Paul Rieckhoff ’98 says he fought a war he disagreed with because “I knew I could
have a greater impact on the war and the world if I was a platoon leader on the ground with 39 soldiers under my command than I could holding up a sign in Washington, D.C., or New York."
A Soldier’s Tale
1 | 2 | 3 | Rieckhoff Speaks Out | Other Amherst Grads in Military
Leadership seems to be in Paul Rieckhoff’s bones.
President of the Student Government Organization before graduating from Amherst in 1998, he enlisted in the Army Reserves that fall. After teaching and then working on a political campaign, he worked on Wall Street for two years, all the while fulfilling his Reserve duty requirements. Rieckhoff resigned from his job near the World Trade Center just three days before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. When he heard about the disaster at the Twin Towers, he rushed to join the rescue efforts there. That evening, his Reserve unit was activated, and Rieckhoff was eventually sent to Iraq. He led a 39-man infantry platoon from the Kuwait border into Baghdad, where they participated in both combat operations and reconstruction activities.
Although Rieckhoff returned from battle safe and sound in February 2004, he knew many who were not so lucky. Sgt. Dustin Tuller, a member of Rieckhoff’s platoon, lost his legs in battle. Rieckhoff’s Brigade leader, Command Sergeant Major Eric Cooke, was killed, as was Spec. Robert Wise, a member of Rieckhoff’s battalion. For their efforts in Iraq, Rieckhoff and his platoon received the Combat Infantry Badge, becoming the first Reserve unit since Korea to earn this honor.
Now a first lieutenant, Rieckhoff is unusual in several respects: He is a recent Amherst alumnus in active military service; he is a strong advocate for the Army who is also a harsh critic of many aspects of the war in Iraq; and he has a rarely heard front-line perspective on both fighting and nation building.
In October 2003, CBS News’ “60 Minutes II” interviewed Rieckhoff for a report on U.S. military activity in Baghdad. Rob Longsworth ’99 and Dick Hubert ’60 saw that story, and arranged to interview Rieckhoff for Amherst on two different occasions in April 2004. Later that month, Rieckhoff spoke at Amherst in uniform, the first alumnus to do so in recent memory. Shortly thereafter, he greeted Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. on a visit to New York, and the senator’s presidential campaign then arranged for him to deliver the Democratic response to President Bush’s weekly radio address in early May. A flood of publicity ensued.
Excerpts from the Hubert and Longsworth interviews follow.
Paul, walk us through how and why you volunteered to go into the military.
My family, at least two generations since we’ve been in this country, has served in the military. My grandfather was drafted during World War II and served in the Pacific, and my father was drafted during the Vietnam time. It’s something that my father and grandfather never really touted, but it was always obviously a part of their development, and it’s something that I admired in them and that I kind of longed for myself.
So, when I graduated college I was looking for what I felt would be an extreme challenge. Something that would develop me as a person and wasn’t necessarily a conventional résumé builder.
I had an offer from J.P. Morgan and was committed to them, but still had this yearning to do the military. So I decided to defer my job on Wall Street for a year, and I enlisted in the Army Reserves. It was primarily so I could get what I call tangible leadership skills: actually moving people, influencing people, directing people, understanding the relationships that were necessary to achieve a common goal. I just felt that I wasn’t going to get that in a business environment; I wasn’t going to get that in an academic environment. The military gave me the ultimate in personal-development challenge and leadership.
In ’98, that was pretty much not thought of—people had no idea why in the heck I would ever conceive of joining the military after coming out of a place like Amherst. I remember an Army recruiter came to meet me at the Campus Center at Amherst. When this guy walked in, in full military uniform, it was like an alien had been beamed down from Mars. Amherst students couldn’t even comprehend that someone in uniform was coming on the campus.
We had only one guy in my class—Mike Anderson—who was ROTC, and he had to go to the University of Massachusetts. He joined the Air Force.
Photos: Frank Ward