My Military Service
At age 15, I told people I would readily join the military if we ever went to war. Six weeks after I turned 16, Al Qaeda attacked on 9/11, and I reconsidered my promise. Would I really answer the call? I was surprised to hear not long after that from Secretary of State Don Rumsfeld that the military wasn’t asking for more troops, even as we went into large-scale conflict against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It put me at ease for awhile.
When I was accepted and chose to attend Hillsdale College, I stood near the Civil War statue prominent on campus, one Union soldier holding a flag who represents hundreds of men who left the college to serve and for many to die. Word was still that our military still didn’t need additional troops, and our soldiers and Marines were displaying remarkable deadliness in countering Iraq’s over-matched forces. So I studied on, and began focusing on career possibilities.
But I just couldn’t let it go. When our military was operating at its highest sustained tempo since Vietnam during the troop surge in 2007, I was a student at the University of Michigan Law School. And, despite what it would mean financially, while my classmates were competing for coveted interviews with big law firms for summer slots, I called the local Marine Corps office to see about becoming a Marine lawyer.
The local recruiter told me not to apply. Coming out of law school, I would have so much debt that Marine Corps service wouldn’t be worth it, he said. Confused, I hung up the phone. Was I really not needed? Had I answered the call? I wasn’t so sure.
In the words of George Washington, “It is not sufficient for a man to be a passive friend and well wisher to the cause” of defending the country’s rights and liberties. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I owed my country some years of service.
A while later I called the recruiting station again and spoke to a new recruiter who wanted to meet with me. When we sat down, he told me he couldn’t promise me much. There were no recruiting incentives. Marine attorneys must complete all the same introductory schools as every Marine officer, including more than nine months of infantry-based training before even attending Naval Justice School.
Demanding physical training, marksmanship, and martial arts would fill much of my first year as a practicing attorney. My pay as a Judge Advocate would be roughly one-quarter of what my classmates would be making in New York and Chicago law firms. All he could promise was that I would serve my country and lead Marines. And that was all I needed to hear.
The summer before my third year of law school, I left Michigan to attend Officer Candidate School, and after graduating and passing the bar, I went on active duty.
In the end, my tour in the Marines was unusual in that it was all located at Marine Corps Base Quantico, where officers are trained, and I was assigned as permanent base personnel as a Judge Advocate.
It was unusual in that my assignments were to legal assistance and to a bureaucratic position at Headquarters, Manpower Management. And it was unusual in that, upon leaving active duty and joining the Selected Marine Corps Reserve, I was part of a brand-new Civil Affairs Group located at Naval Station Great Lakes outside Chicago, where the growing pains of standing up a new unit were balanced out by the excitement of seeing brilliant Marines figuring out how to solve new problems every day.
This unusual tour taught me a lot. I learned how to fight, how to shoot, how to plan, and how to lead a team. But more important than learning those skills was learning how to serve. The only promise made to me—that I would serve my country and lead Marines—was kept, and in seeing it kept I learned that service is never about personal achievements or fulfilling experiences, but about putting the needs of others above your own.