Alumna plays pivotal role in military intelligence

Samarra, Iraq.  February 22, 2006.  6:55 a.m.

Twin bombs rocked the Askariya shrine, one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites. The mosque with its trademark golden dome, located 65 miles from Baghdad, was shattered by the explosion. Political tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims grew after the attack, fueled by retaliatory strikes that claimed the lives of about 165 people.

Blame for the Askariya tragedy was pointed at al-Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist group associated with Osama bin Laden, who was made infamous with the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Many viewed the Samarra blast as a ploy to trigger civil war in Iraq.

For Col. Yvette Nonte ’83, a Peoria native and the first female commander of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Redbird Cadet Corps, the Askariya attack was a key event in her notorious Army career. Nearly seven months earlier, Nonte­ found herself being choppered into Iraq under cover of darkness at the request of Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, then commander of the Multi-National Security and Transition Command in Iraq.

Wearing full-body armor, she arrived before dawn to link up with members of her new team. They endured a five-day journey to Phoenix Base, near the Iraqi Defense Ministry. Affectionately dubbed “Sticky-ville,” it was rumored to have been a training academy for toppled Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s anointed inner circle. It served as a command and control base for the Multi-National Security and Transition Command when Nonte arrived.

Nonte’s mission: Director of Intelligence. Her mantra: “Knowledge for Battle.”

Eager to start working for Petraeus, Nonte’s first few months in Iraq were grueling but rewarding. Often referred to as “Phoenix 2,” she made it through her assignment by relying on a personal philosophy developed at Illinois State: learn, lead, and make a difference.

Learning her desert environment was fraught with challenges, including leading a team of joint service military professionals. She worked to make a difference for America’s coalition partners and Iraqi’s citizens. Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who assumed command from Petraeus, talked to Nonte about the chances of civil war in Iraq. Then came the Samarra bombing. The Iraqi landscape changed, and not for the better.

“It was a time of real violence,” Nonte said. “Trouble had been percolating between the various religious factions, but now we were introduced to a demonstration of deep-seated cultural hatred, the depth of which we as Americans rarely see or can truly understand.”

The Golden Dome bombing accelerated an unprecedented level of violence that would continue through what Nonte characterized as “the tremendously successful implementation of the ‘surge of forces’ nearly two years later.” Baghdad’s constant turmoil caused soldiers like Nonte to be ever vigilant.

“Constantly you had to be totally aware of where you were,” she explained, “constantly scanning and focusing on your surroundings. You had to be situationally aware.”

There were lighter moments during her tour as well, including when she was approached by a young Army captain in a mess hall. He smiled and introduced himself as a fellow Illinois State alum. “I’m Captain David Peterson, and I graduated in 1995. Surprise! I’m your assistant operations officer.”

It was comforting to have someone from home on her team, Nonte said. Another of her colleagues in Iraq was the then Lt. Col. Craig DeDecker ’85, who served as an Army contracting officer for the commander of Multi-National Forces, Iraq.

“The informal Redbird network kept us going,” Nonte said. “Craig and I would reach across boundaries to share information, equipment, or grab a quick cup of ‘Joe’ whenever we made it to each other’s area of operations.”

The Iraq tour was just one deployment for Nonte. A 26-year Army veteran, she calls her career choice “absolutely the best decision I ever made. Had I not joined the Army, my life wouldn’t have been as good.”

Nonte’s extensive Army career has taken her to Korea twice, where she was deputy director of counterintelligence for the 2nd Infantry Division, and later operations officer for the 532nd battalion in Seoul.

But first she was an Illinois State student. She proudly recalls her collegiate years, explaining that the University is “part of a very close loving community” that holds “very fond memories” for her.

Active in band since fifth grade, Nonte was a musician at Illinois Valley Central High School in Chillicothe. She was lured to Illinois State on the recommendation of her music instructor, Richard Sparks. She enrolled with two childhood girlfriends.

“I have very good memories of my time here coming into the music program,” Nonte said during a visit to campus earlier this year. She particularly recalls one time when she was involved in a production of George Frideric Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from the The Messiah, a lengthy oratorio sung in Latin.

“We did it for Christmas, after finals,” she recalled. “We sang in the freezing cold.” After it was all over she and a friend ordered a large pizza. They ate the whole thing and got sick. “It is a great memory,” she quipped.

Nonte performed with the Big Red Marching Machine for four years, playing the euphonium. “It was a great experience,” she said. A half-time performance at a Green Bay Packers’ football game is particularly memorable. She credits her success in the military to her band experience.

“Almost all the leadership skills I learned about movement involving large groups came from the experiences I had with marching bands in high school, and at Illinois State,” she said. “Some of the military skills I learned with the marching bands were how to manage big organizations and how to train, synchronize, and perfect things.”

She continued her education in the Army. Nonte spent one year in school to become an intelligence officer. She earned two master’s degrees from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the Defense Intelligence College, where she studied strategic intelligence.

The training prepared her well for her current post as the assistant director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), which is the military’s top leadership. Her responsibilities include providing briefings, papers, and analysis for the Director of Intelligence, JCS; Adm. Mike Mullen, JCS chairman; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; members of the Defense Department; and Congress.

Nonte’s position is part of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The agency is part of the federal government’s intelligence community, which encompasses a grouping of 16 military and civilian agencies that provide the nation with its first line of defense. Its mission is to provide timely and objective military intelligence to war fighters, defense planners, and national security policy makers. The ultimate goal is to give the United States a comparative advantage in managing national security.

“There is much more coordination among intelligence agencies now as a result of the war on terrorism,” Nonte explained. “Everyday the whole intelligence community talks to each other, and passes along information. This is positive fallout from 9/11.”

Other members of the community include the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence organizations of the military services.

Nonte was drawn to intelligence work by the problem-solving aspects of the job. She found collecting information and analyzing it to be “fascinating,” especially when the work can help to better the nation and be helpful to policy makers.

“Our intelligence work is a global responsibility. It’s focused on defense of the nation,” said Nonte, who is passionate about the work at both a professional and personal level. She worked in the Army section of the Pentagon that was severely damaged on September 11, 2001.

“Twenty-two of my colleagues that I had just left were killed that day,” she said, “and I aided in recovery operations. I keep that in mind.”

That terrible day was so shocking it took her breath away. It also initially was confusing. “Local, state, and national authorities—civilian and military—were all trying to help,” she said. But everyone within the overlapping jurisdictions pulled together and that was comforting.

Several days after the 9/11 attacks, soldiers from her battalion left stones from the corridor near her old Pentagon office hanging on the door to her new office—a poignant reminder of the great loss suffered by the nation she continues to gladly serve.