William & Mary has shown its commitment to students and alumni who served in the armed forces with programs like its new Veteran-to-Executive Transition program that was announced in July of 2020 thanks to a $10 million gift from an anonymous alumna.
“Military enrollment is growing at William & Mary across all cohorts of students, something that we are incredibly proud of and we’re seeking to cultivate,” W&M President Katherine A. Rowe said Saturday in her opening remarks for her “Presidential Conversation: Leading with Purpose and the Future of Afghanistan.”
As part of Homecoming & Reunion Weekend, Rowe hosted W&M Chancellor and former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 and former Navy SEAL Team 2 Commander Mike Hayes for a conversation moderated by Director of the Office of Student Veteran Engagement Charlie Foster M.Ed. ’17. The participants provided insights into the present and future of Afghanistan, battle- and boardroom-tested advice for leading with purpose and the role W&M can play in helping veterans transition to new leadership roles in civilian life.
“The environment today for those who have served in the country on university and college campuses is dramatically different from what greeted my contemporaries when they came back from Vietnam,” said Gates, who served as secretary of defense under U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“There is a welcoming environment on almost every campus across the country today for veterans, for people who have served. The key for veterans is as the service gets a little further behind them, the memories sometimes don’t.”
In addition to the Veteran-to-Executive Program, William & Mary two years ago opened its Office of Student Veteran Engagement to assist students who are veterans, and the university has graduate programs “that are among the most military and veteran friendly in the country,” Rowe said in her opening remarks.
Gates said he hopes that veterans will take advantage of the resources that places like W&M have to offer to help them transition to civilian life and be successful because they bring some things to the table that others don’t.
“Our veterans bring a sense of mission, of conviction in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish, in terms of their goals, and a determination to achieve those goals, and they bring leadership skills,” he said. “They have extraordinary experience in working with very diverse teams of people and in working in teams. They bring a lot of things that can’t be taught, in addition to character and integrity.”
‘It comes down to service’
Hayes is the former commanding officer of SEAL Team 2, where he led a 2,000-person special operations task force in southeastern Afghanistan. Following a 20-year career as a SEAL, Hayes was a White House fellow and served two years as director of defense policy and strategy at the National Security Council, where he too worked directly with both presidents Bush and Obama.
In his new book, “Never Enough: A Navy SEAL Commander on Living a Life of Excellence, Agility, and Meaning,” Hayes helps readers apply high-stakes lessons across their personal and professional lives.
“It ultimately comes down to service,” Hayes said. “We all serve in different ways. We all have different passions and abilities and interests, and one of my goals of writing the book ‘Never Enough’ was to help people that don't know what service is quite as well, to help elevate the conversation to think about what meaning and purpose and service really is.
“With all these unique experiences, I just feel very obligated, and I continue to feel very obligated to give back. I donate all of the profits from the book to a 501(c)(3) I started that pays off mortgages for Gold Star families. To this date, five homes have been paid off.”
One of the families Hayes’ foundation has helped is the wife and children of Navy SEAL and Raymond A. Mason School of Business student Kyle Milliken, who was completing his second semester in the online MBA program when he was killed in 2017 in an operation in Somalia, only weeks before he was to retire, come home and start taking in-person courses at William & Mary.
“This institution was near and dear to his heart,” said Hayes, who read from the letter of recommendation he wrote for Milliken to the Mason School of Business and also from the letter Milliken’s wife, Erin, thanking him for his foundation’s support.
“A lot of us carry a lot of difficulty and a lot of invisible wounds from combat, and I personally, once in a while, wake up too early thinking about Kyle and other friends. In fact, that's why I wrote the book,” Hayes said. “My ask as citizens and teammates and new friends here is to help keep the veterans in mind and help us and them land really well in the real world and become ever-increasingly productive, because it is an incredible group of men and women who can add an incredible amount to the organization that they’re in.”
Afghanistan: legacy of service
Another central topic of the conversation was the recent withdrawal of the last American troops in Afghanistan and the subsequent government takeover by the Taliban.
The withdrawal ended a war that began in Oct. 2001 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and destroy Al-Qaeda following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The military was equipped to remove the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but it wasn’t trained to change the country, said Gates, who wrote about the topic in his newest book, “Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World.”
“When I first interviewed with President Bush in October of 2006, I told him I thought we were too focused on creating a centralized government in a country that had never had one and we ought to be paying more attention to the districts and the tribes and the clans and that we ought to scale back our ambitions to simply strengthening the Afghan forces to the point where they could hold the Taliban at bay without our help, and that was probably the most we could expect to achieve,” Gates said.
“And I continued that line through the Obama administration. My great disappointment under both presidents (Donald) Trump and (Joe) Biden was that we missed the opportunity to at least give the Afghans that we had helped the chance to keep the Taliban at bay for at least a much longer period of time.”
Gates said those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan “should be proud of their service.”
“They avenged the 9/11 attacks, and they kept America safe for 20 years,” he said. “Who on September 12th, 2001, thought we would go 20 years without another major terrorist attack from abroad or launched here in the United States? That's not a small thing. It's a huge thing, and that service kept this country safe.
“I think that service also gave opportunities to the Iraqis and the Afghans, and many people took advantage of those opportunities. The Taliban have been in power for three months, and you have a whole generation of millions and millions of young Afghans who have never known anything but freedom. The opportunity to go to school and the opportunity for women to be part of society, they’re not going to forget that. And who knows what's going to happen in a year or two years in Afghanistan when that whole generation decides they're fed up with what these guys have to offer.
In the United States, there tends to be more of a focus on the short-term, Gates said, adding that it was true in American government as well.
“We have to have a little perspective here,” Gates added. “We don't know how this play is going to end in Afghanistan at this point or what the next stage of it will be. But all those who served, I think, not only served with honor, but they performed a remarkable service of keeping the people of this country safe.”