Duty, Duress for Graduates in Uniform

For Naval 1st Lt. John M. Harrington ’03, stationed aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Ross in the Middle East, even routine procedures can be life-threatening.

During the Ross’s transit through the Suez Canal, he writes in an e-mail, “the threat of RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] attacks or sniper fire is all too imminent... The canal is at points so narrow that standing on one of the banks, Johnny Damon could toss a baseball right through the Pilot house and out the other side. As well guarded as the canal is, it is still one of the most hair-raising events of the deployment because of the ever-looming possibilities.”

For nearly three years, the war on terror has raged in the Middle East. Tens of thousands of troops have been deployed to the countries of Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Iraq. Among them are officers like Harrington, who left Harvard’s halls for a world ravaged by hostility and blood.

These Harvard graduates endure the realities of war. They see the injuries and casualties that become the statistics of the nightly news—and have even become casualties themselves.

But these alums say they are proud to be heeding the words atop the gate to Harvard Yard: “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”

UNDER FIRE

During the fight for Baghdad, Marine Lt. Seth W. Moulton ’01 watched a soldier under his command come under artillery fire.

“They didn’t think he’d make it, but he did,” Moulton says. “You have a wedding party and people shoot off AK-47s in celebration,” he says noting the ever-present violence and hysteria.

The ugliness is multiplied by the inevitable dangers of war.

“In Kuwait, I spent a few minutes every day scrambling into my chemical suit whenever Iraq sent a missile in our direction,” says 1st Lt. Bridget A. Sinnott ’01, part of the 642nd Engineer Company (Combat Support Equipment). “And in Balad, we got mortar attacks every night for a week before we left.”

Jim J. Meeks ’01-’02, an Army 2nd Lt., was severely injured in Fallujah last May.

“Every day I rolled out of my base camp, I knew I potentially could be killed,” Meeks says. “I had run that route 12 times, and five out of the 12 an IED [improvised explosive device] had hit some part of the convoy, so I pretty much thought it would be inevitable.”

Harvard grads in the field reported working all hours, sleeping little.

“Being in Iraq is a miserable experience as far as the day-to-day living conditions of American servicemen and women,” Moulton says. “It’s hot as hell.”

He spent many of his nights on dirt floors. Sinnott says she only got to shower a few times—and in “make-shift showers” at that.

FEELING AT HOME ABROAD

Alums who have seen service in the Middle East say they’ve sometimes encountered hostility from local people where they’re stationed, even as they struggle with their own homesickness.

Barrett F. Bradstreet ’01, a Marine officer who works closely with the local police, or Iraqi National Guard, says he met civilians who had “bad blood issues” with the American presence, though very few were vocally unfriendly.

“Some people were just protectively tight-lipped,” he says.

But for Bradstreet, the brighter side of the war lies in the community-based civilian projects and urban patrolling his division did in conjunction with the Iraqi Security Forces. Working on security and stability operations, Bradstreet and his fellow marines are attempting to better the circumstances in the local Iraqi community.

These efforts were generating very visible improvements, he says. The locals, with minimal exception, are amicable and approve of the help the officers are bringing.

In addition to trying to make himself and his fellow soldiers welcome, Bradstreet says he suffered from homesickness during his tour. He jokingly coerced his Harvard friends to send him care packages—so many that he often shared their contents with his fellow marines. He says he knows how much his family and friends miss him.

“They’re worried,” he says. “I’m sure my mother’s worried to death, but they’re really supportive.”

Harrington, whose ship remains stationed in the Middle East, says he is comforted by the thought of returning home, reminding himself that “minute-by-minute, the time separating us from our families and friend diminished.”

“Because of the isolated feeling of being at sea, one becomes more attached to those who are around,” Harrington adds. “It is wonderful to see people from all different backgrounds and from every state in the union, and a number of foreign countries as well, become inseparable friends because of the bonds formed on late night watches and during long training evolutions in the heat.”

He adds, “I will always remember the time I spent forward deployed in our nation’s service with gratitude.”