. Fortunately, violence was on the wane by then, and we thought we were setting Iraq up for a peaceful transition to self-rule. Sadly, things haven’t turned out that way.
After serving as the senior Iran analyst, I became the deputy defense intelligence officer for the Middle East, branching out to cover the entire region. The challenge in that job was the breadth of issues. I had to be equally well-versed in military issues and geopolitics. One day I could be leading a group of analysts briefing a policymaker on stability in Yemen, and the next day I could be playing an Iranian general in an exercise.
I had very similar experiences during a rotation to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) as deputy national intelligence officer for military issues. The NIC is the focal point for intelligence community analysis and directly supports the National Security Council, among other “customers.” Here, too, the challenge was the breadth of the issues. For six weeks in 2010, I briefed congressional committees and members on funding to Lebanon’s armed forces while overseeing the publication of a national intelligence estimate on the war in Iraq, then turned to publishing on threats to Israel. While the lack of consistent focus was challenging, constantly mastering new issues was part of the fun.
The Defense Intelligence Agency promoted me to the senior executive service ranks in January 2014, as senior expert for Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. I advise the agency’s director on those issues and represent the agency to the intelligence community, policymakers, and commanders. I’ve also transitioned from a working analyst to a mentor and leader.
It’s rare that I write a product myself anymore. Instead, I help others form their ideas, provide historical context (many of these kids weren’t even born when Saddam invaded Kuwait), all while teaching them how best to function in their profession.
My time in the intelligence community, military and civilian, has given me the chance to do things I never would have otherwise. I’ve been to 25 countries — many several times over — including Australia, Europe, and most of the Middle East. I regularly work in buildings most people only hear about on the news, such as the Pentagon, the Capitol, and even the White House Situation Room. And I’ve gotten to meet and hopefully influence some of the most important decision-makers in national security.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t express just how important Virginia Tech and the Corps of Cadets have been to achieving what I have. In my assessments and analysis, I have always drawn on the lessons I learned as a student. But unlike those days in the halls of Brodie Hall, where I was the only one not studying engineering, at work I’m surrounded by colleagues with the same educational background. The Corps of Cadets sets me apart from almost all my colleagues, who were never immersed in a rigorous program that instilled discipline, leadership, and the “That I May Serve” ethic in its members.