From the Hill to the White House

Norwich Alumni Shaping the Nation’s Future:

By Jane Dunbar | Photos by Jordan Silverman.


Pictured (l-r): Erik Doucette ’92, Chris Costa ’84, Trevor Hough ’95.

IT WAS AN EARLY MORNING in December 2016, and retired Army Colonel Christopher P. Costa ’84 stood in the presidential transition offices a few blocks from the White House. A senior civilian from Special Operations Command (SOCOM), volunteering on the presidential transition team, Costa ultimately hoped to land a position with the incoming administration: the kind of opportunity he’d dreamed about since the moment he received his commission out of Norwich as an infantry officer.

“That day, no one was wearing their experience on their sleeves,” recalls Costa, whose own resume—34 years as a human-intelligence and counterintelligence officer with U.S. Special Operations Forces—is nothing to sneeze at.

“Each of us had what we believed to be a valuable skill set to offer, but nobody else knew what that skill set was.”

Suddenly, from across the room, a much younger man addressed him.

“You,” the man called to Costa. “We need office supplies. And can you bring us all some coffee?”

Costa—a decorated veteran of Special Operations assignments, two-time Bronze Star recipient, and recent inductee into the SOCOM Commando Hall of Honor—blinked.
And then he got the coffee—and the office supplies.

“Leaders execute,” he explains, conceding a split-second’s hesitation before deciding not to tell the young man exactly what he thought of the idea. “And despite your rank or title, sometimes you just have to do windows. Norwich taught me that.”

Norwich taught me that.

It’s a resounding refrain among the four alumni who, during the course of 2017, concurrently served in the White House—a historic first for the university: Costa ’84, Coast Guard Captain Eric Doucette ’92, Army Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Hough ’95, and Army Colonel James “Jamie” Riley ’95.

All served directly under either the U.S. president or vice president, some overlapping the Obama and Trump administrations.

Three fulfilled high-level counterterrorism roles.

One was a relative “late comer” to the idea of military service.

None could ever have imagined landing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, in the nation’s capital, serving in the highest offices in the U.S.

While the roads they traveled to their common destination varied, one guidepost remained constant: Norwich. And the life skills they learned comprised the ingredients in what Doucette calls the “special sauce” that fueled their ascent to the topmost levels of United States government.

Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism, National Security Council

As it turned out, that young man in the presidential transition offices wielded significant influence: A National Security Council (NSC) senior director, he would help decide exactly who would staff which positions within the group. And Costa’s unflinching willingness to fetch coffee paid off. Shortly thereafter, he was named special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the NSC.

“We laugh about it now,” Costa says. “But the experience recalled what I’d learned at Norwich. Being a rook teaches you humility. Being self-governed teaches you to make tough calls. I believe those two lessons meaningfully contributed to my leadership development, and help explain how I’ve gotten to be where I am today.”

For the past year, Costa has functioned as the top convening authority for all federal agencies involved in drafting the president’s counterterrorism policies: a role that requires “intense preparation, an even keel, and honest brokerage.”

“Policymaking isn’t pretty,” he explains, “and people have strong opinions. I need to ensure everyone is heard.” Between these meetings, Costa briefs National Security Advisor General H. R. McMaster, Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert, and, at times, the president himself on the outcomes of policy discussions related to global terror threats, mitigation, and crisis response.

His days are long—often stretching into 14 or 16 hours—and the White House Situation Room is apt to call at any time. But Costa wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s easy to get choked up,” he says, a noticeable hitch in his voice. Growing up without a dad in Natick, Mass. (his father, a Marine officer and Army Ranger, died when Costa was eight), Costa recalls desperately wanting to follow in his footsteps. He views his success as the ultimate tribute to his father’s legacy and early advice: “No matter what you do, be the best at it.”

“On Inauguration Day, when I rolled into the White House, I knew he would have been proud,” Costa says.

Costa—a first-time grandparent along with his wife, Donna Mayo ’84—has since retired from public service and is now the executive director of the International Spy Museum: a fitting apogee to his career in intelligence.

Special Advisor to the Vice President for Counterterrorism, Homeland Security, and African Affairs

Mapping Eric Doucette’s life, one might draw a series of steps that—excepting a “small detour” to Operation Desert Storm between his sophomore and junior years—plot a direct route from his time as a Boy Scout in Medfield, Mass., to his current role in the White House.

If it weren’t for the Boy Scouts, he’d have not met Ted Miller ’67, an assistant scoutmaster who regaled a young Doucette with his experiences at Norwich.

If it weren’t for Ted Miller ’67, he may never have attended Norwich, where a Cadets-Bears football game piqued his interest in the U.S. Coast Guard.

If it weren’t for Norwich, he may never have landed in the Coast Guard, which supported his pursuit of a master’s degree in international relations and national securities studies at American University.

If it weren’t for the Coast Guard, he likely would never have won a seat on Vice President Joe Biden’s national security affairs staff, a role Doucette assumed in April 2016.

The cascading steps of Norwich University seem to stand as a metaphor for his life’s path. In that, Doucette is not alone.

Of course, his years of increasingly responsible domestic and international experience in port security and operations, environmental disaster response, and crisis management—as well as his time as a Coast Guard Fellow at the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute—contributed to his achievements. Still, he asserts, he would be remiss if he didn’t credit Norwich.

“Professors Max Schlueter, Bill Clements, and Stan Shernock—they all were personally invested in my success, which I think is a key Norwich differentiator,” he says. “When I entered the Coast Guard, I knew that taking a keen interest in others and working together as a team was a winning recipe. I’ve tried to do that throughout my career.”

Explaining that “almost 90 percent of White House staff turns over during an administration change,” Doucette feels honored to have assisted in the transition, and proud to be continuing his service there. Today, he works closely with Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Hough ’95, crafting interagency policy and advising Vice President Pence on the same.

Doucette’s portfolio also includes disaster and mass-casualty preparedness and response, health security and biodefense, international border resilience, and transportation security, among other things. As a geographic expert, he also represents the vice president on issues related to Africa.

“There’s a whole host of things that keep me more than fully employed.” He laughs. “And every day, I walk down the Navy Steps [from his office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building] and look directly into the West Wing of the White House. If that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is.”

In June 2018, Doucette will return to Boston, where the Coast Guard has assigned him as Captain of the Port.

Special Advisor to the Vice President for Middle East Policy

If humble execution is the Norwich-fostered attribute that shepherded Costa to the White House, “I will try” is arguably Hough’s.

Like Costa, Hough knew he wanted to join the military—but the realization hit later, and for more practical reasons: it would provide him a way to serve his country while helping pay his way through college. That pragmatism, peppered with a skosh of serendipity, brought Hough to Norwich as a transfer student in 1992, where his interest in an intelligence career first bloomed.

Home in Lake Placid, N.Y., following his freshman year at James Madison University, Hough had confided in his boss, Dennis Ryan ’76, that he was considering a year off from school—a move that would allow him to apply for the next available round of ROTC scholarships.

“Dennis said, ‘If you want to do Army ROTC, why not do it for real and go to a military college?’” Hough recalls. Ryan connected Hough with his classmate Dave Whaley ’76, then director of alumni relations, for a campus tour; that August, Hough reported as a rook.

Eight years later, armed with a degree in international relations, a working knowledge of Russian, practical leadership experience as an armored cavalry lieutenant, and with a nine-month course at the Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, under his belt, Hough landed with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Carson, Colorado. There, as a Special Forces Battalion senior intelligence officer, he focused on and deployed to the Balkans, immersing himself in the Serbian-Albanian conflict in Kosovo.

Then 9/11 happened, and his career trajectory veered sharply toward D.C.

“I knew nothing about Osama bin Laden, couldn’t pronounce Al-Qaeda, yet suddenly I was delivering intelligence briefs on Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda,” he says. “The learning curve was just about vertical.” What got him through, he explains, is the same thing that got him through his rook year, and his very first intelligence assignments.

“It’s not like I went in knowing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. So I relied heavily on my non-commissioned officers and would just remind myself: I will try.”

Hough’s efforts saw him through multiple deployments to the Middle East and a subsequent career rising steadily through the ranks in the special operations world. In January 2017, he was invited to submit his resume to the White House. At the time well-poised for promotion to full colonel, and wary of inadvertently delaying or derailing his chances, he sought advice from the Army’s senior intelligence officer.

“Trevor,” said the three-star, “we don’t usually say ‘no’ to the White House.”

Now, as special advisor to the vice president for Middle East policy, Hough spends his days at the nexus of intelligence and policy—remaining current on the issues, providing the vice president with updates on critical Middle East events, and helping prepare the vice president in advance of foreign travel and meetings with world leaders. He also represents the vice president in Middle East policy discussions, assists with speechwriting, and collaborates closely with the National Security Council, along with Costa, so that the president and vice president receive consistent information.

“It’s exceptionally humbling,” Hough says. “I just try to do my level best every day, and work to make sound decisions. I’m honored to serve our country at this level.”

By the time this article publishes, Hough will have been promoted to full colonel. Sometime between this summer and next, he will move to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to assume command of the Joint Special Operations Command Intelligence Brigade.

Presidential Communications Officer

He may not have directly advised Presidents Barack Obama or Donald Trump—but Jamie Riley’s job, until the Army tapped him for National War College at Fort McNair last summer, was no less integral to both presidents’ day-to-day functioning and effectiveness.

During three separate tours between 2007 and the summer of 2017—the last as its deputy commander—Riley served at the White House Communications Agency (WHCA), a military unit tasked with providing global information technology and systems support to the chief executive and his staff. As a PCO (presidential communications officer), he led the advance teams responsible for setting up all communications technology during the presidents’ travels; he also directed the section tasked with planning those trips. Later, charged with anticipating technology trends, he accelerated the White House’s adoption of cutting-edge communications capabilities. Ultimately, as the WHCA’s role expanded to support the entire White House complex, Riley directed the teams who provided “all of the communications to all of the people.”

Such repeated stints, interrupted by deployments to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (as a communications officer, and a signal battalion commander, respectively), were historically unusual for an officer, according to Riley—but his boss clearly recognized a valuable asset when he saw one.

As a history major on the Hill who first commissioned as an infantry officer before detailing into the Army Signal Corps, Riley never could have anticipated that he’d work for the WHCA—nor that his time there would comprise the bulk of his career. But he credits Norwich with instilling the perseverance required for him to have progressed from Northfield to D.C.

“It sounds hokey, but I defy you to find a single student who didn’t consider quitting their rook year, myself included. But somehow, you get through it. And that’s something I return to in times of adversity. Ranger School, for example, was the worst 60 days of my life. But rookdom was longer. Norwich equipped me to stay the course.”

Had he not completed Ranger School, Riley contends, he wouldn’t have landed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on his second duty assignment in 1999—where he met the buddy who, nearly 10 years later, first introduced him to the opportunity at WHCA.

“You never know what might lead you to the West Wing!” he says.

In June 2018, Riley will graduate from the National War College—a school within the National Defense University, designed to “to educate future leaders of the Armed Forces, State Department, and other civilian agencies for high-level policy, command, and staff responsibilities.”

Although their paths did not all cross at Norwich, Costa, Doucette, Hough, and Riley had little trouble recognizing one another on the “other” Hill: not by appearance, but comportment.

“When a Norwich grad tells you they’re going to do something, they do it,” Doucette asserts. “I’ve seen that time and again with these guys. They show up. And they do their best, no matter the situation.”

“It was pleasant to discover that Chris, Eric, and Jamie went to Norwich,” Hough adds. “But not a surprise.”

Showing up is another common refrain among these four men, who offer it as advice—not just to the next cohort of aspiring White House servants, but to every Norwich student contemplating a first job. “Being present is one of the most important ingredients to success,” Doucette says. “You can’t delay responding to your boss, your peers, or your staff.”
“It’s an early lesson learned at Norwich,” Costa agrees. “Everyone takes an interest in you, from your cadre to your teachers. When you do the same—when you make time to mentor and coach—you’re developing exemplary leadership skills that will serve you well no matter what you do.”

“I think I can speak for all of us when I say that the way we were able to get here is because of the foundations we built at Norwich 10, 20, even 30 years ago,” Hough concludes. “I’m excited for all of the young students now building their own foundations: there’s a whole world of opportunity for them to seize.”

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