Call of Duty

We asked 41 alumni veterans to reflect on their U.S. military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are their stories.


Capt. Jon Vaccaro ’06
Army: ROTC-present, National Guard since June 2008
Afghanistan: January-July 2009
At Dartmouth: Government/math major; Phi Delt
Now: Active duty, Army National Guard, Tampa, Florida; married

“Ranger school was the most valuable 88 days of my life. They use sleep deprivation and caloric deprivation to stress you out, then test your leadership abilities. Your rucksack weighs 75 to 100 pounds. I learned that as your body consumes muscle, it gives off the strong smell of ammonia. My knees have never been the same, but there’s nothing more profound than hitting rock bottom and realizing there’s more you can do. I craved French toast piled with butter and syrup. I thought about it every day.”

“I really liked the Afghan culture, which is mostly open and welcoming. The terrain reminded me of New Mexico, where I grew up. We were familiar with counterinsurgency strategy and focused on winning the support of the population. I thought I might be able to learn Pashto in my free time, but I didn’t have a lot of that working 14 to 15 hours day. That came later.”

“I remember a time we were trying to bring local militia into the national police. The militia members made us a big dinner but made it clear they didn’t want to become police because they would no longer have autonomy to protect their families. As we tried to convince them, the conversation grew increasingly cold. I remember seeing the superficial rituals of hospitality continue even while the warmth seeped out of the conversation as it became clear that we were at odds. After several days of talking we came to a compromise that worked for everyone.”

“The National Guard allows me to choose a balance for my military and civilian careers. I’ve started to favor the military and have volunteered for more and more assignments. I don’t have a desire to go back to the civilian workforce. I’m not going to be career military, but I’ll stay as long as they continue to offer me interesting opportunities. Goldman Sachs has enough Dartmouth grads. I’ll contribute what I got out of my education through service for now.”


1st Lt. Wes Lippman ’03
Marine Corps: January 2006-July 2008
Iraq: August-September 2006 (incurred multiple injuries from a roadside bomb, September 30)
At Dartmouth: History major; Theta Delt; lacrosse
Now: Foreign affairs officer, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.; married; father of one

“Conducting convoys we were at the tactical level, where you see things in more detail. Every day you realize how much work goes into every little mission. Every day was a challenge. Looking back with some detachment, I see serving as the most potentially rewarding, challenging and difficult thing I’ve ever done.”

“After college I had jobs in marketing, then in commercial real estate. The Marine Corps was something I hadn’t considered seriously, but I began to think if I didn’t do it I’d regret it the rest of my life.”

“I remember getting hit. I woke up shortly after the IED blast and was awake for the whole process of figuring out how to get a medevac unit. My first thought was, ‘I can’t believe this just happened to me.’ Then I thought, ‘Try not to panic.’ I had a sense of my training actually working. We’d been told for a year to be prepared for the worst, to try to stay calm, to keep it together for the Marines you’re leading. I don’t know if I totally succeeded, but I did okay. I had the sense of trying to focus outwardly on the situation, not on myself—on realizing this was a test of all I’d been taught and trying to pass. I don’t have nightmares or flashbacks. I can recall details with relative accuracy if I want to, but it’s not something that bothers me.”

“Having military experience helps you keep your job in perspective, helps you to stay calm when other people think it’s a crisis. There are things I miss about the Marines: the level of activity, having to stay in great shape, the energy and the camaraderie that are hard to replicate.”


1st Lt. Philip Back ’10
Army: ROTC 2006-present
Afghanistan: September-December 2011
At Dartmouth: Music/philosophy major; Dartmouth Symphony Orchestra
Now: Platoon leader, Fort Knox, Kentucky; single

“In the Army you get to do things that you wouldn’t get to do in any other occupation. It isn’t just about being able to pass physical tests. You use your brain a lot.”

“If you go to a school like Dartmouth or a place like Hanover there is always a background assumption you have that things will turn out okay. You don’t even need to say it out loud. In a place like Afghanistan, it’s immediately apparent that is not the case.”

“There’s a lot of talk in the news about pulling combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. What does that mean for the Afghans who work with us? It’s one thing to see that sort of thing on the news, to think they’re probably going to be subject to reprisal by the Taliban. It’s another when you get to know these guys. They’re my age. They talk about similar things that you would talk about with your friends back home.”

“The experience of getting to work with people who really enjoy their jobs is something you don’t find a lot. People don’t typically join the military just to make a paycheck. It’s kind of an all-in thing. Everyone is really motivated and committed.”


Lt. Brad Davis ’99, Tu’09
Navy: August 2001-April 2006
Persian Gulf/Iraq: July 2002-March 2006
At Dartmouth: Classical studies major; Heorot; Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team
Now: Manager, Monitor 360, San Francisco; member, Council on Foreign Relations; guest lecturer, Tuck; single

“On March 20, the first night of Operation Iraqi Freedom, we were flying a 40-year-old, propeller-driven airplane into enemy fire without any countermeasures— ridiculous! The Iraqi air defenses were just throwing everything at us. The smoke from the burning oil wells would light up as the anti-aircraft artillery pieces fired, and moments later the tracer rounds would pierce through the smoke on their way up toward the airplane. We were targeted multiple times by surface-to-air missiles, and it was a tense waiting game as they flew toward us before missing and flaming out around the aircraft. In the moment you’re generally too focused on your job to give the personal danger much thought, but in the aftermath I was pretty grateful for our good luck and their crappy aim.”

“In my first tour in the reconnaissance squadron we were trying to figure out where enemy positions were so we could direct coalition forces in to engage them or direct the friendlies away from threat. In my second tour I was helping to channel goods and services into rebuilding an Iraq that desperately needed them. After two years of trying to destroy things, it felt good trying to help rebuild.”


Capt. Melissa Hammerle ’03
Army: ROTC-June 2011, reservist after July 2007
Iraq: December 2005-December 2006
At Dartmouth: Economics major; AZD; WISP
Now: Product and marketing manager, Danaher, Seattle; single

“Serving in Baghdad strengthened my compassion for humanity and commitment to be a force of good, regardless of what is going on around me. I was horrified by the creatively brutal methods we are capable of inflicting upon one another when fighting to defend convictions, gain advantage or simply survive. Although the exposure to humanity at the survival level was often depressing, it was also galvanizing. My innocence was replaced with an unflinching commitment to be a positive force both personally and professionally.”

“Amid the chaos I was inspired by how the most basic gestures—providing security or facilitating commerce—made a major impact on people’s lives. I am committed to applying business solutions to the problems faced by post-conflict and developing nations.”

“Some think that people join the military because they have nothing better to do, but I met some of the most amazing people I have ever had the privilege to work alongside when I was in the Army. One of my senior leaders seamlessly served in the White House, planned and executed an operation to stabilize the most violent area of Baghdad and pursued a Ph.D. at Cambridge. One of my soldiers, who was from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Houston, is among the sharpest people I’ve ever known. I spent a lot of time setting high expectations for my soldiers and holding them accountable. They have so much potential. They just need to be made aware of it. “

“The veterans in the Dartmouth community actively reached out to me and provided valuable mentorship and encouragement throughout my military service. Even in Iraq I was connected with Dartmouth students by the Iraqi Kids Project, through which current students sent my unit basic items such as clothing to distribute to Iraqi children.”


1st Lt. Jason Blydell ’08
Marine Corps: October 2008-present
Afghanistan: September 2010-April 2011 and January 2012-present
At Dartmouth: History major; Gamma Delt; baseball, football
Now: Expected home on leave in August; single

“I am currently deployed with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines as the executive officer. Compared with my first deployment, we are much more focused on targeted offensive operations against enemy forces and transitioning responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces. We have operated in the vicinity of Kajaki District, Helmand Province, and our primary work has been to conduct helicopter-borne assaults into enemy safe havens and disrupt their operations.”

“My first deployment, as a platoon commander, we conducted counterinsurgency operations for seven months. I managed a small patrol base at the northern edge of the regimental battle space in Karimanda. It was a constant struggle to identify villagers who were willing to work with Afghan and coalition forces. A few times a month we would conduct large meetings to discuss local issues. The key was to get the Afghan National Army and Afghan Uniformed Police to deal with these problems directly instead of my doing it. The Afghan soldiers and police lived with us for the duration of our extremely kinetic deployment. The primary threat we faced was improvised explosive devices. The enemy’s forward lines were just to our north, which led to multiple offensive operations in their direction.”


Lt. Col. Neil Putnam ’90
Army: ROTC-present, National Guard since 1999
Afghanistan: March 2003-October 2004 and January-September 2006
At Dartmouth: Geography major; rugby, karate
Now: Green Beret with Special Operations Command Pacific, Camp Smith, Aiea, Hawaii; married; father of two

“Initially, in some of the most rural areas children would run from us—I think they thought we were the Russians coming back. We handed out hand-crank radios so villagers could have contact with the government and get news reports not from the Taliban.”

“When I deployed the first time, my 11-man Special Forces detachment was partnered with one of the first battalions of the Afghan National Army. Villagers liked to see them. They also liked seeing the United States supporting them. Often we were the only American combat force within hundreds of kilometers. I remember commenting one day to an older Afghan gentleman about U.S. forces being there just temporarily to help, not to occupy. He stopped me and said, ‘Don’t say that. We want you to stay. If you’re here we know there’s hope for stability.’ ”

“We had a young interpreter in 2003 who was with me constantly. My memory from that time is him wearing a straggly beard, grimy fatigues and carrying an AK-47 while conducting operations with us and the Afghan National Army. In 2006, while serving as commander of the U.S. special forces elements in northern Afghanistan, I attended a NATO meeting. I’m looking at a big group of dignitaries, and there’s an Afghan civilian with them in a coat and tie with a neatly trimmed beard, serving as interpreter for a British two-star general. Our eyes locked and he shouted, ‘Sir!’ It was my interpreter from 2003. He’d moved up to a better life from living in a field carrying a rifle and fighting the Taliban. That was, to me, a very personal symbol of progress.”


Capt. Raphael Clarke ’06
Marine Corps: January 2007- present, reservist since December 2010
Iraq: January-October 2009
Afghanistan: June 2011-January 2012
At Dartmouth: Government major; Phi Delt; rugby
Now: Management consultant, Deloitte, Washington, D.C.; single

“Ninety-nine percent of my job was like a typical office job—but everyone was wearing a uniform and had a very short haircut. All the harshness and discipline of my training made sense as soon as I deployed. When you go to an environment where there’s no law, no order, military command has to be gruff to ensure group survival.”

“The current emphasis on governance suited me. I was one of the lucky ones to be in civil affairs. Our unit joke was, ‘Wherever I go, peace breaks out.’ If locals like you, nothing happens to you or the service members around you.”

“I had some of the most peaceful, spiritual moments of my life in Afghanistan. Our safe zone, where we were deployed to engage the community in defense of a dam, included a stretch of river where I’d go and reflect on the beauty there.”

“Coming from an Ivy League school isn’t always beneficial. You’ll get a little negativity, especially from the lifer senior officers. With officers who went to Ivy League schools there’s an immediate friendship: ‘You feel my pain, huh?’ ”

“Afghanistan is like living in the eighth century, but in many ways it’s more civilized than more developed countries. Because there are no rules, being polite is a necessity. Afghans are incredibly hospitable.”

“I redeployed when guys I’d served with asked me to go back over with them. Sitting in a cube in Washington, Afghanistan looked pretty good. Back at work I’m a bit of an oddball, but happy to be home.”


Col. Rich Outzen ’89
Army: ROTC-present
Iraq: July-November 2005
Afghanistan: October 2009-September 2010
At Dartmouth: History major; Theta Delt; football; actor
Now: Foreign area officer, Jerusalem; married; father of three

“Our lack of language skills has decreased the quality of our engagement with allies and increased the likelihood of coming into open conflict with potential adversaries. There are tactical consequences in combat zones of not being able to talk to people, and we’ve wound up making enemies we didn’t need to make.”

“Because Americans use the world’s dominant language, and we have a culture that has been internationalized and globalized, we think we’re in the dominant position. The truth is the reverse. Because we think in the English idiom the whole world has a window into how we think and who we are—they get us, but we don’t get them. We are an open book to the world, and the world is a closed book to us.”

“There was a very unfortunate incident in Afghanistan where an American convoy had a vehicle speeding up to it from a side street, and it was within their rules of engagement for our soldiers to fire a warning shot and then to engage the vehicle, which they did. It was a father on his way to drop his kids off at school—a middle-aged man with four kids in the vehicle—and he was killed by the fire. There was a lot of public anger. The family came to the military base to discuss the situation and recompense. Because we had some folks with the language and culture skills needed, we were able to achieve a certain way forward that calmed the public. It helps to be able to look people in the eye and talk to them in their own language.”


Capt. Pete Lilly ’04
Marine Corps: June 2004-present
Afghanistan: April-October 2011
At Dartmouth: Economics major; Theta Delt; lacrosse; DOC; World Music Percussion Ensemble
Now: UH-1Y “Huey” instructor pilot at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California; married

“During my junior-year off term I had a revelation that I wasn’t quite ready for an office, so I decided to try a cockpit instead.”

“Diversity is something tremendously valued at Dartmouth, but you see the tangible benefits at work in the Marines—how having people with different life experiences and different points of view makes everyone stronger and facilitates mission accomplishment. It allows us to capitalize on an individual’s personal experiences for the good of the group. It’s being adaptable.”

“Afghanistan was a new life experience—with a very high operational tempo. There was always plenty of work to be done. We lived a very focused and regimented existence—and I hope I did some good.”

“Especially in the helicopter community, the reality is that you’re facing danger whether in combat or in training—and unfortunately, despite every effort to prevent and mitigate dangerous scenarios, we are reminded that losses do occur. We have a saying that in a battle between rotating metal and gravity, gravity will eventually win. It is a worthy and tireless adversary.”


Lt. Col. John Williamson ’90, Tu’99
Army: ROTC-present, active and inactive reserves
Iraq: March 2003-March 2004
At Dartmouth: Government major; Delta Psi; football
Now: Counterterrorism program manager, U.S. Africa Command, Stuttgart, Germany; married; father of four

“For some of the younger service members who have gone in and out of the military only during wartime, their impressions are dominated by the danger and ugliness of warfare. My experience in Iraq was somewhat positive because I dealt with good Iraqi people who were trying to rebuild their country and do good things to help it recover.”

“As a company commander of a civil affairs unit I worked on re establishing Iraqi schools and health clinics. I focused on education projects, engaged with U.S. and Iraqi authorities to identify funding sources, and contracted with local workers to refurbish infrastructure and basic services.”

“Although there had been looting after the invasion, most of the schools were degraded due to long-term neglect from prior economic sanctions. All of the money had been directed to the military rather than basic services. Having been in Somalia in 1993, I was prepared for the conditions.”

“One benefit of working in Africa Command is seeing the good we do in our foreign missions. If your service has been just in Iraq or Afghanistan, you might not understand the full breadth of engagement we have in many countries.”


Capt. Matthew McKnight ’05
Marine Corps: June 2005-present, reservist since May 2010
Iraq: December 2007-January 2009
At Dartmouth: History major, government minor; Phi Delt; rugby; ski patrol
Now: Investment professional, IndUS Growth Partners, Boston; founder and managing partner, Mayflower Strategy Group; advisor, Leadership Institute at Harvard College; married to Whitney (Maughan) McKnight ’05

“In Iraq, when our concerns migrated from fighting insurgents to improving governance, I saw that as a sign of progress. As we continued to work with local leaders we found that fostering political development was just as difficult as fighting the insurgency, but together with our Iraqi partners we made significant steps forward. America’s hasty withdrawal has left little support for this effort, and after years of war the Iraqis are still struggling to rebuild institutions. To continue the transition from conflict, Americans must continue engagement through economic and political partnership with the Iraqi people.”

“As a history major I knew how much had been sacrificed by others just like me to provide our society with the opportunity it has today. I could have been 22 years old in 1862, 1943 or 1968. I was 22 years old in 2005. My duty was the same.”

“In the two years before my deployment I spent countless hours studying the geography, history, economy, tribes and politics of western Iraq. While deployed in the Western Euphrates River Valley I constantly met with local leaders, traveled the countryside and engaged in the communities that we were responsible for protecting and helping to develop. After all of that effort I felt I had simply scratched the surface of understanding how our small area of Iraq functioned by the time I left in January 2009. This was extremely humbling, and as I look to the future and think about other policy questions facing our country, I am cognizant of the reality that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

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