By Ann Patton
Academy Spirit staff
While on patrol in eastern Afghanistan in 2003, Army Capt. Craig Mullaney and his patrol got caught in a deadly firefight with Al Qaeda where an Army private lost his life.
The U.S. Military Academy graduate, author, teacher and combat veteran Mr. Mullaney, now a civilian, visited with Academy faculty, staff and cadets March 6 to share his experiences and perspectives.
After duty in Afghanistan, the Rhode Island native returned to the United States and joined the 3rd Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” in Arlington, Va., then served for three years as the Army exchange officer to the history faculty of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Mr. Mullaney subsequently served as a national security adviser on then Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, led veterans’ outreach efforts and served as the chief of staff for the president-elect’s Department of Defense review team.
He has chronicled his military journey from his days as a plebe at West Point to his time teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy in his book The Unforgiving Minute.
“It’s a reflective, philosophical work and shows the culture of military that everyone can understand,” he said.
Mr. Mullaney shared the guilt and pain he suffered after losing a soldier under his command and his own lessons of combat.
“There are a lot of things you can’t control, but you can control the strength of the team,” he said.
Regarding military academies, he noted education and leadership cannot be disconnected, and the best training academies can do is to create multiple leadership opportunities over four years. Mr. Mullaney added academies, however, could do better in preparing cadets for mortality issues.
Academies differ in their academic approaches, he said. While the Air Force and Navy academies tend to focus more heavily on technical requirements in science and engineering, West Point has a greater emphasis on humanities and the social sciences.
“More important than knowing the answers to questions is understanding the questions,” he said and added, “History is the best way to learn vicariously.”
Mr. Mullaney stressed outcomes for future U.S. actions in Afghanistan will require creativity in such areas as accelerating training of Afghani security forces.
Concerning working on the Obama campaign, he said the future president’s policy issues resonated with him.
“The military can feel confident in the policies and resources in the commander in chief,” he said. “The way he makes decisions gives me confidence, and he reaches out to a wide range of perspectives.”
Mr. Mullaney had words of advice for cadets, beginning with freshmen who may not have yet chosen their major or path in the Air Force.
“Imagine yourself locked in a library for a week. What section of the library or lab would you be in? What are you curious about and what do you enjoy,” he asked them.
For cadets nearing their first active-duty assignment, Mr. Mullaney said they need to learn from failure.
“Inevitably they will fall or stumble. They need to take that experience and grow,” he said. “They have an incredible amount of responsibility placed on their shoulders by both the country and the Air Force.”
Above all, cadets must learn how to think and continue to learn and improve.
“Learning takes many faces. There are lessons in strange places,” he said.