News & Politics

First Person: Pentagon Confidential

As a Defense Department intern, I had an impressive title—and some surprising responsibilities.

I arrived for my Pentagon internship already jaded. A friend had joked, “Now you’ll see how government doesn’t work.” Having grown up in DC, I thought I had a good idea.

My intern group gathered early on the first day—0800 hours at the Metro escalators outside the Pentagon. I soon learned that’s actually quite late.

I was surprised that my ID card was pink. These Defense Department people, who I had assumed were intimidating military guys, had to wear a pink badge? It turned out pink was just for contractors and interns like me.

Another preconception: I had thought the Pentagon building was an organized grouping of ornate offices with imposing armchairs. In fact, it’s an M.C. Escher labyrinth of secure rooms and nondescript cubicles—like in “Dilbert” only with snipers at the entrance.

The Army people wear camouflage. To blend in here, shouldn’t they wear gray jumpsuits with Dell logos?

I was assigned to the Southeast Asia section of the counternarcotics office. My action officer filled me in on details of the Asian drug trade. I read classified reports, went to conferences, drafted memos for my DASD—that’s deputy assistant secretary of Defense—and caught up on office gossip while stationed quietly in a cubicle by the door. My title was assistant action officer.

The office was a mix. One liberal coworker often stormed out joking, “I quit!” after political arguments with her boss. Another asked whether I knew whether a congressional candidate had “accepted Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.”

Most days, I arrived soon after 7. Thanks to my morning Red Bull, I discovered you can actually be productive before noon.

Lunch was at the Pentagon food courts, where your order comes with military efficiency: By the time you pay, it’s ready.

I enjoyed my work, including such surprise duties as helping escort 16 Afghan helicopter pilots who were on their way home from six months’ training at Fort Hood, Texas, and were taking a tour of Washington.

A month before, I had been balancing college classes, term papers, pizza, and beer. Now I was assessing policy decisions regarding US-Chinese relations in drug-control policy. I had to scan my fingerprint to work on the computer.

Less exciting was having to correct the antidrug plans of all 50 states for spelling and general coherence. One state recommended “educationing” our children about drugs.

I started to enjoy “dressing up.” I went to a sale at Saks. I started to accessorize. These are not considered appropriate activities for a 20-year-old guy.

A saying from my generation sums it up: Hey, at least I’m not addicted to black-tar heroin. Thanks to the internship, I now know what that is.

That crack about government not working? It wasn’t quite right. While there’s the occasional long lunch, I was impressed with the passion Pentagon workers have for their jobs. They left the office after I did, and some were in by 7 the next morning.

My internship reassured me that whether or not I agree with all of the government’s policies, my coworkers were doing what they thought was best for the country. Even if they got up way too early in the morning.