On what I thought was my last day in the Army in May 2007, my battalion commander gave me some parting words of discouragement. “I just want you to understand that you’re leaving the most respected profession in America for one of the least,” he said. It was his final attempt to dissuade me from pursuing a career in journalism.
“Roger, sir,” I whispered.
The Army was in the midst of a crisis, and he was angry. Junior officers were bailing at an accelerating rate. Some were disenchanted with the deteriorating situation in Iraq; others were attracted by high-paying civilian jobs. For weeks my commander had been urging me to stay. But my mind was made up.
He shook his head and tightly crossed his arms. “If you ever happen to write about the military, just remember where you came from,” he said. “Don’t dishonor us.” And with that, I was dismissed.
It was one of the most difficult moments of my career. I was twenty-seven and had spent my entire adult life in uniform. The thought of abandoning my unit in a time of war made me feel cowardly. But having already served two grueling tours in Iraq, I convinced myself that I’d done enough.
That evening, I boarded a plane to New York. I was headed to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.
People often ask me why a former Army officer wanted to be a journalist. No answer ever seems adequate. “I’ve just always loved writing,” I’ll say. Or, “The whole ‘war thing’ wasn’t working out.” The truth is more complicated. I was drawn to journalism for many of the same reasons I joined the Army. The way I see it, journalism, like the military, isn’t just a profession; it’s a lifestyle and an invaluable American institution from which we derive our most cherished freedoms. Journalists, like soldiers, live by a code: honesty, accuracy, and self-discipline are the touchstones of any serious reporter.
More important, I thought that journalism would give me something to believe in again. By the time I left the Army, I was mentally and emotionally broken. Disgusted with the Iraq war, I’d lost faith in the wisdom of many of my leaders and in the moral supremacy of the United States. I longed for an end to the war, more dignified treatment of returning vets, and greater civic engagement from my fellow citizens. Journalism seemed better situated than most institutions to help bring about that change. I wanted to be a part of it.
Yet my conversion from soldier to reporter was one of unremitting conflict. I’d hoped my experience would be an asset in tackling the grave issues facing the nation, but I’ve struggled to balance military principles—loyalty, respect, conformity—with the inherent skepticism and recalcitrance that are a reporter’s trademark.
Moreover, my lingering loyalty to the Army, coupled with the subtle air of suspicion I at times encountered from fellow journalists, made it particularly difficult to define my proper relationship to the two professions. I came to believe that the core values of journalism and the military are mutually exclusive, and that to be successful at one meant renouncing the ideals of the other.
It has taken several years and a recent upheaval in my life to make me realize I was wrong.
I didn’t always want to be a journalist. In fact, by the time I’d begun my final year at West Point in 2001, I was determined to serve a twenty-year career in the Army. That fall, however, the events in New York City, just fifty miles down the Hudson River, changed the course of my life.
In the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, reporters and news crews besieged the academy. Up to that point, my appreciation of the media was unsophisticated at best. As a cadet, I regularly read The New York Times, which was delivered to my barracks doorstep every morning courtesy of Uncle Sam. But West Point’s isolation and puritanical take on officer development tend, ironically, to shelter its graduates from the society they take an oath to defend.