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Erik Raven ’96 helps the U.S. Navy address some of the most pressing issues facing today’s military.
By Amy Martin. Photo illustration by Iurii/Shutterstock
he most famous Navy fighter pilot doesn’t really exist. But that’s just fine with Under Secretary of the Navy Erik Raven ’96.
In fact, he was thrilled when, after a 36-year hiatus, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell came flying back into the hearts of millions this spring.
“We are very excited about it. The movie is a blockbuster, and people are talking about it,” Raven says of Top Gun: Maverick. “It’s a great way to start a conversation about what it means to serve one’s country.”
The film, which has grossed more than $1.4 billion worldwide, was released in theaters in May, just weeks after Raven was confirmed as under secretary by the U.S. Senate.
Raven had been serving as the majority clerk of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, where he oversaw more than $700 billion of annual spending by the Department of Defense and the intelligence community, when President Joe Biden asked late last year if he would be interested in being nominated to serve as the second-highest ranking official in the Department of the Navy.
“I jumped at it,” Raven remembers. “One of my great interests was engaging with the Navy and Marine Corps, analyzing their budget, and interacting with senior leaders, both civilian and military. It fit so well with my prior experience and my understanding of the issues. It was really an offer I could not refuse.”
Consistent with the principles of the U.S. Constitution, the Department of the Navy is a primarily civilian organization that provides oversight of the military affairs of the United States Navy and the United States Marine Corps. As under secretary, Raven serves as the Department of Navy’s chief operating officer and chief management officer, as well as the principal adviser to Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.
Looking after the secretary’s priorities, Raven spends his days at the Pentagon working with both civilians in the department and uniformed Navy and Marine Corps leaders to address a wide range of issues, from recruitment to budgeting for weapons systems and facilities to supporting the needs of the men and women in uniform.
“I was very lucky to have had experience working with quite a few of the senior leaders, and the team really welcomed me with open arms. I’ve been very fortunate to feel like I’m just picking up those conversations and making progress on a lot of key issues,” Raven says.
“The ethos of having civilian and military teams working together to solve hard problems has been fantastic. That way of working together is exactly what I think the American people would hope to see of how their government works.”
RAVEN KNEW HE WAS interested in government and international relations, but he didn’t know exactly where that would lead him when he arrived at Connecticut College as a sophomore in the mid-1990s. After graduating from high school early, Raven had attended community college near his hometown just outside of San Francisco, and he was looking to get out of California and see more of the world. He remembers visiting Conn’s campus and being blown away by its beauty and impressed with the government and international relations programs.
In addition to his main courses of study, Raven studied Chinese (“I came into Conn looking for a challenge, and Chinese was definitely it,” he says), and worked as a stagehand and electrician for theater productions in Palmer Auditorium, an experience he describes as “really special.” But it was in the government department where he found a mentor in William “Bill” Rose, now professor emeritus of government and international relations.
Raven took several of Rose’s classes focused on national security affairs, including “Peace and War in the Post-Cold War Era” and “American Foreign Policy,” and Rose advised Raven on his senior honors thesis, “Unkind Policies: An Investigation of Government Support of the International Drug Trade.”
“He really helped me on my way and opened up my eyes to a lot of areas of his expertise, everything from international peacekeeping to nontraditional security issues,” Raven says of Rose.
Rose remembers his former pupil well. “I’ve always been proud of him, and now even more so,” he says. He even has a letter of recommendation he wrote for Raven in 1998.
In the letter, Rose calls Raven an “outstanding, intelligent, hard-working student” before detailing three different research papers Raven wrote during his time at Conn.
The papers, Rose wrote, reflect “the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his analytical capabilities, his perseverance and hard work and, last but not least, his truly great interest in international relations and foreign policy.”
Rose concluded, “Erik has good instincts for important issues and sound analytical methods to explore them. … He knows what he wants and is willing to work hard to achieve his goals.”
After graduation, Raven took the Foreign Service Exam for the State Department, but an internship with then-U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson during his time at Conn had piqued his interest in Congress.
“Having representatives from all around the nation come with their own points of view, experience and policy recommendations, it was a really interesting place to be, and, as a staffer, broadened my eyes to a lot of other issues that were outside of the national security issues that I tended to gravitate towards,” Raven says.
Raven worked for Sen. Dianne Feinstein before taking a year to teach English in China. He earned a master’s degree in the history of international relations from the London School of Economics and returned to Capitol Hill, where he says he was very lucky to “move from one distinguished senator to another” before becoming the majority clerk for the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. That impressive group has included Feinstein and Senators Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Barbara Mikulski, Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and, most recently, Jon Tester.
“They’re each distinguished in their own way, and I’ve been truly honored to contribute to the work they’ve done and are doing in Washington, D.C.,” Raven says.
WHILE THE MOVE FROM Capitol Hill to the Pentagon has been fairly smooth, Raven has had to make one big adjustment—to his daily schedule.
“I’ll tell you, working on Capitol Hill, that is not an institution that starts early in the morning,” he laughs.
Now, he starts his days around 7:45 a.m. instead of 9 or 9:30, but the tradeoff is he more regularly makes it home for dinner with his wife, Ann, and their 7-year-old son, Edward.
And the work, while challenging, is incredibly rewarding for Raven.
“The Navy has a very unique position within our national security apparatus. When we think of the other military services, the Army and the Air Force, they typically live on military bases, either in this country or throughout the world, and their job is to project power from those bases,” Raven explains.
“Both the Navy and Marine Corps are fundamentally different because a lot of the work that our service members do is based on ships deployed around the world, close to those hotspots that we know about today or that may become hotspots tomorrow.”
With sailors and Marines deployed for long periods of time around the world, addressing mental health concerns is a top priority. The Navy and the Marine Corps are investing heavily in both resilience programs, to help service members better understand the stressors in their lives and how to react to them, and in counselors and mental health professionals, many of whom are embedded in the force.
Another huge challenge is the changing international environment.
“In the 21st century, technology is moving so fast, and our adversaries are moving fast as well. Both the Navy and Marine Corps have to be flexible and adapt to changing world situations, whether that be new challenges in the Asia Pacific with China’s growing power, or unexpected crises, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both the Navy and Marine Corps are central to forming our government’s response to both,” Raven says.
“That is actually one of the most rewarding parts of the job—being able to support the President in responding to the challenges that the U.S. faces today and into the future.”