Air Force Staff Sergeant

Kathy: Hey, Nathan. You and I have spoken before, but now I’d like to officially get your story: how you got here, and what your experience at Amherst has been like. Let’s start from the top. Why did you join the military?

Nathan: Sure. I’ll actually start a little bit before that.

Kathy: Go for it.

Nathan: Senior year of high school, I spent a year abroad in Eastern Germany, in the state of Saxony, in between Dresden and Leipzig, so about three hours south of Berlin.

Kathy: I know the wall is down, but that part of Germany is a lot different than the western part.

Nathan: My host parents [had taken] part in the Monday demonstrations that helped lead to the fall of the Wall. They were active politically as opponents to the socialist political system. When I was over there, I really enjoyed learning German. When I came back, I started going to a local community college in Washington State, Peninsula College.

Kathy: Had you taken German before that?

Nathan: I took two years of German. However, Saxony has a very distinctive dialect. [I was able right away] to understand my host mom, who spoke a form of hochdeutsch, the standard German, whereas it took me six months to understand my host dad, because his dialect was very, very strong. As the Germans call it, it’s “barnyard German”.

Kathy: OK. I don’t think that’s a compliment.

Nathan: I don’t think so either, but at least it’s not Bavarian so it’s okay.

Kathy: So, you’re at Peninsula.

Nathan: I’m at Peninsula College. I went there for two reasons. Number one, because I got to play on the varsity soccer team, and it was almost a professional program. Since I was there, we’ve sent a couple guys up to Major League Soccer teams. Now, I wasn’t that talented. I was just at the right place at the right time.

Kathy: Well, I bet you’re selling yourself short a little bit, but OK.

Nathan: It was a good chance to have that experience. On top of that, it was the cheap way of knocking out two years. The University of Washington has a program with the community colleges and the state, where essentially if you knock out your two years at a community college, then you have a 99 percent chance of going on to UW. So, I knew, okay, I knock out these two years, and then I can move to UW and study something, probably German, maybe Spanish, or maybe linguistics in general.  I wanted to continue working with languages.

I got to my second year at Peninsula College, and I realized that, as I studied English, as I studied math, as I was studying all these different subjects, that it didn’t seem to relate to languages. I wasn’t in the right place. I was basically just going to school, by that point, because it was the right thing to do, not because I wanted to do it. I ended up dropping out. I tried that last quarter three times in a row, and the first couple times I withdrew. The last time, I just didn’t ever show up to class.

Nathan: This was in 2008. Of course, the recession was hitting hard. We didn’t have too many jobs available. I wasn’t a student anymore, so it was time to find that job.

Kathy: And there’s no jobs.       

Nathan: I had taken the ASVAB [Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery], the military entrance test, back in high school. I had done well with that. Also, my dad was in the military for a few years, in the Air Force.

I knew that was always going to be an option. So, I walked into the recruiter, told him my story, and he was just like, “We have a job where we will pay you to learn a language, and then we will pay you to use that language.” So of course, I was just like, “Okay, why hadn’t I been doing this the entire time?”

Kathy: Sounds good.

Nathan: I enlisted in the Air Force and went to the language school for Spanish. I did Basic at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas. Then, after that, you go to language school in Monterey, California. So I spent 2010 in Monterey, learning Spanish, which was... I can’t think of too many better things I could have been doing at that time.

Kathy: Do you feel like you have a good ear, a gift for language?

Nathan: I did not have a gift for languages in Germany. That was actually one of the challenges that my host mom and I had. We had a few arguments about how much English I was using in the household, because my host brother had just come back from a year abroad in Ohio. So he was excited that they were hosting an American exchange student.

Kathy: He wanted to speak English with you.

Nathan: He wanted to speak English, yes. Eventually my host mom had to ban English in the household, to help me to hunker down and work hard at learning German. It was tough love.

By the end of the year, I had done well enough that I ended up doing an internship with Congress Bundestag, in the German parliament.

Going back to my time in the military, I did my stint at language school in Monterey. The Air Force was opening up a new pipeline for brand-new airmen to go directly to Special Operations. Usually, before that, it was required that you had to have five years’ worth of experience before you could even apply for that. So, I ended up applying, and—

Kathy: They waived the five-year rule?

Nathan: Yep. Exactly. I ended up getting picked up for this program, and then worked Air Force Special Operations for the remaining time in the military.

Kathy: I know there’s stuff you can’t tell me, so why don’t you tell me what you can tell me?

Nathan: Essentially, my job was as an intelligence liaison. I was connecting the special operators during missions. I was sitting on the aircraft with the special operators, connecting them with capabilities throughout the intelligence community. In that role, I had to have relationships on both sides of the coin: in the intelligence community, and with the special operators. One of the challenges with that job was that we were always bouncing around to different units, because there was very few of us that had the linguistic skills that were necessary, as well as the intelligence capabilities.

Kathy: When you say “very few,” are you talking 25? 100? What is that?

Nathan: We’ll say a few. We’ll say a few.

Kathy: A lot is falling on your shoulders, then.

Nathan: Yes. With this role, you are the only person on that Special Operations team. 

Kathy: Did you have a superior officer that you would check in with?

Nathan: No. It was essentially, “Okay, Airman Needham, you’re going to go to this unit. They’re developing this new mission. Go and do whatever you think is going to be best for that.”

Kathy: That’s a lot of responsibility.

Nathan: I had enough information about what our mission was, to realize that we could actually use that new mission that I was helping develop at this other unit as a template. So, I ended up taking that back to my unit and going into a training program around that.

Kathy: In the civilian world, you’d say “using best practices.”

Nathan: Best practices. Exactly. Then, also, I identified some inconsistencies with how they were doing their reporting process, and then helped them develop best practices in order to improve the efficiency of their reporting.

Kathy: Can you tell me where you were at this point?

Nathan: Let’s not talk about that.

Kathy: Okay. Fair enough. But Latin America and Central America are the two places where you were.

Nathan: Yes. My primary focus was on Latin America, and so I was essentially a subject-matter expert on intelligence in that area.

Kathy: What would I have called you? What was your rank, at that point?

Nathan:  I started out as an Airman, and ended as a Staff Sergeant.

Kathy: When you were in the military, were you thinking, “I really want to go to college when I get out of here”? Or, “I really want to do this with my life”?

Nathan:  I absolutely loved that job. I loved the dynamic situation. I loved working with different people, developing relationships. However, I saw that as enlisted, there’s going to be a certain ceiling that I would hit, just because even though I was in Special Operations and there is a lot of flexibility with that role, you’re still in the military: there still is a cap on what you can actually do. I realized that on my third tour, where I was in Colombia.

We were helping support the Colombian special operators in conjunction with our Green Berets, helping support their operations against the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]. By that point, the FARC was becoming less and less of a threat. I think by the time that I separated, they were already heading towards the peace negotiations.

I realized we were doing the same exact thing, and nothing was really changing. Of course, I was still enjoying it. It’s still important to build those relationships with other countries.

But one day after we were at the end of a mission, I was waiting on the runway for transportation back to my hotel. One of the Colombian special operators comes up to me, and as their custom is, he started this very expansive conversation, All of a sudden, the conversation tone changes, as he asks me, “Hey, can you do me a favor?”

Kathy: Uh oh.

Nathan: I was just like, “Yeah. We’re here to help you guys out. I’ll do whatever I can do.” So, he pulls out his phone and shows me this picture. I’m looking at this and trying to figure out what is actually on this phone. It looks like this praying mantis. He’s talking to me, and I realize he’s describing his daughter. It was his daughter on his phone.

Apparently, she had been born with this condition that had caused her eyes to stay shut. Then, as she had grown up, the eyelids had bulged out.

Kathy:  Oh, God.

Nathan:  And so, I was trying to figure out how I was going to handle this situation, when thankfully, our team doc came over. He was Puerto Rican, so he can speak Spanish, and he knew that we weren’t there as a humanitarian medical mission, so he was able to steer the conversation to a point where we were empathizing with him, trying to explain, “Hey, you’ve got to go talk to the State Department about this. We can’t do anything.”

As we were walking away, the doc and I, he told me, “That’s actually a fairly simple operation in the United States. Just about any hospital can do that. The problem here in Colombia is that they just don’t have the infrastructure.”

It made me realize that the role that I was playing, it was 20 years too late. We weren’t in the heyday of Pablo Escobar. We weren’t in the heyday of the FARC. Instead, the security situation has improved so much in Colombia that that’s not where they need more talent. Instead, what they need is more resources going towards building up the economy. That economy is going to lead to better infrastructure, which is going to include better hospitals.

Kathy: Which would help this guy’s daughter.

Nathan: Exactly. I realized, “Okay. Maybe I do need to look at what my options are.” I ended up applying to lots of different schools, and got into Amherst.

Kathy: What was that transition like for you?

Nathan: It takes some time to get used to being surrounded by younger students who are 18, 19, 20, 21, who are still coming into themselves, making that transition from teenager to adult. I came in when I was, what? 27, 28? At that point, we didn’t have the veterans’ lounge. As far as the veterans’ community, we were hanging out maybe once a month, once every two months, and so I didn’t have that veteran community to back me up.

So, there’s that community, or that lack of community, that I couldn’t quite find. Then the other area of stress was the academics. I’ve been in tons of stressful environments in the military, but that stress is more acute.

One of the hairiest situations that I was in was that, we were coming in to land at some airport in Honduras, and we had three problems going on. We were transporting Green Berets and all their equipment, so we were stocked up full. That meant that we didn’t have too much extra fuel. That was the first problem.

The second problem was, we were coming into this airport and we hadn’t established connection, communications with them. The third problem is that we have this massive storm front coming in, and we did not want to try to land in, essentially, hurricane weather.

This actually my first mission. We’re trying all these different channels. Then finally, something comes across the radio. And everyone turns and looks at me.

Kathy: Because you’re the one who speaks Spanish.

Nathan:  Because it was Spanish. And I didn’t catch that. So, it comes over again, and this time I was able to understand that they’re communicating with us. I didn’t quite get it again, so I asked, “Repito, por favor” with a very strong gringo dialect. And there was a pause. While that pause was going on, the warfare officer’s panel started flashing. You only get those sorts of flashing when you’re about to get shot down.

Kathy: Holy cow.

Nathan: So, there’s this pause, and all of a sudden the comms come back in English. “Okay, who are you? What’s going on?” “We’re these guys trying to land. Request permission to land.” Of course this is air traffic comms. Everything’s very, very regimented. Requesting permission to land, then our expectation is, “Denied” or “Proceed to runway 11” or whatever.

And the response was, “Yeah. Sure. Okay.” So, we’re just like, That’s really weird, but considering the situation we’re in, we need to land right away. We need to beat that storm, and we don’t have that much fuel.

So, we end up landing, and we start unpacking the aircraft, when this jeep rolls up. You can already see the glint of the collar of the colonel who is there. He was the base commander. We had an unauthorized landing. He was not happy with that. [We’d actually been talking to] the anti-aircraft battery at this air base.

Kathy: And are they are not authorized to let you land?

Nathan: No. They were not ground control.

Kathy:  So, they just said, “Yeah, go ahead, land.” But they had no authority.

Nathan: Exactly. There was some miscommunication where no one was in the ground tower to authorize us, so essentially, we didn’t have those comms. We were coming in in this big military transport aircraft. To further clarify this situation, Honduras had just passed a shoot-down law, because they had a lot of different aircraft that were unidentified flying around in their airspace that were drug traffickers. Our aircraft, because we were flying Special Operations, you couldn’t really tell the different between us and a civilian aircraft.

Kathy: You could have been shot down by mistake.

Nathan: But the thing is, the stress happened immediately. We were just hanging out, just flying from Florida to Honduras, no problems, and then all of a sudden, all the problems hit at the same time. Storm, fuel, no comms, and we’re about to get shot down. That’s how stress happens in the military. It happens, and then it ends. You’re either about to die, or you survive and you didn’t die. Whereas, here at Amherst, the stress is completely different.

Kathy: I see where you’re going with this.

Nathan: It builds up.

Kathy: Yeah. Explain that to me.

Nathan: It builds up. Like right now, classes are starting and it’s fun getting to read and learn new things, but then once the assignments start piling up, once you get closer towards all the final projects, the due dates at the end of the semester, it builds up. It builds up. It builds up. It builds up. It took me two semesters to figure out, “Okay, I need to block out time so that I’m doing something away from the academics.” For me, one of the outlets that I have is working with the Belong campaign. That was a fun activity for me. Or, brewing beer, and doing those sorts of things, so that I can come back to studies more reinvigorated.

Kathy: I was thinking of you when I was in the archives of the library recently, looking into the military history of Amherst.

Nathan: Cool.

Kathy: During World War II they had lots of trainings here. But one of the big things they trained for was languages.

Nathan: Yeah. Sure.

Kathy: You’re part of a long tradition, actually. They called it “The Army’s Unique Area and Language Program.”

: No kidding.

Kathy: I think Amherst is trying to build it up its veteran presence. It’s small. It’s a small footprint right now.

Nathan: Yeah. I mean, it’s challenging. The good thing is, there’s lots of support at all levels of the Amherst community, and so one of the initiatives that I’ve been working with is the Amherst College Military Association.

Our goals are twofold. First off, it’s to develop  community. People who were connected, in one way or another. That’s faculty members who have served. It’s staff who have served, and then, it’s also alumni who have served. Then finally, it’s students. So, obviously, the student veterans, but also we have people like Rebecca Segal ’18, a ROTC cadet who’s very involved. We’re also bringing in other students who are just interested in supporting that community, whether or not they have a family member, or they’re just learning about the military in general. That’s our first initiative.

Second initiative is to create awareness of the military here on campus. That includes activities where we reach out to different communities. Last year we had two activities that we did. The first one was outreach to the football team. We watched the Army-Navy game together on a big screen at the Greenway dorms.

It was fun, just getting a chance to sit down with the team there. It was just a good chance to share that military connection. Then, also, we did The MRE Challenge, where we took an MRE, which is Meal Ready to Eat, military rations, field rations, and took it to different people on campus, and had them try the staple of the military.

Kathy: The military association: was that formed before you got here?

Nathan: We reformed it, this last year.

Kathy: Anything you want to say, that we haven’t covered?

Nathan: I feel like we basically covered all the areas that I’d like to cover. I’m very glad that Amherst is so supportive of those sorts of things.

Kathy: You had talked about maybe you might do something with the Warrior-Scholar Project. Is that maybe, maybe not?

Nathan: We won’t talk about that.

Kathy: Alright. So many things I can’t talk about! I’m teasing. I can handle that. But it’s catnip to a reporter when you say you can’t talk about it. We’re like, “But, but, but I have to know this.”

Nathan: Maybe I’m just saying that to keep your interest piqued.

Kathy: Maybe you are. Reverse psychology. I’m onto you.

Nathan:  Sure. Sure. [Laughs.]

Kathy: Awesome to talk with you.



illustration by Adam McCauley

Veterans' Days

For nearly two centuries, Amherst has taught veterans, and it's been a triumphant, complicated, promising march of setbacks and progress.