Current veterans in the Stanford Law School share their military experiences, views on the current wars, and opinions on how life compares here at Stanford.
In the last few years, Stanford Law School has accepted an increasing number of soldiers home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each brings back a unique experience and perspective from his or her service. Below are some of their stories.
Not everyone applies to Stanford Law School from Fallujah, Iraq. But for Gabe Ledeen, now a second year law student, it was the only option.
Ledeen deployed twice to Iraq, first in 2006 and again in 2007, as a logistics officer in an infantry battalion. Not surprisingly, the experience was intense: little sleep, constant vigilance, and of course, the knowledge that every day could be his last.
“You get used to thinking you’re going to die,” he said. “It’s just a matter of probability.”
Ledeen first joined the Marine Corps after college, having been motivated to serve after September 11th.
“I thought it wasn’t right for me to go forward with my life the way it was headed,” he said. “I grew up very privileged and I didn’t want to be in a position where I was asking other people to do things I believed in but wasn’t willing to do myself.”
His experience in Iraq was eye opening. The most shocking difference he describes was the basic devaluing of human life there. He recalls watching children being set on fire.
“That happened.We saw it. People pulled people out in the street and shot them in a head as a message,” he said. “We’ve grown up in a society where each human life is substantial and is incalculable in value. They grow up in a world that is completely the opposite of that. Human life has almost no value whatsoever.”
To Ledeen, a crucial part of rebuilding Iraq involves establishing positive relationships with Iraqi civilians, and giving them hope for a better future. Ledeen recalls being invited to tea in Iraqi homes, playing soccer with kids, and distributing backpacks and other supplies at local schools.
“The reason that we were successful in Iraq was because of developing close relationships with people on the ground of every town we were in,” he said.
The path from marine to lawyer is not necessarily an obvious one. But helping rebuild and reorganize another country gave Ledeen an appreciation for the functionality and complexity of his own.
“You think, how did we get here?” he said. “What are the structures we have that Iraq does not? That experience gave me a real reason to study law. I wanted to learn.”
Kyle DeThomas, a Captain and a Civil Engineer in the U.S. Air Force, likens his tour in Afghanistan to taking a walk through the Dark Ages. A country of warlords and tribes, Afghanistan is the size of Texas but boasts of only one paved road. In other words, it’s an engineer’s nightmare.
DeThomas served two tours – one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan – and the difference between his two experiences was stark. He describes the rebuilding effort in Iraq as relatively organized, with a large contractor presence and interaction with the local community. Afghanistan was a separate beast.
“It was like a Picasso painting,” DeThomas said. “It was supposed to look like something but it didn’t make any sense.”
There has, of course, been a large national debate as to whether war in Afghanistan is winnable at all. In his State of the Union address last Tuesday, President Obama claimed to be “strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them.” DeThomas does not necessarily share the president’s optimism.
“It’s like a romantic relationship,” he said. “You can’t change another person. They have to want to change or else it’s not going to work. I don’t think Afghanistan wants to change. What we conceive of is not what they want to achieve.”
Even if the war is winnable from a tactical perspective, DeThomas suggests that the biggest difficulty will stem from within the United States itself. Our weakness in the war lies in the apathy of our people.
“Doing it [half] half-hearted way we do wars these days, I don’t know if it’s winnable,” he said. “We don’t have our heart in it.”
DeThomas is also skeptical of the success in Iraq.
“When we invade a country, we feel this obligation to nation-build and leave it in a better situation than it was before we got there. But we don’t have an army of nation-builders; we have an army of killers. Hopefully this has taught our generation about the costs of war and what you should think about before you get yourself in that situation.”
Gav Jacobs, a first year Stanford Law student, was a self-proclaimed screw-up before he joined the Marine Corps.
“The only reason I graduated from high school was because one of the teachers knew I wanted to join the military and took pity on me,” he said.
His success story is remarkable. Five years in the Marine Corps turned his life around: he graduated magnum cum laude from the University of Washington and is now at Stanford Law.
“That transformation would never have happened without the Marine Corps,” he said. “Only an experience that intense can change a person that completely. That’s one thing the military teaches you—you work hard and vigorously enough, you can accomplish your goals.”
Jacobs is one of the few enlisted men at Stanford Law. He served in two combat tours in Iraq as a Tank Crewman, a job that, he acknowledged, didn’t cut a very friendly figure.
“Main battle tanks don’t scream ‘hearts and minds,’” he said.
He arrived at Stanford Law with a different perspective about life than most of his peers.
“I don’t take our freedom for granted,” he said. “You realize that everything we enjoy in this country has a price that someone else has paid.”
And Jacobs has personally paid this price. In an ambush in Iraq, he lost his right leg and suffered severe spine injuries. During a year and a half recovery period in the hospital, he was left wondering whether he would ever stand up again, let alone walk. He carries the evidence of his sacrifice with him, a reminder of the danger overseas.
“People have this notion that we’re never going to be attacked again,” he says. “No one can comprehend that we could ever be in a war on American soil. But that is the disconnect—people don’t realize that they are safe and protected because the military has done its job so well.”
**Ryan Southerland **
Ryan Southerland, now a third year Law student, was in his senior year at Westpoint during 9/11 and its aftermath.
“We felt threatened, we felt attacked, we needed to do something,” he said. “It was visceral and real.”
Southerland deployed to Iraq twice, first in 2003 as a second lieutenant and captain in the Army Infantry, then as a military advisor to the Iraqi army in 2005. He recalls the wide range of Iraqi responses to the U.S. presence.
“Honestly, it was very difficult having frank conversations due to self-censorship,” he said. “There were always veiled meanings behind their opinions.”
With only a handful of other Americans, Southerland was responsible for training 700 Iraqi soldiers. The complexity of local political flavor in Iraq and the power of ethnic and religious divisions was stunning.
“Regardless of your motivations and intentions going into [war], when you destroy organizations or cultural structures—like when you take down the government—and completely wipe away what’s happened before, the complexity that emerges is chaotic.”
He explains that even the concept of “victory” has become much more nebulous than it previously was.
“The wars we have now are much less about winning or losing,” he said. “They’re about influence and setting conditions for growth and legitimacy.”
Southerland returned home from Iraq with a more cynical perspective of the U.S. presence overseas.
“I became skeptical of whether building a democratic state in Iraq was something our nation should be doing,” he said.
“Law school is the greatest vacation I’ve had in 10 years,” says Annie Hsieh.
It’s an unusual statement, but perhaps an unsurprising one given Hsieh’s 10-year involvement in the military. Originally a resident of Davis, California, she attended Westpoint after high school and has since deployed to Iraq, Thailand, the Phillipines, Korea, and Japan, all as an engineer working on construction and infrastructure development projects.
As an Asian-American female, Hsieh does not fit the mold of a stereotypical soldier.
“I’m not you’re average 6 foot 2 inch, broad shoulder military man,” she says.
She was an anomaly both in the United States military and in Iraq, and describes being stopped by Iraqi officers who wanted to take pictures at one point.
“I was an oddity for some reason,” she says.
In a unit with only two other female soldiers, Hsieh could not help but be aware of her gender and the difference in treatment she received.
“I was often babied at first—given easier missions, or being told things like, ‘females shouldn’t be in combat.’ But as long as you consistently outperform everyone, you’ll eventually earn respect.”
Hsieh’s interest in law stemmed from her experiences in the military. While conducting humanitarian work all over Asia, she came to realize the importance of the military in nation-building, and found her passion for the legal aspects of her work.
A military background has been useful to Hsieh in law school.
“I have a more intricate understanding of how complex institutions can be. When an issue comes up and comes up and is debated, I feel like I understand nuances that you don’t understand unless you’ve had that experience.”
Hsieh, still on active duty, volunteered to return to Afghanistan this summer. She will serve as a judge advocate general (JAG).