A conversation with Major General Garrett S. Yee ’87 about cybersecurity, Silicon Valley vs. Washington, family history, and what a young officer needs to know.
Major General Garrett S. Yee ’87 was back on campus in June as the guest of honor at the commissioning ceremony of new officers in the Bronco Battalion. Before the ceremony, we sat down for a few minutes to talk about his current role leading the U.S. Army’s IT network modernization, his experience here at Santa Clara, and some startling family history. He also shares some advice for young officers—starting with this: Be gracious.
Santa Clara Magazine: Santa Clara seems like a place that has profoundly affected your life.
Gen. Garrett Yee: I graduated 30 years ago—30 years and four days ago actually, June 13, 1987. Major Jason Noble commands the ROTC program here. Thursday he and I were walking through the campus. We coordinated a meet-up with Atom Yee, who was my chemistry professor in the 1980s. It was always kind of a fun thing with Doctor Yee and Garrett Yee—and he was really a fun guy to have class with. It’s nice to know that he’s still here, and it’s kind of neat to come back 30 years later and still have that personal connection.
My wife Maria Vera-Yee and I got married here on campus—in 1986, so we were juniors. We got married right here at the Mission Church. Then our first kid was born later that year, and our son was baptized in Nobili Hall where they used to have a chapel.
Our two additional kids were also baptized in Nobili Hall, and I went through the RCIA program at Santa Clara my junior year—the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults—so I also became a Catholic while here at Santa Clara.
All of these things happened to me here: marriage, birth, conversion to Catholicism, ROTC, getting commissioned, and graduating. It was a very intense period of time. When I was a freshman I was on academic probation, twice … I was on a Navy scholarship, I got kicked off the Navy program, and I joined the Army program—all that in four years.
When you’re in your teens and early twenties, it’s a very impressionable time in your life. To be at a place like Santa Clara during that time, I was fortunate to have that opportunity. The very supportive environment here was just the right place for a young person like me to go through all this, and come out okay, I’ll say.
SCM: It sounds like Atom Yee was an important mentor.
Yee: He was. He’s an example of the kind of faculty and staff members we had here at the time—and I’m expecting that it’s the same today: They’re supportive of the students, but they expect a lot out of the students.
Father Mike Moynihan was another important mentor. He was in campus ministry but also teaching some other classes. Through the RCIA program, I got to know him and he was the one that married us, and baptized all three of our kids. There was another sister in campus ministry who was super supportive during our time here. That’s what’s kind of cool about Santa Clara: The faculty and staff care, and if you’re paying a little bit of attention, you might notice it as a student while you’re here. You may not appreciate it until later on. If you’re paying attention, you might actually notice that they’re looking out for you, each and every one of the students here.
SCM: Was there any advice or guidance that you received that affected you the way you just described?
Yee: In a conversation with Father Michael Engh on Thursday, I said that there’s something very deliberate happening here, and you can’t really put your finger on it—and it’s this idea that the whole person is important, not just a particular discipline. That there’s a big picture out there, that you should give back to the community, that you should serve others more than anything else. Even though there’s no class that teaches that, somehow that message continues to come through. It’s intentional, but there’s no one thing that says this is how we’re doing it. It probably comes through in instructors who are selected to be part of the faculty—that’s part of it. It’s probably in some ways that the University chooses to spend its money, where it emphasizes things that the University feels are important; probably in some degree the course offerings. It’s not one thing, but it’s deliberate. There’s a lot of goodness in it.
From the Cold War to Iraq
SCM: Let’s talk about the arc of your life and work. When you were commissioned as an officer in 1987, the world was a different place. There was that Berlin Wall still standing.
Yee: That’s right. It was the Cold War. I got commissioned in the Reserves, and there was no expectation that we would go to war at that time. We had learned the lessons of Vietnam, we were done. Then there was a point when I was ready to get out—because just life, you know, raising a family. Then 9/11 happened, and I remembered the whole reason why I chose to serve in the first place. That event was life changing for a whole bunch of people in a lot of different ways, and I was one of them. Since that time, three deployments to the Middle East, and on and off of active duty, and for the past two years serving in the Pentagon, on the Army staff, really has just become the trajectory of my life for the time being.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve, but I’m kind of sad on one hand that we still have to do what we’re doing. In 2014, we had already withdrawn everything out of Iraq; the only thing left there was the Department of State, the Embassy. I arrived in Kuwait, where I was responsible for providing all the communications, support, and IT infrastructure for southwest Asia for the Army’s portion of this. Two weeks later I was putting 10 guys into a plane to go back into Iraq. And over the next year, 2014–15, I would go back to Iraq five times to put the military network infrastructure back into Iraq to support our troops. It was kind of sad to see that after we had sacrificed so much in the proceeding years to think that now we were going back in. We didn’t have much of a choice; that was what we had to do, to try to put a lid back on things.
SCM: Your active duty deployments have taken you to work in Iraq, to Afghanistan ...
Yee: Iraq in 2006, Afghanistan 2011–12, then Kuwait 2014–15. While I was assigned to Kuwait, I traveled all around—Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan. It was very much a whirlwind one-year deployment. Then when I came out in June 2015 I was reassigned to Army Headquarters in the Pentagon. Been there since.
SCM: With the work that you’ve been doing there, what has been the big, long-term stuff that you’ve tackled?
Yee: Two major things. One is building out and modernizing the network infrastructure for the Army around the world. Previously I was doing just southwest Asia; now it’s worldwide. Then, most recently, trying to improve the cybersecurity posture for the Army.
SCM: Back in December I interviewed Tony Scott J.D. ’92, who was just finishing service as Chief Information Officer of the United States. Much of his work was grappling with legacy systems and needing to make them better and more secure.
Yee: We’re probably doing something very similar. There’s a lot of legacy infrastructure out there. It’s very expensive to replace, there is so much of it, it’s a big bill—and it’s complicated by the fact that it’s an operational network and you can’t just shut it down. You can’t just shut the road down to pave it or repaint it. The traffic still needs to keep moving, right? You have to figure out how to upgrade while you’re operating on that network. Upgrading the network to more modern stuff improves your cybersecurity posture, trying to reduce that footprint of vulnerabilities—but also put on top of that additional capabilities that we get, quite frankly, here from Silicon Valley. We’re using a lot of commercial, off the shelf tools to bring on to the network to help see the network and secure the network.
SCM: You were part of a conference this spring at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. You hosted a conversation on whether Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley see eye to eye. So, do they?
Yee: I was on a panel about cybersecurity, and I hosted a lunchtime discussion about that topic. It’s interesting—the cultures and what they think of each other. A lot of folks straddle both coasts. Here in Silicon Valley the California culture, the innovative culture, “don’t tell me what to do” culture, there’s a reason why there’s so much goodness happening here at Silicon Valley—and I think it’s because people go from one job to another and they take with them what they’ve learned to the next company and make that company better. Everyone’s skill sets are getting better and companies are getting better, and the innovation and ideas, the mix—that’s all happening here in Silicon Valley, which is cool. It happens probably a few other places around the United States, but this is really the heart of where it happens. If you grow up here or have lived here for a while, you get it: I worked the past five years in three different companies and here’s all we did ….
In Washington, D.C., for one, they wear suits. You don’t see a lot of people wearing suits out here in the Silicon Valley. In Washington, it’s lot of government business, because that’s where a lot of money comes from. They believe that they’re important because that’s where they’re getting resources from, and they’re in touch with the politics. It leads to an interesting conversation about who’s more important.
SCM: Especially given the role that you’ve had the last couple of years, what keeps you up at night?
Yee: It’s trying to stay ahead of our adversaries on this network. Their capabilities have increased dramatically over the past several years. For us, when is the next whatever going to happen—whether it be some security breach or some bad thing happening to our network. That’s what I worry about.
SCM: What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you going?
Yee: I’ll tell you what: A lot of people avoid working at the Pentagon, but we have our military’s best and brightest working there. Each staff director is a three star general or admiral, if you’re in the Navy, who handpicks everyone that works in their shop. So you get to work with some of the most talented, motivated military and civilian leaders there. And you put in some long days for sure.
From Internment to General Officer
SCM: Your family history reveals a complicated relationship with America—what the country was versus what it is now.
Yee: You know, I didn’t find out until about three years ago that both of my grandmothers lost their U.S. citizenship when they got married. I grew up in Fremont, my mom is Japanese, my dad is Chinese, and I grew up knowing that my Chinese grandmother—who I lived with for a period of time during college—lost her U.S. citizenship when she married my grandfather, who was born in China. My grandmother and my great-grandmother were both born in the United States—and yet the second generation later, you marry someone and you lose your citizenship.
The 1940s they repealed that law, the Asian Exclusion Act of the 1800s. And in the 1950s my grandmother went back to school. Not high school—because she had like a second grade education. But she studied and she took the test to become a U.S. citizen once again. That was very important for her.
On my mom’s side, something similar: My grandmother was born here in the United States and she married someone from Japan. They were both arranged marriages back then. She lost her U.S. citizenship. And in the 1940s, during the war, my mom and her family were all interned at a relocation camp in Gila, Arizona: Get rid of all your stuff, get a few boxes, and go to the desert. My aunt was born in the internment camp. My great-uncle served in the 442nd—so that’s the story of how your family’s interned in a camp, yet family members were serving our country.
He earned the purple heart. All those 442nd guys all have multiple combat injuries because they just kept going back and back and back. When I got promoted to brigadier general, for my mom it was so remarkable: Here she was, in her lifetime, in an internment camp—and then her son is promoted to general officer in the Army. All of her brothers served; they were in the Army Air Corps and the Army and the Marines. My dad also served during World War II. Our family is rich in military service.
It’s maybe atypical sounding, but it really may not be that unusual. Now I have nephews who are serving; I served with one nephew in Iraq. Another nephew is currently in Colorado Springs, and he and I were in Kuwait together.
SCM: What’s the advice you give to somebody beginning their career as an officer?
Yee: We expect a lot out of these kids. We expect them to be leaders. We expect them to live the Army values. But I’m going to give them just a few points to consider.
One is to be gracious—to be a gracious person.
Another is to be thoughtful. You don’t have to be the person who answers every question. It’s okay to listen a little bit, to be humble. That’s hard to do—especially when you’re a leader. Your job is to be out there taking charge, but how do you combine that with humility? I know I would not be here were it not for so many people.
The last one is just to smile, enjoy life—that goes to the essence of how to live a little bit.
These young officers have their whole lives ahead of them. We have no idea where they’re going, and they have no idea where they’re going—but they have an amazing foundation here. If you can understand that, how well off you are, you leverage that to do whatever you need to do: to do great things and give back to the community, help other people. It’s the notion of the more that you’re given, the more you’re responsible to give.
Look at some of the notable alumni of Santa Clara—you know we have a whole bunch, just an amazing roster of leaders. We are not that big a program, but there are some 16 general officers out of this ROTC detachment, four currently serving.
SCM: Then, of course General Kellogg’s role now as a civilian, as the chief of staff for the National Security Council.
Yee: For the new officers, this is the first oath of, in some cases, many oaths that they will take throughout their career. It’s kind of a big deal. When I got commissioned, I knew we weren’t going to war. These kids raise their right hand knowing that they could be called upon to go to war. Eventually some of them will be called upon and deploy someplace maybe not so friendly.