Colonel Thomas Womble, representing the US Army National Guard as a National Security Affairs Fellow, is a no-nonsense type of guy. In a slightly gruff voice, he answered my questions thoroughly and matter-of-factly, rattling off accomplishments as if they were a grocery list. Such an interview requires deep reflection from our readers, as we struggle to do Colonel Womble’s many accomplishments justice. Beyond his achievements, Womble also revealed some surprising hobbies, including farming, flying, and scuba diving. At Hoover, Colonel Womble is studying the application of technology to our border operations of the air, land, and sea domains in the current threat environment. He seeks to identify vulnerabilities in border operations through direct observation and then to discuss the current or emerging technologies that can address those vulnerabilities.
Colonel Womble generously sat down with us to discuss the army and his life at Hoover.
Why did you decide to join the army?
I actually went to the MEP (Military Entrance Processing) station with a friend who wanted to join the air force. I first looked at joining the navy to become a military policeman (MP), but the navy did not allow you to enlist as a policeman; you had to enter in another occupational skill area and, after you completed your first enlistment, it would allow you to become a policeman. So I ended up joining the army to pursue a career in law enforcement.
I spent four years on active duty as an MP. I was lucky that I was able to attend the military police investigation school and spend the last year and a half of my enlistment as a Military Police Investigator. I was at Fort Carson and had kind of a unique job. Fort Carson had a behavioral services section within the Military Police Investigations. We were investigating domestic violence, crimes against children, and those kinds of incidents. It allowed me to work closely with state agencies, and it gave me a good feel of what civilian law enforcement would be like.
After I got off active duty I went into law enforcement and, had about a three-year break in service. I ended up missing the military so I joined the New Mexico Army National Guard. I stayed in the National Guard as a traditional guardsman, drilling one weekend a month and attending the two-week annual training.
When I retired from law enforcement . . . the first year I retired I was accepted to go to the Commanding and General Staff College, which is part of the professional education for army officers. (I was a major at the time.) So shortly after I got done with that I was mobilized to perform the integrated air defense mission around the National Capital Region. When I got back from that I spent six months at home and farmed. That’s what I do for a hobby.
I was then promoted to lieutenant colonel and got the opportunity to go on active duty for called Operation Jumpstart, which was a two-year program. The first year they put six thousand guardsmen across the four southwest Border States to plus up and provide support to the Border Patrol. I did that for about fifteen months and then came off that mission to deploy to Afghanistan. When I was in Afghanistan I served as the commander of the Regional Police Advisory Command-North. I was responsible for all the police mentor teams in the northern region of Afghanistan. When I came back from Afghanistan, I guess they figured I had done enough so they brought me on full time with the New Mexico Army National Guard.
I’ve deployed one other time since then which was in 2011. I deployed to Kosovo for a year where I did the KFOR (Kosovo Force) peacekeeping mission. When I returned from Kosovo I was promoted to colonel and was reassigned as the military personnel officer for the New Mexico National Guard. Then I applied for and was selected for the Army War College, and was slotted for the National Security Affairs Fellowship here at the Hoover Institution.
The army’s been really great to my family. My son graduated from West Point; he’s a captain now in Special Forces. My wife is an RN and she manages the day surgery and the recovery unit at our local hospital. My daughter is a senior in high school this year. She plans on going to college to study physical therapy. I’ve enjoyed every one of my deployments and my assignments. Overall the army’s been a big part of my life for about thirty-four years. I could never imagine when I was eighteen and going to the MEP station to enlist that, close to forty years later, I would still be doing this.
What has been your greatest challenge in the army and why?
Greatest challenge (sighs) I think was my assignment as the brigade executive officer when we deployed to Kosovo because I had really broad responsibilities. I was responsible for the headquarters company, all the various detachments, the hospital, and all the different staff sections. We had around four hundred US personnel assigned to our brigade, and seven international infantry companies: one from Turkey, one from Greece, one from Morocco, Germany, France, Poland, and Ukraine. Interacting both in Kosovo and in Afghanistan, working with our NATO partners, were pretty big challenges. They were great opportunities to learn, to grow, but by far my experience in Kosovo was the most challenging, because we took a disparate group of units, put them all together, and built a functional brigade that was able to conduct a pretty complex mission in a high-tension environment.
What do you think is the greatest challenge for the army in the next five years?
There are big challenges. One is withdrawing from Afghanistan and transitioning back to a peacetime army because, once you transition out of that deployments overseas, the training and everything slows way down and the institutional requirements become important again. Especially with the current fiscal situation that the United States is in, it will force change across all the armed forces, and it’s still unclear what the army will look like on the other side of the downsizing. Maintaining a high level of capability to respond to a threat will be very challenging for the military.
What was it like to transition to life at Hoover?
A big, big, big adjustment. Being an Army National Guard officer you don’t move a lot, so uprooting myself was a challenge. Living in a large metropolitan area, New Mexico is a small state, nothing like living here. But on the same token it’s turned out to be a real benefit. I ride my bike to Hoover every day, have been able to get back in shape after a back surgery, and it has given me a chance to reflect on issues that you don’t have time to do when you’re on the job with constant deadlines to meet. There are more learning opportunities here at Hoover than we can take advantage of.
What is something you’ve learned since coming to Hoover that’s made you think differently?
I don’t think it’s made me think differently, but it’s reinforced my belief system. Looking at Secretary Shultz, almost every time we’ve had the opportunity to meet with him, he’s talked about leadership being critical for an organization. And then you have Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Secretary Bill Perry, seeing what they’ve done with their life, really demonstrates the importance of leadership. Being a leader you’re a lifelong learner, that doesn’t stop at the end of a career. You continue to grow as you progress through your journey in life.
How would you define leadership, and how can we develop leadership in others?
I think leadership is the ability to influence others to accomplish goals that you set, and I really think it is one of the most critical aspects for the success of an organization. A leader has to have vision, set goals that are both realistic and challenging, and to maintain relevancy. You have to have a lot of self-discipline, high ethical and moral standards, and have empathy for others. The best way to develop it, well you can teach leadership as a concept. I think we do that and need to continue to do that in the lower grades of public education and grow on that as you move through your education so that people can graduate from high school with a sense of purpose and a sense of direction. I think that would help in a lot of various aspects. Hopefully it would enable people to achieve their full potential.
What’s a funny story about you and your fellow NSAFs?
Well, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Atkins is the comedian of the group, followed probably by Steve Newlund and Roy Collins. Pretty much any type of the social engagements that we’ve had, they’ve entertained the group and others very well. A particular story? Going to the home games and watching them interact with the crowd; you know that good- humored rivalry with the other fans is pretty entertaining.
What do you like to do in your free time? You mentioned your hobby farm.
I have fifteen acres and I farm eleven acres for hay. I have horses, you know spending time on the farm, working hard, seeing results from your efforts is very satisfying and gives me a lot of time to center myself.
I love to scuba dive; it’s probably my greatest passion. I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I got a private pilot’s license. I’ve golfed. I like to bike ride. But probably my greatest passion is scuba diving.
Where have you gone scuba diving?
I’ve dived a lot down off Cozumel, Cancun, the Palancar Reef, and then, probably every other year it averages out, we go to Hawaii. My wife says she’s a scuba diving widow because when we get there I spend most of my time scuba diving, and she and my daughter have to entertain themselves. But she’s promised me that this year she’s going to get certified so that on the next trip she can dive with me.
Brave wife! Have you gone scuba diving here at all?
No, I’ve wanted to try to do that, but just with the amount of functions that we go to, we stay surprisingly busy; so busy that it’s hard to find time to work on my research project. So in our off time I am either in PT (physical training) or doing work that I need to catch up on. So I haven’t had the opportunity. It’s cold-water diving, and the fish are not as colorful though you may see an octopus. I would like to dive before I leave here. Maybe after March, that’s when my paper’s due.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!