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PJ leader retires after 30 years of service

Mr. Terry Phillips, the top civilian at the Office of Special Investigation’s Office of Special Projects (PJ), addresses attendees during his retirement ceremony at the Pentagon Dec. 30. Phillips, who was also the outgoing Air and Space Force's Special Access Program security director, was the first Senior Executive Service civilian (SES-1) to serve in the dual capacities. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua King, OSI/PA)

Mr. Terry Phillips, the top civilian at the Office of Special Investigation’s Office of Special Projects (PJ), addresses attendees during his retirement ceremony at the Pentagon Dec. 30. Phillips, who was also the outgoing Air and Space Force's Special Access Program security director, was the first Senior Executive Service civilian (SES-1) to serve in the dual capacities. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua King, OSI/PA)

ARLINGTON, Va. --

After three decades of service, the top civilian at the Office of Special Investigation’s Office of Special Projects retired, but says he looks forward to watching the organization grow from the sidelines. 

Terry Phillips, who was also the outgoing Air and Space Force's Special Access Program security director, retired Dec. 30 during a ceremony at The Pentagon. He was the first senior executive service civilian* to hold the dual roles.

“I’ve enjoyed my career and the opportunities I had to work with OSI,” he said, during a recent OSI podcast interview.** “I’m very happy when I look back on the time that we had."

Phillips added he cannot help but think of all the people OSI has recruited and the direction they will steer the organization in.

“It’s my time to step away and move to the stands and watch all the great people that we brought on board and trained and prepare them to go out and be successful,” he said.

Prior to leading 427 personnel in more than 40 field offices, Phillips commissioned into the Air Force through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Auburn University in 1992, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

After pinning on his first bar, then-2nd Lt. Phillips went to the West Coast as a section commander. He was assigned to the 330th Flying Training Squadron, Castle Air Force Base, California.

There, he oversaw issues, punishments and activities for the squadron. Phillips then stamped his passport at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where he worked as an emergency action officer for the 86th Airlift Wing.

Phillips’ life changed forever in Germany after occasionally assisting local OSI special agents with investigations.

“We had to take action on those reports of investigation,” he said. “What was very neat was that those agents could come in and describe cases, and that sparked my interest.”

In addition, one of Phillips’ neighbors, who met up with him periodically for social events, was a newly-minted OSI special agent who told Phillips about the career field. He was immediately drawn to it.

Phillips said he brought realistic skills and knowledge of what the Air Force does and its mission to OSI. During this time, he developed expertise in a variety of fields, including maintenance and command post.

“It was valuable to me throughout my career to understand from [an application] perspective, from a maintenance perspective, and from a command post perspective, to apply that to OSI,” he said.

In 1997, then-Capt. Phillips graduated from the Special Investigations Academy and never looked back. Despite being a self-proclaimed “late bloomer,” the officer hit the ground running. He conducted counterintelligence and criminal investigations in Germany and Pope AFB, North Carolina. 

“As a young captain, I served at Ramstein as an agent and that was an incredible place for me to learn our skills,” he said. “Ramstein had a large number of criminal, counterintelligence and fraud cases. So it was good for me to learn all those areas about OSI.”

Phillips brought those skills to the civil service in 2001. His first assignment left a lasting impression; he spent more than a year at Langley AFB, Virginia, serving in OSI’s Office of Special Projects, which he later headed as executive director. 

The rest is history. In 2002, he served as director of operations of OSI’s Anti-Terrorism Specialty Team at Lackland AFB, Texas, with a stint spent as the Special-Agent-In-Charge of Field Operating Location Echo at Kirkuk AB, Iraq.

Phillips said one of his most notable assignments was managing the Air Force’s counterintelligence program, where he served in a dual role as the counterintelligence director for the U.S. European Command and as the U.S. counterintelligence representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

During his time with NATO, Phillips found it particularly rewarding to work alongside the country’s most senior leaders, he said. He was able to provide commanders with the decision-making information they needed to make tough calls.

“It made me happy to know I was able to bring information to a commander to help them make a very important decision; that was extremely gratifying,” he said.

Regardless of where he served, Phillips said he looks back on every assignment and would not change a thing because they “played a role in who I am today,” he said.

However, he wouldn’t mind more time. Like in Germany, after returning as an OSI special agent, he had less than 18 months before moving back to the United States. Regardless of where he was stationed, OSI’s people were always one of his top priorities.

“This is a people business,” recalling his experiences with OSI. “We recruit people who can connect, share information and link people to solve hard problems; it’s very special.

“The networks we build within the Air Force, within federal law enforcement, our intelligence community and our foreign partners are very special,” he continued.

During the retirement ceremony, Phillips was presented the Air Force Outstanding Civilian Career Service Award by Lt. Gen. Sami D. Said, the Department of the Air Force inspector general, to recognize his years of service.

As he closed his career, Phillips sees a great things in OSI’s future because the organization is on the right track.

“[OSI] is an incredible organization and the value of the organization is our people and our culture,” he said. “It continues to grow that culture, continues to share with others things that you’ve learned.”

“That is the power of OSI and what we do,” he said. “The more that we do that, the more our mission will be successful."

*Editor's Note: The Senior Executive Service is a position classification in the civil service of the United States federal government, equivalent to general officer or flag officer ranks in the U.S. Armed Forces. Mr. Phillips retired with the grade of SES-1.

**Click https://open.spotify.com/episode/6qY88kVV7qHoLJZaxBWzKs to listen to the full podcast interview with Mr. Terry Phillips on OSI Today: My OSI Journey.