Through nine years of service in the United States Army and multiple combat tours, I have been graciously thanked for my service by a great number of friends and strangers. Never did I expect one of those people to be the President of the United States.
This past Thursday, President Barack Obama visited the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where he delivered a speech about the national economy. Afterward he shook hands with a limited number of audience members. Before I knew it, the Commander in Chief stood less than two feet from me. Now was the time to say something to the most powerful person in the world.
I’ve got two seconds.
What do I say?
Before I answer that question, let me answer this one: How did I get into the middle of this? The short answer is that the White House Staff asked for the names of three Kellogg veterans to be part of the President’s visit, and as Kellogg student body president, my name was submitted.
MEETING MR. PRESIDENT
With a special ticket to the front row, my good friend and I decided that, despite our front-row status, we would get in line early for the speech. After all, why not wait in line an extra hour or two for an increased chance of shaking the President’s hand?
We were let in to Cahn Auditorium and secured the premium location: First row, front and center. As we sat waiting, my friend, a perennial sports fan, told me he was going to ask the President what his top picks were for college football. While I encouraged him to keep it brief, I thought it better to make a statement than to ask a question.
Shortly after the Pledge of Allegiance – recited by Zach Frisbie, president of the Kellogg Veterans Association – and the National Anthem, a suited gentleman scurried across the stage and placed the Presidential Seal in its proper location on the podium. Enter, Mr. President. As his speech progressed, I paid attention to our country’s landmark economic achievements that he outlined. Yet in the back of my mind I knew that, given the chance to say anything, I still had not decided what to say.
THOSE TWO WORDS
As an officer and a soldier for the past nine years, I have a unique perspective on the office of the President. We have to live dual lives when it comes to the intersection of our mission and politics. Be the Commander in Chief George W. Bush or Barack Obama, as a soldier, it is not my place to judge the mandate of the American people or the intent of the President. Our place is to defend the constitution and execute the mission.
Some days I put on my citizen hat and debate the merits of this policy or that. An informed citizen is the core of a healthy democracy after all. But my soldier hat is heavier. It is a hat that my life, and the lives of my soldiers have depended on, and it is one I hold dear.
Looking back, I always shied away from being thanked for my service. A “thank you” always makes a soldier feel good. There is no doubt about it. Yet, that isn’t why we serve. I think most soldiers are properly humble in this regard. We serve for the challenge, the excitement and the honor. Every time I am thanked I can’t help but think that my endeavors were nothing special, that anyone in my shoes would have done the same things.
After the President finished his speech, he took the stairs to his right and walked toward all of us in the front row. As he approached me, I realized this was a simple moment for a man of great importance and a moment of great importance for a simple man. Keep it short. Be direct. Be polite.
So here is what happened:
Me: “Sir, as a veteran and Kellogg student president, it is an honor to have you here today.”
President Obama: “Oh, you’re a veteran? Where’d you serve?
Me: “Combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
President Obama: Turns to a Secret Service Member. “Hey Lenny, you got a coin?”
After receiving the Presidential Challenge coin, the President places the coin in his right hand and presents it to me in proper military fashion.
President Obama: “Thank you for your service.”
Me: “Thank you, sir.”
THE PRESIDENTIAL CHALLENGE COIN
Commander challenge coins are a long-standing tradition in the military. Every commander of worth has a coin for her or his command, and it is every soldier’s goal is to collect as many coins, from as high a rank as possible. Coins are awarded at the end of one’s tenure in a unit for excellent service. They also are occasionally handed out “on the spot” to reward a soldier in the moment.
During full dress mess events, it is customary for all soldiers to bring their coin of most significance. Soldiers can “challenge” others with their coin. The soldier with the highest ranked coin wins, and the loser buys the drinks. Receiving the President’s coin is not only a great patriotic honor from the Commander in Chief, but in essence, it is a lifetime ticket to coin victories and free drinks at military galas.
I was basically in shock. I expected to make a short statement, receive a pleasantry, hopefully get a good photo and watch him move on. To have him stop, ask me about my service, and then present his coin to me in the proper military “coin in the hand shake” fashion, as if I was part of some elite fraternity, was personally awe-inspiring. It happened so fast that in the moment, my exterior was the confident military officer ready for anything, yet part of me was like, “holy $%*#, this is not happening.”
My plan is to resign my commission as a US Army Captain in July 2015 when I graduate from Kellogg and begin a new career in investment banking. I loved my time in the Army; it has shaped me as the father and leader I am today. Yet I feel complete and fulfilled in my service.
And I can honestly say that I never need to be thanked for my service again, as I got the ending that every soldier deserves: a personal thank you from the Commander in Chief.
Benjamin Cushman Dowell is a second-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time MBA Program. He is also the president of the Kellogg Student Association.
Looking for more similar stories? Don’t miss second-year student Natalie Bookey Baker explaining “Why I left the White House to attend Kellogg.”