08 Nov 2019

Celebrating Harvard’s Veterans

Photo: Susan Young

by Shona Simkin

Veterans from all branches of the US and worldwide Military call Harvard home. Most days on campus they blend into the crowd as any other student, staff, or faculty member. But in full military dress, they both stand out and seem to grow a few extra inches. That was never more evident than at the annual Harvard Business School Armed Forces Alumni Association (AFAA) Veterans Day celebration on Wednesday, November 6, 2019.

An annual event since the inception of the AFAA, the celebration is another way for HBS to show its support, appreciation, and commitment to servicemembers, who make up four percent of the MBA cohort. For Navy Lieutenant Commander Dustin Packer (MBA 2020), who organized the event, it’s also a way to ensure that the Harvard community has a meaningful, positive experience with veterans. “I feel proud to wear a uniform that has meant so much to so many, and to talk to my new friends about the service and sacrifice that I volunteered for 17 years ago,” he explained. “I want to continue to show the value that we can add as friends, potential employees and corporate leaders."

This year, the event’s location in Klarman Hall allowed the AFAA to extend invitations beyond its 95 members and the HBS community to veterans and service members from the College and Harvard Kennedy School.

Zeita Merchant, a US Coast Guard Commander and current National Security Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center noted, “It’s great to have a night like this where schools across Harvard come together to celebrate veterans. It honors those who are serving and those who have spent their entire careers on something bigger than themselves.”

Jessica Stephenson (MBA 2020), who served as an Apache helicopter pilot and troop commander in the US Army said, “Tonight is very special. My section came out very strong tonight, as they did last year—it means the world to me to share this celebration and a bit of my service with them.”

For Mike Tally (MBA 2021), the evening was an unexpected reunion with his formal dress attire. “I took this uniform off in the spring and I didn’t think I’d wear it again. This is still a new environment for me, so celebrating with so many veterans and non-veterans is pretty special.”

After a cocktail reception, attendees moved into the auditorium for the formal ceremony, which included toasts to the various services, a remembrance of prisoners of war and service members missing in action, a performance of the National Anthem by the HBS acapella group, a color ceremony by Harvard ROTC, and a celebration of the 244th Marine Corps’ birthday.

Harvard University's ROTC.
Photo: Susan Young

Admiral Scott Swift, former commander of the Pacific Fleet, then took to the stage for a wide-ranging talk about his 40-year Navy career and the life lessons gleaned from that service. Swift discussed the importance of relationship building, the value of trust and diversity, and the trap of judgement over understanding. “It’s easy to judge because it’s hard to understand,” said Swift. “Information—what uniform someone is in, what race they are, or how they self-identify—is not enough. You need to take it to the next step and turn it into knowledge, to have a deeper understanding of the challenges you face individually, collectively, or at times from a national perspective.”

For Swift, the most valuable professional element of his career was not his rank, but people. His region of responsibility spanned the entirety of the West Coast to the midline of the Indian Ocean, but it was his relationship with, and support of, the sailors in his command that was at the core of his role. And trust, he said, was the key to success in building and maintaining those relationships. “Trust is the most important and the most perishable element. If you're not building trust, it's decaying. You have to come back and touch it every minute, every hour, every day. The metric of trust is loyalty. As you walk through your studies at Harvard, that element of unit cohesion comes down to trust.”

Admiral Scott Swift
Photo: Susan Young

Swift concluded his remarks by stressing the importance of diversity. “The key to diversity is surrounding yourself with people who are different from you. You get diversity of ideas through diversity of experience. You have to challenge your thinking, and turn what you think into how you think. That’s changing judging into understanding, and information into knowledge.”

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