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By: Kimberly Tan

At a recent Stanford in Government (SIG) and Military Service as Public Service event, four Stanford students who are former military officers discussed how serving in the military during wartime transformed their ideas of violence and conflict.

Scott N. McKay and Dave Webb, former U.S. Army Ranger officers, and Bryan Abell and Garrett Smith, former officers in the U.S. Marine Corps, shared candidly about their experiences and military service today.

“I went in very idealistic,” Webb said, reflecting on his decision to join the military. “I thought I would help and change the world in a positive way. That lasted until I got shot at for the first time.”

Abell shared similar thoughts, acknowledging that the two things he learned in combat were that “evil exists and is a very real thing, and we are incredibly lucky to live in America.” Abell revealed how eye-opening and shocking his involvement in a platoon was in the Battle of Fallujah, a joint American and British offensive in November 2004. His platoon, which headed in to the battle with 42 soldiers, returned with only 16, and had a 100 percent casualty rate.

The panelists began their service when they were just a few years older than most current Stanford undergraduates, and all of them are now pursuing Masters degrees in International Policy Studies.

The transition to civilian life, however, hasn’t been easy for all the panelists. Abell, whose friend lost a leg at the Battle of Fallujah, admitted that it was difficult to return to the United States after witnessing torture, people being used as human shields, and the victimization of women and kids – only to realize that U.S. civilians have no idea what is happening.

“People like to thank us for our service when they don’t really know what we did,” Abell noted, while the other panelists nodded in agreement. And so, when asked about what civilians should do to support the troops, they all stressed one thing: stay informed.

One of the best ways to stay informed is to directly talk with veterans in informal settings, like SIG policy lunches.

“It’s different to read about these experiences in Foreign Policy and to hear it from someone who was on the ground.” Webb concluded. “We really enjoy the opportunity to share our experiences.”

Robert Chun, ’16, who attended the event, agreed with the importance of listening to veterans’ stories firsthand.

“Ultimately, these lunches provide something intangible beyond policy,” he said. “They provide a small, but meaningful, glimpse into a portion of the American experience that most will never get to see.”

You can learn more about Stanford in Government at and the Haas Center for Public Service’s Military Service as Public Service program at


The panelists of the policy lunch. 





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