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The Stern Opportunity Veteran Series: My Unexpected Army Career6 min read

By Nathan Pfaff

“Nearly 15 years ago, I joined the Army reluctantly, believed the negative stereotypes surrounding it and planned to get out as soon as I could. Instead I stayed, because, thankfully, I was wrong.”

My route to the Army and, ultimately, to Stern was a circuitous one.  Although my father graduated from the Air Force Academy (or maybe because of it), 18-year-old-me had no desire for that kind of life.  Instead, I attended Baylor University and did not even consider the ROTC program there. During my junior year, the events of September 11th, 2001—yes, I am that old—set me on the path that would ultimately lead to the Army.  But again, this path was not a straight one.  

After 9/11, I knew I wanted to serve my country in some capacity, but I still harbored an aversion to the military and the sacrifices and challenges it would entail.  I am an only child, and I really liked my personal freedom—the idea of giving much of that up was unpleasant.  Plus, if I am honest, I was also a little afraid.  Sure, I was afraid of the physical danger, but even more so I was afraid of the responsibility and that I would be a poor leader.  So, after I met the woman who would become my wife and graduated from Baylor, I pursued careers in various kinds of civil service:  FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, etc.  And despite making it to the interview stage with the FBI, these endeavors were ultimately unsuccessful.  After these failures, I decided to pursue military service because I saw it as the best way to break into one of those agencies.  I planned to serve a few years in the military, get out and then re-apply to the FBI.

I started with the Air Force and the Navy because, in my mind, that is where intelligent people served; at that time, I mistakenly thought the Army and Marine Corps were full of anti-intellectual neanderthals.  But the Air Force would not have me because of my vision and, for the same reason, I could only apply to the Navy’s intelligence field — the most competitive one.  I tried the Navy anyway… and failed. Afterward, I resigned myself to trying the Army.  It would only require me to serve for three years, and I thought I could put up with it for that long.  This was 2006—the height of the “surge” in Iraq and an escalating war in Afghanistan — and the Army was happy to have me.

I will spare you from a trite cataloging of my military career—though inevitably some of this will happen—and instead focus on what I have learned about myself and the Army over the past 15 years.  In short, I was wrong—both about myself and the Army.  To my great surprise, I found that there are smart people in the Army (who knew?).  I also learned that, despite my doubts, I was good at leading people and, what was maybe most surprising to this introverted only child, I enjoyed it.  These realizations are examples of a phenomenon that will sound cliché but is, nevertheless, true:  The Army put me in new and challenging situations that I would not have chosen for myself, and I am a better human being because of it.  

These new and challenging situations include much that you would expect.  In training, I was pushed beyond what I thought were my physical and mental limits. I led a scout Platoon during combat operations in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, and I commanded 200+ soldiers while stationed in Germany.  But my experiences also include ones you might find surprising.  I was sent to get a master’s degree in English Literature (a field I would have never chosen for myself but now love), I taught and mentored cadets at West Point for three years (unlocking a passion for teaching I had no idea was there) and now I find myself getting an MBA focused on marketing.  Obviously, I did not get out after my three year commitment was up.  Nearly 15 years ago, I joined the Army reluctantly, believed the negative stereotypes surrounding it and planned to get out as soon as I could. Instead I stayed, because, thankfully, I was wrong.

Now, before I get to how I ended up at Stern and lest you think I “drank the Kool-Aid,” I must admit that the Army was not and is not all glory and personal growth—a fair amount of it sucked.  There were onerous tasks that seemed pointless, some bad bosses and commanders, physical danger that—though thrilling—was real, long absences from family and losses that can never be forgotten.  Personally, I did not always handle the Army’s challenges—both good and bad—as well as I could have.  For evidence of this, you would just need to ask my wife how well I communicated during my first deployment and what my behavior was like after it.  Despite the significant downsides to this profession and my own shortcomings within it, I have found it to be, on balance, good for me and my family.

As I wrap this profile up, I will finally get to why I am at Stern and why I agreed to write this profile.  If you remember the old slogan “Army of One” and its associated campaign, you will know that the Army’s branding and marketing track record is spotty at best.  In an attempt to remedy this, the Army recently created its own internal brand management and marketing division:  the Army Enterprise Marketing Office or AEMO (we do love our acronyms).  When AEMO started up two years ago, I applied in no small part because of my own experience entering and then staying in the Army.  I believed strongly in serving my country, but I avoided the Army because of the negative stereotypes surrounding it—stereotypes that were, to no small extent, overturned by reality.  This is a branding and marketing failure that we should be able to overcome, and now I hope to be a part of that because I believe in the Army, its people, and its mission.

Finally, and since you have read this far into my profile, I must admit to you that I am being a bit of a shill for the Army while also shamelessly promoting myself.  However, I endeavored to do so honestly, and I hope this profile comes across that way.  Plus let’s face the facts:  We are in business school, and half the point is learning to shill and shamelessly promote ourselves.  

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