Rick Waddell spends his days keeping abreast of just about everything concerning U.S. security as chief deputy to the national security adviser.
The Bentonville High School class of '78 member has compiled a distinguished list of academic accomplishments and career success in the private and public sectors. He's even served with the National Security Council before as director for European security affairs during President George W. Bush's administration.
National Security Council
The National Security Council is the president’s principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters with advisers and cabinet officials. The council also serves as the president’s principal arm for coordinating these policies among various government agencies, according to the official White House description of the council.
Source: Staff report
But he's a low-profile kind of guy.
"If I do my job right most people will never know my name," Waddell said.
A Sept. 8 interview was the first he's granted since taking the deputy position in May, he said.
In addition to his position as chief deputy to H.R. McMaster, he leads the committee of other chief deputies of cabinet-level agencies that keeps watch over the nation's safety. That committee consists of Waddell's counterparts for the secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security and others.
"What we do is review policy and make recommendations to members of the cabinet," Waddell said.
The road he traveled to that spot started on a dairy farm, which now lies underneath the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. His grandfather's farmhouse was where the terminal now stands, Waddell said, while most of his father's farmland lies under a runway.
Waddell described himself as a country kid going to school in what counted for a big city in Northwest Arkansas at the time. Bentonville had a population of around 6,000 then, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
"My grandma used to say he'd be either a preacher or the president," said Robert Waddell of Springdale, his brother.
Rick Waddell displayed a serious work ethic from an early age, a very needed trait on a dairy farm, his brother said.
"The only time we ever went on any kind of vacation is if someone died and we went to the funeral," Robert Waddell said. "Even then, we'd be back by evening."
Rick Waddell was always clearly intelligent, but the full realization of his intellect came once he went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he competed with talented young men from all around the country, Robert Waddell said.
"He'll downplay it, but he has a photographic memory," he said. His brother was very confident, which meant he didn't need to show off about his intelligence, Robert Waddell said.
Donna Steiger, a member of Rick Waddell's graduating class at Bentonville, said he clearly stood out from a crowd without trying.
"We did not have a gifted-and-talented program back then, but he was the most gifted and talented in our class," she said.
Waddell graduated West Point in 1982. He excelled there, receiving a Rhodes Scholarship to continue his education at Oxford University in England.
"I chose West Point because I wanted to serve," Waddell said.
His father was a private first class infantryman in the Pacific at the end of World War II. His brothers also served in the Korea and Vietnam eras in the Navy.
"My father told me, 'I went, and you'll go.' I also thought I was good enough to play football at the collegiate level, and Army agreed. Free tuition and a paying job after graduation were icing on the cake," he said.
Waddell played both center on offense and nose guard on defense for Bentonville. He's 6 feet, 3 inches tall and was 255 pounds at his peak playing weight at West Point. It was at the academy where he met his wife, Donna. The couple now have three grown children.
He was no older than 10 "when he told one of his uncles he was going to go to West Point," said Geraldine Carpenter of Centerton, Waddell's older sister. Carpenter was 10 years older than her brothers and helped raise them, she said. Rick Waddell is the same now as he was then, she said: Hardworking and focused, but kind.
"None of it was handed to him," she said of her brother's success.
He was a recognized leader in high school, classmates said.
"He's not a slow talker, but he talks slowly. There's a big difference," said Harrison French, a friend from Waddell's school days. "He's a problem solver, and every word that comes out of his mouth means something. It's a Northwest Arkansas drawl, not a Southern one."
Andy Griffith's character, Sheriff Taylor, is a good comparison to the impression Waddell makes and what he is like, French said -- friendly, wise without being overbearing, observant without showing off, almost always right and always worth listening to.
"He was a leader who didn't shy away from anything, but he didn't overdo it," on the football field or in class, French said. "He did not do anything just to impress people, but he is one thorough guy."
Waddell's Army service included time as a teacher at West Point and as an engineering officer. He entered the Army Reserve, in which he still serves, after completing active service in 1994.
Waddell's civilian career began after a hometown company approached him to work in their international sales division.
"Wal-Mart tracked me down," he said.
The retailer was expanding into South America in general and Brazil in particular. Waddell had studied Portuguese, Brazil's national language, at Oxford and was a trained engineering officer who had gained logistics experience from his Army career. He found himself a sought-after prospect by the companies who wanted to invest in the flourishing Brazilian economy.
One of those companies was Enron, the energy giant that collapsed in scandal in the United States. Its swift demise in 2001 surprised its employees in Brazil. Waddell already had accepted a position with another company.
"I was the only employee who had already cleaned out his desk when we all got the notice to do that," he said.
Waddell continued to serve assignments in the Army Reserve during this time and occasionally worked as a civilian in the Defense Department. He also attained a master's degree in public administration from Webster University and a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University in New York.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, moved his focus back on the military. His experience with oil and gas exploration companies included his time at Enron and also BG, a British-based natural gas company (not affiliated with the better-known British Petroleum, or BP.) He also had experience as chief executive officer of a mining company, Anglo Ferrous Brazil.
The experience put Waddell in demand as the United States tried to rebuild Iraq's and Afghanistan's economies, he said.
"I was going to Iraq frequently from 2004 to 2010 and having to tell my employers that I would have to spend 30 or 60 or 90 days at a time in Iraq," Waddell said. "Then, in late 2009, the Army told me they wanted me to go to Iraq for six months."
He veered back into a military career. Waddell was deployed five times to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan, according to Army records. He commanded the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Shafafiyat in Kabul, the country's capital, on one tour. McMaster was one of his predecessors.
As a deputy in the National Security Council, Waddell serves as a civilian and not as active duty military.
"People call me Rick, not general," he joked.
He remains in the Army Reserve where he's a major general, a two-star rank. He commanded the 67th Operational Response Command in Utah, starting in 2015 in his most recent active-duty assignment. The command included a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear response task force plus emergency preparedness liaison officers for all 50 states and three territories.
Waddell has also authored four military books.
"My story's not unique," he said. "Stories like mine are so common here we take them for granted.
"When people ask what it is we do at the council, I ask them if they can name the last several deputies at the NSC," he said. "They can't, and that's the way it should be. That's the way I want it to be as well after I leave."
Waddell described returning to the council as second in command after having served on the staff during the Bush administration as eerily familiar, adding the interests of the nation endure over time.
"This kind of work should be done by dedicated people serving in the background," he said. It is not, and should not be, viewed as an stepping stone to anything else, he said.
NW News on 10/01/2017
Print Headline: 'Country kid' watches national security