A Soldier’s Tale
Paul Rieckhoff leads his platoon on patrol in the A'Zamiyah section of Baghdad. He says that most mornings began with explosions as patrols like this one encountered deadly improvised explosive devices.
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For a lot of us in the U.S., seeing an Amherst guy identified on “60 Minutes II” as a class president must have come as a shock—a pleasant surprise, I hope. How did they find you?
The “60 Minutes” piece started with a reporter who had originally come to our compound to do a story on one of my soldiers who married an Iraqi woman. In the process, the “60 Minutes” guys spent some time with my guys and with me. The producer asked me, “Do you get the impression that the American people really understand what’s happening here on the ground in Iraq?” And I said, “Absolutely not.”
Did you ever ask them why they identified your college and the fact that you were a student government officer?
I didn’t actually ask them that, but I know that the producer was incredibly shocked to learn that I went to Amherst and I was in the military, serving in Baghdad. You don’t meet people from the top schools in the Army—very seldom. It’s not a traditional job track coming out of a liberal arts college, coming out of an Ivy League school in America. It’s not something that people have looked to as an area of opportunity.
Does that trouble you?
It troubles me tremendously. Because I think that the people who are enjoying so many of the benefits in this country are usually the ones who are difficult to convince to sacrifice in order to preserve the way they exist. The military offers tremendous opportunity for someone of lower socioeconomic class. People of higher socioeconomic class don’t view the military as a place that offers them anything.
The times that we live in now are much more trying than any in recent history, and the stakes are much higher, and I think that we as a country have been forced to re-evaluate what it is that we are standing for, what it is we hold dear to us. If we are going to progress and develop as a nation, I think there is going to have to be a greater degree of sacrifice. That will have to happen on all levels; the burden cannot continue to be shouldered by the lower classes. It’s time for the schools like Amherst and their alums and their students to understand that we have to play our part, too. And it’s not just giving money. If sons and daughters are going to die in a foreign land, it’s going to have to be sons and daughters from every socioeconomic class, not just the poor ones. Otherwise you’re going to have serious class issues in this country in the future. And that will erode some of the basic foundations of our country.
If it were up to me, military service would be mandatory. Some sort of service would be mandatory. The military is a great experience, because there are no class barriers. There are no age barriers, gender barriers—you’re all fighting for a common cause, you’re all working toward a common cause. You have people from all over the country, from all different backgrounds, forced to work together. And that creates a tremendous amount of awareness and understanding, and it makes for better people. It’s really unique in that respect.
A lot of people reading this will be surprised to learn that you intend to continue to put your neck out. You’ve volunteered for Special Forces.
I transferred this week to the 19th Special Forces Group, which is a Reservist Special Forces Group out of Rhode Island. I’d like to continue to be involved in the military, and Special Forces is the next challenge. It allows me to experience the things that I enjoy most about the military: everything from the most intense combat operations to the most benevolent, humanitarian missions. You get that entire scope in the Special Forces. You’re also around the best-trained soldiers in the world. I’m hoping that it’s something I’ll be able to do at least for the next few years.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
The thing that was most difficult for people to understand and accept, especially among my Amherst friends, is, “How can you be against the war but still fighting the war?” That was the big question, because I’m pretty vocal about how I feel on most political issues. From my student government time and just my personality in general, people couldn’t understand how I could be against the war but still have to go. They tried to understand if there were some kind of irreconcilable battle going on internally.
I wasn’t comfortable with the administration’s justification for the war. I felt like it changed a few times, like it was never clearly expressed to the American public, honestly, what the intentions for the war were. And they needed to throw the weapons-of-mass-destruction reasoning behind it in order to rally the support of the American people. I never felt after Vietnam we would ever wage a war that didn’t have overwhelming public support.
I was concerned about a lot of issues pre-war, but at the same time I was aware that the war at that time was pretty much inevitable. The Bush administration was going to war. And as a member of the military I was going to war. I had the foresight to understand there would be a time when peacemaking roles would become the bulk of what the soldiers would be doing over there. I didn’t know to what extent the combat was going to last. But I knew that, honestly, sitting in New York and protesting and raising hell was not going to stop the war. The war was going to happen anyway.
I felt like, as a platoon leader with 39 soldiers on the ground in Iraq, I could make more of a profound impact on the way the world viewed America, and on the war, than I could by sitting home and grinding my teeth and writing letters. I really believe in the power of each individual to determine a large part of how that overall endeavor is viewed. Even Iraqis who are against the occupation, when they meet a generous American soldier, change their views dramatically. I knew that I could mold 39 guys into a positive view of America, a generous group and a kind group. We achieved the role of being the best friend you could ever have and the worst enemy you could ever have.
Is it fair to say, Paul, that you’re going to be actively involved in these issues? You’re not just going to walk away from this.
No, I think it’s my duty at this point, and the duty of my soldiers, to communicate to as many people as possible about our experiences and about how our views have changed and developed as a result of these experiences. My soldiers, since they’ve returned to the U.S., have become more publicly active, have become more socially active, and that’s a good thing. It’s going to take a long time to filter this thing out. We’re going to have troops in that place 50 years from now. You can put me on the record. My kids’ generation will be there. As long as America continues to exist, we’ll have some sort of military presence in Iraq.
Rieckhoff is considering a graduate degree in public policy, and he says that if he is called back to Iraq he will serve again. “If I get the call tomorrow,” he told The New York Times, “I'm going.”
Dick Hubert ’60, a Peabody and two-time DuPont Columbia Award-winning producer, is a former Amherst alumni trustee (and Army PFC).
Rob Longsworth II ’99 is co-founder of Responding Together, a group of Amherst alumni who joined together after Sept. 11, 2001 to promote service to community and country.
Next: Rieckhoff Speaks Out >>
Photo courtesy of Paul Rieckhoff