On Tuesday night, I had a drink with more than a hundred friends and what I call my extended family. Many of them I knew; others I didn’t but they were still family. We gathered in a bar in Georgetown to celebrate a unique bond we all share – securing our homeland.

We were joined by the notable Janet Napolitano, DHS’ current Secretary; also present was her predecessor, Michael Chertoff and many others whose names and careers have decorated news stories and congressional hearings since 9/11. We were also joined by many whose names and faces would not be known to the general public or the Beltway crowd.

We were Republicans, Democrats and Independents. We were creatures of the inner Beltway and from every other corner of the United States. We were black, white, brown, yellow and more. We were physicians, businessmen, intelligence officers, Secret Service agents, military personnel, former Capitol Hill and state and local government officials, public affairs types and more. We were men and women with expertise in emergency management, border security, immigration, intelligence, law enforcement, infrastructure protection, legislative affairs and more.

We were about as motley a business-dressed crowd as you could assemble in one room. We were DHS Alumni (former and current employees) and if I might be so bold to say, “We’re a great bunch of people.

While we all may have had personal as well as professional disagreements in the course of our service at the Department, or even hold diametrically opposing viewpoints to what is going on at DHS now, we were some of America’s best gathered in one room, united by one mission – securing our homeland. And damn it felt good.

As someone who joined DHS shortly after it opened its doors in 2003, I consider myself one of the honored few to have been part of America’s biggest start-up enterprise. I got to be a part of a mission bigger than anything we’ve done before, and I can honestly say I have worked with some of the best.

While I absolutely loved my career pre-DHS, working with NASA and the aerospace and high-tech communities, I have long felt that it was the people at DHS – the career, political and military personnel as well as their counterparts around the country – that were the most impressive group of people with whom I could have ever been associated. Even at the height of greatest tension, confusion, disaster and even dysfunction, I got to see some of the best in leadership, innovation, courage and national character on display.

While I have a deep love and abiding respect for America’s space program (having been a part of it for so many years), I can’t help but feel that if the people I worked with were running today’s space program, we’d be having brunch on the Moon on a regular basis rather than still talking about it. We may have had the organization chart from hell, but truth be told, these people were, and in many places still are, the “MacGyver’s” of America.

The people in that bar in Georgetown, and more importantly, the ones who weren’t there or who were doing their homeland jobs – along the border, in the airports, or working in SCIFs, emergency operations centers, at Disaster Recovery Centers and so forth – make Apollo moon landings occur every day. Unlike the banner headlines and tickertape parades of 40 years ago that heralded the greatest of human achievements, the “Apollo-like” daily achievements of the people in that room and beyond don’t receive the recognition they deserve.

That was true of many of the things that occurred in the Ridge and Chertoff eras, and it will be true of the current Napolitano era and those who follow her. That’s just the way it is, but for the crowd on Tuesday night, that didn’t matter.

We had the fellowship and friendship of “old war stories” and career scar-tissue along with the laughter and catch-up conversations of people with whom we served in the homeland trenches. In the midst of those exchanges, we had the opportunity to meet with many of the new DHS team who followed us in our service to the nation. And damn it felt good.

I will forever be thankful for each and every one of them.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More
  • Jeff Sural

    Rich – well said. I appreciate your sentiments here. Sorry we didn’t get to chat last night. Maybe we can catch up at the next reunion.

  • Rich Cooper

    Thanks for the kind words Jeff. I’d welcome the chance to get together soon and catch up as well.