be a hero at BC
Ed. note: U.S. Marine Captain Michael Petit '05 is currently deployed in Afghanistan. Our interview was conducted through email. The full transcript is reprinted here.
Where did you grow up? Is there anything about your early life you'd like to share, or think is relevant to the person you became?
I grew up in upstate New York as the oldest of nine children and was raised as a Catholic and a Red Sox fan. Thus, BC was a natural, seemingly inevitable post-high school stop. I say inevitable because I tried rather hard to go elsewhere, on multiple occasions, but somehow always found myself back at the Heights. The first occasion was in high school when I submitted an application I had written in pencil (thinking this would surely cause the admission committee to steer my paperwork to the "rejected" pile) at the behest of my persistent parents. Miraculously, despite this, I received an acceptance letter from BC. No similar letters were forthcoming from the other two universities to which I applied, schools that shall remain nameless.
And so I commenced my college career at BC in the late summer of 1998, only to contract viral meningitis and depart on a medical leave of absence in early September of that year. I convalesced for the better part of four months. Although painful and roundly unpleasant, the experience afforded me countless opportunities for introspection. I pondered my future, considered various options, and decided that, upon recovering from my protracted illness, I would not return to BC in particular or to college in general.
Instead, I enlisted in the Marines. Looking back, it was a good decision, but very much a boyish decision, one rooted in innocence, idealism, and the desire to assert my independence and prove my manhood.
Three years later, the Marines offered me the chance to pursue a college degree and obtain a commission in the Corps. I took them up on their generous offer, and so in the fall of 2001 to BC I returned, with shorter hair, fouler language, and a little more life experience and focus than most of my fellow freshmen.
What led you to choose BC; what were your interests or goals that you thought would be best served by attending BC?
I believe I told a scholarship committee at the time that it was BC's Catholic culture, Celtic heritage, and close proximity to Fenway Park and numerous Irish pubs that led me to choose Chestnut Hill. Later, I came to appreciate BC's traditional, liberal arts approach to education and the emphasis the school places on the care for and development of its undergraduate students.
Was it important to you to attend a Jesuit university?
At the time, no. Once I returned and developed a better sense of what that meant and how I might both contribute to and benefit from such a place, the Jesuit, Catholic nature of the school became incredibly important.
Can you tell me a little about the ROTC experience at BC?
ROTC required me to frequently rise early in the morning—no new experience but one not particularly congruent with the undergraduate lifestyle—and trek down to BU for physical training and various classes and other activities.
I choose to participate in ROTC in as minimal a manner as possible, and dedicated my time outside of class to experiences unique to university life—activities and organizations I believed would profit me and those around me more than push-ups, marching, and uniform inspections would. I attended and led Kairos, Halftime, and 48Hours retreats. I participated in intramural sports (football and softball). I went on two spring break service trips to Appalachia. I supported the Student Admissions Program (SAP). I served as an orientation leader during the summers of 2002, 2003, and 2004, and I worked in the Office of First Year Experience during the summer and fall of 2005 (I graduated in May 2005 but did not have to report to the Marines until late November, so I remained in Boston and worked at FYE and at a bar in Allston-Brighton).
What elements of your time at BC are particularly memorable to you, seem particularly important to you in retrospect, or connect most strongly with your work in Afghanistan now?
The parallels between the culture of BC and that of the Marine Corps are many. This may come as a shock, but it is the truth and, personally, it has made for relatively smooth transitions on my circuitous path from BC to the Marines, the Marines to BC, and from BC back to the Marines.
The Corps prizes its people and culture over its technology and hardware. If the Air Force is a research university, the Marine Corps is a liberal arts college that fully embraces the Jesuit notion of "cura personalis." BC has a well-publicized interest in student development and formation; the Marines speak of transformation. The recruiting posters profess that "The Change is Forever," and the process of becoming a Marine is considered an almost sacramental experience that leaves an indelible imprint on the character, if not the soul, of those who pass through the portals of San Diego, Parris Island, or Quantico and successfully navigate the courses that lead to a commission or service in the enlisted ranks. Like BC, the Corps strives to foster teacher-pupil relationships and ensure that when its alums leave, after four years or more, and return to the world, they do so as better men and women, better citizens—not just warriors or students—than they were when the journey began.
Both institutions exhort their members ever to excel and to take pains to establish clear links, academic and otherwise, to the ancient Greeks, BC leaning toward Athens and the Marines more likely to embrace the ideals of Sparta. The Jesuit call to be "men and women for others" is something that resonates within the ranks of the military men and women with whom I serve, and it is something that is put into practice, daily, by those in uniform who seek to serve their organization, our nation, and the citizens of world.
The two institutions—BC and the Marines—speak the same tongue and strive, albeit through different means, to make the world a more just and peaceful place. And, lest one forget, the maroon and gold of our Eagles is close to the scarlet and gold of the Few, the Proud. So, the BC experience is not a divergent path from that of the Marines; rather, is it something that easily leads to the Corps, it is something that prepared me well for my service as an officer of the Marines. It is something that is with me every day, shaping my thoughts and helping to direct my actions.
It may also be worth mentioning that the inspirational example set by many of my fellow BC grads and service members was partially responsible for my returning to the Marines and the decision to again deploy to Afghanistan. I had a hard time turning away from our country's challenges overseas when I knew that many of my friends—such as U.S. Marine Capts. Dave Van Dam '04, Andy Walsh '06, and Ted Hubbard '06; U.S. Navy submariners Lts. Dave Tancabel '04 and Eric Stoffel '05 and SEALS Lts. Brad Shemluck '03 and Dave Dauphinais '05—were or were going to be engaged in demanding, dangerous, and important work abroad, and people, friends, like Riley Stuebe '06 (now a U.S. Marine lieutenant) were leaving promising civilian careers in order to experience new challenges, serve our country, and attempt to engage in noble, fulfilling work.
Can you tell me about what you’ve been doing since graduation?
I graduated and received a commission as an officer in the Marines in May 2005. I participated in initial training in Quantico, Va., for a year and was subsequently assigned to a unit in southern California. I deployed to Iraq in 2007-2008. There I trained local security forces, mentored the district chief of police, and worked with the municipal government to establish rule of law and provide the residents of the city I supported with access to essential services. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. There I served as an IT/data communications officer and supported counter-IED operations. I left active duty in June 2010, moved from California to Washington, D.C. and accepted a position as a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton in their McLean, Va. office. I joined the 4th Civil Affairs Group, a Marine Reserve unit based in the nation’s capital, in December 2010. I took a leave of absence from Booz Allen and returned to active duty in February 2011 in order to deploy and return to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I have been in Afghanistan since mid-August.
Where are you now (to the extent you can give that information, if it's sensitive)? What's your mission?
I am currently serving as the officer-in-charge of a nine-man civil affairs team in Now Zad, a district in northern Helmand Province. My team specializes in civil-military and stability operations, reconstruction, and the mapping of the "human terrain" or the civil, i.e. non-military dimension, of our operating environment. We typically partner with other government organizations and work, to the extent we are able, with NGOs and IGOs. We operate in conflict and post-conflict zones. Our present mission is to identify and mitigate "factors of instability" in this region, oversee development activities, and enhance the operational ability of local government in order to set the conditions for a stable future, transition to Afghan government control, and the redeployment of Coalition Forces.
I am a member of the District Stabilization Team (DST), a sub-unit of the better-known Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Within this group, I work alongside members of the UK's Foreign Commonwealth Office, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. I am responsible for all development—including education, healthcare, agriculture, irrigation/water, roads, power, and private sector business development—within the district. I mentor the district governor and his line ministers and serve as the program manager for the Afghan reintegration program within the district, an effort aimed at convincing insurgents to renounce violence, adopt a peaceful existence, and support the lawful government of Afghanistan.
What has been the most satisfying moment in your professional life?
Traveling to distant lands, developing relationships with members of the populace there, and knowing that through our efforts we are, to some small degree, providing the possibility of a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous future for them and their progeny.
In your personal life?
Same as above. Life as a Marine has a vocational quality to it and, as such, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to separate the personal from the professional.
What is your next goal?
Bringing my Marines safely home. After that, I would like to attend business school full-time and graduate with a MBA.
What is the secret to success?
Seeking, finding, and surrounding oneself with those who share one's ideals and aspirations.
Why did you decide to attend BC?
The first time, it was the only place that admitted me. The second time, it was the only place, other than the Naval Academy where the Marines would allow me to attend college. I had already had my head shaved once and my fill of environments with poor guy-girl ratios, so I went with BC.
What is one thing everyone should do while at BC?
Get to know a Jesuit on a personal level.
What is your fondest BC memory?
Fond memories/recollections: 1) the overwhelming sense of community at BC; 2) summers spent as an orientation leader—great job, great people, the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of incoming students and their families; 3) working at a bar during the final game of the Sox-Yankees play-offs series in 2003, the year of "Cowboy Up" and Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Big Papi. It was a great game. Everything was going our way early on. Clemens had just been pulled. The bar was packed with BC students wearing Red Sox paraphernalia, cowboy hats, and the like. No one was drinking, except possibly the barback in the downstairs walk-in cooler. There was no room to get to the bar or to get drinks to anyone. The place was packed well beyond legal capacity. People were sitting on the floor, on tables, barstools, and windowsills. The place was transformed into a giant living room filled with people transfixed by the game, people who for a brief few innings, linked by their love for and fascination with the Sox, were a rowdy, joyous, motley family. And then Aaron Boone swung the bat.
Where is your favorite spot at the Heights?
Linden Lane. Bapst is my favorite building.
How have you changed since graduation?
I have been to a few places that typically occupy top-10 positions on lists of failed states. The experiences, although developmental and fulfilling in many ways, have been disturbing and disheartening in others. I have witnessed poverty, injustice, and suffering on a grand scale. I have definitely seen the darker side of human nature. I am pretty sure that I am currently living in the midst of a Hobbesian state. The experiences can be jarring at first and deadening over time. They can shake one's faith and rattle one's confidence in people and institutions. Thankfully, in these places and in such circumstances, one can catch a glimpse of that divine spark that resides in us all and witness acts of great bravery, incredible generosity, and heroic sacrifice. I think the experiences have made me a little more cynical and have brought to the fore that adult dilemma so well articulated by Bruce Springsteen, the challenge of maintaining one's idealism after one's innocence has been lost.
What would you do if you were BC president for a day?
I would reopen the Kinvara Pub (a legendary—in my humble opinion—establishment formerly located at 32 Harvard Avenue in Allston) and provide free shuttle service from campus to the bar and back. Faculty members, administrators, clergy, and students would be encouraged to attend. It would be a sort of Breaking the Barriers Ball, only with less lighting, better music, $1-Rolling Rocks (do they still sell the stuff?), and MGDs.
Where did you live freshman year?
Ignacio. B-53. Seriously. I came back for freshman year (take two) as a 21-year-old former enlisted Marine. Wisely, perhaps, the people in housing did not want me anywhere near a freshman campus. So, they put me with seniors, my original classmates, by the way. It all worked out. I got a Mod the next year as a sophomore and had aspirations of being the first student in BC's history to live in one for three years straight. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, that dream died during the subsequent housing lottery, and I found myself exiled to Edmonds for junior year. Senior year found me back in Ignacio, poetically completing the circle.
What was your favorite BC class?
Literary Themes with Robert Farrell, S.J.
What was your favorite BC activity?
Tailgating at football games.
How much can you sing of the BC fight song?
The entire thing. I think. I am pretty sure that I will get thrown out of the OL alumni group by Father Joe if I can't.
What was the best meal at the BC dining hall?
Chicken parm sub.
What was your first job?
When in high school and not playing baseball in the summer, I worked on a number of farms in our small rural community.
How do you relax?
Answer A: Scotch and a good book. Answer B: I don't (this might be closer to the truth).
What do you look forward to each day?
A cup of coffee. I would say good coffee, but that has not been available for a few months.
What is something your friends don't know about you?
I used to draw and paint quite a lot, to the point that, briefly, I considered pursuing a degree in fine arts.
Who would play you in the film version of your life?
Not Leonardo DiCaprio.