Standing sharp in his Marine Corps dress blues, Captain Matt Pottinger, Milton Academy Class of 1991, spoke to students about choosing a life of public service at the Veterans’ Day Assembly in the Fitzgibbons Convocation Center.
Matt engaged the crowd with stories from his “eclectic” career path, but most important was his message to students to think about how they can serve, not necessarily in the military, but in a role that serves the public. He encouraged students to pursue an endeavor that “forces you out of the bubble of privilege.”
“Do things that are difficult, things that are uncomfortable, and things that are, sometimes, humiliating, and you will be rewarded in enormous ways—ways that make you more effective in whatever form of public service I hope many of you end up undertaking,” Matt said.
Matt began his talk on a lighter note, joking about his Milton days and his numerous ploys to avoid class, such as praying to the “Gods of Snow” for cancelled classes and convincing an underclassman to be his body double in a Chinese language class.
“In spite of myself, I earned a first-class education at Milton Academy,” the Bronze Star medalist said.
After learning the reporting ropes at a news wire service, Matt was hired by Reuters to be a reporter in China. This parlayed into a position with the Wall Street Journal.
Matt said that while covering a story on local government corruption, the seed was planted to serve his country. Many of his local Chinese sources risked serious repercussions to speak with him, and he worried about what happened to them after his stories were published.
“These experiences made me think about the rights we take for granted—the rights we enjoy under the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
Matt talked about a chance encounter with a Marine whose stories about Iraq stayed with him. In 2004, Matt was sent to cover the Asian Tsunami. The devastation was the worst he has ever seen, but what struck him was that the first responders were the U.S Marines and Navy. At this point, Matt decided to come a Marine.
After 15 intense weeks of boot camp, he was sent to Iraq where he served in an infantry battalion that was part of the initial troop surge. He had a “difficult but interesting time over there.” Matt said one positive experience was seeing a drop in violent incidents. One year after Iraq, Matt went to Afghanistan where the opposite trend was in progress.
“Violence was taking off and continues to escalate to this day,” said Matt.
In Afghanistan, as a junior Marine officer, Matt was “plunged” into an ambitious mission that covered an enormous range of responsibilities.
“You had to be a historian, social anthropologist, diplomat, humanitarian, an engineer, a police officer, a mayor, and, of course, a warrior ready to fight at the drop of a hat,” Matt said.
Photographs from his time there showed armored convoys moving across the desert, soldiers interacting with local farmers, and close-ups of roadside bombs. Pictures of “Female Engagement Teams” allowed Matt to explain why he co-founded and trained these teams—out of sensitivity and respect to Afghan cultural realities as he and other Marines worked to cultivate relationships with farmers and gain intelligence about explosive-making Taliban teams.
In closing, Matt praised the Marine Corps for focusing on people at the bottom of the organization. Enormous responsibility is pushed down the ranks, he said. Matt noted that few institutions take this approach, and that has contributed to the widening gap between the have and have-nots in our society. He also pointed to a growing gap between the people who serve the country and those who are protected by this service. He cited the small number of service men and women who come out of elite schools. In the late ‘50s, schools like Princeton and Stanford had hundreds of students enlisting for military duty. Today, Princeton has about 10 graduates planning to serve. Civilian leaders and top-level decision makers, he argued, need the understanding of military capability and limitations that develops from experience.
After three tours of combat, Matt has completed his active duty and returns to civilian life and to writing. He is the 2010–2011 Edward R. Murrow Press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations where he will focus on writing and research.
After the assembly, Matt met with students in Straus Library to discuss his service and experiences, and respond to their questions.