Swarthmore's Soldiers
By Miles Skorpen
11:05 pm - 12/13/07

Last year, Jon Petkun ’07 was a finalist in the first Mr. Swarthmore competition. His acclaimed performance had him wearing a blue leotard and performing self-described “patriotic ribbon dance.” He served as Vice President of the Young Democrats and he describes his political leanings as ‘very liberal’ on Facebook.

David Lesser ‘92 is a second-generation practicing Quaker who majored in theatre.

After Swarthmore, Sean Barney ’98 spent three years as a speech writer for Bill Bradley and as Policy Director for Democratic Senator Tom Carper of Delaware.

Somehow, all three decided to join the military. Petkun was recently commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines. Leeser is a Major in the Army and works as a surgeon at Walter Reed Hospital. Sean Barney was a Lance Corporal in the Marines before he was shot by a sniper in Fallujah. He has since been awarded the Purple Heart.

They are among a select few. Since 2003, only two graduates reported joining the military in the College’s annual Senior Survey. This puts the military on par with “rockstar” as a career choice.

The College doesn’t exactly support military recruitment. “All universities who receive federal funding are required to permit recruiters,” explained Nancy Burkett, the Director of Career Services. Swarthmore claims an exemption based on the school’s Quaker roots.

Military recruiters aren’t all that interested either. “They don’t expect a high volume of recruitment from a school like Swarthmore,” said Burkett with a laugh, although if a student did approach her with questions about the military, Burkett would direct them to the appropriate websites.

Somehow, these three are among a select few that do decide to serve in the military.

Why They Serve

They made their decisions for very different reasons.

Joining the Army was part of Leeser’s long-term career plan. He was confident that, as a doctor, he would be a non-combatant, and he still believes that it is vital to give “the folks in uniform the very best medical care.” It didn’t hurt that the Army put him through medical school.

The idea grew slowly on Petkun. He shares Leeser’s beliefs about the importance of public service. “Every Swarthmore student should engage in some kind of service to our country or to the world,” he told the Gazette. He also increasingly became aware of the lack of diversity within the military.

“The military,” he confided “is not representative, is not fair—yet we need an apolitical military.”

“I joined to make a marginal difference and to make a broader point,” Petkun explained.

Petkun will be assigned a specialty by the Marines, but he hopes to serve in intelligence.

Barney did not make the decision to join the military upon graduation. “I didn’t plan for it, I didn’t grow up thinking I would ever join the military. I only started thinking about it during philosophy class,” he said.

While Petkun worried particularly about the ideological diversity of the armed forces, Barney decided to enlist because he believes it is dangerous for a democracy to have such a skewed distribution of sacrifice during a war.

“After 9-11,” said Barney, “it was clear we were going to war. Against who, I wasn’t sure. But I was down in DC when 9-11 occurred, and I was a foreign policy advisor. I saw what was happening. And the idea of joining the military kept poking at me.”

Having grown up in an affluent suburban community and attended an elite college, Barney thinks he fits precisely into the category of people that should join the military—but don't.

“I am morally dissatisfied with the distribution of sacrifice,” he said. “A very small slice of the population is severely impacted and a large swath hardly notices a difference.”

In the end, he walked into a recruiting station and said he wanted to join the Marines as a rifleman, not as an officer. “The recruiter wouldn’t let me do it,” he remembered. “I did well enough on their standardized test that he made me a machine-gunner.”

Barney is the only Swarthmore student the Gazette could find who decided to enlist rather than enter officer training.

None of the three regret their choice. When asked if he wished he could change his mind, Petkun was adamant. “Not in a minute.” Leeser is just as steadfast as Petkun.

Barney and Petkun are particularly convinced that their decision to join the Marines, as opposed to any other branch of the military, was the right one.

“Swat doesn’t have institutional pride,” Petkun noted. “If anything, we are proud that we don’t have institutional pride—the Marines though, the Marines do have that pride.”

“Swarthmore doesn’t have the typical school spirit,” agreed Barney, who is currently a first-year law student at Stanford. But he noticed that both the Marines and Swarthmore stand out as unique institutions with unique methodology and values. “Both the Marines and Swarthmore have established niches for themselves,” he said. “People are at Swarthmore and are in the Marines because they want to be there.”

Into Iraq

Swarthmore’s soldiers haven’t avoided service in Iraq.

Leeser graduated from Swarthmore fifteen years ago, and received twelve years of medical education at the military’s expense in exchange for serving as a surgeon for four. His tenure began in 2004.

In the past three years, he has spent most of his time serving at Walter Reed Army Medical Center serving active duty soldiers, retirees, and dependents.

He has served two six-month tours in Iraq, working as a trauma surgeon first at a small base just west of An Nasiriyah and later in Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad.

These tours aren’t remarkable, Leeser insists. “Every surgeon is deployed to Iraq,” he explained softly. “I wasn’t deployed any more or less than others.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, he describes field hospitals as not significantly different than those of Temple University’s hospital in central Philadelphia, where he worked as a resident. “If you took a scene from Baghdad, aside from the uniforms, things wouldn’t be much different,” he reported.

It is an impressive feat. “We are doing the same thing in Philadelphia and Iraq, it is just incredible,” he said.

Barney volunteered to go to Iraq, when another Marine reserve unit from his area was shorthanded. He was based in the center of Fallujah, a divided Iraqi city. During Barney’s tour of duty, the city was a hot-spot of Al Qaeda activity. “We were attacked most days,” Barney said.

His platoon did foot patrols of the city twice a day. And even when not on patrol, Barney had to be ready. He spent much of his time in the base fully armed and armored, ready to run out at a moment’s notice to protect fellow Marines or raid insurgent bases.

During any moment outside of the base, lives were at risk. He described “dancing,” or moving constantly to make the job of snipers more difficult. On May 12, 2006, however, a sniper was dedicated.

he 4th Platoon commander in Fallujah, Captain Sean Miller, later described the event in a letter to Barney. “You had been hit. We all turned to see what had happened. We saw you fall to the ground, and then get back up. As we were securing the area, you were running back to where our vehicles were located at.”

Barney had been shot in the neck by a sniper. “None of us thought you were going to make it,” said Miller.

But Barney did. After extensive physical therapy, he is now a student once more.

Following in their Footsteps

The three disagree on whether or not Swarthmore students the military is a career most Swatties should consider.

Leeser recommends the career to anyone—even other Quakers—and dismisses the idea that Swarthmore students would be ill-suited for the military. “People think that people in the military are somehow different than Swarthmore students, but time at Swarthmore doesn’t mean an experience in the military wouldn’t be worthwhile.”

He argues that most Swarthmore students would benefit from serving in the military. “It gives an understanding of how the Republic works,” he explained, explaining how service for the government drives the nation. “You’d never understand it any other way than by serving yourself.”

“This knowledge is lost on many graduates from top institutions,” he said with a note of sadness in his voice.

That isn’t to say, he hastened to clarify, that Swarthmore should encourage students to join the military. Instead the College “has a responsibility not to discount the career.”

While Petkun agrees that the College shouldn’t discourage military service, he does not share Leeser’s confidence that joining the armed forces is a good career choice for all Swarthmore students.

“Not necessarily,” he said, when asked bluntly.

In the classrooms of basic training in Quantico, Virginia, he noted that, when it comes to the “big ideas,” others there don’t “have the same conceptions.”

Asked if he meant that his fellow trainees are mostly conservative, he said yes. “In terms of cultural values, in particular,” Petkun reported. “In class, an instructor asked who watched the O’Reilly Factor and most of the people in the room raised their hands,” he recounted.

Swarthmore students interested in the military need to remember that, the military is not “a great place for [GLBTQ] allies.” He went on, “it’s just a values thing. Sometimes you have to suspend your beliefs.”

Barney joined the military before Petkun, however, and thinks that the situation is improving. “Before 9/11, it was a fairly conservative force politically,” agreed Barney. “But now it is changing in interesting ways—the support of military families for Bush is nearly the same as in the general population and there is a lot of skepticism towards Republicans.”

Barney paused, and then hastened to clarify. “This doesn’t mean they are embracing the Democrats.”

Even more than the politics, for a Marine, life is very different from Swarthmore. “I miss books, I miss academics, I miss Swarthmore,” Petkun gushed. “[The Marines] gives me a new appreciation for Swarthmore, a window into its uniqueness.”

Barney has spent a lot of time refining his beliefs on whether Swarthmore students should consider the military, and whether Swarthmore and other elite institutions should encourage the career.

He believes that society discourages graduates of many top institutions from joining the military. “The percentage of students from the Ivy League that enters the military… it is pathetic. Princeton used to send more than 400 students to the military each year—now they send one or two.”

And he believes this is a dangerous trend. “What we have been engaged in since 9/11, it is the issue of our time. Do students want to divorce themselves from involvement in this?” He asked, “Should we tell graduates from elite schools that the military isn’t a good choice?”

As he spoke, he suddenly shifted gears. “I think students should seriously consider a tour in the military, but it is a personal choice. The military is very particular. When you join the military … you aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

For Barney, this line of thinking has naturally led to him considering a mandatory national service plan. “It would help the nation,” he said flatly. “Look at Israel. There’s not a line between the military and people. It shapes their entire civic culture. It throws their young people together.”

He isn’t too hopeful such a plan would come to fruition, however. “It is very easy to move from a draft-based military to an all-volunteer military. It is much more difficult t move back. We missed our chance after 9/11.” And without the draft, Barney believes the United States has “lost a soberness of going to war.”

Professor James Kurth, instructor for Defense Policy and the American Way of War, understands where Petkun, Leeser, and Barney are coming from. In a previous interview with the Gazette, he noted that “a couple years in the military is a very good experience that they will draw upon for a valuable resource for the rest of their lives.”

That said, “the problem with the military is you don’t get the chance to choose your wars, they choose that for you.” When lives are on the line, the decision of whether or not to enter the military can be far difficult. “Fighting a counterinsurgency war that the American Ground Forces are not organized to fight … I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

When Barney was told of Swarthmore’s decision to ban military recruiters from campus, he wasn’t surprised—and he doesn’t necessarily think the policy should change. “Swarthmore has a strong institutional identity, and a strong set of values. Its Quaker heritage is part of that,” he said. Still, he believes that all institutions of higher learning, but particularly the Ivy League schools and the top liberal arts colleges should take a close look at policies regarding recruitment.

Even without a Quaker heritage, Amherst College prohibits recruiters. Williams College gives recruiters access comparable to any other commercial recruiters.

“The policies don’t have to change,” said Barney. “But colleges should think about it. It shouldn’t be something reflexive. … Should we tell grads that the military isn’t encouraged?”

Barney thinks fondly of the World War II era. “The World War II generation is unique in society today. They have this sense of civic responsibility that no one else does.” He thinks that the nation will never reclaim this unique character when the burden of national service is borne by a select few.