Fort Belvoir, Virginia –
Defense Logistics Agency Chief of Staff Kristin French advises those she mentors to trust their instincts.
“I tell them to try different things and try to work in different offices or even move to another organization,” she said, adding you can’t judge a career on one job.
French practices what she preaches. She’s had a varied career and has come a long way from the small northern New Jersey town where she grew up.
Her parents were educators and often took French and her younger brother to historic places and points of interest.
“I got to visit everything from revolutionary war forts to shows on Broadway to New York Yankees games, and I’m still a die-hard Yankees fan,” she said.
When it came time to attend college, her family explored many schools in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but since her mother had several family members in the military, West Point in New York seemed a natural choice, French said.
Once French and her parents toured the academy, she was hooked.
“I hadn’t really been thinking about a military career, but I had seen the college and what the cadets were doing, how they were living in service to the nation,” she said. “I thought it would be a good fit for me, and my parents were both very supportive.”
French applied to West Point and was accepted. It was the beginning of her military career and also paved the way for her civilian career in the Defense Department.
Although French considered West Point a good experience overall, she noted that women still weren’t widely accepted at the traditionally male academy. Less than 10% of French’s graduating class were women.
“I graduated in 1986 and the first women cadets graduated in 1980. There were still a lot of male cadets who had an attitude that women shouldn’t be there,” she said, adding that there were incidents of hazing and verbal abuse toward women.
The chief of staff said according to a running joke, the best way to view West Point is from your rearview mirror. But she found satisfaction in the regimen despite a heavy course load and working through summers.
Another high point for French at West Point was meeting her husband. They married a year after graduation and were both assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. She was commissioned in the Army as a lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps, serving in a range of capacities, including a stint at DLA as an Army colonel in 2008.
“I came to DLA after my brigade command to be the executive officer for the director,” she said. “I knew DLA provided logistics support to the warfighters, but I didn’t realize the depth and breadth of the mission.”
She also served as the only woman battalion commander in her regiment in Iraq.
“I would go to meetings and the Iraqi wouldn’t even want me in the room,” she said, adding that the Iraqis’ tolerance and willingness to interact with American women in uniform gradually increased as they saw their capabilities.
After nearly 30 years in the military, French retired as a brigadier general in 2015.
“Retiring is always bittersweet. You really reflect on all the years you served, the proud moments and opportunities you’ve had,” she said, adding that no longer donning a uniform was very emotional for her.
“You take all those lessons learned and all the experiences and use them to do something else that hopefully will satisfy you as an individual and also provide you a chance to give back in a different way. That’s what service to our nation is – giving back,” she continued.
From 2016 to 2018, French was a principal deputy assistant secretary of defense. During that time, she also served as the acting assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness.
French returned to DLA as the agency’s chief of staff two years ago. She oversees the governance and daily efforts in areas including ranging from intelligence and public affairs to equal employment opportunity and installation management.
“My role and the role of my staff is to take a look at what’s going on currently in DLA, what our missions and capabilities are, and how we can support DLA’s supply-chain operations,” she said.
French referred to the concept of people being “born” leaders.
“Part of it is how you grew up as an individual, how you treated others and worked with others, and your personality,” she said. “You have to develop your leadership. People change over time and I’ve seen that – I think it’s the biggest thing I’ve learned about leading.”
Logistics and service are two of French’s passions. She believes DLA provides many career opportunities for women who aspire to lead.
“DLA is one of the pinnacle positions in DOD to work supply chain operations. Whether it’s procurement, demand and supply planning, warehouse operations, disposal or distribution, DLA’s got it,” she said. “It’s such a great opportunity for women who choose to serve in the government and serve our nation as well as use their technical skills.”
French and her husband have also passed on their love of military service to their two children.
“My kids are both cadets in college and plan to serve in the U.S. Army,” she said. “We are very proud of them!”