Reporting for Duty

By Bonnie Jenkins '82

Bonnie Jenkins ’82, who once served as counsel to the 9/11 Commission, left behind a new job, and her life in New York City, when she was called to serve in the war on terror.


The phone rang on a Wednesday in March 2006. I was in my office at the Ford Foundation in New York City, on my way out the door to go to a meeting in New Jersey. It was morning, and my suitcase was in hand. The voice on the line, an officer from my U.S. Naval Reserve unit, delivered the news: I was being called to active duty. I would go to Iraq for 365 days, commencing in 30 days. That is how my adventure began.

I am a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, a job that before now required two days of work each month, most recently at Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., and another two weeks each year. My introduction to the military occurred when I joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve four years after graduating from Amherst, while I was in law school. I do not come from a military family: before they retired, my father worked in management; my mother was a daycare provider. My interest in the military is something that developed purely within me. I’ve always liked a challenge, and I wanted to see if I could actually be a soldier. (My sister shared the interest: after I joined the reserves, she served for four years in the Air Force.)


For my first six years in the Air Force Reserve, I worked as a paralegal at bases in Massachusetts and at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. I then switched to the Naval Reserve, and eight years later I was named junior officer of the year at the national level. Some days, after a long week at work, the last thing I want to do is rise early on a Saturday morning to drill at Norfolk. At the same time, the military has allowed me to work with wonderful colleagues and has given me the remarkable opportunity to go to sea. I once spent three enjoyable weeks aboard the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier. I have acquired my “sea legs”—I do not get seasick at all. While serving, I’ve also been able to earn a law degree, two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in international studies.

In my non-military life, I am a program officer at the Ford Foundation. I make grants that fund organizations working in U.S. foreign and security policy and international peace efforts. I have made grants to think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, academic institutions including Princeton University and foreign policy groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations. I spend my days meeting with grant-seekers and hashing out policy ideas with colleagues. At the end of the day, I might turn on the TV and see the words “Supported by the Ford Foundation” at the end of a talk show on U.S. foreign policy. It’s gratifying to think that my work promotes intellectual debate on important issues. I love what I do.

My life changed with news of my mobilization. When I hung up the phone, I knew I had but a month until I would leave it all behind—job, friends, family, home and also, painfully, New York City. I had returned home to New York only a year before the phone call, when I was hired at Ford. When I told my mother that I had been called up (my father has passed away), she was concerned for my safety but not altogether shocked: I’ve been in the military for a long time; she’s always known this was a possibility. At Ford, however, my colleagues were stunned. Many had no idea they knew someone serving in the military. The human resources office at Ford wrote a new policy that guarantees my job when I return; colleagues asked me to e-mail regular updates. I was sad to leave.

The timing was ironic. Not long before I got the momentous phone call from my reserve unit, I reached 20 years in the military and started making plans to retire after a few final months of service.

To complicate matters, while I completely support the U.S. decision to send troops into Afghanistan, I have always questioned our decision to go into Iraq. In Afghanistan, we were going after those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. That wasn’t so clearly the case in Iraq. From the beginning, I was skeptical of the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons known as WMD). Early in my career, I negotiated treaties on disarmament and nonproliferation of weapons, including WMD, for the federal government. Based on that experience and what had been happening with the international inspections in Iraq, I questioned whether Saddam Hussein had WMD. I think he was trying to get the weapons, but I don’t think he’d been able to develop them. And as an attorney, I specialize in international law. I did not think that international law supported our reasons for going into Iraq. In my view, there was no imminent threat against us at the time. From a national security perspective, I did not think our security was directly at risk from Iraq.

Before joining Ford, I served as counsel to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more commonly known as the 9/11 Commission. There I helped examine U.S. counterterrorism policy prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Specifically, I studied the U.S. Department of Defense and pre-9/11 military operations. I interviewed former defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen, former deputy secretary Paul Wolfowitz and many generals, including Tommy Franks and Anthony Zinni.
Almost every general I interviewed insisted that the military can’t solve every international controversy. They all said we have to give diplomacy and other instruments of government a chance before using military might. I believe that when we sent troops into Iraq, we had not yet exhausted every peaceful option.

With all that in mind, I could have considered fighting the orders. One can always try. But ultimately, my personal feelings about the war were overshadowed by my obligation to fulfill a promise I made years ago. I reminded myself that military personnel from all over the United States were reporting for duty, that the war requires different skill sets and levels of expertise. I also wanted to do what I could to support our troops facing danger every day. I decided I must answer the call.

As fate would have it, I never set foot in Iraq. When I ar-rived in Norfolk in April 2006 to fill out paperwork, I learned that the military had changed my assignment. My new orders would bring me not to the Persian Gulf, but to the Gulf of Mexico. I would serve at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., the command headquarters for military action in some of the most contentious places in the world—including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon. I realized my good luck, but I was also cautious. Would my assignment change again? I knew I would not relax until I boarded the plane to Tampa.

Officially on active duty, I first arrived at McCrady Training Center in Columbia, S.C., for two weeks of Army training. This U.S. Army base is now the first stop for most Navy personnel, reserve and active duty, bound for Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain and Central Command in Tampa. Here I would learn basic Army skills.

At Fort McCrady, we learned how to shoot an M-16 and how to qualify as a marksman for the M-9 pistol. We carried out an operation in a simulated city teeming with terrorists, safely clearing building after building of every inhabitant. We also learned how to drive on a convoy. These are wartime strategies that I thankfully learned in South Carolina rather than in Iraq. For nine hours each day, I wore 60 pounds of equipment. I carried my M-16 everywhere I went.
I also discovered a great deal about the Army and the challenges of being an Army soldier. I finally comprehended just how much heavy equipment soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have to wear and carry every day while fulfilling life-threatening obligations. The experience further increased my respect for the troops overseas—the men and women who each day face so much.

Before long I would head to Tampa.

U.S. Central Command, or CentCom, is located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, right by the ocean. I share a nice apartment a short drive away. When I leave for work, I drive along the water. It makes my commute rather pleasant. The command is a joint command, which means there are military personnel from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. There are a number of contractors as well. There is also a place called “Coalition Village,” where international military personnel provide advice on issues related to their own countries.

I work in the Targets Development Shop, where I have been trained as a targeteer. A targeteer’s job is to identify military targets overseas, to choose the weapon required to strike them and to estimate collateral damage. Once approved, the targets we identify are passed to the unit conducting an operation. I supervise the process of identifying military targets and the proper weapons for striking them. To be certified as a targeteer, I had to pass two boards and do a great deal of on-the-job training.
When I arrived here in May 2006, I went through a six-week training course to qualify me to serve on “The Watch,” a 24/7 operations center where military personnel work on actual daily targeting in areas of conflict. Put plainly, at The Watch we work to strike targets that have already been identified. This training was part of the longer process of being certified as a targeteer. I passed my board and then moved to the Targets Development Shop.
I was not unhappy to leave The Watch. My current work developing targets is a more in-depth, analytical job than the high-tempo effort that takes place at The Watch. Target development involves selecting targets through good research and after considering issues of collateral damage. After receiving my certification as a developer, I was selected to attend a class that certified me as a specialist on estimating the collateral damage associated with particular targets. Now I teach others how to avoid collateral damage.

Most of my work at CentCom is classified, so I can’t bring home extra work when I leave the office. I go back to my apartment and leave my job behind, and after a stressful day, I am always eager to relax and enjoy my time off. With my ambivalence about the war, I often carry mixed feelings about my time here on active duty. However, I feel unqualified pride on behalf of the troops overseas, and on behalf of my colleagues in Tampa. And at the end of the day, I take great satisfaction in the fact that I am doing my duty.

One of the best things about this area, as you would imagine, is the weather. It is winter here, and folks do not have to wear coats. In Tampa, 50 degrees is considered cold. I am amused by that. I have spent every winter of my life in a cold state. Even when I traveled overseas as a negotiator of arms-control treaties, I was in countries that are cold in the winter.

I miss the lively policy debate that used to take place constantly in the offices and hallways at Ford. In the military, while there is some talk of current events, I hear little questioning of current U.S. policy. People are here to do a job. I would appreciate more debate among the people here who are playing such an important role in issues of U.S. security. It is a perfect environment for such discussion. However, I understand why such debate does not take place: we have an obligation to carry out our daily responsibilities without question.

One of my goals at Ford has been to engage retired military personnel in foreign policy. Now that I have served on active duty, I think I will have new access to these retired officers. I will bring to my job a clearer understanding of the military. When I leave Tampa, I hope to develop a revitalized funding strategy at Ford. I am sure that my life on active duty will leave me with lessons about foreign policy that I can incorporate into my work. But it is too soon to appreciate what all those lessons will be—I do not have the distance to put my experience in Tampa fully into perspective.
For now, I try to pull as much positive as I can from each day. My work as a targeteer is new and interesting. I’ve made great friends. Even if I’d gone to Iraq, I’m sure I would have discovered a way to find some peace. But it’s easier to do that in Florida. I bought a new car—I’ve always wanted a Mustang—and have learned to ride a motorcycle. I’m making plans to try skydiving. And a year goes by quickly.

I exchange e-mail with my coworkers at Ford on a daily basis. When I return, I think that people will look at me with different eyes—my experience will be unique among my colleagues. Friends at Ford have said to me, “I don’t know if I could have done it.” Colleagues in the reserves—those who have not been called up—have told me the same thing. If nothing else, I can look back and say that I was there. I did it.

What continues to sadden me, though, are the deaths and injuries of our young soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, I serve because I want to do my part to support the troops who face danger every day. I hope we can find a way to bring them home safely and very soon. I also continue to be saddened by the deaths of the many Iraqi civilians.

In war, there are no real winners.

Bonnie Jenkins, Ph.D., completed her active-duty assignment in March 2007 and has returned to her job at the Ford Foundation.

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Photos: Samuel Masinter '04