FORT KNOX, Ky. — Bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, Army.
The only military-related background Capt. Chelsea Michta had prior to becoming the first officer to receive an active-duty direct commission in the Army’s Military Intelligence Corps was that her father worked for the Department of Defense.
Now, she is the officer in charge at the Army Europe Open Source Center – what Michta said is the largest open-source intelligence shop in Europe.
“It’s incredibly meaningful to work with a team who is providing commanders with information that is having a real-world impact on the battlefield,” Michta said. “It’s also humbling to be continuously learning.”
Michta, however, is no stranger to learning. Her achievement becoming the first Army MI direct commission officer is far from her only noteworthy feat. Adorned with extraordinary accomplishments, Michta’s path to the Army was not only unconventional, but shows why her selection was obvious.
“Boy, did she have all of the unique skills that no other lieutenant coming through the regular channels would have,” said Col. Christina Bembenek, 66th Military Intelligence Brigade commander in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Michta’s background and reputation preceded her. After all, how often does a University of Cambridge Ph.D. graduate who speaks English, German, Polish and Spanish commission in the Army? To Bembenek, Michta’s passion for service rivaled that of her passion for academics.
“When she came here, her desire to learn how to be an officer and how to be in the Army was impressive,” Bembenek said. “Her extensive research ability, combined with her knowledge of the languages and region — I could not have had a better officer fall into our brigade.”
Prior to putting on a uniform, much of Michta’s life was devoted to education. While in high school, her father, then professor at a liberal arts college in Memphis, Tennessee, accepted a position with the defense department in Germany. Although she lived in Warsaw as a child, this move provided Michta her first real exposure to Europe and living abroad.
Following her graduation from Munich International School, she went on to earn a bachelor’s in European history from Amherst College and then attended Cambridge for her master’s. There, she was one of just a few graduate students selected by the university to receive a full tuition scholarship to pursue her doctorate.
There was just one issue.
“I knew from the outset that I didn’t want to pursue a traditional civilian academic career,” Michta said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my Ph.D. and explored a number of options during grad school to try and figure that out.”
It was while writing her dissertation that an unexpected set of circumstances ultimately opened Michta’s eyes to the possibility of choosing the Army as a career. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she had to return to Germany where her father was serving as the dean of the George C. Marshall Center. With the facility’s classroom the only available workspace outside her home, she spent the days of lockdown with Soldiers attending the Foreign Area Officers’ program there.
“It was honestly that experience of being around a lot of Army officers and talking with them about their experiences in the Army that first sparked my interest in uniformed service,” Michta said.
According to Michta, prior to speaking with FAO Soldiers, who were from various different branches and backgrounds, she admittedly had a fairly simplistic view of the Army. It was through her many conversations that she became both enlightened and inspired.
“I was struck by how diverse their experiences had been and the responsibility that was entrusted to them so early in their career, and by their sense of shared values and purpose,” Michta said. “It was the first time I considered pursuing a career in the military myself, but I just didn’t know what that would look like for me.”
As she began taking steps to see what options were available, Michta discovered the Army was expanding its direct commission opportunities to new specialties. With her combined education, cultural exposure and language capabilities, a panel of senior intelligence officers reviewed her civilian credentials and written statement outlining her desire to serve, and selected Michta to be the first person to direct commission into the MI Corps.
Now, two years after first arriving at Fort Moore, Georgia, Michta is leading her team in Wiesbaden and has her sights set on attending the Captain’s Career Course later this year.
“My short-term goal is to be a company commander and really step into a leadership role," Michta said. "I want to take what I’ve learned leading my team here in Wiesbaden and apply that to a larger group of men and women and be the best leader that I can be."
For Michta, the Army was never in the forefront of her mind as a potential career, especially as she traversed the world of academia. She said many people would likely be as surprised as she was that their own personal skillset has that perfect place within the Army’s many avenues.
“I think it’s important to get the word out about what the Army can offer,” Michta said. “If more people were aware of the sheer variety of experiences that a person can have, the shared sense of purpose, and the professional developmental opportunities the Army can offer, I think a lot more people would seriously consider it.
“Don’t write something off just because you’re not familiar with it or you have preconceived notions of what this profession entails. There’s always more to it than you think.”