Please join me in congratulating Karen A. Esaias '79 on being named the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown's 2011 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient. This award is the highest honor that Pitt-Johnstown bestows upon its more than 19,500 alumni. She will be presented with her award at an alumni gala held in her honor this fall.
Ms. Esaias, who stands as a role model not only to our students but the members of our MountainCat Veterans Program, has demonstrated the countless possibilities of a Pitt-Johnstown degree. She is a pioneer and path paver who has expanded opportunities for women and others in our military. Quite simply, she represents the very best of our alumni.
A native of Johnstown, Ms. Esaias retired from the United States Air Force, with the rank of Colonel, in 2007 after a distinguished 27-year career, during which she developed expertise and served in progressively responsible leadership positions in counterintelligence, counterespionage, antiterrorism, law enforcement, and security operations. Her illustrious career served as a blueprint for other women seeking leadership roles in the military.
At the senior leadership level, she established the Air Force Office of Special Investigations' (AFOSI) Washington Field Office at Andrews Air Force Base in 1998 and was selected to serve as its first Commander. She later served as Commander of the AFOSI's 53rd Field Investigations Squadron at Aviano Air Force Base, Italy. In this position, she was national-level liaison with host government and US intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Bosnia. She commanded all special field investigations squadron work in those countries, as well.
Returning to the United States, she served as the first female Commander of AFOSI Region 8, based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. As Commander, she directed all investigations and operations supporting the Air Force Space Command and the US Air Force Academy with 10 operating locations throughout the continental United States. The support included investigations of all serious crimes including murder, rape, espionage, terrorism, and drug trafficking. She was the first woman to hold this position. Her last role with the Air Force was Vice Commander of the AFOSI, headquartered at Andrews Air Force Base. She was the first woman in the command's 57-year history to hold this role.
During her time on Active Duty, she received numerous commendations including the Legion of Merit Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the fifth-highest medal awarded to members of the US Armed Forces, which she received for leadership and service in Europe, Colorado, and finally upon retirement as the Vice Commander; the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, awarded for noncombat meritorious achievement or service that is incontestably exceptional and of magnitude that clearly places the individual above his/her peers while serving in one of the assignments for which the medal has been designated; the Air Force Meritorious Medal with two oak leaf clusters, established as the counterpart of the Bronze Star Medal for the recognition of meritorious noncombat service.
Since her retirement, Ms. Esaias has served as Vice President for Counterintelligence at McLean, Virginia-based Harding Security Associates (now Six3 Systems, Inc.), where she provided direct support to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence at the Pentagon for the integration of Department of Defense sensitive activities. There, she provided senior subject matter expertise and oversight for the identification, evaluation, and in-depth analysis of operations.
Currently, she is Vice President of Operations for Alexandria, Virginia-based Kiernan Group Holdings, Inc., where she provides senior subject matter expertise in law enforcement and intelligence to a variety of customers in support of projects enhancing homeland defense and safeguarding Department of Defense resources worldwide.
On learning of her selection for the award, Ms. Esaias said, "I was surprised and humbled to hear from President Spectar that I had been selected for the honor. Johnstown is my favorite place in the world and my time at Pitt-Johnstown was a huge part of that. Those of us lucky enough to have attended this excellent school known for its emphasis on quality teaching, graduated knowing that we were well-prepared for what life had to offer. To be selected from the incredibly talented and successful group of graduates of my alma mater is something I will always cherish."
A graduate of Westmont Hilltop High School, Ms. Esaias received her BA (summa cum laude) in business economics from Pitt-Johnstown in 1979. She went on to earn her master's degree in national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and attended the Defense Language Institute.
Ms. Esaias is married to Richard Von Schlichten, and resides in the Washington, DC area. She is the daughter of the late Donald R. Esaias '49 and Catherine Esaias '51, who is the retired Director of Health Services at Pitt-Johnstown.
In order to be eligible for the Distinguished Alumni Award, candidates must have earned a bachelor’s or associate’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. Candidates can also have earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh after having completed two years of study at Pitt-Johnstown during a period when four-year degrees were not available at the Johnstown campus. Nominations for the award can be submitted by any member of the University of Pittsburgh community, including alumni, faculty, staff, students, and Advisory Board members. Past recipients of the award are the late Congressman John P. Murtha '60, James E. Wilkes ’53, an entrepreneur in the oil and gas industry, and Chester "Chet" Thomas '66, founder and Executive Director of Proyecto Aldea Global (Project Global Village) in Honduras.
Jem Spectar, PhD