Upon graduating from Yale, Ricardo Anzaldua-Burke ’07 had to come to terms with the possibility that he would be in a life-threatening situation.
Both “nervous and excited” to go to a region with a violent history, he described in an email that he is now an infantry platoon commander in Afghanistan with the United States Marine Corps.
He could not disclose exactly where he is. But when he is not in combat or training the younger Marines, Anzaldua-Burke said there is a lot of downtime; the region upon arrival has been relatively calm and the platoon has seen few casualties.
During his days, Anzaldua-Burke fills his free time by reading, exercising and continuing his study of Chinese. But he balances this personal time with a constant sense of responsibility as well: charged with training the 45 Marines in his platoon, he said he must prepare them both for fighting and for their future.
The training aspect of his duties, he explained, “haunts” him. He said he finds a continuous challenge in giving his troops freedom and personal time while also ensuring their skills are ready for combat.
Still, he said the “extreme consequence” of his work is one of the reasons he loves his career.
Anzaldua-Burke is not the only Yalie to fight in Afghanistan, where the United States has now been at war for 10 years as of this month. With majors ranging from engineering to economics, all seven Yale service members interviewed said their undergraduate years helped prepare them for military service, even if some of their peers were concerned about their postgraduation choice. Some have returned from deployment to Afghanistan, some are still fighting and one is set to leave, but all expressed satisfaction with their decision to serve.
PATH LESS FOLLOWED
Entering the military is not often considered a traditional plan for a recent Yale graduate, several service members interviewed pointed out. The norm now, some of them said, is law school or finance.
Carl Dietz ’05 said he considered joining the military after Yale to be more of a “fantasy” than a tangible possibility. Dietz first worked on Wall Street after graduating, but he explained in an email that he soon realized he had entered finance largely because he felt it had been the “‘responsible’ thing” to do.
“I suffered through two years of that and finally decided to do something more productive,” Dietz, now a member of a Marine Corps infantry battalion training for deployment to Afghanistan, said.
After deciding to enter the military, these service members said their family has been supportive, but for a few it took some convincing.
Nick Panza ’07, a Marine Corps Captain who served in Afghanistan for six months, said his parents initially thought he was “crazy” to join the Marine Corps after graduating from Yale. He noted that Phillips Exeter Academy — where he attended high school — and Yale educations don’t often precede a career in the military today.
Peers at Yale showed mixed reactions to the choice to join the military after Yale, those interviewed said, ranging from respect to confusion.
Dietz, now training at a camp in California before his deployment to Afghanistan, noted that several of his Yale classmates provided care packages for all 40 of the Marines in his battalion. Still, Anzaldua-Burke said some of his Yale peers were shocked to learn he fights in the front lines, “as if I am too special to be sacrificed in such a way.”
He continued: “They usually give a muted response, along with a disconcerted or disappointed facial expression — you would think I told them I am a janitor.”
But while committing to the military after graduating from Yale may not be typical, all seven of the Yalies who have spent time in Afghanistan with the military said their Yale education has proved to be a worthwhile investment for their careers.
All of the service members interviewed have served in leadership roles during their deployments and said the leadership skills they developed while undergrads helped them in these positions.
Five competed on sports teams while at Yale — Megan Leitch ’02 and Panza rowed, David Kemp ’08 ran track, Daniel Brillman ’06 played lacrosse and Geoffrey Zann ’07 swam — and said being a member of a sports team was invaluable in preparing them. Leitch, who worked to improve community infrastructure in remote areas including Afghanistan, credited her engineering education at Yale for giving her the problem-solving skills necessary, as well as her ability to handle stress.
Matthew Cooney, head of the Marine Corps Officer Programs in New York City, who helps with recruiting at college campuses, said recruiters treat students from all schools equally. But, he believes the strong level of commitment Yalies show to their schoolwork can translate to a commitment to service.
“Most Yale students have that work ethic we look for,” Cooney said, “and that initiative.”
A NEED TO SERVE
Yale may have helped these soldiers acquire some of the skills necessary to succeed in Afghanistan, but a personal conviction to serve to one’s country proved the driving force behind their military careers.
For two Yale service members, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 inspired them to serve. On that morning, Panza was on a cross-country flight to begin his junior year of boarding school at Exeter, which he said “set the stage” for his interest in serving in the military.
Kemp, a Marine currently deployed in Afghanistan, said that he lived in a suburb of New York City when he was in high school and remembers the 9/11 attacks as a definitive moment.
“I knew then that I wanted to take an active role in the defense of our country,” Kemp wrote in an email.
Anzaldua-Burke also felt a tug to give back to his country, and has been serving as infantry platoon commander in Afghanistan since this summer.
Anzaldua-Burke explained that — because he grew up in a poor neighborhood and was able to transfer to Yale by working hard at his community college and state university — he realized after graduation during a year spent studying in China that such educational opportunity would not have been available to him in other countries.
“I became aware of how unique the U.S. is with respect to opportunity and upward mobility,” he wrote in an email from Afghanistan. “I decided that I owe this country a great debt, and serving in the military is my way of repaying that debt.”
Sterling Professor of Classics and History Donald Kagan said the students he knows who have gone on to serve in the military have all shown a personal motivation to serve their country, and ultimately expressed a sense of satisfaction with the job.
“I’ve always seen a number of students who have wanted to do it, and have done it,” he said.
Panza remembers having mixed feelings upon learning after training that he would be serving in Afghanistan because he knew other service members who had returned home with negative experiences. Yet Panza said that he ultimately found his time in Afghanistan to be a positive experience, largely because he was on the ground interacting with Afghan military personnel and civilians on a regular basis.
“If I ever go back, in two years or in 10 years, I will pick up right where I left off,” he said of his friendship formed with the Afghanis he worked with. “We developed a bond that lasts a lifetime.”
With a Yale economics degree, Anzaldua-Burke said he takes the opportunity to teach his troops, who he wrote are often lacking a strong education and parental guidance and involvement, about personal finance, economics, politics and English writing. Others interviewed said they found fulfillment in traveling to other countries and improving living conditions in rural areas. They mentioned finding difficulty with enduring periods of boredom, being far from loved ones and living in dangerous conditions. Yet from Yale to Afghanistan, they have learned to persist through stressful times to satisfy the desire to serve their nation..
“No one likes walking to practice in the snow at 5 a.m. when everyone else is still asleep, but it’s all worth it when you’re standing on the podium for nationals,” Zann said of his swimming career at Yale, adding that the sacrifices were ultimately worth it. “No one likes being away from their wife or being shot at, but at the end of the day, it is rewarding to fight for your country.”