Photo by Tom Reese
Paula Boggs has many remarkable chapters in her life: her work in the law as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, law firm partner, and general counsel; her service on many boards of directors of universities, nonprofits, and public companies; her career as a musician and songwriter; and much more. However, in recognition of Veterans Day, we spoke with Paula about her military service and what it meant to her. And, we closed our conversation on a musical note.
Q: Tell us about how you came to enlist in the military?
There were three things that steered me in that direction. When I was growing up, my mother was a teacher and administrator within the Department of Defense School system, teaching and supporting the children of military personnel stationed in Europe. From ages 13 to 18 (grades 8 through 12), I attended three different schools in two countries—Germany and Italy—where most of my classmates were the children of military personnel. Most of the people I was around were military people or the children of military personnel. I was in an environment where the military was 24/7 for me. In addition, around this time, ROTC programs across the Armed Services became available to women and, in 1976, the U.S. military academies opened their doors to women. At the beginning of my senior year of high school, the first class of women entered the military academies.
And then there were financial considerations. I'm the oldest of four children raised by my mom. She aspired for all four of us to go to college, but certainly could not pay tuition for all of us. So going the military route was a way for me to help her, and at the same time help myself.
Finally, it was patriotism.
All three of those things influenced my decision to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and for an Army ROTC scholarship. I got both and made the decision to take my Army ROTC scholarship and attend Johns Hopkins instead of going to the Naval Academy.
Q: You were an ROTC cadet at a time when the military was just beginning to open up to women. What was that like?
In 1980, I spent the summer between my junior and senior year in Airborne School, became a paratrooper, and then, like every ROTC cadet, spent six weeks in advance camp. In my case, it was Fort Bragg. There was a lot of institutional resistance to women being in Airborne School. Out of a class of 450, there were twenty of us at the beginning of the course and, at the end, there were only about ten women. At the time, there was just unapologetic sexism and that outweighed racism.
Q: How did going to law school affect your military career?
When I started college, I hadn't intended to go on to law school. But when I returned to Johns Hopkins to begin my senior year, I realized I was not ready for active duty. I had just spent nine weeks in a situation where people were telling me when to get up, when to go to bed, what to wear, how to wear it, and when to eat. The upshot was that I couldn't make decisions. So, I applied for what the Army calls educational delay. That allows "obligated officers" – ROTC recipients who have a military commitment to fulfill – to go immediately to graduate school. I took the LSATs and surprised myself by doing well. I applied to law school and ended up at U.C. Berkeley.
My Second Lieutenant bars were pinned on me the day before I graduated from Johns Hopkins, and I had every expectation the Army was going to ship me off to an airborne unit as soon as I finished law school. I could not have been more wrong. I learned about, applied for, and got accepted into an honors program in the Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Army. I went directly to the Pentagon from law school and spent over two years doing a variety of things. And then, during the Reagan administration, I got the opportunity of a lifetime to work in the White House Counsel's office on the Iran Contra investigation, which is how I spent the last 18 months of my four-year military commitment.
Q: Working on the Iran Contra investigation must have been tricky to navigate because you were basically investigating your bosses?
That was an amazing experience on many levels. But one of the most memorable experiences occurred during my interview with the man who eventually became my boss. Looking back, I can't believe I had the wherewithal to ask him what would happen if the interests of Ronald Reagan, the individual, diverged from the interests of the Office of the President. Without missing a beat, my soon‑to‑be boss said, "We represent the Office of the President. If Ronald Reagan needs a lawyer, he gets his own." The message was that we were institutionalists, which is a notion that is foreign in today's climate. But back then, there were people on both sides of the aisle who believed that.
Q: Last year, on Veterans Day, you posted on LinkedIn about what serving in the military meant to you. Can you share how your military service informed your subsequent choices in life?
My military experience is central to who I am on many, many levels. As a cadet and in my time on active duty, there were many times when I faced failure. The military experience taught me again and again that, at the end of the day, failure is human. And what separates the more successful of us from the less so is how we navigate that failure. As an example, I took and failed the California bar exam and the D.C. bar exam. My prestigious job in the Army's General Counsel Office depended on me being a member of the Bar. As the first Black woman ever to be accepted into that program, this was an Armageddon situation. I was going to get kicked out of the Army's General Counsel Office. Long story short, I made a point of getting in front of a woman who was a political appointee and pitched the idea of my working directly for her. My persistence paid off and that's how I came to be Special Assistant to the Deputy Under Secretary of the Army. Facing failure forced me to make up my own path.
The military honed things in me that keep showing up throughout my life journey, like the importance of working as a team. I spent two years in a big law firm and that turned out to be an outlier in a 28-year career in law. For me that experience lacked the sense of mission and team which is so important to who I am. In the military and as a federal prosecutor, I took the importance of the team for granted. But when I moved to my in-house practice – both at Dell and then as General Counsel at Starbucks – I rediscovered the experience of being part of a team. There – like the military -- the mission was bigger than I was and everyone was rowing in the same direction, with the same North Star.
Q: We can't close without asking you about the Paula Boggs Band. Your music is described as a blend of jazz and Americana – "Seattle-Brewed Soulgrass." Your songs – most of which you write – feature themes of social justice and personal stories of your ancestors. What message do you want to send with your music?
For me, it's the telling of stories. And, in doing so my primary goal is to be as authentic as I can be and still entertain. One of the songs, which is on the album we released this year and is under consideration for the Grammys, is King Brewster, which tells the story of my ancestor. When people – whoever they are -- listen to that song they recognize that it's not just my story, it really is the story of America. One country music critic commented that I didn't pull any punches in that song. When you listen to the story being told you understand it's not just the relationship of a father who beat his son, but the system of slavery that shaped that relationship. So, what I try to do is with my songs is tell the truth about America without being negative, but by being factual. We can't move forward unless we acknowledge truthfully who we have been and who we are.
Q: Is there a lyric from one of your songs that you should close this conversation with?
Yes. "We can't repave the past. May the future be recast."