From Georgetown to the frontlines

By:
08/24/2007

Georgetown students are ambitious. When they graduate, they flock to jobs where they can aspire to do big things, whether in politics, finance or any other field. But a few Hoyas end up in a different line of work in a different place altogether: Iraq or Afghanistan.

“I don’t really like to talk about it, but one day while I was commanding a convoy through stand-still traffic in Kabul, something slammed into the side of my vehicle,” writes Jason Kander (LAW ‘05) who served as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan and is now an army reservist. “The tactic of suicide bombers at the time was to jump onto vehicles and hold on until detonation. I raised my rifle, switched off the safety, and placed my finger on the trigger, beginning to apply pressure. When I looked through the iron sights, just before I would have fired, I saw a very scared little boy looking back at me with his face pressed against the window. I still thank God that I had the split-second judgment to focus my eyes before firing. The face of that kid still wakes me up in the middle of the night when I’m stressed out.”

Lieutenant Wilson St. Pierre (SFS ’04) is flanked by two other soldiers in Iraq.
Courtsey Wilson St. Pierre

Kander, like the other soldiers interviewed for this story, is a product of Georgetown’s Reserve Officer Training Corps battalion, which prepares each year just over one hundred students from colleges around D.C.’about thirty from Georgetown’to become commissioned Second Lieutenants in the U.S. Army. It’s a job that’s entirely different from what most students will do after graduation, especially today, as people around the country find more common ground supporting the troops and less agreement on what, exactly, the troops should be doing.

After about a year of further training, most will end up serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they will be expected to command’and be responsible for’thirty soldiers on active duty. “When we say leadership, we mean everything from their health and welfare, to their physical ability, to seeing that their families are taken care of while [the soldiers]are away,” said Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Koprowski, Professor of Military Science and leader of the Hoya battalion.

Georgetown’s ROTC program is, technically, supposed to produce officers with the same skills as those who graduate from West Point or Officer Candidate School. But Georgetown, with its strengths in political and international studies, offers a few extra incentives besides the leadership curriculum that makes up the ROTC training program. Kathleen Merkl (SFS ‘05), an intelligence officer deployed in Iraq, notes that her study of religion and politics let her come to Iraq with a knowledge of the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, a key political distinction on the ground that even influential congressional representatives sometimes fail to understand. 1LT Wilson St. Pierre (SFS ‘04), who has completed one tour in Iraq and expects to do another after promotion to Captain, points out that Professor Phillip Karber taught a class on counter-insurgency at Georgetown even before it was an issue in Iraq.

The ROTC program is seen by some to be unique in itself, too. Media reports have pointed out a new focus on counter-insurgency training army-wide that gives individual officers more authority to act on a local level. St. Pierre writes that his commanding officers (who have since retired), Major Don Vandergriff and Lieutenant Colonel Allen Gill, “were some of the best at training future officers to think “outside the box,” an invaluable skill when dealing with an insurgency. The Army has recognized the effectiveness of Major Vandergriff’s teaching philosophy, and he is currently working with the Army, as a civilian, to revamp the entire junior officer training program.”

Even now, Lieutenant Colonel Koprowski and his officers, who have seen tours in Iraq, freely use their experience to augment the basic ROTC curriculum, which consists of one class per semester of leadership training alongside physical training and two month-long summer training sessions. Since the end of the Cold War, doctrines have shifted from fighting a land war in Europe to peacekeeping and “Operations Other Than War” and now counterinsurgency. Koprowski said his officers are focused on “creating someone who is intellectually flexible, who can adjust to an ambiguous situation,” while applying critical analysis, cultural awareness and ethical decision-making. In essence, Koprowoski said, the tactical and historic training of ROTC twenty years ago has been superceded by a focus on leaders who can take charge in any situation. “I’m 24 and, like everyone at GU, from New Jersey,” wrote First Lieutenant Brian Cooke (SFS ‘05). “Between March 1 [2007] and June 1, I led approximately 70 combat missions in the neighborhoods of Hateen and Yarmouk, part of the Mansour Security District in western Baghdad.”

Cooke was deployed as a part of President Bush’s politically controversial surge strategy, which has sent 28,000 additional troops to Iraq, bringing the total deployment to about 170,000. He led his 23-man platoon on missions ranging from meetings with local politicians to raids on suspected insurgents, through “long hours under a hot and punishing sun, wearing upwards of 50 pounds of body armor.” Cooke lauds the troops he serves alongside for their courage and smarts, but he also wonders “if history will view my part of this war as the U.S.’s greatest chance to defeat the insurgency, or as a too-little, too-late attempt by the Administration to salvage a campaign that has gone so horribly wrong. “My battalion has made significant progress … since we took control of our sector in March, but I do not know if this progress translates to similar progress across the city or across the country,” he said. “My point of view is too limited to know what the situation looks like at that level, and I cannot predict if any sort of progress we make will be enough to keep this country together after we leave. That’s what we have generals for.”

The soldiers didn’t like to discuss the war’s strategy’one called it “above my pay grade’‘but the fractured politics of the War in Iraq and the “War on Terror” in general are an uncomfortable subtext of the soldiers” comments’especially in an atmosphere where soldiers speaking out for, against and about the war have been subject to harsh criticism. While they weren’t asked to comment on the domestic political situation, they did share concerns about the political process and the seeming lack of public engagement with the war. “Politicians spend too much time thinking about politics and not enough thinking about soldiers. I believe that’s how we got into Iraq when we should have been concentrating on Afghanistan. I think politics is doing a disservice to soldiers, Afghans, and American citizens that need protection from real international terrorists that exist there, not in Iraq,” Kander, who is no longer on active duty, and who is running for State Representative in his native Missouri, said.

Children in Kahn Ae Sur, Iraq gather around an American armored vehicle.
Courtesy Wilson St. Pierre

When it comes to seeing the war’s impact on American civilians, most of the soldiers are skeptical of their involvement. Merkle noted that “the war has a huge impact on those families of deployed soldiers, but as for the majority of the population I think it has very little affect on their lives.” But some, like St. Pierre, take pride in the fact that their dangerous work allows Americans at home to focus on their own lives.

Iraqis, not unsurprisingly, are paying close attention to what happens in the U.S. Cooke wrote that, “based on my interactions with hundreds of Iraqi citizens, the Iraqi people on the whole are very aware of what happens in the US … I’ve sat in planning sessions with Iraqi Army officers while Fergie and Shakira music videos play in the background. “Congressional actions, obviously, have the biggest effect on the war. Our enemies follow what Congress says and does just as closely as we do,” St. Pierre said. In an interview with the Voice in the fall of 2005, he shared a cautious optimism about his mission in Iraq. Now, while he notes that it seems the surge may be forcing insurgents away from soft targets’and thus indicating some success’he also says his time in the army has taught him the difference between political sloganeering and getting work done on the ground. “I have a better appreciation for the complexity and time it takes to move troops and equipment into, around, and out of a theater of operations,” St. Pierre writes. “Whether you talk about “surging,” “shifting,” or “drawing down” forces, there are hundreds of things that have to happen. These buzzwords make everything sound neat and simple, but in reality such operations are far from simple.”

None of the soldiers contacted complained about their assignments or conditions; they share a spirit of volunteerism. But they also share the hardship of being away from family and friends for extended periods of time’up to six months for some’with only intermittent contact. The dangers they face are a secondary concern. For most, the rewards of the job come from seeing their comrades escape those dangers. “The best day I’ve had was when one of the Kiowa helicopters in our brigade was shot down by the enemy and the pilots survived,” Merkle, the intelligence officer in Iraq, wrote. “The fact that they survived the shoot down alone, the fact that the enemy who surely would have killed them on the ground couldn’t see them because they had run into a canal and got stuck, and that the soldiers [who rescued the pilots]flew a “spur ride’‘strapped onto the sides of the Apaches that came to their aid’gave me such a high that day. I have to read so many terrible stories every day about soldiers dying that I just hung onto that miracle story as long as I could.”

Similarly, Cooke, the soldier stationed in Baghdad, wrote “I have not experienced the worst that a leader can experience; I have never lost a soldier. I have been lucky in that regard, and so many of my colleagues have not.”

These soldiers do indeed end up in Lt. Colonel Koprowski’s ambiguous situations, fighting in controversial wars with changing goals, strategies and tactics. Their confidence in themselves and their comrades seems to far outstrip their confidence in their cause. Whatever political compromise occurs here in Washington to get them home or extend their stay, these soldiers’and most likely the current class of ROTC seniors’were expecting their deployment. 2LT Darren Withers (MSB ‘07), told the Voice in 2005 that “in the eyes of most cadets, we view it as a 100 percent chance [of being deployed.]I’m fully aware the job of the army is to fight wars. To take the oath and not accept the possibility of being deployed is silly.” Now, Withers is serving temporarily at Georgetown helping recruit students to the ROTC program he just left, but will be leaving soon to begin about ten months of training before he joins the 82nd Airborne Division and, eventually, is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. But after he joins his comrades abroad, what will the situation at home be?

Lieutenant Jason Kander poses in an Afghan valley.
Courtesy Jason Kander

“The United States has been at war in Iraq for over four years, and at war in Afghanistan for nearly six years, yet I would challenge the majority of Americans to prove to me that these wars have in some way affected their lives,” Cooke, the soldier in Baghdad, wrote. “No, the war in Iraq only affects the lives of the minority of the Americans who have a friend or family member in the war. I was home for two weeks during July, the once-a-deployment leave to which all soldiers are entitled, and I can’t begin to count how many friends, family members, and acquaintances told me that I’m the only person they know who is in or has been to Iraq, and that I’m the only reason they really care about the course of events there.”

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Tim Fernholz


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