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A Passionate Homeland Security Writer’s Profile

Professional profiles are always one of those instruments that help people to learn more about a given individual and what makes them tick. Besides going through the rudimentary things about a person’s life, such as where they are from, where they went to school, and their professional stops along the way, they can be as enlightening as they can be useless. Having to write one about yourself, though, is something I never thought I would have to do, but when Faircount asked me to become a regular contributor to Defense Media Network and cover the homeland security space, they asked me to tell you something about me and what I bring to “this beat.”

In preparing this piece, I thought back to the profiles that I had written on people like Michael Chertoff, Thad Allen, Fran Townsend, and other headline makers. Each of those persons had served at the top of their respective games and had the headlines and back story to prove it. While I’ve been more than fortunate to serve in some pretty distinguished spots and with some even more impressive people, I’ve always been the guy who wanted to have a front seat to history and challenging circumstances in all of their forms, and talk about it with anyone who might want to listen. I’m a communicator type, and I don’t mind asking lots of questions to find something out.

There was a time that I seriously thought about becoming a journalist. I’ve always enjoyed writing and I know I’ve got the voice for radio (and a body that should not be on TV) but my professional career path led me to other deadlines and headlines. For the first 13 years of my professional life, I worked for NASA as a contractor and later as a senior political appointee on satellite programs, technology commercialization, public and private partnerships, and other public engagement efforts on America’s space program. Ever since I could sit up as a child, my parents remember, I had a connection to America’s space program that could not be shaken. Despite being a nontechnical person, I wanted to engage firsthand the people who made spacecraft fly and made the impossible real. People with mission assignments bigger than your imagination always had my attention, and no one had a bigger mission profile than NASA.

And then came September 11. Working at NASA headquarters in the administrator’s suite that morning, I was able to look out the windows of the 9th floor at a burning Pentagon on one side of the building and a gleaming Capitol dome on the other just waiting to be the next target for a suicide plane attack. As a Generation X-er, it was more than obvious that this was my generation’s and several other generations’ Pearl Harbor moment. While I was certainly of no age or physical shape to sign up for boot camp and ship out to fight terrorists, I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever our country was going to do to deal with the threats that were now on our shorelines. Finding the right place to fit in was my challenge, but I finally found it.

In late September 2003, I joined the newly established Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in its Private Sector Office. Tasked with helping establish DHS’s relationships with the private sector in science and technology and emergency preparedness areas, I, along with several others, had the time of our lives helping to craft a new playbook on how to operate in a newly and drastically changed America. Nothing about the early days of DHS was easy. Its creation, like its mission, was cumbersome and all over the place, but the people who were there trying to make it work were some of the best and brightest our country has ever seen. I had been fortunate to work with people who made Apollo lunar landings, space shuttle launches, and more amazing feats happen.  As great and as good as all of them were, they were all easily eclipsed by the people working this new thing called “homeland security.”

For me, this brave new world of terrorist threats, Mother Nature rampages, and unforeseeable mishaps that created bad days big and small in America became a new professional home. Having the chance to work with the real game-changers, the private sector – the people who made new technologies, products, and services, got communities up and moving again regardless of what tragedy had befallen them, and created jobs and opportunity where none had previously existed – was a thrill. For as much as my private sector office colleagues believed in the people we represented to the department, we had a formidable fight with many at DHS and around the country in helping them to appreciate how much the private sector could make a difference.

Not until the destructive wrath of a storm called Katrina would people really appreciate the difference the private sector could make in terms of lives saved and communities restored. My deployment to the Gulf Coast in late summer and fall of 2005 in support of response and recovery operations gave me the front row seat to history that I always wanted, but also empowered me to give voice to those issues and circumstances that need to be heard in times of need. That’s the reason that I continue to work these issues today and share what lessons and insights I gain along the way through writings, interviews, and speeches.

I have long shuddered at those who proclaim themselves to be subject-matter experts when discussing homeland security. Frankly put, I think this is still far too new an environment to believe anyone is smart enough or evolved enough to be an expert in anything. In so many ways we are in the opening chapters of a new realm of history, with no indication of how it might unfold or along what path it will take us. I think a more accurate description of persons with particular expertise in the homeland arena is “subject-matter witnesses” who can tell you firsthand what they saw, what they experienced, and what they learned as a result.

And that is what I am. I’m a subject-matter witness in a homeland security world willing to share what I have seen and learned and tell you what I think. My passions have always been worn on my sleeve, and they are not hard to figure out either. The paths I have taken in my own homeland security journey have allowed me the privilege to interact with senior leaders of different political parties, innovators of all types, and people and companies known and unknown who care about the big things and the small that make our homeland a safer and more resilient place to live and care for. In short, that means I am liable to take you just about anywhere to meet people and organizations you may have never heard of, or expose you to an issue you should know about but don’t.

My writings represent one person’s path and experience in a brave new world that I could have never imagined on Sept. 10, 2001, but have chosen to share and explore on Sept. 12 and every day since then. The most important lesson I have learned in all of those days since then is when it comes to homeland security, it is not just some of us serving the mission that make the difference; it’s when all of us serve that a greater difference is made, and that is a country that will always be worth securing. It’s also worth telling you about, and I look forward to doing just that.

By

Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...