Exceeding All Expectations: A Journey of Adversity, Triumph and Eternal Optimism
This is the story that I never wanted to tell and the article that I never thought I would write.
Although these are my experiences, too many of my colleagues have similar stories. Unfortunately, so do many of our friends, family members and kindred spirits around the world. This is an American story, and it is a global story.
As a former senior national security official retrospectively looking at life, I can say that it is a story of hopes, promises, courage, circumstance, disappointment and perseverance. Most importantly, it is ultimately a story of triumph.
It is difficult to write about the numerous obstacles that one might face in life—especially when these obstacles are based solely on superficial trivialities, such as one’s melanin content or skin pigmentation, and not on deficiencies in a person’s intellect, motivation, character, potential or loyalty to their nation.
I have never sought sympathy nor empty apologies, so I have avoided talking about:
- My father, who joined a segregated military the mid-1940s, was wounded in the Korean War, served in Vietnam and returned to a country that would not fully accept him because of his service or his race, yet over a 30-year career, he rose to the top of the military’s enlisted ranks;
- My mother, who although her schools only went to 10th grade and who worked for years as a live-in servant, maintained her grace and dignity, and helped raise a successful family of seven;
- My being arrested as a teenager while shopping for a “piggy bank”—an arrest based solely on the fact that I happened to be Black and wearing a “jean jacket,” a description that undoubtedly fit thousands in our nation in the 1970s. Although the charge was eventually expunged, it remains on my government record to this day;
- Having to prove my “worth” and worthiness every day of my life.
My climb up the corporate mountain was arduous, challenging and eventually rewarding. I welcomed the challenge of high expectations, but unlike many of my non-minority counterparts who were on similar climbs, I had few Sherpas, almost no time for acclimation at any level, no supplemental oxygen (i.e., sustained mentoring or assistance) and had to move along a steeper incline than most.
I worked at the National Security Agency (NSA), where only a “gifted and blessed” few ever make it to the top of operations. From that perch, you are entrusted to lead the United States’ global Signals Intelligence enterprise and arguably one of the world’s most capable spy organizations. The NSA’s Operations Directorate has a storied history that includes contributing to breaking the World War II enigma code and still provides key input to the President of the United States’ daily intelligence briefing book. In the NSA’s storied operations history, no minority had ever successfully reached its pinnacle.
I was promoted into the U.S. Senior Executive Service in my late 30s. Since the NSA is a Department of Defense (DoD) organization, I was a one-star general equivalent. This came at a time when minorities rarely achieved that rank and almost never until their early 50s. I began my career as an Air Force Russian linguist. My first assignment was in Japan, where it immediately became apparent that the words “Black” and “Russian” were more synonymous with a bar drink than an individual. I was never mistreated, just viewed as more of a curiosity. My 36-plus-year career climb was unlike most. This is my first capture of these experiences in writing.
‘You Don’t Look Like Ron Moultrie’
The anecdotes that I have experienced during my life would literally fill a multi-volume book. Upon hearing brief snippets, most listeners shake their heads in disbelief. Although only a few incidents were done with malicious intent, they each spoke volumes about our culture and accepted behaviors.
A few examples of the adversity I faced included:
- Being passed over for a top-level training opportunity, although I was one of the top two board-selected nominees. Leadership decided to select the next non-minority candidate to attend the course;
- Being threatened by an agency supervisor, in the late 1980s, who wanted to warn me that dating and “kissing” a non-minority would be viewed “very unfavorably” by others in the organization and probably detrimental to my career. My “date” was actually my fiancé, and we have now been married for 32-plus years;
- Having a polygrapher, during a recurring five-year top-secret security clearance update, ask me how I could have reached such lofty senior executive positions while coming from such modest roots. He made it clear that, for a minority, I exceeded all expectations;
- Having an individual who had only ever spoken to me on the phone, upon our first face-to-face meeting state, “You don’t look like Ron Moultrie!” Although I did not ask, I suspect that I knew what he expected me to look like;
- Being told upon entering a meeting room that I had to sit in a perimeter seat because the “head seat” was reserved for the meeting leader who was “Ron Moultrie;”
- Being a constant recipient of comments such as “you are extremely articulate” or “you write exceedingly well”—comments, which while likely being meant as compliments, harbor degrees of stereotypical bias; and
- Attending an official dinner for several of the world’s most senior intelligence officials at a globally renowned royal palace, and as the only person of color in the room, being treated as a “curiosity” by senior palatial staff. As an aside, my wife and I enjoyed a splendid discussion with our royal host!
In spite of the many challenges, I eventually shattered a significant ceiling becoming NSA’s Director of Global Operations. Entrusted with multi-billion-dollar budgets, I led tens of thousands of the world’s best engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, analysts and linguists. This was a far cry from the days when NSA minorities were relegated to the basement. However, when I departed the NSA, there was still much to be done.
We Will Need a Stronger Vaccine
The current pandemic has severely impacted much of our daily lives. This has also affected the economic, social and mental well-being of millions across the world.
However, there has also been a silent pandemic that has been ravaging our nation, and the world, for centuries. It has prevented citizens from attending schools and colleges, sporting and entertainment venues, visiting certain public places, joining various professions and being accepted into boardrooms. It has even interfered with places of worship. The side effects of this pandemic will likely linger for centuries to come. There are no daily casualty counts or comprehensive economic metrics, and although it is easy to identify, few want to acknowledge its existence. We shun the topic, ascribing it to days gone by, while ignoring the fact that if we only open our eyes, it stares back at us in our communities and workplaces. It is the pandemic of discrimination, bias and presumed privilege that knows no boundaries. This pandemic permeates every facet of our lives and is spawned in our homes, neighborhoods, communities and businesses. There appears to be no immunity for this “silent plague” and unfortunately few seem willing to help find a cure. But there is hope…
The past six months have been a period of enlightenment for many. We have become semi-experts in the art of social distancing, living with some degree of depravity and adjusting to a new way of life. However, we have also seen an unprecedented social movement blossoming around the world. The movement has taken root in our homes, cities and businesses, and is being joined by those of goodwill and like minds daily. While this movement can be viewed with “guarded optimism,” many of us know that it is rooted in a fragile foundation that could crumble at any moment.
I applaud Worth for having the courage and social consciousness to allow me to tell part of my story. Mine is but a “small link in a global chain” of stories that should and must be told. I hope that in the coming months we can present the journeys of others who have triumphed in the face of overwhelming adversity. These authors’ stories should inspire us, while stirring our social and ethical consciousnesses to assist others in their journeys. We all have a role to play if we are to discover an effective means out of our collective global social crisis.
Writing this story has been cathartic. My reluctance has been overtaken by a sense of moral obligation to embolden others to come forward. We need your intellect, resourcefulness, ideas, prayers and active participation if we are to build a coalition of the willing and able. The journey will not be easy—most worthy endeavors are usually laborious—but we will achieve our goals. I look forward to serving with you. Keep the faith.