A veteran’s tough love message to at-risk kids — and fellow vets

Do vets coming home from the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have something unusual to teach the young people of today? If you listen to West Point graduate and retired Lt. Col. David Oclander, who is now a teacher and principal-in-training at an inner-city Chicago charter school, there’s no doubt they do.

Oclander is one of the returning veterans profiled in the new book “For Love of Country: What Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice,” by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran. They argue that all the attention to troops coming home suffering physical and psychological damage has blinded us to the full story — that many other war veterans return matured and enriched by the experience, with much to contribute to civilian life.

Oclander, now 47, rose rapidly over his 23 years in the officer corps, as an Army Ranger with the 82nd Airborne Division, with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, where he commanded a 1,000-paratrooper battalion task force. Then he was posted to the prestigious Pentagon Joint Staff to plan future military missions.

In his new desk job, Oclander was privy to the most secret information on two secure DOD computers — but he also had a computer linked to the public Internet. In 2011, he saw a headline from Chicago: “Boy, 13, Dead From Gunshot on Basketball Court.” It was an epiphany. He started tracking the statistics – U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan versus violent deaths in Chicago. By 2012, it was confirmed: Chicago homicides outnumbered U.S. troop killings in Afghanistan. The greatest threat to America’s future, he decided, was not overseas but here at home.

A lucrative post-military future beckoned — working as a defense contractor, security consultant or corporate executive. Instead, he went in search of a teaching job.

When we caught up Oclander last week at Chicago Bulls College Prep, on Chicago’s Near West Side, he explained why.

“The thing that got me out of bed every morning for 23 years was working with the young men and women who decided to commit to something bigger than self.” he said. “They inspired me every day. And after doing some reflection … I recognized that there was going to be no place better than in the field of education for me to achieve that same sense of purpose.”

He insists the military’s approach to molding young men and women into a successful fighting force can do the same for the most disadvantaged, at-risk students in civilian life.

“The classroom culture and discipline are the starting point to every one of our schools. Without that, learning is impossible.” If you add a highly selective, rigorously chosen set of leaders and staff, “you get incredible results. It’s the same recipe that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines use every day. A disciplined environment with great leaders can produce great citizens through that gauntlet of experience.”

His school is among more than a dozen high schools operated by the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. It boasts of sending more than 90 percent of its graduates on to college, including elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and West Point.

But what about the kids themselves? What do they get out of knowing someone like him? It’s simple, Oclander maintains. By sharing his own military experience of learning to push beyond what he thought were his limits whatever the obstacles, he can help his students, beset by drug gangs, street violence and broken homes, to see they can do the same.

Oclander ended our talk with a plea to other returning veterans: Of course entering the civilian workplace seems daunting, even scary, after years in the highly structured military one, he conceded. But they need to have confidence in the special gifts they honed in service, not just the talents of a good computer signals engineer or artillery gunner, but the less tangible ones, “leadership, problem-solving skills, how to overcome obstacles every day.”

A powerful message to veterans, and to all of us, on this Veterans Day.

Watch an excerpt from our conversation in the video above, as he talks about how what he first learned in Army Ranger School applies to his students today. And watch an interview with the authors of “For Love of Country” on tonight’s PBS NewsHour.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Support PBS NewsHour: