The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

A Conversation with Veterans Jason Hartwig ’06 and Brad Wolcott ’06

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In honor of Veteran’s Day, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center hosted a talk entitled “Imprints and Consequences of War: Personal Reflections of Dartmouth Alumni Veterans,” featuring Jason Hartwig ’06 and Brad Wolcott ’06. Both men were involved with ROTC during their time at Dartmouth, and both men went on to serve in the Armor Branch in the U.S. Army. The Armor Branch is an active combat branch with reconnaissance, surveillance, and infantry units. Armor soldiers are responsible for operating machinery, like tanks and helicopters, in combat and in intelligence-gathering activities.

Their paths do not represent the path of the average Dartmouth alumnus, nor do they represent the path of the average veteran. They were two in a handful of students involved with ROTC between 2002 and 2006, an experience Wolcott refers to as “idyllic.” Though most college-level ROTC programs focus on more technical aspects of army life, like marching and discipline, “we spent our entire time in the woods learning tactics, learning leadership, learning how to deploy soldiers in the field,” he says.

Being in ROTC on a college campus in the midst of the Iraq war was, to put it lightly, uncomfortable, particularly given that they themselves were “against the war … strategically and morally,” Hartwig says. Most of the Dartmouth students in ROTC at that time were liberal; Hartwig self-identified as a Marxist. Thus, it was difficult to watch the protests of their classmates. Hartwig found himself wondering if he “should burn [his] uniform… and start protesting the war” or “go on this path that [he had] always wanted to go on.”

They asked their ROTC leader to allow them to forgo the custom of wearing their uniform on Fridays, but he was firm. So, with a brave face, they confronted the criticism of their classmates.  One day, a girl approached a uniformed Wolcott in the dining hall and, horrified, demanded to know whether he was armed.

In retrospect, Hartwig is glad they were forced to “own what [they were] about to do” by wearing the uniform. It prepared him for many uncomfortable experiences to come, such as being an American soldier in countries that resent American interference.

The transition from Dartmouth to the army was not an easy one. According to Hartwig, in the army, people with Ivy League degrees are “dorks.” He found this stigma motivating rather than crushing; “it inspired me to work out three times a day and ensure that I was always the fittest in my battalion,” he says.

Wolcott agrees, emphasizing that in the army, “subject matter expertise is critical to authority.” Having a high rank is nice, but ultimately, soldiers respect people who possess the technical skills necessary to succeed on the battlefield. Thus, while Dartmouth’s ROTC program was somewhat unconventional, both Hartwig and Wolcott feel that it prepared them to take on leadership roles in active combat situations. 

Dartmouth ROTC graduates differ in another key aspect: high attrition rates. “Few [Dartmouth] students actually stay in the military,” Hartwig says. “Most people did their tour and then got out and are now at Goldman Sachs or something.”

Wolcott agrees. “Folks from the Ivy League… that’s generally not who forms your core leadership in the army,” he says. “It’s guys who went to major state schools and West Point.”

This phenomenon can be attributed to two root causes. First, conformity: Hartwig personally felt pressure to “go out and… experience something hard or interesting,” then pursue a career more in line with what “everyone else” was doing. Second, privilege: “Coming from Dartmouth,” Wolcott says, “you have plenty of options to get out. There are plenty of officers who don’t have that luxury.”

Though they had spent their adolescent and college years picturing themselves as soldiers, Hartwig and Wolcott, like most Ivy League graduates who enlist in the army, decided to leave, within a decade of enlisting.

To continue, they would have had to spend eight to ten years working in an administrative capacity before re-entering the field as (more senior) garrison brigade leaders. According to Wolcott, because garrisons are stationed at military bases instead of combat zones, they “can be kind of soul-crushing… after being deployed.”

Additionally, the military lifestyle makes it difficult to maintain personal relationships outside of the military. “I was uninterested in the traditional army family life, where your spouse just follows you around,” Hartwig says.

Now — after three years with the Department of Justice, graduate school, and two years working as a military assistance coordinator in Somalia — Hartwig is working on starting his own company. When he served in a combat unit, “one of our jobs was to go out and find insurgents and remove them from the battlefield… Violence kind of calmed down, but I was always curious as to whether we were actually the cause of that,” Hartwig says. His company aims to pick apart this puzzle, implementing rigorous, evidence-based analyses of military strategies.

Wolcott’s post-army life has been quite different. Immediately after leaving the army, he went “back to school to become a furniture maker.” He worked in a studio, as a teacher, then as a contract designer. In this latter role, he designed “high-end” corporate office furniture. Now, he is in the process of opening up a “hybrid design studio, where [he] will be doing both studio furniture and residential and contract furniture designs in a freelance capacity,” he says.

To most, active combat and furniture-making may seem like dissonant pursuits; however, Wolcott loves them both, and for similar reasons. He is not, as he phrases it, a “desk jockey.” In the army, and now in the studio, he can relate to his work on a level that is both physical and personal. “I really love that sort of connection to the work and really being able to take your own pieces from concept to completion,” he says.

As officers, both Wolcott and Hartwig found the act of building a team from nothing, of shaping a fighting force that could withstand combat, to be incredibly fulfilling.

“I miss the sense of purpose that being an officer gave me. We were all pretty liberal, we didn’t really support the war or believe in the mission. But I did believe in being a good officer and trying to make the right decisions to bring soldiers home and have an honorable tour. And I haven’t found a similar sense of pride in the civilian world,” Wolcott says.

How could these men be so fulfilled in fulfilling a mission to which they were morally opposed?

Wolcott credits the honeycombed nature of combat missions. When he was deployed, what mattered was not the war, not the United States, and not the citizens of the relevant country. He wasn’t fighting for them. He was fighting for his men. “Most people didn’t leave Iraq and think ‘wow, I’m so glad we got to help the Iraqi people,’” he says. “But it’s easy to look at the experience that you had with other guys … I felt that when I left, the decisions I made as a platoon leader helped all my guys come back.”

Hartwig agrees, adding that he misses “the cultural interaction” between citizens and deployed soldiers. “A lot of Iraqis were like, don’t leave … it was anarchy here … You’re the only thing holding us back from that,” he says. Though he credits the United States with creating that anarchy, he found purpose in assisting and supporting people who, in that moment, desperately needed help.

It is difficult, mind-boggling, to listen to these two young officers describe their experiences in the army. At the core of their stories is a tangled knot, an impossible marriage, of love and disgust. They speak of the horrors they faced in the army, things that “haunt” them still, things that made them “numb,” things that made for a “difficult transition back to the world.”

Yet, it is clear, in their words and in their tones, that they loved it. “War is the force that gives us meaning,” Hartwig says, quoting the title of a book, published in 2002, written by combat correspondent Chris Hedge. And then in the same breath: “All you want to do is go do it, and then it ruins your life.”

Written by Eliza Jane Schaeffer ’20, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

The views and opinions expressed, and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.

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