By Emily Gold Boutilier
Paul Rieckhoff ’98 served in Iraq as an infantry rifle platoon leader and then started the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In late summer he addressed the new first-year class in Johnson Chapel. “You are the post-9/11 generation,” he said. “You could be—you should be—the next Greatest Generation.”
Rieckhoff was on campus to deliver the annual DeMott lecture to the Class of 2013, which had been assigned to read his 2006 book, Chasing Ghosts. He advised the students to answer a historic call. “The fight of our generation is rebuilding and repairing the world after tremendous challenges like the Iraq war,” he said.
Last summer Rieckhoff asked alumni friends what advice they’d give to the incoming class. The query resulted in a list of 50 things to do while a student at Amherst. Rieckhoff devoted the bulk of his talk to the list.
Items ranged from the sensible (Number two: take a class at one of the other Five Colleges) to the useful (Number three: go to a party at each of the other colleges) to the wise (Number four: eat at Antonio’s). He told students to sled down Memorial Hill, to get to know the staff and faculty, to learn the words to “Lord Jeffery Amherst.” He advised them to study Robert Frost, to learn about the first class to include women, to read the names on the War Memorial.
When he got to number 40—get to know some alumni—Rieckhoff offered a note of caution, recalling the day he called John Deutch ’60 to inquire about a CIA internship, not realizing that Deutch didn’t simply work for the CIA but was its director. Deutch seemed less than pleased that a college junior had found his home number.
After number 50—“Bring the light”—Rieckhoff spent half an hour answering questions. Most were about Iraq. One student asked the U.S. Army veteran why he’d wanted to go and fight. “I wanted to give something back,” Rieckhoff said. “I didn’t agree with the war in Iraq. I thought it was a terrible decision. But I didn’t think staying home and protesting in Union Square would allow me to make a difference.” Another asked whether Rieckhoff had faced criticism from fellow veterans when he came home. “When I said we didn’t have body armor, that was considered a controversial thing,” he answered. “When I said that the insurgency was growing, people said, ‘Why are you supporting the terrorists?’”
“How did you deal with taking lives in Iraq?” a student asked. Rieckhoff answered, “If we didn’t take some lives, we would lose our own. And ultimately my mission over there wasn’t about George Bush, it wasn’t about the Middle East, it wasn’t really about Iraq. For me it was about getting those 38 guys home safely. And civilian casualties and folks dying on the battlefield is something I hope most of you never have to experience. But I’m still dealing with it. Every day. I don’t think you ever get done dealing with it.”
Photo by Samuel Masinter '04