Ben Betner: A Reflection on His Life, fall 2013

Sitting on the rocky ground in the circle of tribal and village elders along the Afghanistan border, I received a first-hand lesson in diplomacy and negotiation and glimpsed my future. These wise, hardened old men, some four times my age, spoke of the hardships that their families and villages faced. Some had walked days, over some of the harshest terrain on our planet, to speak with my fellow soldiers and me. We both laid out our priorities. They sought basic necessities: medical care, blankets, school supplies, and fresh water. We sought security and stability in the region. As the conversation developed, we agreed that it would take cooperation between us to ensure that their needs and ours would be fulfilled. I could see in the eyes of those elders that they trusted me to do my part. Hours later, with the shake of a hand, we had established a partnership that would define the next twelve months of our lives. I felt an enormous responsibility had been placed on my shoulders, but I was glad to carry it.

My path forward began with this experience--because through it I envisioned the person I want to become. Six years before, unexpectedly for me as well as my family, I had enlisted in the Army instead of beginning my freshman year at Chapel Hill. I remember sitting in my living room, watching a news special on the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq one night that spring. It was a regular night for a high school senior--homework, baseball practice, and then dinner with my family. But as I watched, I suddenly remembered my friend Danny, who had enlisted, was there; he was actually there. As I sat and watched, the war became something more than images emanating from a screen. Something inside, in that innermost part of a person, clicked. Although I did not understand it at the time, a seismic shift started--which would reify my ideals of duty, selflessness, and common purpose. That fall, instead of heading off to college with my friends, I headed down the road to Army Basic Training.

After training in military intelligence and learning to become a paratrooper, I began working in Army Special Operations. I served in a variety of positions in places far from my home in North Carolina--South Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan--and learned valuable lessons through them. As a counter-terrorism analyst in Iraq, I learned how to assess the underlying factors of a situation and evaluate it accurately. Serving as an advisor, mentor, and trainer for Afghan Special Operations Officers and teaching them how to engage in combat taught me the value of empowering others to defend their own country. Most importantly, serving as a leader showed me how to place other people’s needs above my own.

As my time in the military came to an end, I began to realize that knowledge gained without formal education is hard-earned and certainly valuable, but somehow incomplete, lacking the wholeness and context of knowledge that is intrinsic to the liberal arts. Eager to study full-time, I matriculated into Baylor with junior standing having attended school part-time while serving on active duty. I began classes keen to understand fully the world that I had ventured into during my time in the Army; my studies in Political Science and History have richly complemented the lived experience of my military service.

Living and working in a variety of countries before returning to the classroom full time also gave me a unique perspective, one that I could have never received otherwise. As I engage in a classroom debate, or listen to a lecture, I am often almost living a double life. A lecture on economics reminds me of villages in Afghanistan where wealth was measured in goats and buckets of fresh water. Discussions on world religions bring back the sound of the call to prayer echoing from a minaret in central Baghdad where the world would stop five times a day. Reading about brinksmanship during the Cold War has brought me back to the tower along the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea as I gazed across no-man’s land at a North Korean soldier. Leveraging both sets of experiences has allowed me to balance the practical with the theoretical, the concrete with the abstract.

This led me to the realization that there might be others experiencing this same dual life. I discovered a small, newly-created organization, Veterans of Baylor, designed to assist Veterans in their transition from the battlefield to the classroom. My own arduous transition motivated me to join and compelled me to turn this organization into something more than a support group. Last year, a few of us came together to form an executive board. We first acted to reach out to currently enrolled and newly admitted Veterans to assist in their needs, which differ greatly from other new students. Even so, our work is not limited to the service member’s entry into college life. We sponsor fundraisers for wounded service members and Veterans, help new students move onto campus, raise money for local charities, and organize a yearly Veterans’ Day ceremony on campus. We also reach out to Veterans across Texas to encourage them to come to Baylor University. As the group’s spokesperson, I conduct television news interviews with stations across central Texas to encourage Veterans to attend college and show them the support they would receive at Baylor. As I serve as the group’s President this school year, and as we welcome our largest group of incoming Veterans to date, I hope to continue our assistance to Veterans both on campus and within our community. By adding two new members to our executive board every year, and cycling members through leadership positions, I hope to develop an organization that will continue to thrive long after I have graduated.

Who would I be and what would I be doing if I had not flipped on the television that night? An impossible question to answer, clearly, but I am convinced that I would not possess the clarity, drive, and focus that the past nine years have ingrained into me. I want to be in a position to lead and effect change. Not as a soldier, not as a student, but as a statesman who leaves a lasting influence on the world around me.