Dozens of Cornell graduates have served in Afghanistan or Iraq since U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan began in 2001. Today, The Sun is introducing a new series profiling the Cornell men and women who have served their country at war.
In 2005, just two years after graduating from Cornell, Chris O’Brien ’03 was deployed to Afghanistan to assume his new role as Executive Officer of a company of airborne soldiers in the Qalat province and tasked with supervising the logistical operations of a 140-soldier paratrooper unit.
Only 24-years-old at the time, O’Brien said he faced a “steep learning curve” as the unit’s number two ranking officer.
He spent part of his first deployment living in mud huts, managing his unit as it worked with Afghanis to build patrol bases.
O’Brien said fighting in Afghanistan “was a life-changing experience, as first combat is supposed to be” and that serving in the army was “good for me and good for the country.”
But going to Afghanistan — and later serving in Iraq — took a toll on the Cornell Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate. O’Brien’s best friend in Afghanistan was Derek Hines, the unit’s fire support officer who taught O’Brien how to ride a mountain bike in their spare time, O’Brien said.
Hines was shot and killed at the beginning of September, one of five soldiers killed in O’Brien’s company. An improvised explosive device had killed four others shortly before Hines’ death.
The death of five comrades was not the only emotional strain O’Brien faced.
Just a few months before leaving for Afghanistan, O’Brien was “married in secret” to Lilly O’Brien ’03, whom he met on “karaoke night” at Ithaca’s Bear Lodge.
“The day after Christmas we told everyone we were going to Best Buy, but went to church to get married instead,” O’Brien said.
While it was difficult to leave his new wife to travel to Afghanistan, O’Brien recalled that was not “so bad, to be honest, because I had no concept of what it was like to be separated for a year.”
Yet after serving in Afghanistan and returning to the U.S., O’Brien found it harder to leave for his second deployment — as part of the 3rd Infantry Division — to Iraq.
In addition to now knowing the pain of “leaving someone that I love,” O’Brien said leaving for the war in Iraq “was much harder now because I knew what it was like to feel the pain of people dying.”
In Iraq, O’Brien was made company commander of “Courage Troop,” a Cavalry Regiment “responsible for clearing [al-Qaida] out” of southern Baghdad, where insurgents were “making a last stand.”
O’Brien took command on Dec. 23, 2005, and his company cleared al-Qaida out of the region within a year.
O’Brien had been doing office work when he was made company commander of “Courage Troop,” replacing the company’s previous commander, who had lost his leg in the war.
In “some of the heaviest fighting outside of Baghdad,” O’Brien controlled 40 armored personnel carriers, tanks, Humvees and mine resistant trucks, another “big learning curve,” he said in an e-mail.
After completing his mission in southern Baghdad, O’Brien and the army faced a new challenge: constructing a government for the region al-Qaida had left behind.
Luckily, the Cornell government major was able to help the Iraqis find the “delicate balance of getting the economy going again without creating a culture of dependency.”
“We were able to transition the government with minimal U.S. oversight,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien thanked Cornell for providing him with the tools to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The skills I learned as a liberal arts major taught me to think critically, analyze deal with ambiguity, and communicate proficiently … all soft skills that are vitally important for combat leaders,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien added that, “while daunting,” the language training he did at Cornell — four years of Russian and a year of Arabic — “definitely made learning tactical Pashto and Arabic, as well as Dutch, much easier.”
O’Brien, who was also tapped by Quill and Dagger at Cornell, said his time as a Residential Adviser on West Campus taught him to learn “to take care of those you are responsible for, to be compassionate [and] to know how to help people through problems they may have.”
O’Brien is now in the Royal Netherlands Army as a U.S. Exchange Officer along with his wife.
Original Author: Jeff Stein