Dot on the left

Meet another reader. West Point, Iraq, and what happens afterward. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

A little over a decade ago(!), I wrote a book called In a Time of War, about the U.S. Military Academy’s class of 2002. As an unexpected bonus, I became friends with some of the real-life characters in the book.

High on that list is Dave Swanson, who is now also an Understandably reader and supporter.

Let me give you a one sentence preview of Dave’s story:

Enlisted out of high school, went to the West Point prep school and then the academy, served five years as an infantry officer including some pretty intense combat in Iraq, and now studies, writes about, and gives speeches on leadership.

The real story is in the details, of course, and Dave will be our second “as told to” subject, below. These days, he lives with his wife and daughters in Austin, Texas, where he works for the University of Texas, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University in Chicago.

After Fred Rooney’s as-told-to story last week, I heard from many other readers who were either (a) interested in doing one of these kinds of features with me, or else (b) eager to introduce me to other fascinating people as subjects.

I think there’s real promise here. So, if the idea appeals to you and you’d like to pitch me on being a subject (or recommending one), reply to this email or send a note to bill@understandably.com.

With that, here’s Dave’s story.

Dave Swanson (as told to Bill Murphy Jr.)

I grew up 30 minutes outside of Cincinnati—cows by the side of the road, and a very rural high school. I was captain of the basketball team. Three days after graduation, June 1995, I was at Fort Jackson, basic training, marching in the rain.

I was 17 when I enlisted. Then, I heard about West Point Prep School, and I wanted to go because I wanted to play basketball.

When I got there, the commandant showed us the class profile. There were two slides with all our SAT scores on a graph, and one little dot off to the side on each.

That was me, the “dot on the left” both times: 310 for math and 440 for English.

I just wasn’t prepared academically. In math class, I looked at a problem on the board and asked, “What’s that checkmark thing?”

“You mean, the square root sign?”

I had no idea. The teacher told me afterwards that I was a lost cause. She said, “I’m not going to waste any of my time on you.”

So I had two choices: Give up, or find a tutor and work harder.

That’s what Charles Woodruff did for me. He’s still a friend. We had to start with a seventh grade math book, all the things I’d missed in high school.

Eventually, I caught up. I made the commandant’s list, which is like the dean’s list, and by the third quarter I started tutoring other people in math. I still loved playing basketball. Sleep was what I gave up. I never got to sleep.

We moved on to West Point, and I turned 21 during cadet basic training. I was back where I started, struggling academically.

It was a different animal, the first semester of real college. But eventually, I figured it out. I realized I was never gonna be at the top, but I was going to live in the middle of the class academically.

The friendships were the best part about West Point. It was two decades ago, and we're still close. I'm still in a fantasy football league with 10 of those guys. One of them is coming down this Friday, he lives in Denver.


And then, 9/11 happened during my senior year, and I was in Iraq two and a half years after that.

I knew I was going into combat. That’s why I chose infantry. I just had no idea how bad it was going to be.

We lived through Black Sunday — that’s, well you know — Martha Raddatz’s book The Long Road Home, and it was a miniseries on National Geographic.

We had 68 people wounded and eight dead in less than an hour and a half. And we had 82 straight days of combat, and often multiple firefights every day.

There was this one day in particular. The sun is coming up, and we’re on this road called Route Silver, in Sadr City. Nobody wants to be on Route Silver. We were in Humvees and we had windows open at the time, because this was still OIF II, and it was the Wild West.

I remember seeing an IED: two 155-millimeter artillery rounds packed full of C-4, and a fuse. And there was this split second of: “Well, this is it.”

And then it didn’t explode. I'll never know why. The fuse went out or something.

My driver saw it too, and the gunner behind me. Everyone freaked out. “Sir, we were dead!” The translator was crying.

There’s no way we should have lived through that. It’s that kind of moment when you’re like: Why was I chosen to be spared?

Later, we were in Bradleys [ed note: like this]. Take Mother’s Day 2004, for example. I ran over 40 IEDs in one day. Forty. Four-zero.

And of course later that summer was when I lost Martir. You know that story. We were in an alley and he got shot in the side and fell right into my arms. He was the only soldier I lost in my platoon.

I had five others wounded badly enough to leave for good. And six or seven that got double Purple Hearts, but they stayed the whole year.

You asked if I had thought of the army as a career, and I definitely had. But, I had met Reyna three months before I deployed. (She says hi by the way.)

After I got back, I looked at it as a choice: Do I choose having a family? Or do I choose deployments every other year of my life, where I feel like I’m definitely going to die?

So I got out after five years.

I had 60 days of leave at the end. I biked across the United States, raising money for two cancer nonprofits. I try to do something like that every year now. In 2018 it was climbing Mt. Ranier. In 2019 it was this thing where you climb Stratton Mountain 17 times in a row because that works out to the same elevation as Mt. Everest.

But then there was the transition: I was in Texas, and there wasn’t anybody really to guide me. So, I had four jobs in two years.

I worked for a corporate recruiter, then a project manager for renewable energy, building windmills. Then, I was substitute teaching. Finally, renewable energy consulting.

Then I came back to Austin and started as an IT project manager at Charles Schwab, and also started my MBA at the University of Texas — executive MBA, where you go every other weekend for 21 months. I did well. I got the Dean's leadership and service award, which was pretty cool because I didn't know it existed. Basically it means I had become the unofficial leader of the class.

And, I started my PhD. ABD now, all but dissertation. So, just gotta get that thing knocked out. I was let go from Charles Schwab in the fall, and I was looking for positions for a long time. Anybody trying to find a job during COVID knows, it was not fun.

But I wound up getting this position that's perfect, which is a career consultant for people in the master's program at UT. I love it. I’m spending my days helping people navigate the same kind of transition that I had to navigate.

I do a lot of speaking, too. I have one on Friday I'll be doing, virtually: “Overcoming the Power of No.” And of course, I wrote the book: Dot on the Left, which is about that year at Prep.

I think if I have to summarize the big lesson, it's that failure is just going to happen, but you keep going. It’s only after you keep proving you’re successful, that people stop telling you're that you're going to fail. Or maybe they never stop.

Early on it was, “you'll never play high school basketball.” Or, “you'll never graduate from Prep.”

Or, “you'll never be infantry.” Or, “you'll never know what kind of leader you'll be in combat.” Or, “you'll never transition successfully in the civilian world.”

And you just keep going.

I spoke at the West Point Prep graduation last year. That was pretty great. The deputy commander now was my classmate. They're all cheering and screaming. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

It was amazing to walk in and tell this story, and know that I was in their seats 20 years ago.

The students I'm talking with now, at UT, some of them feel like they're missing out, because they're not getting to network with people.

But, I tell people all the time, this is the easiest time ever to network. You know? Like through LinkedIn, I can send a note: “Hey, I work at UT,” or “You're a student at UT, do you have 15 minutes for Zoom?”

Who won’t do that, for a a student? I think it's easier now to meet anybody halfway around the the world. It’s just harder to meet somebody down the street.

The other thing, if you could throw in there, I'd love for people to just connect with me on LinkedIn, too. That'd be cool if you could include that. I guess that's my only call to action probably, right now.

Well, unless you want to put the link if people want to buy The Dot on the Left from Amazon. I guess you could do that too.

7 other things worth your time

  • Airbus says it plans to build the first interplanetary cargo ship. (BBC)

  • Well, you’ve got to die of something department: Cigarette companies report people are smoking more in the pandemic era. Theories include restrictions on vaping and e-cigarettes, and the fact that quarantied people just don’t have as many vices. (WSJ, $)

  • I don’t usually talk about individual stocks here, but Kodak has jumped 1,267 percent in the last two days, the result of an announcement by President Trump that the company will get a $765 million government loan to work on production of drugs. (Google, USA Today)

  • A grim milestone in the United States, as we passed 150,000 deaths from Covid-19, which means nearly a quarter of worldwide deaths from the virus have happened here, despite having only 5 percent of world population. (NPR)

  • European Union: We are in no hurry to let Americans back in. (Permitted states include Australia, Canada, China, Georgia, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.) (Bloomberg)

  • Those big tech CEOs testified before Congress as I wrote yesterday, and there are so many different possible takes. But I found my Inc.com colleague Justin Bariso’s examination of Jeff Bezos’s 4,000-word opening statement interesting — as he described it, a masterclass in emotional intelligence. (Inc.com)

  • A member of Congress who refused to wear a mask, spent time in close quarters with the Attorney General this week, and berated staffers who took precautions against Covid-19 has himself contracted the virus. And another confused Twitter with Facebook while grilling Mark Zuckerberg. (Politico, Mashable)

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