National Security Fellas

CORRECTIONS APPENDED In his Harvard t-shirt and black fleece jacket, Lieutenant Colonel Mark E. Mitchell appears to fit in with


In his Harvard t-shirt and black fleece jacket, Lieutenant Colonel Mark E. Mitchell appears to fit in with the usual cast of undergraduates, TF’s and academics that populate Harvard Yard. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW] But as an Army Special Forces officer with 22 years of operational experience, the stories he tells reach far beyond the classroom. Mitchell is a member of the National Security Fellows program at the Harvard Kennedy School; one of 21 representatives of the U.S. military and civilian intelligence community that are participating in a year-long fellowship of study here at Harvard.

The people who make up the fellows program are among the mid-career defense and intelligence officers who show the brightest prospects for top-level command positions. Fellows this year hail from all the armed services except for the Navy, as well as the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation. Coming to Harvard represents an alternative to attending a war college such as the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, which is a stepping-stone for career officers with about 20 years of service before attaining the rank of general. The fellows’ role at the Kennedy School consists of taking classes as well as working in small teams of about five or six to produce a research paper concerning an aspect of United States foreign policy. Current projects examine the long-term role of Pakistan in the War on Terror and the evolving dynamic between China, Japan and the US in the 21st century.

Becoming a National Security Fellow is an intensely competitive process. As officers in the military round out the 20-year mark, a few are selected by a board of their superiors to go on to top-level education to learn about how policy is formed at the highest echelons. While most attend colleges run by the military, a few of these officers are given the opportunity to complete their study at civilian institutions like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, or Georgetown.

“The people who are chosen to come to Harvard are very highly esteemed by their services” says Jean T. Woodward, the director of the fellows program. Former fellows include prominent figures such as Lieutenant General Karl W. Eikenberry, President Obama’s choice as the next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Before beginning the fellowship, Mitchell was in command of the Fifth Special Forces Group, an elite unit within the U.S. Army. [SEE CORRECTION BELOW] He has served a tour of duty or at least set foot in Iraq every year since 2003, and for him, coming to Harvard represents a break from shifting overseas deployments. “I tell my army friends I wake up every day and thank god I’ve been given this opportunity,” he says.

For Mitchell, the key benefit in coming to Harvard has been a chance to integrate into a non-military community and learn from a viewpoint he might not normally encounter. “There’s a rich variety of perspectives and experiences,” he says, “that’s hard to replicate in any of the army or [Department of Defense] schools.”

Lieutenant Colonel Darren T. Hansen is a career fighter pilot for the Air Force who flew in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. During the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he was in the midst of a staff tour at U.S. Central Command, the agency that oversees operations in the Middle East, and witnessed the development of the American response firsthand.

Like Mitchell, one of the defining aspects of Hansen’s time at Harvard has been the access to views he might not normally encounter in the military. “I don’t think there’s a class or seminar where my ideals have not been challenged,” he says. “It’s a huge advantage for us to get out of the military world for a year. It affords us an opportunity to break from that mindset—to experience many different points of view on how to work on some of the same problems we’ve been working on.”

At the same time, fellows are able to contribute the perspective of someone who has real, on the ground experience dealing with the issues that come up in class discussion. For example, in a seminar taught by Richard L. Morningstar ’67 and Karl Kaiser, the professors asked Hansen to outline U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and “debunk some of the common myths and perceptions,” says Hansen.

The only marine currently in the fellows program, Lieutenant Colonel Michael D. Robinson, has served all over the world, from the Balkans to Mosul, Iraq to New Orleans, Louisiana as part of the post-Katrina relief efforts there. He notes that the educational value of having officers at HKS is a two-way street. “I think it’s a great program. A lot of professors have studied things their whole life but we help educate them also to some degree,” he says. “As Security Fellows we’re able to add that sense of reality.”

For military and intelligence officers potentially making the future decisions that shape U.S. foreign policy, the National Security Fellows program offers an experience distinct from the usual military education track. Coming to Harvard provides a chance to learn outside of the military mindset while contributing their stories to the academic discourse in the classes and seminar rooms of HKS.

“The bonds they’ve forged here and the understanding of what their civilian counterparts do have carried over and that’s really important,” says Woodward. “You can probably tell I have a pretty high opinion of the folks who come through here and am greatly admiring of what they go on to do.”

For Robinson, the benefit of coming to Harvard is more of a practical one.

“The value of this opportunity” he says, “is you get to learn how policy makers think—the people who actually send you to war.”


The Mar. 12 magazine article "National Security Fellas" incorrectly stated that Mark E. Mitchell is a lieutenant colonel. In fact, he is a colonel.

The article also incorrectly stated that Mitchell was in command of the Fifth Special Forces Group before beginning his national security fellowship.  In fact, he was in command of the First Battalion of the Fifth Special Forces Group.