Swarthmore’s Soldiers

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

in_iraq.jpgLance Corporal Sean Barney ’98 in Fallujah, Iraq. Photograph provided by Sean Barney.

People who distantly knew Jon Petkun ‘07 while he was a student at Swarthmore probably would not have guessed that upon graduation, Jon would enlist in the US military. As a senior at Swarthmore, Jon was a finalist in the first Mr. Swarthmore competition. For that competition, he wore a blue leotard and performed what he describes as a “patriotic ribbon dance.” Petkun’s performance in this event was not detailed in Facebook, but this cite does describe his political leanings, summing them up as ‘very liberal.’ While at Swarthmore, Petkun served as Vice President of the Young Democrats. He was recently commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the US Marines.

Despite the fact that David Leeser ’92 is a second-generation Quaker as well as a Swarthmore graduate, a faith known for opposition to war, David made a similar career choice. He is a major in the Army.

Sean Barney ’98’s work as a speechwriter for Bill Bradley for three years and as Policy Director for Delaware’s Democratic Senator, Tom Carper, might seem to some to be a surprising prelude to his decision to join the military. Yet he, too, made this career choice. Barney was a lance corporal in the Marines until he was shot by a sniper in Fallujah. He has been awarded the Purple Heart.

job_choices.jpgJob Choices of Swarthmore Graduates, 2003-2007. Information from the Career Center.

Swarthmore College is not exactly the ideal place for military recruitment. “All universities that receive federal funding are required to permit recruiters on campus,” explains Nancy Burkett, the Director of Career Services, “but Swarthmore College is able to claim an exemption from this requirement based on the school’s Quaker roots.” Military recruiters aren’t all that interested in Swarthmore either. “They don’t expect a high volume of recruitment from a school like Swarthmore,” added Burkett, with a laugh, hastening to note that if a student did approach her with questions about the military, she would direct that student to the appropriate websites.

Barney, Leeser and Petkun are among a very small number of recent Swarthmore graduates to opt for careers in the military. Since 2003, only two graduates have reported in Swarthmore’s annual senior survey that they were choosing to join the military. This puts this career choice on par with that of rockstar.

What is it that accounts for the fact that these three men, unlike so many other Swarthmore students, decided to serve in the military?

Why They Serve

They made their decisions for very different reasons.

Leeser, a surgeon at the Walter Reed Hospital, says that the army was always part of his long-term career plan. From the start, he was confident that, as a doctor, he would be a non-combatant, and he always believed that it is vital “ to give the folks in uniform the very best medical care.” It didn’t hurt, he admits, that the army put him through medical school, and did this in fine style. Leeser has by now received twelve years of medical education at the military’s expense, and has served as an Army surgeon for four years, beginning in 2004.

In contrast, the prospect of enlisting grew slowly in Petkun’s mind. For him, as for Leeser, the decision had something to do with a commitment to public service. “The military is not representative, not fair,” he said, referring to the lack of ideological diversity in the military. “I joined to make a marginal difference and to make a broader point.” Petkun will be assigned a specialty by the Marines; he hopes to serve in intelligence.

Barney had not make the decision to join the military when he graduated from Swarthmore, although by then he was considering the possibility. “I didn’t plan for it, I didn’t grow up thinking I would ever join the military. I only started thinking about it during philosophy class,” he said.

“After 9-11,” Barney explained, “it was clear we were going to war. Against who, I wasn’t sure. But I was down in DC when 9/11 occurred. I was a foreign policy advisor. I saw what was happening. And the idea of joining the military kept poking at me.”

Having grown up in an affluent suburban community and having attended an elite college, Barney believes he fits precisely into the category of people who should join the military—but who don’t. “I am morally dissatisfied with the distribution of sacrifice,” he said. “A very small slice of the population is severely impacted and a large swath hardly notices a difference.”

In the end, Barney walked into a recruiting station and said he wanted to join the Marines as a rifleman. Barney is the only Swarthmore student the Gazette could find who decided to enlist rather than enter officer training.

“The recruiter wouldn’t let me join as a rifleman,” Barney remembered. “I did well enough on their standardized test that he made me a machine-gunner.” Barney wanted to be sure he would be on the front lines.

None of the three regret their choice. When Petkun, for example, was asked if there were times when he wished that he could change his mind, he was adamant. “Not for a minute,” he said. Leeser is equally steadfast over his decision.

Barney and Petkun are particularly convinced that their decision to join the Marines, rather than another branch of the military, was the right one. “Swat doesn’t have institutional pride,” Petkun notes. “If anything, Swatties are proud that we don’t have institutional pride—the Marines though, the Marines do have that pride.”

When asked if he agreed with the distinction Petkun drew between Swarthmore and the Marines, Barney concurred. ’“Swarthmore doesn’t have the typical school spirit,” he agreed. But he added that both the Marines and Swarthmore are utterly unique institutions, each marked by its own distinctive character, its own unique methodology and its own value system. “Both the Marines and Swarthmore have established niches for themselves,” he said. “People are at Swarthmore and people are in the Marines because they want to be there.”

Into Iraq

Swarthmore’s soldiers haven’t avoided service in Iraq.

Since Leeser began his tenure as a surgeon with the military, he has spent most of his time at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he is serving active duty soldiers, retirees, and their dependents. But Leeser has also served two six-month tours in Iraq, working as a trauma surgeon first at a small base just west of An Nasiriyah and later in Iraq’s capital city, Baghdad.

“These tours aren’t remarkable,” he insists. “Every surgeon is deployed to Iraq,” he adds, speaking softly. “I wasn’t deployed any more or less than others.” Leeser describes field hospitals as not significantly different than Temple University’s hospital in central Philadelphia, where he worked as a resident. “If you took a scene from Baghdad, aside from the uniforms, and contrasted it with a scene from my residency, things wouldn’t be much different.” Leeser believes this is an impressive feat. “We are doing the same thing in Philadelphia and Iraq; it is just incredible,” he exclaims.

When a Marine reserve unit from his area was shorthanded, Barney volunteered to join them and to go to Iraq. He was based in the center of Fallujah, a divided Iraqi city. During his tour of duty, that city was a hot-spot of Al Qaeda activity. Twice a day, Barney’s platoon did foot patrols of the city. And even when not on patrol, Barney had to be ready. “We were attacked most days,” Barney said.
During most of Barney’s time in the base, he and others were fully armed and armored, ready to run out at a moment’s notice to protect fellow Marines or to raid insurgent bases.

Of course, outside the base, lives were always at risk. Barney said he and others learned to move by “dancing,” moving their bodies constantly so as to make it more difficult for snipers to hone in on them. On May 12, 2006, however, dancing wasn’t enough to protect Barney.

In a later letter to Barney, Captain Sean Miller, the 4th Platoon commander in Fallujah, described the event in a letter to Barney. “You had been hit. We all turned to see what had happened. We saw you fall to the ground, and then get back up. As we were securing the area, you were running back to where our vehicles were located at.”

Barney had been shot in the neck by a sniper. “None of us thought you were going to make it,” said Miller.

But Barney did make it. After extensive physical therapy, he is now a law student at Stanford.

purple_heart.jpgBarney was awarded the Purple Heart. Photograph provided by the Publications Office.

Following in their Footsteps

The three disagree on whether or not Swarthmore students the military is a career most Swatties should consider.

The three disagree whether the military is a career more Swatties should consider.

Leeser recommends the career to anyone—even other Quakers—and dismisses the idea that Swarthmore students would be ill-suited for the military. “People think that people in the military are somehow different than Swarthmore students, but time at Swarthmore doesn’t mean an experience in the military wouldn’t be worthwhile.”

He argues that most Swarthmore students would benefit from serving in the military. “It gives an understanding of how the Republic works,” he explained, and described his view that that service to a nation, to the government of a nation, drives the nation. “You’d never understand this any other way than by serving yourself.” With a note of sadness in his voice, he added, “This knowledge is lost on many graduates from top institutions.”

Although Leeser believe that anyone can gain invaluable knowledge through this form of service to ones country, he does not believe Swarthmore should actively encourage students to join the military. He instead emphasizes that Swarthmore should not discount the military as a career choice.

While Petkun agrees that the College shouldn’t discourage military service, he does not share Leeser’s confidence that joining the armed forces would be a good career choice for many Swarthmore students.

When asked bluntly whether the military might be a good choice for Swarthmore graduates, he said, “Not necessarily.” In basic training classrooms in Quantico, Virginia, he pointed out that it had become clear to him that when it comes to what he described as “the big ideas,” many people in the military didn’t “have the same conceptions” as Swarthmore students tend to hold. When pressed to clarify whether he was suggesting that many of his fellow trainees were more conservative than most Swarthmore students, he said that yes, that was true, but that this was especially so in terms of cultural values.

To illustrate his point, Petkun said, “In class, an instructor asked who watched the O’Reilly Factor and most of the people in the room raised their hands.”

He added that Swarthmore students who are interested in the military need to remember that “ the military is not a great place for [GLBTQ] allies.” He added, “it’s just a values thing. Sometimes you have to suspend your beliefs.”

Barney joined the military before Petkun, however, and has been involved long enough to be able to see trends. This perspective helps him to notice trends, and specifically, he believes that the values and ideas held by people in the military are changing. “Before 9/11, it was a fairly conservative force politically. But now it is changing in interesting ways—military families support for Bush is not nearly the same as the general population’s support,” he said, and added, “There is a lot of skepticism towards Republicans.” Barney paused, and then hastened to clarify. “This doesn’t mean they are embracing the Democrats.”

Petkun points out that there are other ways in which his new life contrasts sharply with life at Swarthmore. “I miss books, I miss academics, I miss Swarthmore,” he gushed. “[The Marines] give me a new appreciation for Swarthmore, a window into its uniqueness.”

Barney, like Petkun, has thought a lot about whether school such as Swarthmore would be well-advised to send more graduates into the military. Barney is convinced that not only colleges but also society itself discourages the graduates of many top institutions from joining the military. “The percentage of students from the Ivy League who enter the military… it is pathetic. Princeton used to send more than 400 students to the military each year—now they send just one or two,” he said. Barney believes this is a dangerous trend. “What we have been engaged in since 9/11 is the issue of our time. Do students want to divorce themselves from involvement in this?” Then he went on to say, “Should we really tell graduates from elite schools that the military isn’t a good choice?”

As if thinking through the ramifications of what he was saying, Barney’s voice grew more tentative. “I think students should seriously consider a tour in the military, but this is a personal choice. The military is very particular. When you join the military … you aren’t in Kansas anymore.”

For Barney, this line of thinking has naturally led to him considering a mandatory national service plan. “It would help the nation,” he said flatly. “Look at Israel. There’s not a line between the military and people. It shapes their entire civic culture. It throws their young people together.”

He isn’t too hopeful, however, that a mandatory national service plan will soon come to fruition, however. “It is very easy to move from a draft-based military to an all-volunteer military. It is much more difficult to move back. We missed our chance after 9/11.” The price for this, however, is high. Without the draft or even the possibility of a draft, Barney believes the United States has “lost a soberness about going to war.”

Professor James Kurth, instructor for Defense Policy and the American Way of War, understands where Petkun, Leeser, and Barney are coming from. In a previous interview with the Gazette, he referred to these three men and said, “A couple years in the military is a very good experience that they will draw upon as a valuable resource for the rest of their lives.”

That said, Kurth added, “the problem with the military is you don’t get the chance to choose your wars, they choose that for you.” When lives are on the line, the decision of whether or not to enter the military can be difficult. “Fighting a counterinsurgency war that the American Ground Forces are not organized to fight … I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” he said.

When Barney was told that Swarthmore had decided to ban military recruiters from campus, he wasn’t surprised—and he doesn’t necessarily think the policy should change. “Swarthmore has a strong institutional identity, and a strong set of values. Its Quaker heritage is part of that,” he said. Still, he believes that all institutions of higher learning, and particularly the Ivy League schools and the top liberal arts colleges, should take a close look at policies regarding recruitment. Even without a Quaker heritage, Amherst College prohibits recruiters. Williams College, on the other hand, gives recruiters access comparable to any other commercial recruiters.

“The policies don’t have to change,” said Barney. “But colleges should think about it.” Barney thinks fondly of the World War II era. “The World War II generation is unique in society today. They have this sense of civic responsibility that no one else has.” Barney believes that the nation will never reclaim this unique character when the burden of national service is borne by a select few. Swarthmore’s other soldiers would probably agree.


  1. 0
    Miles Skorpen ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

    These alums were found by searching the alumni directory for army/navy/marines/air force. I guess international students might not appear under those terms for whatever reason, and I may be returning to the subject for a follow up.

    I also tried to find more recent graduates, since their experiences would probably be more revealing about the American military for current Swarthmore students.

  2. 0
    alum says:

    Great article, but you totally missed out students from countries like Singapore, South Korea or Israel, who have go back home at some point during college or right after college to serve in the military. I know several recent graduates who are serving in the military right now outside the US, it could have been nice if you could talk about those as well.

  3. 0
    Bob says:

    These young men are fine examples of the thoughtful, committed life that is developed and encouraged at Swat. Their reflections are very thought provoking. Each for different reasons was able to conceptualize what military service to the US is about. That is living your beliefs. When I was in college during the Viet Nam era, the draft created a very different dynamic for military service.

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