A Veteran’s Harvard Ally: Elena Kagan


Editor’s note: The writer, a captain in the Marine Corps and 2008 graduate of Harvard Law School, is serving as a legal adviser to a Marine infantry battalion in southern Afghanistan.

* By Robert Merrill The Washington Post *

In 2005, I went from fighting in the streets of Fallujah to studying in the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School in a span of seven months. I arrived as an active-duty Marine Corps captain and transitioned from the infantry to the judge advocate general’s corps. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only active-duty service member to have received a JD from Harvard during the deanship of Elena Kagan.

The facilities at Harvard were nicer than those in Fallujah, but Harvard was less exciting. My classmates generally treated me no differently than the other students, except for subjecting me to the occasional dumb question. (“Did you ever feel that you were in danger in Fallujah?” “Uh, you mean from the snipers and suicide bombers? Of course not, silly.”) Most of my professors knew of and were seemingly indifferent to the fact that I was a Marine, which was the way I preferred it. I was on a three-year vacation from the Corps, albeit one spent mostly in the basement of a library. Only one member of the faculty made an issue of my status as a service member: Elena Kagan. And because numerous individuals have branded Kagan as “anti-military,” I feel the need to weigh in.

As dean, Kagan enjoyed something of a cult-like following among the students of Harvard Law School. She was charismatic and intimidating, and, most important, she gave students free coffee in the morning. She was also famous for her good-natured annihilation of unprepared students in her classroom. In fact, she had the three unofficial rules of Marine Corps leadership down pat: Be tough, show that you care and ensure that everyone below you has plenty of coffee.

Most students supported her principled stance against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Kagan was public in her opposition to the policy and never shied from debating the topic. Today, that policy debate has led to speculation that Kagan harbors animosity toward the military.

Around the time that Kagan sent the first of several e-mails criticizing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” she hosted a Veterans Day dinner for the few student-veterans attending Harvard Law. That was the first time I met Kagan. There was no agenda for the dinner, as best as I could tell, other than to thank us for our service. I don’t believe “don’t ask, don’t tell” ever came up. Either because of her charm or the quality of the food, I became one of her admirers.

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