Success & Impact
Industry leaders celebrate Saint Joseph’s alumnus Brian Duperreault ’69 as the Academy’s Executive of the Year.
Success & Impact
Justin Witwicki ’09 is now a Fleet Scholars Fellow at Harvard University, a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy and has more than a decade of experience in the national security community. But back in the early 2000s, he was just a hungry teenager, stopping for a bite to eat after a whirlwind roadtrip of college tours.
Witwicki and his parents pulled off the road for dinner at a chain restaurant after a visit to Villanova. At that point, he’d been up and down the east coast searching for a good fit, but nothing was really clicking.
“Our waiter was a current Hawk,” remembers Witwicki. “And he told us to give it a shot. Just go check out St. Joe’s while we were in town and he promised we wouldn’t be disappointed. And he was right — I fell in love real quick.”
Witwicki enrolled as a political science major with aspirations of practicing law. During his time on Hawk Hill, he studied abroad in Madrid where he discovered an appetite for international relations, interned with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s major trials unit where he delved deeper into his passion for public interest law and then participated in SJU’s Washington Center where he went to work in the White House with Vice President Dick Cheney’s legal counsel.
The White House was where things started to come together for Witwicki. During the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney’s office played a pivotal role in the decisions being made internationally.
“It was such a pinch me moment,” Witwicki recalls. “Walking through the gates of the White House every morning and watching these decisions being made that I then saw unfolding on TV and impacting the lives of people around me. It was unreal.”
There, he not only worked with a variety of public sector lawyers, but also some very significant military officers working on national security affairs. He was inspired watching these officers navigate their way through legalese at the White House, and soon Witwicki saw his professional pathway coming into focus.
Initially, he considered following both careers — get the law degree and then enlist — but his White House mentor gave him some sage advice.
“The vice president’s lawyer told me flat out, don’t try and do both because it isn’t going to be what you think,” he remembers. “She said I should do one and do it well.”
Taking these words to heart, Witwicki put the idea of law school aside and joined the Navy as a combat officer. After flight school, he was sent to Tokyo as a mission commander and eventually began working as a tactical instructor for the Navy’s airborne command and control weapons school, visiting different Naval squadrons for training. The job involved a lot of traveling and Witwicki made it his mission to instill the importance of diversity in the work he took on.
One of the most important things we have as an asset to our national security community is diversity.
“One of the most important things we have as an asset to our national security community is diversity,” says Witwicki. “Diversity of educational backgrounds, lived experiences; exposure to different ways of thinking, different industries and people — that’s what helps our military adapt and innovate.”
As an openly gay officer who was named a 2021 “Out Leader” by two separate organizations, Witwicki was able to bring his own diversity to the table in the predominately heteronormative culture of the Navy.
“When I first joined the Navy, it wasn’t legal for me to be open and honest about who I was with the people I worked with,” Witwicki remembers. “It’s been 10 years since we repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and I’m still encountering corpsmen who have never met an officer who was out.”
But Witwicki knows he can help change that through openness and mentorship.
“One experience in particular I remember happened shortly after I finished training a particular squadron,” Witwicki recalls. “One lieutenant, after a decade of service, finally came out to his peers just as I was leaving.”
Witwicki felt a true sense of accomplishment for having created such a safe space for this man to be himself.
He wrote me this letter after I left about how much our time together had impacted his decision. And it’s more important to me than any medal I’ve ever received — it’s up on my wall.
“He wrote me this letter after I left about how much our time together had impacted his decision,” he says. “And it’s more important to me than any medal I’ve ever received — it’s up on my wall.”
During this time, Witwicki was earning his M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. While there, he completed his master’s thesis on the challenges to U.S. Naval readiness, which focused heavily on how climate change issues were impacting national security infrastructure.
“Shortly before I wrote this thesis, I witnessed a string of incidents in Japan where our surface combatants were involved in multiple collisions,” recalls Witwicki.
Seventeen people ended up dying in those collisions, a loss Witwicki ascribes to a lack of readiness and training on behalf of the Navy. As he began peeling back the layers of the incident, it became apparent that some of that readiness the Navy had been lacking was due to the fundamental changes in the waters around them.
“When you dive in, you realize that the Navy will be playing a much larger role in humanitarian and disaster relief efforts in the future — it’s easier to drop an aircraft carrier off the coast than it is to rebuild infrastructure,” says Witwicki. “At the same time, a lot of our naval bases are very old. Can they stand up to these aggressive environmental changes?”
Climate change is coming for the military and Witwicki says they’re planning for it.
“The U.S. Defense Department, from the secretary all the way down to our smallest units, is planning for climate change impacts,” he says reassuringly. “Not just in the missions we execute but in our global environments, too.”
Though he completed his degree from Johns Hopkins while on active duty, Witwicki is currently enjoying being a full-time student at Harvard where he is working toward his M.P.A. as a Fleet Scholars Fellow.
“It’s so fun to be in a classroom again,” says Witwicki. “Being a civilian can be odd sometimes — I have to actually pick out my clothing in the morning because there’s no flight suit here — but overall, I’m very happy.”
Witwicki will return to active duty once his degree has been completed, which he is fully expecting to be a total culture shock.