Obies at War: Alumni, Family Find Reasons for Enlistment

Piper Niehaus, Editor-In-Chief

Though many people join the armed forces following the example of an older family member, Bill Krissoff, OC ’68, did the opposite. Krissoff’s sons both became commissioned officers in the Marine Corps and, after years of being an orthopedic surgeon in private practice, he followed in their footsteps.

“In most cases, sons are inspired by their father. In my case, I have been inspired by both sons’ dedication and commitment to service in the Marine Corps,” Krissoff explained.

Krissoff’s older son Nathan was killed by a roadside bomb on Dec. 9, 2006 while on patrol with Marines in Al Anbar Province near Fallujah, Iraq. His younger son, Austin, continues to serve.

Krissoff hoped that, in the Marines, he would be able to help his country. “I wanted to serve, and I felt that this was a meaningful way to do it,” he said.

Krissoff’s career change at age 60 came with some roadblocks: “The Navy recruiters basically said I was too old,” he explained.

But Krissoff was not deterred. He and his wife, along with other families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, met with then-President George W. Bush and then-deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, in August 2007. When Bush asked if he could do anything for the families, Krissoff brought up his situation. Rove “was helpful as far as the age waiver,” said Krissoff, emphasizing that the decision was the Navy’s, not Bush’s or Rove’s, and came after an extensive vetting process. On Nov. 17, 2007, he was commissioned as a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves, then assigned to the Medical Corps.

He was deployed to Iraq in Jan. 2009, two years after his oldest son was slain there. “At this point in my life, it was very meaningful,” he said.

He added, “In the greater good of our society, I think everybody should serve in some capacity — it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the military. It could be in a teaching capacity, or Urban Corps, or what have you. … We have a mindset to ask the government to take care of everything, rather than [asking], ‘What are you doing to put into that society? What are you doing to contribute?’”

Although Krissoff’s story is unique, he is not alone among Oberlin graduates in his desire to join the armed forces. The Oberlin College Alumni Association database shows 53 Oberlin graduates with careers in the military, and its executive director, Danielle Young, said she is “sure that the number is low” because the database relies on self-reporting and doesn’t reflect retired or deceased alumni.

Making a Career of It

For Retired Army Major General Mike Pfister, OC ’57, joining the Army was partly about serving and partly about finding a path after college. “I went out to California with my roommate [after graduation], and after a couple of weeks was broke, and I sure wasn’t going to ask my parents for more money,” said.

He was also worried about the Vietnam War draft. “We were eligible for the draft, so I could get the draft out of the way by volunteering, and getting a choice of careers within the military, although I hadn’t decided to make a career of it,” he said.

However, he soon decided to make the Army into a long-term commitment. “I had classmates who had been in the military, after Korea, and their consensus advice was, ‘Go in for one tour, but don’t accept an extension.’ Well, I enlisted for three years and spent 36, so I didn’t listen to them.”

Part of that decision was because of the leadership opportunities Pfister found in the Army. “I decided to stay because they offered responsibilities early in the career: responsible for missions, for the men, for the equipment, so there was always a challenge.”

He went to language school in Monterey, CA to study Russian for a year, holding various leadership positions while enrolled as a full-time student. “That seemed like a good way to spend the first year of a three-year tour,” he said. He later traveled to Europe for the first time during a tour of duty. “It was all quite rewarding,” he explained.

Pfister has felt the effects of his Oberlin education in his military career. “I had a great deal of self-confidence … and got a lot of broad-based experience as well as the education. I felt that I contributed to the organizations I was in and the people I worked with on an equal basis. I learned by being a philosophy major to question hypotheses, and identify those that are hidden. That served me well throughout my career.”

From the Field of Dreams to the Field of Combat

Recent graduate Ben Foster, OC ’09, also reflected on his Oberlin education when he decided to enter Officer Candidate School after graduation in hopes of becoming a pilot in the Navy.

But it wasn’t Foster’s time in the classroom that motivated him to join the Navy. “Playing baseball at Oberlin was one of the things that ended up kind of making up my mind to do it, because I really liked being on the team, and having such a tight-knit group of guys,” he said. “I was kind of looking for that after graduation, and there’s not really more of a band-of-brothers kind of group than the military. I mean, [during Officer Candidate School,] in three months we went from being total strangers to people you count on every day, so that’s what rigorous training does for you.

In the Navy, Foster has also found a way to make a career out of something he has always loved: flying. “I’ve been flying since I was a kid,” he said. “I couldn’t give it up as a full-time thing, and it had always been my dream to be a Navy pilot.”

Though many people encouraged him, Foster received a few strange looks within the Oberlin College community because of his decision. “My closest friends are pretty supportive,” he said, but “Some of my professors … couldn’t quite believe it.” He explained, “Nobody really came out and said anything, but you can tell things from people’s reactions if they were sort of like, ‘wow,’ rather than being like, ‘Why did you do that?’”

“I know there are a lot of people at Oberlin who are very anti-military in general, you know, just think that we shouldn’t have one, that it’s immoral, or whatnot,” Foster added. “They’re entitled to that particular viewpoint. I mean, that’s what we fight for.”

As for whether the current political climate affected his decision, Foster said, “I’d be here whether we were fighting no wars or one war or 20,” explaining, “We serve at the pleasure of the president, no matter who’s in office. The military is not a partisan organization, so whether McCain had won the election or given that Obama won the election, it doesn’t make any difference. We still do the same job.”

The same camaraderie that led him to join gives Foster a desire to fight and makes the further training he must undergo before he can deploy somewhat frustrating. “You know, I’ve got friends from Officer Candidate School who are going on deployment within a couple weeks of now, who are going over to fight,” he explained, “and I’m just kind of hanging out here. … I wish I could be with them.”

Band of Sisters

College first-year Erica Long also has a deep bond of camaraderie with a member of the armed forces: Long’s twin sister, Kristin, is in her first year at the Air Force Academy.

Long has been surprised at the ways that her college experiences and those of her sister have been the same. “There’s just little things that are so similar, which is funny because you think of the schools as being so different, and in a lot of ways they really are, but there’s just so many parallels, too,” she said.

“There’s definitely a part of it that I just can’t share. I mean, I didn’t go through basic training,” Long said. “She can tell me what it’s like … but I don’t live in that structured kind of environment, so I can’t really relate to that, but at the same time, … we’ve always been really close and we definitely still are. It’s really cool. It’s definitely what she wants to do.”

Long has found the Oberlin community supportive. “I know that Oberlin’s really liberal, but I’ve found that people are really accepting and really interested. They really want to know what it’s like for her, and so that’s cool. … But I would be interested to know if she ever came to visit me. … She has to wear her uniform all the time now [because of an Air Force Academy requirement], and I would be interested to see how people would react if I were showing her around or something.”

Long said that wearing a uniform around has affected people’s reactions to her sister in other places. “It’s really cool, because people … just random people will come up to her and thank her, and when she was on the airplane, they let her get off first. … Nobody got up; they just let her go because she hadn’t been home in five months. But then also she’s told me that people have come up to her and said really nasty things, too.”

Although she is glad that her sister loves her new school, Long does sometimes worry that being in the armed forces could put her sister in harm’s way. Her uncle, who is in the National Guard, has been to Iraq twice, and his experience was worrisome.

“He has a really young family, and that was really scary. … I know that that was one of the things, when Kristin first said she wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, that my parents really were worried about,” she said. “They were really scared about that … and I am, too, but it’s weird because we’re just out of high school, so it still feels like a school.”

Yet despite her and Kristin’s diverging experiences, Long emphasized their strong bond. “It’s really not as different as people might think it is,” she said. “We’re very similar people in a lot of ways, but we’re both really happy where we are. … People like to think that it’s really extreme or totally foreign, but it’s not.”