Editor’s note: On occasion, Checkpoint will feature work from U.S. service members and veterans. This is one such piece.
The regents of the University of Texas System on Tuesday nominated Adm. William McRaven, the retiring commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, as their top choice as chancellor.
Higher education hasn’t seen such a high-profile national security appointment since the 1990s, when former CIA director Robert Gates served as president of Texas A&M University. Before that, it was in the late 1940s, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower served as president of Columbia University. As our modern day civilian-military divide widens, McRaven’s selection to head one of the largest education systems in the country is a bold and timely step to bridge that gap.
McRaven, a proud son of Texas and a Longhorn, is best known outside military circles as the architect of the raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011. More recently, following his rare public remarks at the University of Texas-Austin commencement, he became a viral YouTube sensation, reminding Americans of the simple value of making your bed every morning:
It is likely his transition from 36-year career military man and Navy SEAL to academic chancellor will be closely followed in higher education and military circles. After all, he takes the helm of one of the largest public higher education systems at a time when less than 1 percent of Americans experience first-hand the consequences of our country’s foreign policy decisions: more than a decade of war.
On a personal note, I distinctly remember my first hours in a university classroom after I came home from my first deployment to the Middle East. It was three days after I returned, I was a sophomore, and it was January. I hadn’t been shot at and there was no visceral trauma, only common deployment stressors. I experienced what was probably more similar to culture shock than combat operations. When I returned, the dimming lights in the cushioned auditorium elicited no quickened heartbeat, just rote noting of exits and where someone could burst in — even in the Wisconsin Air National Guard they trained us to be cognizant of threats.
But my unpleasant memories are clear as day: My fists clenching as students began packing up before the professor was done speaking: a clear signal of disrespect. The frustration welling up inside me as we broke into small discussion groups in a journalism class about media framing and I realized no one around me could point out Iraq on a map. My speechlessness when a project partner asked me what al-Qaeda was. Dreadlocked students on the lawn, chanting and pounding bongos for the troops to come home. I wasn’t necessarily against what they were saying but as I walked past on the way to class, tiny hairs on my neck pricked up and my skin sizzled. They were talking about me, but had no idea.
In the veteran community, we often complain about the civilian-military divide among one another. We smile politely when thanked for our service but the lack of understanding resonates deeply. We feel burdened by our war, the weight of an entire society falling on our small fraction. We lament the small number of veterans represented in Congress. (Although doing a military job doesn’t universally qualify you for public service, it is helpful.) I even helped make a video poking fun at the things civilians say to veterans.
When McRaven’s commencement speech at the University of Texas-Austin spread across the Internet this spring, veterans took notice. He was not a well-known celebrity outside the military, and yet here he was on stage, in uniform, describing 10 lessons he learned in the military for fledgling undergraduates. They were life and death experiences and breakneck decisions made translatable, understandable, distilled into relatable takeaways.
His wisdom crossed the threshold of military and civilian into basic humanity and landed squarely on expectant youth. This was the guy who orchestrated bin Laden’s death. Tangible and honest, the speech rippled beyond the graduates and into my social circles. It seemed like everyone was talking about it. Recent graduates, parents, athletes, veterans. Make your bed. Find someone to help you paddle. Measure another person by the size of their heart.
But McRaven has been chosen to lead the University of Texas System for reasons beyond his commencement speech skills. He has a history in tenuous decision-making territory. His selection as chancellor is a decisive step forward for a country where decisions about war and the use of our military are increasingly made without public opinion or really, many opinions at all. Placing McRaven at the helm of a massive public education system in America acknowledges the universality of resilience, growth, character, enlightenment, and yes, bureaucracy across human systems including the military, government, and higher education.
Personally, I have never been a bed maker. A cognizant rebellion after basic military training made me reject bed making to the fullest. I throw off my covers in the morning and climb back into a ball of sheets in the evening. But admittedly, I recently listened to McRaven’s speech and I started making my bed every morning.
He’s right: accomplishing the first task of the morning is a good thing, and “what starts here can change the world.”
That’s a motto I can get behind, and that’s a man I want to follow.
Elizabeth O’Herrin is a veteran of the Iraq War and the director of programs for the Pat Tillman Foundation. She served with the Wisconsin Air National Guard from 2001-2008. She received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her M.A. from Johns Hopkins University.