A life of service: From state and national to foreign service

  • Published
  • By Maj. Darin Overstreet
  • Colorado National Guard Public Affairs

Popular depictions of foreign service officers often include majestic landscapes, exotic cultures, and maybe even a private jet or a car chase. Reality, on the other hand, often includes the austere and remote, much like military deployments.

Common connections found between what the military and the U.S. Foreign Service are looking for and, why those who join them do so, generally revolves around a drive to serve others and the desire to see and learn about foreign lands and people.

This drive is what motivated U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Gregory Elrod to retire from the Colorado Air National Guard and serve the world in a new capacity – as a foreign service officer.

The U.S. Department of State website says that serving as a U.S. diplomat requires fortitude, flexibility, a commitment to public service, and the ability to adapt to changing situations and cultures other than your own.

Elrod was the manager for the Colorado National Guard’s Air Active Guard and Reserve program, where he managed administration and procedures for a full-time force of more than 1,600 personnel. He was responsible for policy development, program oversight and the daily human resources operations for the AGR force.

“Master Sgt. Elrod was an outstanding leader with a unique ability to manage both people and processes equally well,” Col. Crissie Fitzgerald, human resources director for the CONG. “He is always composed, confident and capable. We were lucky to have him as a leader in this position through some challenging times with many personnel management changes.”

Elrods adaptability was demonstrated throughout his 26 year military career. He adapted to the locations where he deployed, which vary greatly in language, geography and culture. In the U.S. Navy, Elrod served on a ship stopping at ports in South America. He lived in Japan as a mobilized Navy reservist. He deployed to Kyrgyzstan, Hungary and Saudi Arabia as a member of the Air National Guard. He also had to adapt to the varying military cultures of active duty, reserves, and National Guard; and the service cultures of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force.

In fact, it was during a deployment to Hungary when he realized his appreciation for foreign travel.

“Wandering about Budapest, I really enjoyed my time in the city, but I thought it’d be more fun with my wife [Gina],” Elrod said. “So, the following summer I took her to Rome. We had a really good time.”

Later, Gina, a hair stylist, was sharing their travel experiences with a client, only to hear that her client had spent a few months in Rome, because her son-in-law is in the U.S. Foreign Service. Her client only had good things to say about foreign service. Gina said it was that conversation that turned on a lightbulb, and their quest began.

When learning more about what the Foreign Service is, Elrod found it to be really alluring. There are five career tracks and he chose to pursue that of a management officer.

“I could manage people anywhere,” he said. “When I found out that I could do it at a U.S. Embassy, in a foreign country, representing the United States abroad, that’s what really got me interested in the career.”

“It sounded so exciting and, in all honesty, I never thought he would make it,” Gina said. “When he told me [that he was accepted] my heart sunk, like, ‘Wow!’ this is really happening. I always wanted to do it, but it was scary. But, now we’re jumping in.”

In February 2019, Elrod retired from the military as a master sergeant. Later in the year, the Elrods plan to be packed and en route to the East Coast for Gregory's training, with many experiences to follow.

“Part of the job is responding to challenging and unique situations and applying sound judgement. My military career has definitely prepared me for that,” Elrod said. “A lot of the things we do [in the military] provide a strong foundation to draw from. Cultural adaptability is one of the 13 dimensions that they look at in foreign service officers. Military service has definitely given me a greater understanding of and appreciation for cultures that are outside of my own.

“In the Navy, at ports in South America, for the first time, I saw economic realities that were so far from my own. That experience, so many years ago, led me to seek more understanding about the rest of the world.

“When I lived in Japan for a year, I was in one of the safest places in the world while others were fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. My Air National Guard deployments to Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia exposed me to life which was very different to that, and very different than living in Denver, Colorado.

“Exposure to the rest of the world, or at least pieces of the rest of the world, has given me more appreciation for what we have here, for what we do.”

Elrod retired from the security forces career field, and believes that most of the skills he takes with him are transferable skills, such as, management and leadership. But, he believes being a cop helped him learn to think under pressure.

“The training we [security forces] do is generally based on taking immediate actions,” Elrod said. “If we fail at those actions things break and people get hurt or killed. So, being able to think quickly and calmly under pressure, that, I think, will serve me well. I can’t foresee what situations I’ll be in, but some of the things foreign service officers deal with include natural disasters, political tensions, and situational awareness in unfamiliar environments.

“I chose to pursue this second career because it’s interesting and I get to do it abroad. But, also because it’s a job that represents the United States abroad, so it’s continued service. And service is a part of me, after 26 years in the military. Beyond that, my father was a police officer, so I grew up exposed to his character, which was one of service.”

Moving from the Military instrument of power, he hopes to prevent the need for the use of force by serving in the Diplomatic instrument of power.

“Seeing some of the difficulties [around the world] just stresses what an important role this is, Elrod said. “There are dangers with many professions, but I think the ability to represent the United States abroad, the ability to continue service, outweighs those dangers.”

There are still evaluations and training programs to complete before the conditional offer is final. Training begins in June and, at the end of the training, the Elrods will find out where their next home will be – for the time being.

Congressional hiring authority and needs of the service will determine whether the offer is made final. Part of the process includes receiving security and medical clearances, but with his score and a veterans’ preference, he said he feels good about his chances.

Reflecting on what he’s leaving behind, Elrod said he believes he has just as much still to come.

“While I am retiring from military service, I’m retiring to the next chapter of my life,” Elrod said. “So, I’m moving forward rather than severing ties with the past and stepping away from anything.

“All too often I have watched colleagues retire only to become lost. Once their connection to the military was severed, they lost their sense of identity.

“I have worked long and hard to prepare for this next chapter and am excitedly progressing toward it. My experiences in uniform certainly contributed to who I am today, yet it doesn’t—and never did—define who I am.

“All that said, I don’t know what I’m going to miss, but I know I’m ready for what’s next.”