John Neil, with wife Ellie, contributes much of his success to the support of family, mentors and colleagues. He retired from the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command with 32 years of federal service and he has just been named the director of foreign military sales for Sigmatech.
John Neil, with wife Ellie, contributes much of his success to the support of family, mentors and colleagues. He retired from the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command with 32 years of federal service and he has just been named the director of foreign military sales for Sigmatech. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. – Where in the world would you go to find a salt-of-the-earth, Pennsylvania country boy sitting across from a Jordanian colonel eating goat and rice with his fingers?

Not far at all, according to recently retired, federal employee John Neil.

Neil retired from the Security Assistance Command’s New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, headquarters with 32 years of federal service in June. But it’s not the length of service that sticks out in his mind. It’s the extraordinary cultural experiences that will last him a lifetime.

“I’ve toasted good health to my mother’s mother and my father’s father with a Taiwanese general. I’ve told a Korean general through an interpreter that our 1/3 scale Hawk missile target would definitely float if shot down, but would definitely not float indefinitely,” he said.

Moments like these became all part of a day’s work for Neil. But they were worlds away from where he imagined his career taking him, and further still from his humble beginnings.

“In 1989 when I entered federal service through the AMC intern program in Texarkana, Texas, I can remember looking at the GS pay scale and thinking, ‘man, if I can just make a GS-11, I’ll have it made and I’ll make more money than anybody ever did in my family.’ Well, this hillbilly has done all right,” he said.

Neil was born in rural Western Pennsylvania in 1965 to a hardworking middle-class family. He and his siblings were raised by their father – a state policeman – and mother, who was “a hustler … always finding ways to make money through antiques, jewelry and other endeavors. We were solid middle class, although we didn’t know it,” he said. “We were given nothing without working for it.”

Growing up, he helped on his grandparents’ farm, hunted and fished.

“College wasn’t on my radar until the Shippensburg University wrestling coach called me up and offered me a work/study job to help offset the cost of tuition,” he said.

Neil earned a bachelor’s in public administration and went on to grad school, where he met a Letterkenny Army Depot employee, who told him about the Army Materiel Command intern program.

He applied and was hired. Neil completed a nine-month internship at the AMC School of Engineering and Logistics at Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, and the remaining 32 years of service were spent supporting Army foreign military sales in one capacity or another.

Twenty of those years were spent at USASAC as a country program manager, a CPM forward for EUCOM in Germany, a Lean Six Sigma deployment director, and on deployment to Kuwait as part of the Responsible Reset Task Force. His most recent job at USASAC was as the director of Performance and Process Management for the last 10 years.

He attributes working at all levels of the security assistance/FMS enterprise to his career success, but the one job he credits for making him a subject matter expert in all of USASAC’s complex FMS processes was his position as LSS deployment director.

“In the late 2000s we did over 35 LSS Rapid Improvement Events in about a two-year period,” he said. “These deep dives into all of our key processes gave me a great foundation for my final job at USASAC.”

As the P2MO, Neil was the go-to guy when it came to ensuring managers and ASAE senior leaders had an understanding of the business, and the ability to track the development and execution of foreign military sales cases. He said his greatest accomplishment was giving “the Army security assistance enterprise the ability to see ourselves better and to better hold ourselves accountable to the promises we’ve made to our foreign partners. Our Common Operating Picture has made us the gold standard among services in the execution of our mission.”

While enjoying decades of unique experiences and making a difference in the mission, Neil never lost sight of its critical implications.

John Neil (right) at a South Korean firing range, circa 1996.
John Neil (right) at a South Korean firing range, circa 1996. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL
“You can watch the world news one night, and be working on a related FMS sales case the next day to address real world problems,” he said. “Our mission has significant influence on our National Security Strategy and on our partner nations’ security. We build partner capacity so nations can take care of their own problems, and also support the U.S. as we execute our national security objectives.”

Those objectives are a life-or-death matter.

“The one thing I have learned about security assistance that I wish the rest of the world knew is that our programs help to save the lives of our Soldiers,” Neil said. “If countries can take care of their own security or help us with our security objectives, then we don’t have to put our Soldiers in harm’s way.”

And while doing his part to improve national security, he has also improved personally.

“I think I have evolved quite a bit throughout my career,” he said. “I’ve learned leadership is a burden and not a privilege.

“You accomplish nothing without the people that work for you and support you,” he said. “Growing and mentoring those behind you, and providing them the skills they need to be successful, is the single most important thing you can do as a manager in the federal government.”

Dave Nicola was a recipient of Neil’s mentorship and described his former supervisor as a “one-of-a-kind maverick and force of nature.

“John would have a vision and blaze a trail to achieve it,” explained Nicola. “He knew the ins and outs of all of the USASAC organizations. He’ll be missed for his charisma and breadth of knowledge.”

As the only other GS-15 at USASAC’s New Cumberland headquarters, G4 Mike Casciaro described Neil as an extremely reliable and trustworthy battle buddy.

“He cared about the entire workforce, loved them, that was his big thing, always taking care of people, and they loved him too,” said Casciaro.

“He believed in the USASAC mission. It was his primary purpose, and he was like a foreman on an assembly line for FMS, making sure we could see ourselves, understand and fix anything within the process. The people who worked for him were the main cogs in the wheel, and so John put all of his trust and confidence in them. He made sure they were taken care of first, he made sure they were appreciated and he knew how to communicate with them. He was very good at communicating with people.”

With decades of service under his belt, Neil said he now has a more pragmatic approach to life. “Control the things you can and learn to let the other things go. You cannot control everything. Everybody has roles to play. Play your role to the best of your ability.”

His USASAC career has come to a close, and Neil has earned his share of awards and accolades. But they were not his alone.

“I have always been fortunate to have great mentors and great teammates around me,” Neil said. “I credit all of my success to my mentors and teammates that worked with me, and for me.”

John's wife Ellie with their two sons, Jacob and Ryan,  in Germany, circa 2001.
John's wife Ellie with their two sons, Jacob and Ryan, in Germany, circa 2001. (Photo Credit: Courtesy photo) VIEW ORIGINAL

He especially credits his family for his career success, noting that wife Ellie and sons, Jacob and Ryan, never wavered in their support for him. “Without that home support, I would not be where I am today. Ellie gave up her own career aspirations to support me in my career and to raise our family. She is our rock.

“Security assistance requires a lot of travel and being away from home, so I’ve missed many birthdays, holidays and anniversaries because of mission required travel. We’ve also moved six times to support my career advancement,” said Neil, who has lived in New Jersey, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, Germany and Pennsylvania.

Neil said now, after a brief six weeks of retirement, he is looking forward to the next chapter of his life. He has just been named the Director of FMS for Sigmatech where he will focus on developing and providing logistics support programs in support of FMS.

Maybe one day, said Neil, “I’ll retire for real, and hone my wine making, brewing and distilling skills.”

Until then, to friends, family and USASAC colleagues, he says “I’ve worked security assistance my whole career and I have loved every minute of it. We have an awesome mission and we do make a difference. Not a lot of people can say they have jobs like we have.

"Treasure every minute, and do your very best at all times for yourself, and for our partner nations," he said. "The time goes much too quickly.”