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From cockpit to think tank: W&M student veteran prepares to attain his doctorate

  • Kurt Klingenberger
    Kurt Klingenberger  (pictured in Baghdad, Iraq) is currently completing his doctorate in higher education at William & Mary's School of Education. He retired from the Air Force with nearly 30 years of service.  Photo courtesy of Kurt Klingenberger
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Within the classrooms and lecture halls of William & Mary sit a multitude of students from around the world with diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, all striving for the highest levels of educational achievement. Retired Air Force Col. Kurt Klingenberger, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is no different.

Among his assignments, Klingenberger served as a National Defense Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C., focusing on research that would change how the Air Force responds to chemical or biological weapons. After nearly 30 years of service in the Air Force, Klingenberger is now on a quest to reach his personal academic goal of completing a doctorate in higher education at W&M’s School of Education

Educational journey

Starting off as a second lieutenant after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy with a degree in international relations, Klingenberger set forth to be the best officer he could.

“After graduating and establishing myself as an officer, I did a variety of things,” said Klingenberger. “I was a navigator on an assortment of military aircraft, received my Master of Arts in international relations and economics from John Hopkins University, served as a faculty member at the [Air Force] Academy and served as the chief operating officer of the National Intelligence University.”

After receiving considerable training in the fields of intelligence, economics and government, Klingenberger felt it was time to receive more in-depth education in military tactics and procedures.

In the U.S. military, a small number of officers at the ranks of O-5 and O-6 (lieutenant colonel and colonel in the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps) attend their respective service’s war college to study operational and strategic levels of national defense. Klingenberger was among those selected for this type of professional education but with a twist; rather than attending a war college he was given the opportunity to spend a year at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington, DC.

“I was very fortunate to have received this assignment,” said Klingenberger. “The year I spent as an Air Force fellow at the council in lieu of attending one year at the war college was very fulfilling.”

Once at the Atlantic Council, Klingenberger was given a task to research situations that impedes the military’s ability to complete its missions.

 “The Air Force required me to do a paper on a subject of my choosing,” said Klingenberger. “I chose to explore the issue of how military air bases could better cope in a conflict where an enemy used chemical or biological weapons.”

Questioning assumptions

Klingenberger’s study looked at this question: What would be the consequences of having deadly chemical and biological agents land on an airbase that houses aircraft, troops and equipment?

 “The old assumption to that question looked like this,” said Klingenberger. “If a small amount of these chemical and biological agents somehow contaminated personnel and material on the base, then everybody would have to work for hours or even days in heavy protective suits and masks trying to decontaminate the area. This will make it pretty tough for the occupants of the base to do their jobs, therefore reducing overall mission readiness.”

While working on his paper, Klingenberger found that the subject was similarly being discussed and researched by other nations around the world.

“I became involved in an international working group that was exploring similar questions about weapons of mass destruction,’’ said Klingenberger. “I co-wrote an article with a French navy captain about how to survive a chemical and biological attack so that the mission can continue.”

Although he did not start the project with expertise in weapons of mass destruction, Klingenberger spent a lot of time talking to experts and examining relevant information so that he could have a better understanding of the deadly effects of the weapons.

“I made a number of trips to learn more about this topic,” said Klingenberger. “I volunteered to take a course in chemical defense, which was facilitated by the U.S. Army. The highlight of the class has to be when I had to put on all the proper protective clothing, which includes boots and masks. I was placed in a special chamber that had live and lethal agents like sarin and Venomous Agent X or VX. That really made the prospect of dealing with those types of weapons so much more real.”

Klingenberger also debated the idea whether the Air Force’s approach to combating chemical weapons attacks at the time of the first Gulf War was realistic and had “too severe a cost in terms of continuing to do the tasked missions” in relation to future conflicts."

He argued that the standard procedures for protecting forces in a chemical environment were exceedingly risk-averse to the point of nearly stopping military operations.

“Maybe, we thought, such an all-exclusive approach was not needed,” said Klingenberger. “And only individuals actually near the chemicals would have to take such protective measures.”

During his fellowship, Klingenberger was able to raise the question of whether the Air Force should change its doctrines and procedures that governed chemical-defense measures. His research led him to his next duty station.

“I was able to get an assignment directly following the fellowship to an Air Force base in Korea, which was a great little laboratory to test some of the ideas I had,” said Klingenberger. “Military policy makers assumed that North Korea could possibly use chemical weapons. During my year in Korea, we demonstrated that the new techniques effectively dealt with a chemical attack scenario while simultaneously reducing the adverse effects to military personnel.”

Bringing about change

His time in Korea was a proof of concept opportunity for his arguments, which directly changed how the Department of the Air Force deals with chemical attacks.

“It took me two more assignments back to the Pentagon before I was able to get these new ideas embedded into Air Force doctrine and procedures,” said Klingenberger. “Now it is the new way of planning and practicing for defense of airbases.”

Now that he has changed the way the U.S. Air Force goes about protecting its service members, Klingenberger is taking time for himself. Currently, he’s working on his educational goals.

“Since coming to William & Mary, I’ve gotten both my master’s of public policy and M.B.A. in 2016, which was very challenging” he said. “But it wasn’t too overwhelming, so I decided to go for my Ph.D.”

Klingenberger’s scholarly pursuits go back to his military days. Taking time out of his evenings to go to night school helped him succeed then, just like he succeeded in changing the ways senior Air Force officials do business. At William & Mary, he’s ready to take the ''can do'' mentality that helped him with those accomplishments and use it to reach his next goal.

“I turned down a Ph.D. opportunity while I was in the Air Force,” said Klingenberger. “Now, the time is right to do this.”