“Everything that I did has helped me get to where I am today”
Everyone who has volunteered to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces has their own story – their motivation, if you will – for why they decide to join the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. It can be a job for some, a path to college for others and a patriotic duty for many. Still more will cite family tradition, that they are following a childhood dream, seek the ample opportunities for on-the-job training, or – even – their desire to see the world.
For Takiesha Waites-Thierry, it was all about getting out of her hometown: “I just felt trapped. I wondered, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I didn’t see a road out of Toledo, Ohio. I couldn’t picture it. So, in my senior year, I dropped out of college and joined the Navy.”
She didn’t come from a military family and remembers assuring her mom, “We haven’t been in a real war since the Gulf War in 1991. Nothing is going to happen.” Several months later, she left for boot camp. A month after that, America – and the world – woke on a Tuesday morning to the unfathomable horror that was 9/11, and Osama bin Laden became a household name.
The irony of that – all these years later – isn’t lost on Takiesha.
The Path to a Career
The first time I spoke with Takiesha, she was finishing up a two-year Joint Duty Assignment. She was on loan to the Navy, from the Coast Guard, and working at NCIS. Today, she is a Senior Vice President at Bank of America and manages the US Intelligence and Analysis team within Global Corporate Security. How did she get there? It’s an interesting story and everything she did in the military played a pivotal role.
Back in 2001, when she was sitting with her Navy recruiter, Takiesha told him she wanted to work in photography or journalism. “I have no idea why,” she’ll tell you now, “it just sounded cool. I’m serious. I had no rhyme or reason behind any decisions I was making.” But, back then, there was a long wait for those jobs. After hearing she had majored in Political Science and minored in Criminal Justice, the recruiter offered her other options. “I was 20 years old,” she explains, “and the only question I asked was, ‘Where are the schools?’” He replied – Texas and Virginia Beach. “I said, ‘Ooo, Virginia Beach. Yeah, that sounds cool. I’ll take Virginia Beach.”
“So, that’s how I picked – I mean NO method,” Takiesha says with a laugh, adding, “I would never make a decision today like I made that one 17 years ago!”
The job? Intelligence Specialist. It was a gamble, she admits, because she wasn’t completely sure what she had signed up to do. Now, she calls it: “The best uninformed decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
To hear Takiesha tell the story, she had always been interested in what was going on in the world. She was a student of history. She watched the news and read articles – but the concerns then were about gangs and Colombian drug lords. She had never heard anything about Al Qaeda until 9/11. Her challenge in Intelligence school was that she had never thought of threats before – and, growing up in a small midwestern town, she certainly wasn’t familiar with the way Al Qaeda operated. “It was difficult to change my thought process into, wow, there are really people who hate America. So, I had to change my perspective.”
Takiesha’s Intelligence career spans more than 15 years. That includes active duty, her time as a defense contractor for Coast Guard Intelligence, and her work as a government civilian with the Coast Guard Counterintelligence Service. She also spent time in a CENTCOM Reserve unit that worked to counter terrorist organizations that financed their activities by selling drugs.
What was it that gave her the thrill and passion to continue pursuing that career path?
“Because every day I came to work – no two days were the same. And, still to this day, when I walk into Bank of America, no two days look the same,” she’ll tell you. Whether it was imagery, operational intelligence, counterintelligence, or signals, she says the military provided so many choices and options, it was possible to do anything – and everything. “That’s what I love about it. Every time I walked into an assignment, it was different. And it has been different throughout my career.”
Advances for Women in the Military
One of Takiesha’s first assignments was aboard the USS Ronald Reagan – the newest aircraft carrier in the Navy’s fleet and the first ship specifically built with a female crew in mind. “That’s what we always heard, ‘This ship was made to have 50 percent female crew.’ Which I thought, wow, its 2001, how did you not have this many women around here to begin with – but they just didn’t. I was in at a time when there were still some salty guys who didn’t think women should be on those ships.”
While military history credits women with serving on the battlefield, along with men, in both the American Revolution and the Civil War (sometimes disguised as men to do so), they’ve only formally been part of the armed forces since the inception of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901. It took a few more decades for the U.S. Congress to finally act, in 1948, to make women a permanent part of the military. Then, it was only after the move to an All-Volunteer Force in 1973 that women saw any increased job opportunities when choosing a military career. These days, more and more women are serving in the armed forces, but they are still a minority, making up less than 17 percent of all current active duty personnel and about 10 percent of America’s military veterans.
Since 9/11, it’s estimated that women have represented more than 11 percent of the forces that deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, since 2010, advances for military women have included: the Navy approving women officers to serve onboard submarines; the graduation of women from the Army’s Ranger School, the first woman promoted to four-star admiral in the Navy – Admiral Michelle Howard, who is also credited with many other historical firsts during her military career; and the Defense Department lifting its ban on women serving in front-line combat roles.
Back when Takiesha served on the USS Ronald Reagan, she was a shipboard Intelligence Specialist. Later, as a civilian for the Coast Guard, she worked in counterintelligence – a field that was dominated by men. She found, then, that most of the analysts were women, but most of the actual field agents and operators on the ground were men.
“I was lucky to start as an analyst and transition to agent,” she says, sharing that – still – there were times she was mistaken as admin personnel or someone’s assistant. “People kind of never expected me to show up as the case agent.” At the time, the unit, itself, was less than 10 percent female. “For a while, we only had three women agents and I was the only black woman. There was also one black man. We never had more than six female agents at once.”
Takiesha’s career with the Coast Guard was significantly longer (10 years) than the time she served in the Navy, offering her a unique and lasting perspective: “I was always impressed that the Coast Guard, being such a small organization, was so diverse in its active duty ranks. I think it has more female flag officers, percentage-wise, than any other of the services.”
More recently, while on loan to NCIS from the Coast Guard (2015-2018), she observed a noticeable increase in the number of women now working in operational intelligence units. “Those opportunities – to be on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq – didn’t really exist in the early 2000s. So, to see how women are being deployed in the same frequency that men are being deployed, I think that’s good – I really do.”
Every Decision Played a Role
Takiesha was a Petty Officer in the Navy when her ship’s Intelligence Officer suggested that she should apply for Officer Candidate School (OCS). Her reply, at the time, was “Ma’am, I would rather be a seaman any day, before I’m an Ensign.” She explains that decision, today, saying she had noticed early in her career that those who were enlisted “had their hands in it and were really becoming the subject matter experts.” Sure, she admits, they were working 10-times harder – but her focus was always on the intelligence work she was doing.
“I loved the fact that I was enlisted. That’s how I got here. That’s how I got to the seat that I’m sitting in today – because I got to actually do the work, instead of looking at it from afar.”
Toward the end of our conversation, Takiesha shared a recent discussion she had with her friend, who is also a female veteran and served in the Marine Corps. They both started new jobs in the civilian workforce on the same day in January. Her friend works at Google.
“She asked me, ‘Do you wish you would’ve left government faster?’ And I answered, ‘I thought about that – but, no – because, had I found the job any sooner than I did, I wouldn’t have been ready.” Takiesha stressed, “Every single day I went to work before January 22 prepared me for January 22. Everything that I did has helped me get to where I am today.”
Kathleen Saal, Hire Heroes USA Marketing & Communications Manager