By Jonathan Stack, NGA Office of Corporate Communications

Vanessa Schaffer, NGA American Sign Language interpreter (left), and Paula Ayres, ’95, NGA hybrid geospatial imagery analyst, pose for a photograph while deployed in 2020 to Djibouti, Africa.
Vanessa Schaffer, NGA American Sign Language interpreter (left), and Paula Ayres, ’95, NGA hybrid geospatial imagery analyst, pose for a photograph while deployed in 2020 to Djibouti, Africa.

“Deaf people can do anything but hear,” said former 91 President I. King Jordan.

This holds especially true for Paula Ayres, ’95, who has deployed six times over a 10-year span as a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency hybrid geospatial imagery analyst, supporting the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa in Djibouti, Africa, as a part of the GEOINT support team.

Ayres grew up wanting to follow in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and serve proudly as a member of the U.S. armed forces, she said. Unfortunately, deaf and hard of hearing individuals were ineligible to join. Being at NGA, gave her the opportunity to support the military.“

When I found out that I qualified and was selected to be a member of the NGA Volunteer Deployment Team as a deployer, I was elated because this was my chance to work alongside the military,” she said. “After the six deployments, it continues to inspire me to see [service members] doing many amazing things for their country.”

“Ayres’ experiences varied for each of her deployments because of the countless missions the GEOINT support team was involved with and the unexpected projects and changes that occurred from day to day,” she said.

“The environment in which we operated and in which our office operated is very dynamic and fluid,” said Ayres.

“There were days when I didn’t know what to expect when I walked through the door,” said Ayres. “So that part [of deploying] is very stimulating – trying to figure out the unknown and having to keep an eye on all these different moving pieces.

While deployed, Ayres wears many hats to include conducting geospatial analysis, imagery analysis, data management and handling dissemination protocols, she said.

“My primary role was to produce integrated geographic data, geospatial products, imagery products and provide high-priority GEOINT support to the warfighter and customers from various mission partners and military elements,” she said.

Some of the mission partners and military elements included the task force commander, foreign partners and the U.S. State Department, said Ayres. She received numerous region-specific requests for information from various military elements and created and provided numerous types of tailored GEOINT products to meet their requirements for their missions.

“I acquired a great deal of new GEOINT skill sets in the four short months of a deployment, like anyone would in four years at a university,” Ayres said.During her deployments, Ayres said she realized she enjoys finding and executing solutions to GEOINT problems by putting her logical and critical thinking to use and applying a “can-do” attitude.

“Leveraging collateral intelligence and using GEOINT information through research to provide timely and accurate value-added GEOINT assessments is what I enjoy doing,” she said.

“The deployment experience fulfills me as an analyst, and I am grateful to be able to support the military and serve NGA upwardly, outwardly and inwardly all at the same time.

”While deployed, Ayres said the only challenge she occasionally faced was communication.

To limit the challenge of communication, deaf and hard of hearing employees can request to deploy with an interpreter as a reasonable accommodation. During Ayres last deployment, she was accompanied by Vanessa Schaffer, NGA American Sign Language interpreter.

“When some people realize that I am deaf, naturally they become hesitant,” said Ayres. “When I observe customers trying to figure out how to respond to me…I quickly introduce my American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter to show them they can communicate with me easily.

”Ayres said she considered herself very fortunate to have an ASL interpreter, who volunteered to deploy as well, with her. The interpreter was on call all the time to support Ayres should customers have an urgent need or question.

While deployed, Schaffer’s primary duty was to interpret, but she also served as a staff officer for the GEOINT support team.

“When I wasn’t interpreting, I printed finished map products for customers and delivered them as well and I uploaded finished products to the Enterprise Geographic Information System, a portal to help enable non-standard [products and data] to be discoverable and disseminated,” said Schaffer. “I also updated the [GEOINT support team’s] Intellipedia page with situational reports and other relevant information.

”Schaffer said she also interpreted the everyday conversation and banter in the office environment which built team comradery.

Using an ASL interpreter is an excellent communication tool, said Ayres. The excitement grew when they got together and had great conversations through the ASL interpreter.

“The team camaraderie was also unique,” she said. “Working 12-hour days every day of the week makes for a close-knit office environment there, which I loved.”

Ayres and Shaffer both agreed that deploying is a great way to see NGA employees in action and how customers use agency products and services, as well as feel more connected to the mission.

Through the six deployments, Ayres said there has always been at least one person she met who knows some ASL, and it helps break down the communication barrier and challenge.

“I got very excited when someone knows American Sign Language,” she said. “My team was very eager to learn more about the deaf culture and American Sign Language to communicate with me.”

Even when Schaffer was not in the room or available, Ayres said the team constantly made sure she was not left behind by writing or gesturing with her.

“This is an excellent example of how we overcame communication challenges and built a strong bridge to both hearing and deaf worlds,” said Ayres. “I appreciated the close-knit and supportive culture on the team, and felt I had a voice and a real kinship with those around me.”

Job satisfaction is as much about being part of a compelling mission as it is about the people working together to accomplish it, said Ayres. Overall, the NGA mission in a deployed environment is a very rewarding experience.

Ayres said she loves the agency mission and vision and the NGA mission in a deployed environment is a very rewarding experience.

“NGA is fully supportive of people with disabilities,” Ayres said. “My deployment experiences sharpened my GEOINT skills, helped me acquire new capabilities and enhanced networking.”

Ayres said she takes pride in representing NGA to everyone she meets, and has discovered her purpose.

“It’s been very fulfilling, and one of the reasons people join the [intelligence community] is to make a difference and support our military forces abroad,” she said. “I would encourage [everyone] to widen their horizons and realize the endless opportunities that may come knocking at their door and encourage them to answer it.”

After being an NGA employee for 15 years, Ayres said she feels giving back and volunteering is a significant part of her own personal values and work ethic, and encourages deaf NGA employees to volunteer for deployments and other events.

“We, the deaf and hard of hearing NGA employees, are just as collaborative, hardworking, and resourceful as hearing employees,” said Ayres. 

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