October 2020 Alum of the Month: Courtenay W. Cullen '03
Hotchkiss | Alum of the Month - Courtenay W. Cullen '03

Courtenay W. Cullen '03 served for over ten years on active duty in the U.S. Army before transitioning to the U.S. Army Reserves to attend law school. She currently serves as the Battalion Executive Officer of the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) at Joint Base Maguire Dix in New Jersey. She is a decorated war veteran and the recipient of numerous medals, awards, and badges, and has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Qatar.

Cullen followed her father, Denis D. Cullen '72 and grandfather, James F. Cullen '35 to Lakeville. She looked at both Exeter and Taft as well as Hotchkiss, but along with the draw of her family ties, she found Hotchkiss to be "absolutely beautiful. I only applied to Hotchkiss and immediately accepted the offer to attend."

Along with history courses, Cullen loved lower mid English. "Pat Jones was instrumental in teaching me how to write properly." Her favorite extracurricular activity by far was playing junior varsity hockey. "It was one of the best parts of my experience at Hotchkiss." Two other faculty members proved to be significant in her time there. "I was very close to Ana Hermoso and lived on her floor for three years. I also was very close to Christy Cooper, my JV hockey coach and faculty advisor. Both women were wonderful mentors and sources of support throughout my years at Hotchkiss."

From Lakeville, Cullen went to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, where she triple-majored (economics, international relations, and political science). Additionally, and in keeping with a strong tradition of family military service, Cullen joined the Army ROTC program. "My grandfather, Major General George Casey Sr., was the highest ranking Officer killed in Vietnam. He died in a helicopter accident on July 7, 1970, when my mother was only 17. My mother idolized him, so I grew up interested in the military. I was at Hotchkiss when the September 11th attacks occurred, and I will never forget the moment when the student body was unexpectedly called into the auditorium. I have a distinct memory of a classmate sobbing; I think my desire to serve deepened at that moment. I joined the Army ROTC. The program focused on leadership, physical fitness, and academics, and I found I thrived in that environment. My uncle, General George Casey Jr., the 36th Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, administered my oath of office at my commissioning, which was a wonderful moment for my family." Cullen graduated from Lehigh with high honors in May 2007.

After Lehigh, Cullen went to Fort Bragg before being deployed to Diyala Province in Iraq. "I commissioned into the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, specifically because I wanted to lead soldiers. Deploying as a platoon leader of 50 soldiers was exactly what I wanted to do, yet a rather sobering experience. I worked extremely hard to prepare myself and my soldiers for the deployment, and fortunately, we all returned home a year later. I think one of the hardest and most important aspects of leadership is learning to remain engaged and open while navigating your soldiers' frustrations and personal issues. A yearlong deployment, with many soldiers under the age of 20, opens the door to a variety of issues other than the war at hand. It was difficult to keep everyone focused and eschew complacency as the months progressed."

Cullen served as primary project manager of more than 50 construction projects on U.S. and Iraqi military bases. Her platoon constructed buildings in partnership with Iraqi Soldiers to improve their infrastructure. "We primarily constructed wooden buildings, but also a concrete masonry building in support of the 5th Iraqi Army Division, which would eventually serve as a command and control center for the elections. We also served as a rapid electrical repair element to address any electrical issues on remote U.S. bases, which was a major issue because several soldiers died from electrocution due to lack of proper grounding."

In 2010, Cullen took on the role of Company Executive Officer in Diyala Province, serving as second in command of 250 soldiers and supervisor of administrative and logistics personnel. "My biggest challenge was managing the sheer amount of personnel and equipment. I took over halfway through the deployment. Our company was slated to be split into two Companies to create smaller, more manageable units, but we had not yet been reconstituted. Consequently, my Commander and I had to manage a very large company and also transition with two separate companies upon our redeployment. Our company had more than 150 vehicles and property in excess of $50 million. Maintaining accountability of everything during a year of operations and transferring it without any loss of accountability was a huge success."

Commissioned as an Engineer Officer, Cullen decided on graduate school. The Captains Career Course offered a joint master's degree opportunity at Missouri University of Science and Technology in collaboration with the United States Army Corps of Engineers. She graduated in July 2011 with highest honors in Engineering Management. "I pursued this as a means of obtaining a graduate degree while serving on active duty. The curriculum was similar to a technical M.B.A. and it proved to be a useful pursuit during my time off from a deploying unit." She then attended the Civil Affairs Qualifications Course, headquartered under U.S. Army Special Operations Command. "I was not yet ready to leave active duty, and I knew Special Operations offered a different path from the traditional army experience. Further, having studied international relations in college, Civil Affairs better aligned with my interests than the Corps of Engineers. The idea of deploying to countries to work with the State Department and various non-governmental entities was also appealing. Civil Affairs required a year of training, which included six months of language training in Urdu, regional analysis training, and a variety of other advanced courses."

After training, Cullen was sent to the Herat Province, Afghanistan, She believed her experience in Iraq would prepare her for this deployment, but Afghanistan proved to be a tremendously different cultural and operational experience. "My Civil Affairs team supported Marine Special Operations elements in Zerkoh Valley and outside of the city of Herat. It is an incredibly diverse nation and the experience of the local populace varies considerably, depending on where they live. We interacted with civil servants wearing suits, but in contrast, in the valley, the populace lived in mud houses without plumbing. Much of Afghanistan is incredibly underdeveloped. I knew as a woman I would have to navigate a culture that did not largely interact with women professionally, but I was surprised by the people's resourcefulness. For instance, I worked with an Afghan NGO worker who spoke Russian, Pashto, Dari, English, and then picked up Italian when the Italians were assigned there. After interacting and cooperating with many different nationalities since the Russian invasion in the 1980s, they have developed a refined capacity to survive, which I found apparent in their ability to successfully work with the various NATO military units."

In February 2015 Cullen deployed to the Baghdad Embassy to join a small cell of military and Department of Defense civilians to try to increase Sunni tribal participation in the fight against ISIS. "It was an extremely interesting deployment, as I was able to immerse myself in a U.S. Embassy while also supporting DOD efforts in an entirely new operational campaign. The U.S. military departed Iraq in 2012 only to return in late 2014, but the country's demographics shifted considerably when ISIS took control of western and northern Iraq. Our cell was tasked with trying to map the human terrain, while also conducting engagements with Sunni tribal leaders at the Embassy and at remote bases in the northern portion of Iraq. I was also able to collaborate and work extensively with State Department Political Officers, various Allied nations, the Red Cross, and the United Nations."

Soon after, Cullen was reassigned to the 5th Special Force Group at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. "My unit was responsible for Syria and we had several elements deploying to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Qatar to support the counter-ISIS fight. I deployed to Qatar in 2016 to run a specialized staff that supported elements throughout the Middle East focused on ISIS." 

In 2016, Cullen became Military Advisor for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, NY. She was involved in supporting U.S. negotiations during the 2017 Contingent Owned Equipment (COE) working group, which brought together military advisors from all countries participating in peacekeeping to attend a conference in New York. "It was impressive to observe negotiations occurring over two weeks involving hundreds of individuals from various backgrounds speaking different languages who were able to eventually come to an agreement. At that time, the U.S. was focused on using the forum to try and address systemic issues in UN peacekeeping."

Currently, Cullen is a Major in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Battalion Executive Officer for the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne). She is also pursuing her J.D. at Georgetown. "After law school at Georgetown, I will join Willkie Farr Gallagher in New York with the hope to ultimately serve as a Federal Prosecutor. I interned at the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn after my first year of law school and think it would be wonderful to continue public service as an attorney after a few years of working in a firm." She hopes to continue her service in the U.S. Army Reserves while pursuing her legal career. Most satisfying for Cullen is fulfilling a deep devotion to public service. "When I prepared to serve as a platoon leader in combat, the sense of responsibility I felt for my soldiers engendered tremendous personal growth and fostered an incredible sense of professional responsibility. Through my experiences and service, I have acquired amazing friends and mentors." 

Cullen carries important lessons learned in Lakeville with her. "The biggest lesson - actions have consequences. I was dismissed from Hotchkiss for drinking in my senior year. It was a very difficult experience that profoundly affected me, but I was able to return as a post-grad and graduate with the Class of 2003. It ended up being an extremely positive experience overall. While humbling, my dismissal served as a catalyst for a lot of personal growth and accountability. I was very focused in college, which I largely attribute to my dismissal from Hotchkiss, and my post-grad year offered me an additional year to mature, take advanced courses, and ultimately make amends for my dismissal the year prior.

"My advice for those interested in the military is to reach out to as many active- duty service members, reservists, and veterans as possible to try and understand the various branches of the military, career fields, and the lifestyle. My experience in the Army gave me immediate responsibility, and I felt I was part of something much larger than myself."


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