When Suzanne Petrie graduated from high school, she decided to go to a small, liberal arts college in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. That wouldn’t necessarily seem like the first step toward becoming an Army foreign intelligence analyst, an advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the head of Latin American Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. But that is exactly the course that Suzanne Petrie’s career has taken. Along the way, this graduate of Sweet Briar College has probably done more to strengthen America’s relationship with Mexico than any other federal civil servant.
Suzanne Petrie entered federal service as a Presidential Management Fellow in 1992, serving as a liaison with the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, as well as completing the six month Military Intelligence Officers Basic Course. After her fellowship concluded, she spent two years as an Army intelligence analyst, primarily focusing on the Andean Ridge countries. She then spent two years as the Director for Latin American programs at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
From 1999 to 2000, Petrie served as Mexico Director in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. In this position, she coordinated all aspects of bilateral, strategic planning about drug control issues with Mexico. She consulted and negotiated with the Mexican Foreign Ministry and Justice Department on topics including money laundering, drug interdiction and border security.
She left the White House to serve as the Director for North American Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In this role, she worked closely with the National Security Council, the State Department and other elements of the Defense Department to develop, coordinate and implement policies and plans in the Western Hemisphere. She was absolutely vital to the establishment of a collaborative relationship between the U.S. Navy and the Mexican Navy. She was recognized by both the Mexican and the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations for her assistance.
She is currently the Director of Latin American Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security. Her efforts in this position have already spurred stronger cooperation between U.S. border personnel and Mexican authorities, establishing an Action Plan framework for protocols to control border violence and unsafe activity. To address the increasing number of deaths of immigrants who try to enter the United States across desert areas, she has worked closely with the Government of Mexico to ensure programs are designed to enhance both safety and security along the border. She also created “Team Mexico” within DHS to pull together all components working on Mexico and Southwest border issues to streamline the work and eliminate any redundancies that remain from “legacy” agencies.
Everywhere Suzanne Petrie has served she has been recognized for extraordinary service. In the Army, she received the Superior Civilian Service Medal. In 1998, she was named the Air Force Academy Staff “Civilian of the Year.” She twice received the White House Special Recognition Award. Petrie also received the Office of the Secretary of Defense Award for Excellence.
Perhaps her greatest honor was being asked by her Alma Mater, Sweet Briar College, to deliver their 2005 commencement address. In her remarks, she shared seven tips that she believes have been the keys to her success. Her closing point was, “never take yourself too seriously.” This is surely sound career advice, but, regardless of her own self-image, Suzanne Petrie is one person whom others take very seriously. And no matter what the starting point of one’s career was, to rise as far and as fast as Petrie is truly extraordinary. At age 37, the best is surely still to come.