At the Intersection of Combat and Compassion

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The chill of a February morning lingers over Alcalá Park as a small army quietly assembles in the fading night. It’s 5:30 a.m., a time of day most college students know only as a vicious rumor, yet dozens of uniformed figures are emerging from the shadows all across campus. The dusky apparitions move quickly, purposefully, through the hazy glow cast by sidewalk lampposts before disappearing down the long staircase leading to Valley Field.

In the darkness, they cluster into small groups that form a giant rectangle of humanity whose physical presence is confirmed less by sight than by the chattering buzz of some 300 young men and women standing in close quarters.

Then, abrupt silence. For a brief moment, the only sound is the wind rustling softly. Suddenly, the voice of Johnny Cushing ’10 thunders through the morning abyss.

“Battalion, uhhh-tennnnnnn-shun!” Cushing bellows.

In one fluid motion, a few hundred pairs of shoulders straighten, arms tighten and feet snap to position with an audible pop.


The commanders of Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Company offer their curt “present and accounted for” replies in turn. Moments later, the inspection is complete. The San Diego Naval Reserve Officers Corps (NROTC) student battalion is dismissed to a training presentation at the Hahn University Center. When they emerge nearly two hours later, the first of their bleary-eyed “civilian” classmates are just starting to arrive on campus, coffee cups in hand.

For some, it’s a jarring juxtaposition. USD’s core academic and altruistic values reflect its billing as a “university of peace,” but it’s also an institution with extensive military ties that effectively make it, as one NROTC student noted, a “university of justice.”

In fact, it’s both. USD is not only home to the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, but also one of the largest NROTC programs in the nation. Beneath the surface of this seemingly incongruous union, USD is fostering a far more complex dynamic in which warriors and humanitarians are increasingly intertwined as they rethink and reshape conventional ideas about war and peace.

Things were different in 1980 when Capt. Mark Woolley — the outgoing commanding officer of the San Diego NROTC — was commissioned into the Navy after graduating from Villanova University on an NROTC scholarship. Woolley entered an environment in which the Iron Curtain hung heavy on military consciousness and “cultural awareness” meant memorizing the radar frequencies, missile capabilities and organizational structure of the Red Fleet.

“It was all about bombs, bullets, on-target,” he says. “That was my Navy. The Soviet Union was the bad guys, and we were the good guys. It was very black and white.”

Amid that simmering political climate, the USD NROTC program was established in 1982 as a fledgling collaboration with San Diego State University. What began with 28 students has since mushroomed into a program of more than 300 midshipmen (most straight from high school), officer-candidates (active duty Navy personnel) and active duty Marines participating in the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program (MECEP) in a five-university consortium hosted by USD. The mission is simple: develop students mentally, morally and physically to become commissioned military officers.

“We don’t accept perfect people,” Wooley says. “You have to let them fail. This is where they need to fail. This is where they need to see that things don’t always go according to plan.”

It’s a lesson born from experience. Before taking charge of the NROTC unit, Woolley spent years aboard vessels deployed around the world, worked as an aide to a three-star general, commanded the destroyer USS Kinkaid and served as operations officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. Before transferring his NROTC command to Capt. William Ault this April, Woolley helped transform the unit with improvements like developing a high-tech classroom where students can simulate everything from steering ships to monitoring radar to flying airplanes to piloting submarines. But the most substantive changes have been more philosophical in nature.

Woolley actively sought to raise the NROTC profile on campus, in part by engaging faculty and students with a nuanced understanding — evidenced by the “kindness matters” sign sitting in his office on a shelf filled with books about warfare — for the seeming paradox of a “university of peace” with extensive military connections.

“We’re really after the same goal,” Woolley says. “Our mission and USD’s mission, when you look at the Judeo-Christian ethic principle, they really do mesh. We are trying to imbue our students with core values of honor, courage and commitment. What better place than USD?”

While the NROTC is the most visible symbol of USD’s relationship with the military, it’s hardly the only connection. For starters, look to the top. Before arriving on campus in 2003, USD President Mary E. Lyons spent 25 years as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve (retiring with the rank of captain) and was commissioned as a rear admiral in the U.S. Maritime Service, while serving as president of the California Maritime Academy.

USD also hosts a small Army ROTC program, and in the last decade has expanded its reputation as an educational epicenter for military leaders the world over. That commitment is most readily apparent in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES), which hosts the undergraduate Naval Sciences Department, along with master’s and doctoral leadership programs that draw high-ranking officers from every branch of the military.

“We absolutely love having our military students,” SOLES Dean Paula Cordeiro says. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. I think the military students are enriched by being in a classroom with non-military students, and vice versa.”

In addition to scores of alumni who’ve served in the military, USD has also attracted several high-profile military minds to its academic and administrative ranks, including Rear Adm. Leendert “Len” Hering, who became vice president for business services and administration in 2009 after a highly decorated Navy career.

“What is the purpose of the military but to maintain peace?” Hering says. “For we who have spent our lives protecting others, a true day of reckoning comes when you haven’t had to fire a shot. That, in my mind, is exactly what the university is teaching.”

Even the campus ministry has ties to the military. Father Owen Mullen, a retired Army colonel chaplain, joined the National Guard in 1968, served in the U.S. Army Reserve and, between stints at USD, was posted on active duty in Hawaii and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“I think we’re both in the same business, believe it or not,” Mullen, chaplain of the NROTC unit, says. “I’ve always thought of the military as being peacekeepers and peacemakers. After all, the mission of the military in general is to protect people.”

Father William Headley has spent a lifetime pursuing that same mission by helping needy populations in more than 70 countries with a variety of international aid organizations.  Headley was working for Catholic Relief Services as executive director of policy and strategic issues when he was approached to become the founding dean of USD’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies.

“It seems paradoxical that a school of peace studies would be working together with the military,” Headley says. “But when all you have is a hammer, you’re looking everywhere for a nail. If you’re into peace-building, you’re looking for an opportunity to do it everywhere, even in unlikely places.”

Even on an aesthetic level, there’s a clear distinction between the relatively Spartan environs of the NROTC offices inside Sacred Heart Hall and the IPJ’s serene surroundings. The walls of NROTC headquarters are lined with award plaques, photos of perfectly postured soldiers in uniform and inspirational messages like, “Freedom is not free, but the Marine Corps will pay most of your share.” Over at the IPJ, wall decorations prominently feature doves and olive branches, along with photographs of humanitarian scenes in Uganda, Nepal and Côte d’Ivoire.

“Maybe you start out thinking that we have such diverse interests there’s no sense talking to each other,” Headley says. “Then you begin to have casual conversations, relationships begin to develop from that, and then from those relationships emerges the possibility of helping each other do something you’re both interested in.”

Of course, that isn’t always the case. While he’s spent his life advocating peace, Headley — who’s studied at both Harvard Divinity School and the Gandhi Peace Institute in India — has routinely found himself surrounded by war. In addition to his work in conflict-ridden regions, closer to home he has two brothers who served in the military; one returned from Vietnam 100 percent disabled, a broken man.

“That has always (kind of) been with me,” Headley says. “Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate how war and the scars of war remain with you, because every time I see him, it’s brought home to me in a graphic sort of way.”

For decades, Headley witnessed firsthand the ravages of conflict during his work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world. But in 2004, his perception of the military underwent a subtle but significant change.

“I probably held the same bias of a typical International Non-governmental Organization worker that might say ‘the military is over there and we’re over here, they’re about war and we’re about peace’,” Headley says. “But then you get moments of insight — if you’re open to experience them — and that moment, for me, was the tsunami.”

After the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Headley was sent to the Indonesian island of Sumatra to help coordinate recovery efforts for Catholic Relief Services. What he heard and saw about the U.S. military’s rapid response — and timely withdrawal — made an impact.

“That was very striking to me,” Headley says. “At that moment, I really said, ‘Wow, you have to give the devil his due,’ so to speak. I was really struck by that experience and it began to kind of turn my mind a bit to look at things a little differently.”

The knowledge he took away from the tsunami was instrumental in his decision to not only help create the School of Peace Studies at USD but to craft a curriculum — particularly a “human security” graduate program — that would draw interest from civilians and military personnel alike.

“From very early on, we were looking for what I consider windows of opportunity,” Headley says. “I think we’re all interested in building peace on some level, and this was a large constituency that had been relatively neglected until that time.”

The NRTOC and IPJ have collaborated since the institute’s inception. Headley found a particularly willing counterpart in Woolley, though the Navy captain admits having his own initial misgivings when he arrived in 2007 just as the School of Peace Studies was opening its doors.

“My first thought was ‘Are they all a bunch of tree-huggers?’” Woolley chuckles. “They’re not, of course. They are very knowledgeable over there and they understand the security issues. I think sometimes the impression is that we’re just shoot-shoot-shoot. That’s not the case, and I think they understand that it’s a much more complex environment that we operate in.”

Erik Nagel ’02 knows about complex environments. He joined the Navy in 2002 in order to pay for medical school. Even so, by July 2007, he still had virtually no military experience after spending four years studying orthopedics at Touro University in the Bay Area followed by a yearlong surgical internship at a Navy hospital in Virginia.

Nagel figured his services would then be put to use aboard a ship or in humanitarian operations. Instead, he found himself standing in sweltering heat on a sand-swept tarmac in Iraq, covered in Kevlar from head to toe, waiting for an armored Humvee to take him to his new home at Camp Ramadi.

“To be honest, I was not expecting that at all,” Nagel says. “It was quite a shock.”

The fact that he was even in the military — let alone serving in Iraq — was stunning enough. By his own admission, Nagel wasn’t really the type.

“I was never one to take orders too well,” he says with a laugh. “If you had told anyone who knew me that I would be in the military … they would have been very surprised.”

Nagel opted to serve with a Marine Corps infantry battalion stationed in Ramadi, figuring the baptism-by-fire assignment would help expedite his goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

“You see stuff there that you don’t see anywhere else,” Nagel says. “But it’s great training, and there’s nowhere in this country where I could have been given that level of responsibility with the limited experience I had.”

During two tours in Iraq — first as an assistant battalion surgeon, then as battalion surgeon (or chief medical officer) — Nagel was part of a tiny staff responsible for the medical needs of some 1,200 soldiers, plus civilian casualties, and even injured enemy combatants. He treated everything from sprained ankles to traumatic combat injuries, mostly working triage cases in an unrelenting environment.

“Looking back, it’s a positive thing,” Nagel says. “I won’t lie and say it was fun while I was doing it, but it was definitely a positive overall experience. I feel proud to have served with the Marines doing whatever I could to help.”

With his initial commitment set to expire, Nagel recently opted to sign on for another six years. In July, he’ll begin a residency at the San Diego Naval Medical Center.

“My original goal was to get out as soon as possible,” Nagel says. “When my commitment was done, I was going to go out into the ‘real world.’ But my attitude, my goals and what is important to me have all completely changed.”

It’s an outcome Nagel never would have foreseen as a USD student. While he understands any lingering misgivings about the university’s connections to the military, his experience has allowed him to reconcile the disparity.

“I can see on the surface how it would seem counterintuitive,” Nagel says. “But, especially in my case, USD helped me become a doctor, and as a doctor I joined the military to help people. Whether it’s in combat or not, it’s still helping people.”

Sophomore Alice Klarkowski joined the Marines at age 17. After serving more than eight years — specializing as an electrician and rising to the rank of staff sergeant — she recently finished her first year at USD as a MECEP student in the NROTC program.

“It’s like a deployment, only I don’t get a half-day off on Sundays,” Klarkowski says wryly. “Actually, I think I do more work in college than I did on deployment. I definitely have more homework than I ever dreamed I would.”

Then again, midterm exams can’t really compare to setting up mobile generators, wiring and rewiring buildings for electricity or establishing a power grid in tortuous heat, blinding sandstorms and the omnipresent threat posed by working in the crackling delirium of a war zone.

“Training definitely helps, but I don’t think there’s anything that can prepare you for the fog of everything that goes on, the disorder, the fact that nothing ever goes to plan,” Klarkowski says. “You don’t really know until you’re out there and doing it.”

Of course, she notes, a primary byproduct of having an NROTC unit in a civilian environment is to show that combat isn’t the only thing that the military is good at.

“As much as we are about combat, we’re also about peace,” she says. “There’s no doubt we’re trained to fight, but we’re not preparing people just for combat. We are in a time of war, but it’s not the bottom line. It’s bigger than that.”

Klarkowski is a self-proclaimed optimist when it comes to achieving peace, but her pragmatic experience suggests it’s nothing but a pipe-dream aspiration without adequate protections in place.

“The security aspect is extremely important, and I think sometimes that is underappreciated. But that’s probably because I’ve been there and done that,” Klarkowski says. “Some- times people get a little wrapped up in ‘their side,’ but I think if the shoe was on the other foot they would understand.”

Kyle Leese ’94 definitely understands. He had no real inclination to join the military when he graduated from USD with degrees in history and anthropology before heading to graduate school at Texas A&M to study nautical archaeology. That was before the day he found himself walking into a Navy recruiting office to eventually become a Navy intelligence officer working in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.

Soon after joining, Leese began aligning his career so that he might someday be considered for a Naval attaché position. The rigorous selection process culminated in 2007 when he was designated for assignment to the U.S. embassy in Beijing, China, with wide-ranging responsibilities like hosting diplomatic delegations, assisting in treaty negotiations and helping coordinate humanitarian efforts.

“It’s one of the most challenging places in the world for doing this kind of work,” Leese says. “But I really think that my USD education has played a big part in me being able to go into a situation like this feeling totally prepared.”

After more than two years of intensive training — including 14 months of Mandarin lessons — Leese will be promoted to the rank of commander and leave for Beijing in May. While he understands some may be confused about connection between USD and the military, he suggests the relationship is much more auspicious than it might seem.

“I can tell you as a combat veteran that nobody in the military wants war, and I think there’s no better place to help people understand that than at a university of peace,” Leese says. “USD understands that not everybody is going to be a priest or a nun. The university still engrains in its students a philosophy that it’s better to help someone else before you help yourself, and I think I’m doing that through the military.”

There’s no easy solution for decades of mutual distrust between those who wage war and those who promote peace. Despite progress, lingering wariness and uncertainty remain.

“If you went back a few years, people on either side would probably be uncomfortable, and maybe even antagonistic of this kind of thinking,” Headley says. “This is a relatively new détente, if you will, between these two areas. It’s a new level of thinking — bringing together military and NGO people and looking for ways they can relate — but it’s really come on strong and I think that’s really quite encouraging.”

At the heart of the collaboration is a shift in the way the military conducts its business. In a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, dexterity is required to meet the demands of modern warfare.

“This is a new miltary,” SOLES Dean Cordeiro says. “They train warriors first and foremost, but this is a changing world. I think the military recognizes how understanding things like culture, language and customs can play a role in preventing conflict.”

At USD, that recognition has manifested itself in partnerships between the IPJ, the NROTC and SOLES on a slew of events like the “Crafting Human Security in an Insecure World” conference held in 2008, panel discussions such as “Serving Your Country, Serving the Global Community” and the annual James B. Stockdale Symposium, held this year in conjunction with a four-day gathering of the International Society for Military Ethics.

The 2010 featured Stockdale speaker was Army Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, a decorated soldier, military scholar and USD parent who spoke about an evolving military in which officers must be culturally sensitive and ethically cognizant. It’s a message that’s already filtering through the San Diego NROTC.

“The balance that the [IPJ] brings to the equation is something that we leverage in training our personnel,” says Major Jason Ruedi, a Naval science professor and Marine Corps officer instructor. “From our perspective, those pieces really build a savvy into our officer corps that we’re going to need to deal with a complex environment moving forward.”

That aim is perhaps best exemplified by the “3D” approach, in which defense, development and diplomacy are all seen as integral components to achieving and maintaining stability in volatile regions of the world. It’s an area that IPJ Deputy Director Dee Aker has used to help design and implement peace-building programs around the world.

“There is no post-conflict situation that is going to stay post-conflict without answering the security question,” Aker says. “The reality on the ground is that when it comes to conflict resolution and peace-building, there needs to be participation not only between political leadership and civil society, but from the security side as well.”

In 2009, Aker traveled to Nepal as part of a team that facilitated workshops on community policing and moderated negotiations on how to integrate former Maoist rebels into the Nepali military. The task presented an opportunity to put into action the kind of cooperation that has been incubated at USD.

“We ultimately have different jobs on one level — but not on another level,” Aker says. “We try to focus on where we have some commonality and the role the military can play in a positive sense.”

Aker enlisted the help of Ruedi, whose experience as a military police officer with a background in conflict resolution, military ethics and nonviolent policing proved to be, Aker says, “a perfect fit.” Ruedi also called upon his experience building partnerships with international security forces in places like Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and East Timor.

“The same thing happens here on this campus,” Ruedi says. “We have this great environment where we can build relationships and then project them out to do good things.”

Spurred both by war and catastrophes like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti, the military has increasingly taken on a substantial humanitarian role that includes helping with rescue operations, disaster relief and critical infrastructure projects.

“Call it nation-building, call it what you will, but at the core it really is worrying about the humanitarian concerns on the ground,” Headley says. “And one thing that the military has Lt. — and nobody in the NGO community would deny it — is capacity.”

As a Naval public affairs officer, Lt. Lara Bollinger ’02 helps highlight that capacity — and capability — to show that “we’re not just one big war machine.” It’s not necessarily a message that resonates with everyone.

“Feel-good stories don’t always make the news,” Bollinger says. “The focus is usually on terrorists burning down schools, not us helping to rebuild them. Or the devastation of a typhoon, not the disaster relief that follows. Recognition aside, knowing that we’re doing that is important to me. It happens all the time, all over the world, and I’m very proud to be a part of that.”

Bollinger was deployed in March 2009 to the southern Philippines for mostly humanitarian operations, including rebuilding schools destroyed by extremists, teaching a photojournalism class for local students and aiding rescue operations and relief efforts after a typhoon devastated the country.

“That’s probably the single most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Bollinger says. “One of the biggest things about military service for me is the feeling that I’m doing something important and having a direct impact on the world.”

Both sides of the equation aim to have an impact, albeit with different means to the same end, and that mutual desire has played out in USD classrooms.

“Our students are able to listen to a different point of view,” Capt. Woolley says. “Maybe they don’t always agree with it, but they can respect it and they can learn why that argument is being made. By doing that, I think there’s a better understanding on both parts.”

Woolley has put the dynamic to work himself. He was recently asked to be a guest speaker for a theology class taught by religion professor Emily Reimer-Barry discussing how someone can be Catholic and in the military.

“Both require you to follow your conscience first and foremost,” Woolley says. “But the way I handle that specific question is with ‘just war’ theory, which is itself a Catholic tradition. You can have peace often without justice. That’s not peace and justice.”

It’s that aim that ultimately bridges the divide at USD. In many university environments, the mere presence of an ROTC unit is enough to spark controversy and protest. But according to Michael Sass ’10, USD’s culture of acceptance allows the paradigm to flourish.

“In my entire time here, I’ve never felt strange in uniform,” says Sass, the commanding officer of the NRTOC student battalion. “I’ve never felt like I wasn’t accepted by the campus community. I’ve never felt like I can’t speak my mind, even when I’m in uniform.”

After his commissioning, Sass will be assigned to Naval Reactors, the Washington, D.C., headquarters that oversees the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program. His NROTC classmates will enter basic school to complete their Marine Corps training and flight school to become Navy pilots, while others will join the crew of submarines and surface ships.

They will all be part of a new generation in a new military that aims to put into action the same concepts that are being practiced and preached at USD.

“It’s really a symbiotic relationship,” Bollinger says. “There would be imbalance without one or the other. I think it’s a blessing that we have both of those aspects at the university.” — Nathan Dinsdale


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