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NEWS | Dec. 9, 2020

Strengthening Ties: Reserve FAO Program Strengthens U.S. Partnerships

By Cmdr. Justin Dargan and Chief Mass Communication Specialist Stephen Hickok

Strengthening Ties graphic. (U.S. Navy graphic by MCC Stephen Hickok)
SLIDESHOW | 1 images | Strengthening Ties Strengthening Ties graphic. (U.S. Navy graphic by MCC Stephen Hickok)

Leaving the customs checkpoint of the Madrid International Airport, the sights and sounds of the second largest air terminal in Spain seemed to welcome Lt. Cmdr. Justin Dargan to his latest Reserve assignment as a Foreign Area Officer (FAO). The cuts of jamón ibérico hanging overhead in airport bars, football jerseys in seemingly every storefront, and the silhouettes of bulls plastered across much of the tourist merchandise brought back memories from nearly a lifetime ago during Dargan’s first visit to the country.

Since the establishment of the Reserve FAO program in 2015, the organization has evolved into a tight-knit group of military diplomats. FAOs are experts in regional languages and cultural knowledge who maximize the collaborative abilities of U.S. partner nations and military forces while continuing the shared goal of maintaining peace and stability across the globe.

There are a number of key characteristics that unite most FAOs — as illustrated in the following article by Dargan. FAOs maintain a broad range of military skills and experiences; are knowledgeable on political and military affairs; have familiarity with the political, cultural, social, economic, and geographic factors of the countries and regions in which they are stationed; are proficient in one or more foreign languages; and also possess a regionally focused master’s degree and qualification in a U.S. Navy warfare specialization. Most FAOs also share a passion for multilateral engagements, building relationships with allies and partners, and promoting allied unity in pursuit of a shared goals.


I’d been to Spain 16 years ago as part of the Naval Academy’s summer study abroad program. I chose to minor in Spanish, in no small part because I liked the idea of learning about other cultures and had hoped to experience them firsthand.

Growing up lower middle-class in a Midwestern U.S. suburb, I had never traveled abroad, and this first taste of cultural immersion as a 21-year-old Second Class Midshipman sparked a real and unshakable enthusiasm for multicultural engagement.

It was that same passion that eventually motivated me to redesignate as a Reserve FAO.

Last year, my second trip to Spain was on short notice, having been selected to serve on orders with the Spanish Maritime Force (SPMARFOR) in Rota. The command had recently fallen below full-readiness manning levels, understaffed in both national Spanish officers and full-time NATO liaisons. One of five NATO High Readiness Force headquarters designated to serve on a rotating basis as Maritime Component Command (MCC) for the NATO Response Force, SPMARFOR was in need of Navy Reserve FAO support to prepare for and assume the role during calendar year 2020.

Since redesignating as an FAO, I have been amazed by the variety of backgrounds and breadth of experience among the many talented officers in the community. Cmdr. Demetrio Camua, who joined me in the SPMARFOR assignment, is a prime example.

Born in the Philippines and having immigrated to the U.S. after college, Camua is one of many FAOs who has spent much of his life overseas. This imbues him with globally informed insight that comes in handy while working with foreign partners abroad. After four years on active duty, Camua transitioned to the Navy Reserve in order to pursue a civilian career in commercial aviation. He subsequently earned his flight instructor and commercial pilot certification and flies as a first officer for a regional airline in Florida.

My own background is also in aviation as a Naval Flight Officer. After serving my first fleet tour as a controller and mission commander in the E-2C Hawkeye, I embarked on a 3-year program in an exchange billet flying in the E-3D Sentry with the British Royal Air Force. I also spent considerable time abroad with NATO allies, including a 2-month assignment in Italy’s Combined Allied Operations Center.

My positive experience serving with my British squadron mates and allied NATO officers further fueled my passion for foreign engagement. During my final active duty assignment, I began working on a master’s degree in international relations. Eventually I transitioned to the Reserve while continuing to pursue graduate studies with the ultimate goal of attaining a doctorate and becoming a university professor.

Although Camua and I had experienced a good deal of success during our Navy careers, we had both strayed from the typical career path of most officers. When the Navy Reserve began soliciting applications for the new FAO community, each of us saw it as the perfect opportunity to capitalize on our unique talents and give back to the service. By the time I met Camua in Rota, it felt like I already knew him.

The Reserve FAO program is a tight-knit group. In addition to those who have served together in Reserve units, many of us have spent time face-to-face through a combination of joint FAO training in Monterey, California, region-specific seminars or association sponsored meet-and-greet events. Our community is active online where members can share information about potential activations, educational opportunities, deployment stories, international connections and general advice. It was through these informal channels that we’d both found out about the opportunity in Rota.

Upon checking into SPMARFOR, Camua and I were integrated into the command staff, filling gapped billets in the N7 Training and N3 Operations departments. Our primary focus was to help the staff prepare for the successful execution of two large joint NATO exercises while deployed at sea aboard Spanish Flagship ESPS Castilla (L52).

Exercise Dynamic Mariner was planned for October as a live-fire exercise with a distinctly maritime focus. Then, November’s follow-on Exercise Trident Jupiter was to be a computer-assisted command post exercise, placing emphasis on the joint service element of multinational military operations. Successful completion of both would be necessary to attain the fully mission-capable status required for the official assumption of NATO Response Force standby Maritime Component Command duties.

Based on my background as an NFO, I was assigned to the air operations division working as part of the operations planning team ashore and as the deputy director of the maritime air operations center aboard Castilla. With his previous experience as a training and readiness department head, Camua was billeted as a branch head in the training and plans division, working as one of the key officers responsible for the successful overall planning of the upcoming exercises and frequently traveling to represent SPMARFOR at NATO planning conferences.

As we settled into our positions and became integrated within the exercise staff, Camua and I threw ourselves into our roles in the training and operations divisions. However, we soon found out that some of the most important contributions to be made existed outside of our defined roles on the NATO staff.

“Semper Gumby” is an old play on the official U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard mottos which are sometimes invoked by service members and first responders to describe the best state of readiness for operational success — staying flexible. Embracing this mantra has been central to the identity of the RC FAO community as it has evolved over the past five years.

Requests for Reserve support have often come on short notice and many of us have needed to respond quickly to an increasing demand for the Reserve team’s operational and diplomatic capabilities. In my case, this meant leaving a new civilian job at the Naval War College and temporarily suspending plans to earn a PhD. For Camua, it meant taking unaccompanied orders away from his wife and two children to an area of responsibility outside of his geographic specialization.

At SPMARFOR, our willingness to adjust as necessary to support operational requirements has allowed us to fill gaps and increase command response time and efficiency. I found that there was never a shortage of documents, speeches and high visibility messages in need of writing and editing. This came in handy during Dynamic Mariner at SPMARFOR where my own cultural and media awareness allowed me to support SPMARFOR’s need for a  public affairs officer.

For his part, Camua, without formal training in Spanish, started off with a disadvantage. He went to work immediately in his off-duty time to meet the mission need. He enrolled in Spanish courses and dedicated most of his free time to learning the language. In just one year his progress was exceptional. Additionally, during Dynamic Mariner when there was neither a dedicated billet for a space warfare specialist, Camua volunteered to take on the role, quickly getting up to speed on NATO space warfare guiding documents and procedures.

As we studied our new collateral duties, public affairs and space warfare, we joked that this was all part of our job description as Swiss Army knives of military diplomacy. The description is an apt description for the utility of Reserve FAOs. Regardless of operational background or regional specialty, FAOs are trained to tactfully and effectively represent the U.S. Navy abroad, building relationships and contributing to U.S. and shared allied interests.

For me, the journey that began nearly 20 years ago with a study abroad trip to Spain has come full circle with a successful Reserve tour in the same country. The mission has reinforced my commitment to continue my career in international relations and military diplomacy. I am proud to serve as a representative of the FAO community, and excited to do so as an advocate for the program’s future development.


The Reserve Foreign Area Officer community is always looking for top-performing officers with cultural, regional and language experience to submit re-designation applications. The community is offering opportunities for Reserve officers from all designators to meet immediate manning needs for the growing cadre of RC FAOs. All candidates must meet the eligibility criteria below:

  • Security Clearance: TS/SCI eligible
  • World-wide assignable: Must meet Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) overseas screening standards
  • Language Proficiency: speak at least one foreign language as documented by Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) and/or Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) — minimum scores of 2/2 in two of three modalities of the DLPT/OPI taken within the last three years
  • Master’s Degree: see BUPERS website for additional degree specifics such as regional focus
  • Regional Experience: proven understanding of U.S. and foreign military operations, U.S. foreign policy and security cooperation objectives, as well as a deep understanding of interagency and nongovernmental organization capabilities and cultures gained from working and living in a specified region

Further application guidance, to include deadlines and required documentation, is available on the BUPERS the Navy Personnel Command Reserve OCM website at: