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A veteran's Harvard ally: Elena Kagan

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By Robert Merrill
Friday, May 21, 2010

In 2005, I went from fighting in the streets of Fallujah to studying in the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School in a span of seven months. I arrived as an active-duty Marine Corps captain and transitioned from the infantry to the judge advocate general's corps. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only active-duty service member to have received a JD from Harvard during the deanship of Elena Kagan.

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The facilities at Harvard were nicer than those in Fallujah, but Harvard was less exciting. My classmates generally treated me no differently than the other students, except for subjecting me to the occasional dumb question. ("Did you ever feel that you were in danger in Fallujah?" "Uh, you mean from the snipers and suicide bombers? Of course not, silly.") Most of my professors knew of and were seemingly indifferent to the fact that I was a Marine, which was the way I preferred it. I was on a three-year vacation from the Corps, albeit one spent mostly in the basement of a library. Only one member of the faculty made an issue of my status as a service member: Elena Kagan. And because numerous individuals have branded Kagan as "anti-military," I feel the need to weigh in.

As dean, Kagan enjoyed something of a cult-like following among the students of Harvard Law School. She was charismatic and intimidating, and, most important, she gave students free coffee in the morning. She was also famous for her good-natured annihilation of unprepared students in her classroom. In fact, she had the three unofficial rules of Marine Corps leadership down pat: Be tough, show that you care and ensure that everyone below you has plenty of coffee.

Most students supported her principled stance against "don't ask, don't tell." Kagan was public in her opposition to the policy and never shied from debating the topic. Today, that policy debate has led to speculation that Kagan harbors animosity toward the military.

Around the time that Kagan sent the first of several e-mails criticizing "don't ask, don't tell," she hosted a Veterans Day dinner for the few student-veterans attending Harvard Law. That was the first time I met Kagan. There was no agenda for the dinner, as best as I could tell, other than to thank us for our service. I don't believe "don't ask, don't tell" ever came up. Either because of her charm or the quality of the food, I became one of her admirers.

In my opinion, Kagan's positions never affected the services' ability to recruit at Harvard. Behind the scenes, the dean ensured that our tiny HLS Veterans Association never lacked for funds or access to facilities. Recruiters simply could not use the school's Office of Career Services. Does this demonstrate an "activist" streak, as some have proclaimed? I don't think so. The school's policy against discrimination was akin to black-letter law. If anything, Kagan was an activist in ensuring that military recruiters had viable access to students and facilities despite the official ban. A Boston-area recruiter later told me that the biggest hurdle he faced recruiting at Harvard Law was trying to answer the students' strangely intellectual questions.

Kagan's Veterans Day dinners became a tradition. During my final year at Harvard, she treated the veterans to dinner at a restaurant in Cambridge. (Military service has its perks.) Again, there was no agenda other than to thank us for our service and to ask about our military experiences. Over wine and dinner, Kagan listened attentively to our war stories. I later told her that her blunt style of leadership would have served her well in the Marines. I took to calling her "Colonel Kagan" whenever we crossed paths on campus.

During nine years of service in the Marine Corps, I have received a fair number of thanks from friends and strangers alike. I received perhaps the most thoughtful thanks of all just before graduating from Harvard Law School: The supposedly "anti-military" Elena Kagan sent me a handwritten note thanking me for my military service and wishing me luck in my new life as a judge advocate.

If Elena Kagan is "anti-military," she certainly didn't show it. She treated the veterans at Harvard like VIPs, and she was a fervent advocate of our veterans association. She was decidedly against "don't ask, don't tell," but that never affected her treatment of those who had served. I am confident she is looking forward to the upcoming confirmation hearings as an opportunity to engage in some intellectual sparring with members of Congress over her Supreme Court nomination. I would respectfully warn them to do their homework, as she has a reputation for annihilating the unprepared.

The writer, a captain in the Marine Corps and 2008 graduate of Harvard Law School, is serving as a legal adviser to a Marine infantry battalion in southern Afghanistan.


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