As Veterans day approaches each year, I like to take time to reflect on my service, how it has changed my life’s trajectory and shaped who I have become. Serving in the military focused my purpose around protecting others: protecting my community after 9/11, protecting my brothers and sisters as we ventured into combat, protecting my fellow veterans as we transitioned back into a difficult world. So it was no surprise to me that as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, I found myself once again seeking to safeguard others, as the Deputy Director of Response Operations for the State of New York.

The genesis of my public service comes from growing up on Long Island, where the September 11th attacks affected me intimately. Over forty people from my hometown were killed; my uncle survived only because of a timely smoke break. As an eleven year-old enduring that relentless cascade of funerals, the notion of the ultimate sacrifice became very real, and very personal.

Enlisting in the Marine Corps the day after my eighteenth birthday has become a defining moment of my career. It represents the first step along what could only consistently be described as a non-traditional path. As my peers went on to college, I chose a different formational environment that held leadership, discipline, and commitment as sacrosanct.

At age nineteen, I became the youngest Marine Raider in history selected to serve in the elite Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC). I was entrusted with more than $4,000,000 of equipment and challenged to become fluent in Pashto. By twenty-two, I was part of a small team leading hundreds of men on the battlefield, conducting dozens of raids and capturing Taliban leaders to destabilize the insurgency. Unfortunately, the most powerful lessons came at great cost – within a week of setting foot in Afghanistan, two of our closest brothers were killed.

These men were not just comrades: they were leaders, mentors, and fathers that left behind ten children. Grappling with their loss – and the many killed since – drove me to pursue answers in academia to questions left from my six years of service. The opportunity to reprocess my experience of conflict through academic lenses yielded unique insights, but also allowed me to provide a distinct perspective in the classroom. University sharpened the indelible conviction to serve that the military had forged, and elevated my impact from a small corner of a battlefield to becoming a policymaker in state government. 

The most important lessons of the military are more than just the physical skills, the jumping from airplanes or putting rounds on thousand-yard targets, they are the transferable ‘soft’ skills. The military doesn’t just train you how to run towards the sound of bullets; it teaches you how to control the chaos, how to tackle seemingly insurmountable obstacles, how to build and lead teams with rapport and respect. And so as the proverbial bullets of the pandemic began to crack overhead in the early weeks of March, I found myself drawing on lessons learned from the Marines: adapting to continuously shifting circumstances, seizing the initiative to combat the evolving virus, building and leading teams to flexibly solve the social, economic, and equity issues the crisis exacerbated, and dependably meeting the demands of the high stakes and high pressure environment. More than just surviving, the Marines taught me how to thrive in the intensity and ambiguity that defined the pandemic. 

The military propelled me on that non-traditional path, rapidly accelerating my development by exposing me to brilliant and dedicated leaders. Those sergeants, staff-NCOs and officers taught me countless invaluable lessons while providing opportunities for growth. Their lessons led me from Afghanistan to New York City, from Ireland to Albany, and now to Harvard Business School. As I continue to reap these benefits, I’m reminded that it takes a village, a community to instill the values and lessons you rely on throughout life. I am thankful for mine.