50 Military Veterans are Current Students at HKS

March 9, 2010
by Corydon Ireland, the Harvard Gazette

Before they were Harvard, they were military.

As many as 150 students across the University have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have real-world stories to tell and pragmatic perspectives to contribute to academia. For them, America’s long-running wars are more than the stuff of newspaper headlines, network video, or armchair arguments. They are crucibles of experience that are, were, and always will be vivid and real.

Interviews with more than two dozen of these veterans suggest that these wars have brought to Harvard combat soldiers, airmen, and Marines who have high levels of discipline, judgment, maturity, and leadership.

Most of these student veterans are in three graduate programs, as approximate numbers show: Harvard Business School (70), Harvard Kennedy School (50), Harvard Law School (15).

Students who are veterans say they bring a unique perspective to Harvard. Some of it is academic, and some emotional.

When it comes to classes about history, foreign policy, or national security, “We have specific, formal experience in these two major wars,” said Christopher Cannon, M.P.A. ’11, a Harvard Kennedy School student who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said veterans contribute a hard-won pragmatism, because of “the judgments we all had to make.”

When student veterans talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, they begin with a powerful fact: They were there, and their memories are fresh.

Sean Barney, M.P.A. ’11, will graduate from Yale Law School next year, as well as Harvard Kennedy School. For two months in 2006, he was a Marine rifleman patrolling the narrow alleys and crooked, crowded streets of Fallujah, Iraq.

On May 12 of that year, a sniper shot him in the neck. The bullet severed his carotid artery. Stunned, his head buzzing, Barney ran for cover before collapsing. He awoke two days later in a hospital in Washington, D.C., another miracle of modern combat medicine.

Jared Esselman, M.P.P. ’11, traveled the world in the Air Force, often in C-17 transport aircraft, where he was a loadmaster. (He managed aircraft from the pilot’s seat to the plane’s tail, with responsibilities for passengers, fuel, hydraulics, center-of-gravity cargo, and combat off-loading.)

Esselman was in Iraq in March 2003 in the earliest days of the shooting war. His aircraft was the second C-17 to land in Baghdad, where resistance remained stiff. Bombs flashed and blue-tailed missiles streaked past. “Red tracers from anti-aircraft fire [were] just littering the sky,” he said. “It looked like lightning.” He went on to fly nearly 300 combat sorties.

One feature of combat is that those who survive “bring a sense of caring about other people,” said Esselman, whose pre-service experience included herding cattle and working in a factory. “It’s hard for veterans to switch off that mode. It’s genuine caring.” Back home, “That translates over some to the classroom. You care about your classmates,” he said, “because you did the same thing on the battlefield.”

Harvard’s veterans also include women, who attest to gender diversity in the armed forces. (About a fifth of those in the U.S. armed services are women.) Tammy Brignoli, M.P.A. ’10, a major whose next post will be at the Pentagon, is only 38, but already has 21 years in the Army, counting time in the Reserves. She joined at 17, in the summer before her senior year in high school in Texas.

As an officer in airborne units, Brignoli served in Iraq and Afghanistan in capacities directly supporting combat units. “I’m really glad the military has changed the way it has,” said the mother of three, whose youngest son’s name is Valor. “It allows women to make a name for themselves.” At Harvard, she said, “I’m building bridges.”

The University’s veterans say combat also instills a perspective beyond academics or social settings. It sharpens the sense of what matters, and in what order.

Aaron Scheinberg, M.P.A./ID ’11, who is working on a joint degree, including business at Columbia University, spent a year as an Army officer patrolling Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. He finds that he doesn’t get annoyed anymore when standing in line for, say, coffee. That likely has something to do with the dozen times his combat vehicles were hit by IEDs (improvised explosive devices). To this day he remembers the bright flash, the choking dust, and the chemical taste.

“You catch yourself,” said Scheinberg, an Arabic-speaking graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who appreciates where he is now. “Look, this is not a bad deal. You can step back and say: We’re at Harvard, the best school in the world.”

Erik Malmstrom, M.P.P./M.B.A. ’12, who blogs about his wartime experiences for the New York Times, embraces the same kind of perspective. He was an Army platoon leader in northeast Afghanistan’s remote and rugged Waigul Valley, where in a year he lost six comrades. The pain still glitters in his eyes.

“The main thing, and the most important thing: We bring a dose of reality,” said Malmstrom. “We’re educating people in many ways.”

Jake Cusack, M.P.P./M.B.A. ’12, who was a Marine sniper platoon commander in Iraq, said that veterans educate those around them, in part by demonstrating the power of context. To get results, he said, theory often must be strained through reality.

“When you talk in a classroom about executing ‘comprehensive counterinsurgency policies’ in Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s one thing to use those words and to imagine what they might be in an academic setting,” Cusack said. “But it’s another to be able to execute those policies when you’re tired, it’s 110 degrees, and you’re angry because one of your friends was wounded or killed the day before.”

It’s important to bring context to the classroom, agreed Malmstrom, but it’s also important to bring a sense of humility. Seeing, up close, the complexities of executing policy, he said, “makes me much more thoughtful and mature about how I view military power.”

Cusack added a caveat, mentioning another form of humility. Veterans are not the only ones at Harvard with the real-world perspective gained from living in austere conditions and dangerous places. Students who have had field experience with nongovernmental organizations or the Peace Corps, for instance, often have gotten the same jolt from reality, he said.

Read the full story, with more information about veterans at other Harvard schools, in the Harvard Gazette.

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