The girl next door … in a gas mask
Tami Stukey ’83 is typical of a lot of modern career women. She works hard, but she also has a busy social life going to concerts, sampling the nightlife and hanging out with friends around Washington, D.C., where she lives. In her off-hours, she favors outdoor activities such as rollerblading, sailing and hiking.
Normal stuff. Tami’s like anyone else–except for her job. This girl-next-door with the elfin face and quick wit has never served in the military, yet somehow she has risen to the position of senior defense analyst specializing in arms control and counter proliferation for the U.S. Air Force. Her days are spent interacting with Middle Eastern military officials, the staff of the U.S. secretary of defense and authorities such as Ken Alibek, a former scientist in the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program. Alibek achieved notoriety with his 1999 book Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World Told from the Inside by the Man Who Ran It.
This is the story of how a free-speaking Democrat from Montana took a circuitous route from Puget Sound to the colorless halls of the Pentagon. It begs the question: How did a nice person like you wind up in a place like this?
As told to Brenda Pittsley
It was 1983. I had a double major in political science and public administration from Puget Sound. Right after graduation I went to Alaska to live in a Native fishing village in the Aleutians. Population 600. There were 7-1/2 miles of unpaved road, if you count the runway. I was an alcohol and drug abuse specialist there for 2-1/2 years.
After 18 months of traveling in Europe and North Africa, and getting a master’s in international relations at Drew University, my next move was back to Montana. I took a year off to help my sister, who had cancer. After she went into long-term remission, I went on to get an ABD (All But the Dissertation) in political science with an emphasis on international economy from Columbia University.
That brings us to 1993. I got married, moved to Washington, D.C. and discovered that I couldn’t get a job. I had no contacts and very little job experience. I’d been a student and a traveler, but I hadn’t done much that you could put in a résumé. Plus, the experience that I did have was in social work, and I was looking for work in my field, which was political science.
Eventually I got a job as a research assistant at a trade association that advocates for people with disabilities. That was a great job. I worked on grant projects with a goal of making vocational rehabilitation more effective for minorities, people with HIV and others. I’d been there two years and been promoted to associate director of research when a friend called about a new company, Defense Forecasting International (DFI).
DFI is a for-profit company that contracts with the government and private companies. One of my first projects for DFI was a study on what the U.S. can do to help countries’ transition into stable democracies following a peace operation. We studied past conflicts to see how lessons learned in those countries might apply to Bosnia and Serbia. On other projects I looked at European attitudes toward missile defense and worked with the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which helps former Soviet states destroy their nuclear weapons in a sage manner.
After two years I left DFI to join a company called Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), another defense contractor, this one with more than 35,000 employees. Now my focus is on Air Force contracts.
To do my work, I conduct research on the Internet and in the library. I also organize a lot of workshops to solicit expert opinion and conduct interviews, mostly on the phone. And I travel. I’m going to Korea next week. Last year I spent one week living in a tent city on a military base in Kuwait. That trip was part of a study that led the Air Force to look closely at ways it can both survive and operate in a contaminated environment. We showed that smart procedures would allow the U.S. to carry out a military campaign in the face of a biological or chemical weapons attack.
I was promoted to senior analyst for SAIC last winter, and won an award for the contamination study, but I don’t fit the mold of many of the people in our company. They tend to be two types: younger academics and older retired military personnel. Mostly male.
It’s hard to get legitimacy if you’re not from the military, since so much of what we do is related to military operations. Winning that legitimacy is an ongoing struggle, but being promoted was a nice ‘win’ because it showed that my company recognizes the skills I bring, which are different from my co-workers, but still useful to the field: Since I don’t have the same preconceived notions, I can ask questions and push some different thinking.
The longer I’m in the field, the more I understand the culture, and–most important–the more knowledgeable I become on counter nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
I’ve had the opportunity to work on some fairly high-profile projects that will make a difference. When co-workers associate me with those projects, it provides credibility. But some of their respect also comes from my going to bases and seeing what it’s like there. I’ve observed real operations and even got to see what it’s like to be under attack with nerve gas, both with a protective mask and without.
Even more than my age, gender, and political inclinations, what sets me apart is the fact that I come from more of a pure academic background. It’s both an advantage and disadvantage. My co-workers have technical backgrounds and can assess things through an operational lens, whereas my strength is in theory. When you add my ability to analyze and prove theories with my colleagues’ operational knowledge, it can be a powerful combination.