When Carrie Ricci realized that she didn’t have enough scholarship money to pay for all four years of her undergraduate program at Georgetown University, she looked to the US Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps as a way to make up the difference. Little did she know, that decision would shape the trajectory of her career.
“I wasn’t necessarily feeling the need to serve my country,” Ricci admits. “But once I got in the military, I fell in love with it and with the mission.”
Over the course of her two decades of military service, Ricci not only achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel but also obtained her JD from the University of Maryland. She has since become an employee of the federal government in order to continue in the same vein of mission-driven work that kept her in the military for so many years.
Today, as associate general counsel of marketing, regulatory, and food safety programs at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Ricci applies her legal expertise to advance agency policy goals and ensure the health and safety of the American public. At the same time, she remains passionate about the Army, its mission, and its ongoing transformation for the better.
Just as she had not planned to enter the military, Ricci had not planned to become an attorney. However, while serving as an Army platoon leader during her first tour, she got a chance to observe the legal process when one of her soldiers was court-martialed. “I saw the military lawyers and what they did, and I decided that it was what I wanted to do,” she says. With that, she applied to the Army’s Funded Legal Education Program, through which she was able to attend law school without paying out of pocket.
As an Army attorney, Ricci gained experience handling a variety of criminal, national security, and administrative matters. But by the time she decided to leave the military, she was ready for a new challenge. She landed an assistant general counsel position at the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA), a school system for the children of US military and other Department of Defense (DOD) personnel. She learned education law for the role, which saw her coordinating with colleagues around the world and running a nationwide ethics program.
Ricci made the jump to USDA in 2012 after less than three years at the DoDEA. Once again, she picked up a new area of law on the job, which led to her selection for promotion just eighteen months later.
In her current role, Ricci supervises a two-team division that provides legal services to three different agencies within the USDA. She established standard operating procedures for the division early on to facilitate the efficient execution of the USDA’s mission. She has also prioritized employee engagement, support, and career growth to keep her team members on their toes.
“We want to help the new political appointees who are leading our organization achieve their policy goals, and achieve those goals within the limits of the law,” Ricci explains. “That takes a lot of discussion and a lot of flexibility and creativity.”
For her part, Ricci stays abreast of congressional developments related to her mission areas so that she can stand up new programs in accordance with the latest legislation. She also collaborates with the US Department of Justice and other external agencies on matters of the law, in addition to tackling major food health and safety concerns when they arise. For instance, Ricci worked and her team worked closely with agency officials to devise legal solutions that provided much-needed regulatory flexibility for both regulated entities and the USDA employees that enforce the regulations.
On top of her USDA duties, Ricci stays involved with the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA): she worked on the HNBA’s Latina Commission for many years and served as cochair for three. She also recently participated in an independent review of Fort Hood, a prominent Army post in Texas where Ricci held her first post as a Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer. Along with four other appointees, Ricci spent twenty days at the post to conduct a review of its culture and climate.
“My primary role was to interview soldiers one-on-one about their experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment,” she explains. “I saw the pain and damage that had been inflicted on those who had suffered and who hadn’t been heard. It was gut-wrenching, but very important work.”
Ricci and her fellow review panelists produced a 140-page report to document their findings and make recommendations to the Army and DOD. “This has become another passion of mine,” she says, referring to her ongoing advocacy for military survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment. “Right now, there’s this momentum, and I don’t want that momentum to fade out without bringing about real change.”
Whether Ricci is leading difficult conversations about the Army’s future or counseling the USDA on policy proposals, her commitment to her country and its citizens shines through. “When you’re working at this level, you really do feel like what you’re doing is important, no matter what your job is,” she says. “I love the work here at the USDA, and I know that the mission will get accomplished.”