Akin to the contemporary poet Aubrey Graham, Curtis Thomas started from the bottom, now he’s here – as the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Acting Chief, Africa and the Americas Division in Washington, D.C.
In this position, he supervises a team singularly responsible for all Title 22 activities, as well as the integration of Title 10 and 22 activities, for the Department of Defense across Africa, as well as North and South America.
His rise from green graduate student to security assistance and cooperation savant started with a question about a peer’s signature block in her email. He noticed she worked for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command’s Security Assistance and Management Directorate and being interested in landing a job as a civil servant himself, asked to learn more.
“She was kind enough to sit down and explain the program and how to go about applying,” he recounted. “So that’s how I started off - as a Student Working for the Army in Parallel (SWAP). They take high performing students and place them in entry-level contract positions across the Army. It worked out well for both the Army and for my personal life, so I was permanently hired at AMCOM-SAMD as an intern.”
Thomas hit the ground running in the security assistance enterprise working on early iterations of the Taiwan Patriot program before transitioning to the Saudi Arabia and Japan Patriot programs.
He said he “cut (his) teeth” on foreign military sales cases during these initial years. From learning to prepare case notes and understanding how FMS cases are built and reviewed, to acquisition and financial management, SAMD provided the foundation of what has become a stellar career in the security assistance enterprise.
“My boss at the time was very big on cross-training; she wanted you to know as much as you could learn,” he said. “I was heavy into the logistics side, and she offered me the opportunity to work on the financial aspect, and she’d transition me off logistics responsibilities, but I told her I could handle both.”
Support and mentorship, mixed with continuous curiosity, allowed Thomas to prove himself as competent and worthy of positions with more responsibility. He thrived juggling the logistics, acquisition, case management, and finance sides of the FMS equation and soon after, Master of Business Administration in hand, began his rise in the civil service general schedule ranks.
Three years after he got his start at SAMD, Thomas made a move to the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command as a Country Program Manager (CPM) for Egypt. He started off working Air Defense cases, but by the end of the first year he had added Egypt’s Border Guard, Aviation, Signal, and TOW Missile programs to his realm of responsibility. He then transitioned to Saudi Arabia as the Lead CPM, a country he was already familiar with due to his experience with their PATRIOT program.
Formal education and on-the-job experiences and challenges were not the only sources of development Thomas sought. The Army provides civilians with an array of opportunities to develop as a professional and as a leader, and he took advantage of these through the Army Security Assistance Enterprise (ASAE) Rotational Assignment Program (RAP) and other competitive developmental assignments.
“In 2016, I came to (the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Defense Exports and Cooperation) on a RAP as a policy and procedure specialist,” he said. “I got to work on all kinds of Headquarters Department of the Army policy issues, which was completely out of my case management comfort zone, but was a great experience.”
After adding yet another component of the ASAE to his toolbelt, Thomas returned to USASAC as a CPM before volunteering to go to Kuwait and Iraq for seven months, dual-hatted as the command’s senior representative to Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command.
“It was really an interesting experience. Instead of seeing a case from the writing standpoint or the perspective of the developer and the person who responds to an FMS requirement, I got to see it from the side of the actual requirement owner and war planner.”
His time overseas allowed him to see the real-world implications of a successfully executed case versus a case that was hindered for one reason or another, and it also gave him a deeper appreciation for those who deploy and miss out on important family and life events.
After seven years with USASAC, Thomas decided it was again time to seek more responsibility. He expanded the scope of his security assistance and cooperation pursuits by landing the Country Portfolio Director for Saudi Arabia position at DSCA.
“In comparison to my time as a CPM at USASAC, the scope was definitely broadened,” he said. “From primarily dealing with Army assets to now being responsible for Air Force, Navy, Missile Defense Agency—plus moving from managing $19B to $129B, it was quite the transition and a new perspective.”
True to form, reaching the level of senior CPD would not be the apex of his story as he has moved up in leadership responsibility multiple times since he started at DSCA in 2019. As for what’s next, he’s open to taking on new assignments or responsibilities as long as it is challenging and fun.
“When I started out, my original goal was to be a GS-12.” said Thomas. “Luckily, I’ve had a mentor my entire career who has been very adamant about development both on professional and personal levels, and he has always challenged me to utilize different frames to examine my goals. I can’t say for certain what is next, but my focus is always, ‘How do I prepare myself and others to take on more responsibility? Can I be helpful and positively impactful there? Is the challenge one I will find enjoyable, fulfilling, and fun?’”
Throughout his career, Thomas said the most important factor to success has been the people around him. From being mentored and pushed to challenge himself and grow, to now being a supervisor and tilling the next crop of successful SAE members, he said it’s the team and people that have made going to work easy.
“I can honestly say that each job I’ve had in my career has been the best in the world,” he said. “I challenge folks to seek challenge and know that regardless of your position or grade, everything you do matters.”