Home from a second tour in Afghanistan, 43-year-old Harvard engineering professor and Army Major Kit Parker is settling back into academia and reconnecting with his wife and infant daughter. This is a full version of an interview that appeared in the Globe Sunday Magazine.
Q. What did you want to be when you grew up?
A. I played army with all my friends. And I had a Sears chemistry set, a used microscope and a lab set up in the garage. I do the same stuff now, but with better gear and higher stakes.
Q. Why did you join the military?
A. Iím very vulnerable to good advertising and I watch a lot of NASCAR.
At the time I joined I had a fellowship for graduate school, no loans, life was good. But there was a sense that somehow I needed to contribute and watching the first Gulf War on CNN mesmerized me. I joined to give back, but have come to find out after so many years that my debt is greater than when I came in.
Q. Whatís that?
A. You can say Harvard students are an impressive demographic. The kids that really impress me are the kids out there laying their lives on the line. Some of these kids that I was out on patrol with were in 7th or 8th grade when 9/11 happened. And so they knew what they were getting into and they joined anyway.
Q. How did you come to Harvard?
A. I was hired to be a professor here in 2002. I knew I was having to deploy, but I couldnít tell anybody because it was classified, so I came up here and asked them to hold the job because I had to go fight.
Q. What is it like to straddle two very different worlds Ė the military and the ivory tower?
A. Sitting in the airport after kissing my wife and child good-bye -- that was worse than anything I faced in combat. And then the transition back here -- one day youíre getting shot at and the next day youíre at a Starbucks listening to some guy yelling about his latte and you look through the paper and see a guy you know listed among the casualties and you just want to scream.
Q. What about your research on cardiac tissue engineering and nanotechnology?
A. Taking care of my students and civilian occupation was a tremendous amount of stress. I built this research group knowing it could function when I went away. We had to have a very regimented way of doing things because if I leave and the system breaks down, then itís every man for himself. Six, seven months away is rough. But after 12 months, you start talking about losing your science mojo.
Lessons learned from both endeavors support each other. You learn how to manage people in the army. You learn how to do dynamic problem solving quickly. In the sciences, you build hypotheses and learn how to look for ways to test it. In a counterinsurgency, the things you do are experimental as well.
Q. What are your thoughts on Harvardís ban on ROTC?
A. The dirty work of maintaining a democracy is every Americanís business. Offering oneís young to help do this dirty work is important. Harvard doesnít do that. At Harvard, there are many people who aspire to make history. My warrior brethren in Iraq and Afghanistan are at the cusp of history, regardless of how you feel about the wars. By not having ROTC, we are not making a statement that we are willing to earn our first amendment rights that we as academics vigorously consume.
Q. What were you doing in Afghanistan?
A. Part of my job was remodeling the army. Doctrine cannot change as fast as some of the threats on the battlefield. My job was to roam around and look for interesting things we needed to institutionalize within the Army. I went on a variety of missions -- from looking for IEDs to how combat leaders mentor the governors of different provinces to training the Afghan army and police.
Q. What is the hardest part of being in the Army?
A. On the battlefield everyone thinks about the physical danger youíre in, but rarely do you hear about the moral jeopardy that youíre in. When you carry a gun for a living, it changes the way you see everything. You canít walk through Harvard square and not see it differently because you train yourself to be constantly assessing threats.
Your assessment of threats can put you in very precarious positions. You only have to stare though the barrel of a rifle one time at a child to feel the chill of moral jeopardy. You are constantly assessing everybody you see on a counterinsurgency battlefield. I donít have nightmares about people I might have shot at on the battlefield. I have nightmares about people I didnít shoot and what if I had. Moral jeopardy.
Q. Of being at Harvard?
A. Everything at Harvard is hard. Itís a great place to be from but itís a hard place to be. If I come in at 5 or 6 in the morning, I am not the first person in. And if I leave at midnight, I am not the last person here. We crank. When you are trying to push the envelope, when you are trying to be at the cutting edge of your field, life is not comfortable. The dean hired me to solve problems that nobody else on the planet can solve. Living up to that expectation of excellence is difficult. Thatís no different at Harvard than it is in the Army. If youíre pushing the envelope in science or kicking a door in Afghanistan and you donít know whatís on the other side, thatís hard.
Q. What is your research about?
A. My lab was primarily set up to understand how the heart builds itself. Then I got interested in traumatic brain injury the first time someone tried to kill me with an IED. Now we have a growing effort in traumatic brain injury too. The Defense Advance Research Project Agency asked me to look at tissue engineering techniques.
Q. Are you home for good now?
A. I hope that was my last rodeo. The unit I left is still there. Leaving them was and still is brutal. We lost a lot of guys in the last part of my time there and theyíve lost several guys since I left. You read this in the newspaper and you just feel awful. Youíre here, theyíre there. Iíve accomplished nearly everything I want to do in the army, but itís not about me so thatís why Iím staying in the National Guard. Iím not going to get out when things are tough. I said from the very beginning, this is not going to be a war, this is going to be a lifestyle, and unfortunately, I was correct.
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