Two starving girls. That’s one thing Cheryl Mills (Col ’87) always will remember about Haiti.

Mills met these children and their distraught mothers at a makeshift hospital when she and former President Bill Clinton visited Haiti last year, even before the earthquake in January that devastated an already blighted nation. She was representing the State Department, where she serves as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff and chair of an interagency group that is working to provide assistance to Haiti.

U.S. State Department

When Mills saw the dying girls, they’d been hospitalized for 23 days. Aid was pouring in to the country, but the hospital was inland from the port cities and the roads were in disrepair, so food aid and medicine could not reach them. That realization left Mills feeling helpless.

“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t save their lives. I could tell the mothers that their children were beautiful, because they were,” said Mills, during a recent visit to the University. She was here to receive the 2010 Distinguished Alumna Award, which goes to a female graduate who has demonstrated excellence, leadership and extraordinary commitment to her field.

While Mills could not help the girls, witnessing their suffering did leave her with a sense of obligation to develop U.S. policy that will help Haiti not just for the short term but for the long term as well.

Washington insiders would not be surprised to learn of Mills’ determination on this issue. Yet they might be caught off guard by her revelation of a softer side when she reflects on Haiti’s misery. After all, Mills established a national reputation for toughness as a legal adviser in the Clinton White House. She further burnished her combative image in those days with her office décor. Her computer screensaver read: “It’s the lioness that hunts.”

Mills believes that the United States must adopt a new approach to helping Haiti. Earlier efforts saw billions of aid dollars spent while conditions worsened for the average Haitian.

Besides her tenacity, Mills also is known for her devotion to Hillary Clinton. She first worked with the Clinton administration in 1992 as a member of its transition team. At the time, she was a junior attorney with the Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson, which she joined after graduating from Stanford’s law school. Mills soon became an attorney in the White House counsel’s office and moved up to deputy counsel in 1997. In this role, she first gained national prominence for her defense of the president during impeachment proceedings in the U.S. Senate.

Impressed by her performance, President Clinton offered Mills the post of chief counsel in 1999. She declined the position, however, and left the capital for the private sector. She soon joined Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen Media as senior vice president for corporate policy and public programming. In 2001, she went to New York University as a senior vice president and general counsel.

No matter where she was, Mills stayed in contact with Hillary Clinton, who valued her loyalty and candor. “I think Secretary Clinton wants to know you’re a team player, but she wants to hear it straight. And she gets exactly that from Cheryl,” former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart told Politico, an online news service.

For example, Mills revealed during her recent visit to the University that she advised Hillary Clinton not to run for president and, then, not to become secretary of state. In both cases, Mills believed public service would deny Clinton a chance for a more private life after years in the public eye. Neither piece of advice altered their relationship. In fact, Mills joined Clinton’s presidential campaign as legal counsel and later became its de facto manager. Likewise, when Clinton took charge of the State Department, she brought Mills with her and gave her a leading role in U.S.-Haitian affairs.

Well before the earthquake, Mills was involved in revamping U.S. policy on Haiti. She had visited the country, met its leaders and understood its problems. Her pre-quake knowledge and contacts proved invaluable in providing immediate relief and in shaping a strategy for long-term improvements.

Mills believes that the United States must adopt a new approach to helping Haiti. Earlier efforts saw billions of aid dollars spent while conditions worsened for the average Haitian.

“We didn’t have a model that was sustainable. A lot of our assistance was channeled through (private aid groups) and contractors,” she recently told USA Today. “There was no clear strategy for how you might ultimately transfer capacity to the Haitian government and the Haitian people, putting the nation on a more sustainable path.”

Cheryl Mills, second from right, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, center right, meet with Haiti’s President René Préval, second from left, to discuss conditions in the country following the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, Pool

Mills is convinced that, in the future, Haitian assistance must focus on four key areas: security, health, electricity and agriculture. Mills is particularly interested in what can be done to improve the country’s farming sector. Simply put, she says, American policy should strive to assist Haiti to grow more food and improve the ways food is preserved and distributed to Haitian citizens.

“Already, in this emergency-to-recovery phase, the U.S. and other donors have joined with the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture to fund important cash-for-work programs that are employing displaced people and others in rural areas outside Port-au-Prince. These workers are rehabilitating and restoring damaged agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation canals, farm-to-market roads and vital watershed so that they can withstand the seasonal rains and hurricanes. We are also planning to assist in providing resources for seed and fertilizer to ensure that farmers can capitalize on the planting season,” Mills said at a United Nations meeting in Rome in February.

Ultimately, this sort of aid can stimulate the economy, kick-start Haitian agriculture and create a situation where continuing foreign assistance is not necessary.

Mills’ analysis of the Haitian situation is pragmatic, yet she also believes improvements are possible because of a gut feeling about the courage of the Haitian people.

“I do believe there is a bright future for Haiti,” she said in Rome. “For a country of more than 9 million endowed with valuable natural resources, a rich culture and history of empowerment and resilience, surrounded by peaceful and economically stable neighbors, I see every reason for optimism. If we all have the strength of but one Haitian, we will succeed.”