U.S. Marines return to thank alma mater
For two recent Washington University graduates, four years at the University may have done more than prepare them to start a business. It may have helped them survive.
First lieutenants in the U.S. Marine Corps, 2009 Washington U. graduates Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez came back to campus Saturday to thank Chancellor Mark Wrighton for preparing them to serve their country in Afghanistan.
Back in the United States a month before finishing their first term of service, their plans for the future include pressing the military to prepare veterans better for post-service and to start a business in Washington, D.C.
But they say it might not have been possible without the University’s preparation.
“A lot of these people aren’t equipped,” Haft said. “They’ve never traveled outside of the country. They haven’t experienced other cultures. They haven’t read books about it. So this is how Wash. U. prepared us…in our four years here, very much our experiences beforehand as well, but learning to think critically [at Wash. U.], how to evaluate a situation, how to interact with a different culture in a successful way, prepared us”
By serving as platoon commanders in charge of about 45 young soldiers, Haft said they were able to pass along their discretion.
Suarez noted that in Afghanistan, being able to respect a foreign culture was not only important but also necessary. He cited an August New York Times article that noted that only about one out of 10 insider killings of NATO troops have anything to do with the Taliban.
“So I’m 24 years old, and I go over to Afghanistan, and I’m advising a man who has been in the Afghan army for 30 years, longer than I’ve been alive. He started off fighting the Soviets at age 16. So in dealing with him, I need to be respectful of his stature, and I need to make sure that I honor him as a man. If I don’t do that, or if I hadn’t done that, our relationship would have suffered. And I would have insulted him. And that’s what a lot of these attacks result from,” Suarez said.
“Imagine an 18-year-old, 18-to-24-year-old kid coming over from somewhere else and telling you how to do your job,” he added. “We had to take 18-year-old, testosterone-filled infantry marines and turn them into trainers, advisors, mentors of Afghans who didn’t speak their language, didn’t share the culture and all those things.”
Suarez said that despite some resistance from soldiers early on, they were able to make their town safer and keep their troops intact as well.
“We were fortunate; we brought all of our marines home, all in one piece. So no amputees, no serious brain injuries. We were very lucky,” he said.
While military personnel often return to campus, displays like the one Saturday are uncommon, according to Jim Craig, professor of military science for the St. Louis area Army ROTC detachment.
“They haven’t come back, done a ceremony and brought a flag, but they come check in because they’re connected really well; it’s kind of like a sports team,” Craig said. “They’re really connected to each other.”
Hosted at Washington University’s north campus, 11 schools participate in the local ROTC program. Craig said the University has 30 students in the program, four of whom will graduate at the end of the year.
“[I have] no relation to these guys personally, I just had heard there [were] a couple of lieutenants coming to give something back to the University, and I’m here to support them. This is really all about these guys,” Craig said.
As Haft and Suarez approach the end of their military careers, they hope to continue to help young soldiers. But rather than help them survive in Afghanistan, they hope to help them be successful back at home.
According to a 2011 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29.1 percent of veterans ages 18-24 were unemployed, compared to 17.6 percent of nonveterans that age.
“Guys who do one term—they’re really not doing well when they get out, and it’s for a variety of reasons but part of it is that they’re not, I guess, being prepared to get back into the normal world,” Haft said. “They’ve spent years training and preparing for the war, and there’s programs available to help them, and some of them just don’t know how to get to them.”
After struggling to get their chain of command to adequately address the problem, Haft and Suarez wrote an article for the Marine Times to bring light to the issue. Haft said that while they’ve fielded some criticism, they have also received a number of compliments, even from two two-star generals.
They conceded that it will take some time to go through the bureaucracy and address the problem, but they do plan to see it addressed.
“When nonveteran unemployment is about half of veteran unemployment, we have an issue,” Suarez said. “We’ve got a follow-up next week; we’re trying to bring this issue to light. It’s unacceptable for the military not to prepare these guys for life outside of the military.”
After they are officially discharged next month, they plan to stay in D.C. and start a business capitalizing on Haft’s degree in entrepreneurship and Suarez’s in history and political science. But they are still sorting out the details.
“We’re still figuring it out,” Suarez said. “We’ve got a couple of ideas.”