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On Duty

Alumni in the U.S. military today are proving to be capable leaders around the world and stateside — thanks to their well-rounded Northwestern education.


by Terry Stephan

You wouldn’t necessarily think of al Fallujah, in central Iraq, as a likely place for a Northwestern alumni reunion. But over the past several months it has been.

As then-Lt. Scott Secrest (McC01) was preparing to leave Iraq after a seven-month tour, he ran into fellow Marine lieutenant Ben Chase (WCAS01), who had just recently arrived. “I hadn’t seen him in several years, so it was great — and a little surreal — to meet up with him in the middle of Iraq,” says Secrest.

A few months later, shortly after she arrived at Camp Fallujah, Lt. Maura Sullivan (WCAS01) (see “Raising Two Flags”, spring 2005) walked into the operations center and ran into Chase, who was preparing to head back to California. “There were only four Marines in our class, and two of us were reunited in Fallujah,” says Sullivan. “Linking up with fellow classmates is exciting because it brings you closer to home.”

Northwestern alumni are serving all around the world, in all branches of the military. They are doctors, lawyers, combat veterans, trumpet players and ship captains. Some have made military service their career, and others are fulfilling their commitments after graduating from the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University.

Marine Lt. Autumn Swinford (WCAS04) entered the NROTC program as a way of paying for her college tuition. “I viewed my service obligation as a more than fair exchange for having my education almost completely paid for,” she says. “I joined the Marines for many reasons, but the most overwhelming were their work ethic, dedication to service before self, and loyalty to their country, traditions and fellow Marines.”

“The thought of graduating and sitting behind a desk did not appeal to me,” says Navy Cmdr. Steven Stancy (McC87), who learned about the NROTC program from someone in his Shepard Residential College dorm and joined during his sophomore year. “Ultimately, I got exactly what I asked for — adventure. I’ve moved 11 times in 16 years.”

Stancy credits a tour in Japan with helping him prepare for one of the biggest challenges of his career. He was the Pacific Fleet’s diving and salvage officer during the largest salvage operation in recent U.S. Navy history — the successful recovery of the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru, which was struck in the Pacific Ocean in 2001 by the USS Greeneville, a U.S. submarine. The Ehime Maru sank, killing nine students and crew. The salvage effort relocated the 180-foot fishing vessel, moving the Ehime Maru 9 miles toward the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, where the Navy recovered eight bodies and personal effects as well as the ship’s nameplate and bell. The Ehime Maru was then picked up and carried to a depth of 8,500 feet and scuttled.

“Knowing the people and culture of Japan helped tremendously to facilitate the recovery efforts between the two countries’ military and civilian organizations,” Stancy says.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Frederick Hartzell (C91), too, found himself close to an international incident in the spring of 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. surveillance plane collided over the South China Sea. The U.S. plane was forced to land at a Chinese air base on Hainan Island. Hartzell had a similar encounter earlier.

“My aircrew was actually the first to report ‘aggressive maneuvers’ by the Chinese almost four months before. This kind of flying had happened a few times in the months preceding,” says Hartzell, who was part of the repatriation team in Hawaii that assisted the American crew when they were released by the Chinese. He also flew surveillance missions over Afghanistan after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Ronald Mangum (WCAS65, L68) distinguished himself during three years (2000–03) in Korea when he commanded approximately 18,000 U.S. special operations and Republic of Korea forces. “Our mission was to deter aggression by North Korea and plan for combat operations to defeat North Korea if deterrence failed,” he says. The president of South Korea presented Mangum with one of the highest awards given to foreign military officers for his work in improving the capabilities of that country’s army.

Some Northwestern alumni are serving by making music — at White House functions, military funerals, parades and ceremonies. As many as 40 Northwestern School of Music graduates perform with the bands of the U.S. Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy (see “Strike Up the Band”). Col. Dennis Layendecker (GMu81) is commander and music director of the Air Force Band, and Lt. Col. Mark Peterson (Mu77, GMu82) manages all band programs for the Air Force.

Regardless of branch or rank, Northwestern alumni are making an impact in the U.S. military.

Professor emeritus and noted military sociologist Charles Moskos believes Northwestern alumni have a great deal to offer to all the services. “It’s a big gap in today’s military that we don’t have more graduates like those from Northwestern,” he says. “These are top-rated students. They bring to the military, which is becoming increasingly isolated from civilian institutions, a breath of fresh air.

“They are more honorable and much less likely to put up with the kinds of abuses like we saw at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay. They have a more enlightened and intelligent worldview and would be more amenable to dealing with different cultures than the typical military officer. These are precisely the kinds of people the military needs.”

On the Homefront

Military service puts tremendous stress on the families of those who serve. For many military people involved in the war in Iraq, the uncertainties of deployment and changes in the lengths of tours add to the burdens at home. Army Lt. Col. John Kem (KSM95, GMcC96) was battalion commander of the 16th Engineering Battalion in spring 2004 when he had to deliver the news to his troops that their deployment, which was scheduled to end in days, had been extended several months.

“The hardest part was when the soldiers got off the phone with wives and families in Germany and the States with the news,” Kem recalls. “My wife, Martha, was obviously saddened, but to her credit, she tried to keep the disappointment low-key because she didn’t want me to overworry about her and lose my focus downrange.” Kem says his wife and others helped calm “very upset young spouses with kids who were barely holding on after the extension was announced. How they managed to pull everyone together back in Germany [where the unit is based] and keep the fires burning for another 90 days was incredible.”

Lisa Marinelli Smith (J92, GJ93), whose husband, Marine Maj. Gregory Smith, has been deployed five times in eight years, says, “I’ve truly lost track of the number of birthdays, anniversaries and family milestones he’s missed — our 10th wedding anniversary, our son’s kindergarten graduation, entire soccer and baseball seasons, dozens of holidays.” She’s learned to change her car’s battery and headlights, smoked out gophers in the lawn, assembled furniture and made trips to the emergency room with injured kids. “None of this is dire,” she says. “But you think, if he were home, he could help take care of this.”

“The families who are left behind in a deployment are the true heroes,” says Army National Guard Capt. Steven Lindsley (FSM02), who served 14 months during two tours in Iraq (see “Hope for Iraqi Amputees”). “Some have to go on without their soldier forever. Others go through the experience and are able to welcome their soldier back home, although the time lost can never be regained.”

But there are positive aspects of being in the service as well. Serving in the military gives people a tremendous amount of responsibility, especially at a young age. Then–Marine Lt. Peter Pace Jr. (McC98) was commissioned at 21. A year later he was a platoon commander, in charge of about 35 people, and the youngest person in the unit. “That was unnerving,” Pace says. “I asked a lot of questions, took a lot of advice and made it work.”

As a newly commissioned Naval officer, Lt. Kathryn Dacko (WCAS99) learned that “life becomes very serious, very quickly,” she says. Young officers may be responsible for as many as 50 personnel. “As an ensign on a U.S. Navy vessel the learning curve is steep,” she says. “You need to get to know your people, the equipment they work on, their promotional status, how many kids they have, their financial problems and career needs. At 22 I was having to counsel men in their 30s about maintaining a checkbook.”

It’s an experience many find valuable. “I think the biggest advantage military folks have when they enter the civilian sector is that they have been making decisions that matter for a number of years,” says Pace, who is now getting an MBA from the University of Chicago. “My colleagues in school are uniformly smart and motivated — easily the smartest group of people I have been associated with. But very few of them have routinely made tough decisions with ambiguous information that can really change someone’s life.”

Capt. Dan Moore (WCAS77), commanding officer of the NROTC program, thinks Northwestern graduates are particularly well suited for leadership in the military. “Northwestern offers our NROTC students the privilege of exploring, challenging, developing and measuring their academic, physical, moral and social skills under the instruction of some of the country’s best professors,” he says.

Many service men and women cite the opportunity for continuing education as a benefit of a military career. Navy Lt. Audrey Adams (WCAS00) recently completed a tour as a nuclear engineer on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. After years of training as a surface warfare officer, she’s heading back to the classroom. Adams was named an Olmstead Scholar, which is one of the Defense Department’s most prestigious and competitive academic awards. She is studying Mandarin Chinese at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and then will spend two years pursuing a master’s degree in international relations at National ChengChi University in Taipei, Taiwan.

“I wanted to pick something that would be important to world affairs in the coming decade,” she says. “I chose Chinese because I believe it will be the language with the most strategic importance outside of the languages of the Middle East. China is the last major communist power on earth. They have a swiftly growing economy. There’s the whole Taiwan situation. In short, it’s a country to take notice of.”

For Marine Reserve Maj. Jack McGonagle (KSM93), his experiences during a deployment in Iraq provided diverse opportunities and a level of freedom that comes only with work in the military. During his tour in Dhi Qar province in southeast Iraq in 2003, McGonagle participated in patrols and security missions, served as a forward air controller directing aviation resources and spent two months as the “military mayor” of Ar Rifa, a town of about 130,000 people.

“It was my responsibility to check on the status of electricity, propane, gasoline, health concerns, infrastructure issues, war reparations and the food and water supplies,” McGonagle says. “I probably never had such an interesting job in my life. And it really mattered. What I did totally made a difference, both for the Marines I was supporting and looking over, and the Iraqis with whom I came in contact.”

Lt. Swinford knows that a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan is a matter of when, not if. “In many ways I’m looking forward to going, to use all of the things I’ve learned and to be able to lead my Marines in an operational environment,” she says. “I also look at my service and going to Iraq as taking my turn. If I go over there, someone else gets to come home. Maybe more than anything, that’s what I think about.”

Drew Davis (GJ74) joined the Marine Corps out of college, and after fulfilling his commitment he began a career in journalism. But he missed a lot of what the Corps had to offer and joined the reserves. “There’s a special bond that happens in the Marine Corps that forever ties you to it,” says Davis. “It’s a special brotherhood that makes Marines who they are. No other service has that, and I wound up missing that.”

In the 30 years since joining the Marine Reserve he has been called back to active duty a number of times. He served during the Gulf War, where his unit was the first special operations–trained infantry battalion in the Marine Reserve. In summer 2001 the Marine Corps again tapped Davis to bring his unique background as a journalist and serviceman to Marine Corps headquarters as the director of public affairs. He served there through the start of the Iraq war as one of the Marines’ most visible spokesmen. Today, Davis is a brigadier general, and he spent a month with his troops in Iraq earlier this year.

Davis, who had an office at the Pentagon, and several other alumni were touched directly by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. One was Army Col. Bruce Palmatier (KSM83), now retired, who was in a third-floor conference room at the Pentagon with staffers when, “without warning, we heard and felt a tremendous explosion,” he recalls. “The suspended ceiling fell on us. Light fixtures fell.”

The plane had crashed into the building directly below them.

As Palmatier and his group made their way down the hallway, flames poured through the windows, the ceiling fell and the floor buckled. Somehow, they all made it safely outside. “By Sept. 13 we were back in the Pentagon, in borrowed office space, helping to begin the hard work of preparing a wartime resources budget,” he says.

Then-Lt. Jeff Warner (McC94) was at his desk in the Navy staff headquarters when the plane hit. “You could see the reflection of the fireball in the corridor windows,” he says. “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind what had happened.” He and the others in his section were able to evacuate. Within hours, Warner was helping set up the casualty assistance program that would assist the families of those killed in the building.

Equipped to Serve

Former Lt. Andrew Severson (C94) “was ready for something unorthodox” when he decided to join the Navy and learn to fly.

He recently completed a three-year tour as a helicopter search-and-rescue pilot at Naval Air Station Fallon, the Navy’s premier tactical air warfare training facility in Fallon, Nev. In addition to recovering pilots who’ve had to eject, he also participated in four civilian search-and-rescue missions.

The work was dangerous and demanding. But Severson took it in stride. “At times I’m surprised by just how normal, even mundane my work is — even when I’m flying under trees,” Severson said before resigning his commission in August. “I think doing anything with professionalism and care has this tendency to make the unusual commonplace. You’ll notice even James Bond always looks a little bored. But I also have moments when I realize I’ll never have a flying job quite as exotic and challenging as what I do now, and I savor that time.” In the fall Severson put his helicopter training to use, flying hurricane-relief missions for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Naval intelligence officer Timothy Barrett (J03) knows that he and his fellow alumni are making a difference. “Like many students I didn’t know much about the military when I began at Northwestern,” he says. “I was initially quite hesitant to join the service for fear that I wouldn’t fit into its culture. I’ve learned, though, that the military, although at times rigid, is a place where one finds a true cross-section of America.

“More importantly, the military needs officers from institutions such as Northwestern. It needs free-thinking, well-educated, articulate people who are eager to lead and who are equipped to serve as instruments of change.”

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Editors Note: Northwestern magazine would like to thank the nearly 200 Northwestern alumni who responded to our requests for information regarding alumni in the U.S. military. The service men and women mentioned in this story are only a small sample of the Northwestern alumni who are serving our country around the world.

Did you enjoy this story? If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at

Capt. Steven Lindsley
Army National Guard Capt. Steven Lindsley fits Ali, an Iraqi child, with a prosthetic leg. After returning from Iraq, Lindsley, who manages the Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s orthotics and prosthetics office in Monroe, La., served as an operations officer for the 112th Military Police Battalion during the hurricane-relief efforts along the Gulf Coast. He also established a mobile lab to provide free orthotics and prosthetics for hurricane victims. Courtesy of Steven Lindsley
Staff Sgt. James Wood