My Story: From an Army Ranger in Iraq to Harvard

by John A. Byrne on

Brett Gibson, Class of 2011 at Harvard Business School

Brett Gibson, Class of 2011 at Harvard Business School

As an Army Ranger and captain in the Army National Guard, Brett Gibson was awarded a meritorious service medal for his work in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. He was deployed to Iraq as a battle captain and plans officer for a 550-solider squadron. Over a year’s time, his unit conducted 50 security and humanitarian missions with the Iraqi army and police, as well as the British Army.

It was not something he ever expected to do.  Even though his grandfather had been a “full-bird” Marine Corps Colonel in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, Brett never considered the military an option. But September 11, 2001, occurring at the start of his senior year at the University of Virginia, became a transformative event. “My passion has always been for service,” Brett says. “With 9/11, I realized how important it was to direct that passion to serve in the military.”

Brett signed up to become an Army Ranger, the elite unit of the U.S. Army that takes on the most challenging missions overseas. When he completed his grueling training at Fort Benning, Ga., his grandfather, Col. Norman Chase, pinned him as a Ranger at graduation.. “I was very proud to be connected to his legacy,” Brett says. “That was cemented even further when I returned from my tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and my grandfather was once again on the parade field, waiting for me.”

He served the country in between a near four-year stint as an associate in Deloitte’s tax consulting group in Washington, D.C., and a two-year post as a real estate analyst for the private equity firm Carlyle Group. Brett has traveled to 23 countries, run two marathons and was born with six wisdom teeth. He’s co-president of the MBA Student Association at Harvard with Justine Lelchuk and will graduate in the Class of 2011.

His post-HBS objective? To start and grow a business near Washington, D.C. But his long-range goal is to become a senator in his home state of Virginia.

His story:

I applied to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Duke. I got in on the first round at Harvard and knew this was the place for me. I started the process by looking at the big brands. I had two mentors at the Carlyle Group who were HBS grads and helped with the applications network so that also was a draw.

HBS attracts some of the best leaders. People come from general management and there’s a great pride here. Everyone here believes this is the best place in the world to get your MBA. About three percent of the alums are from the military so there’s a strong active armed forces alumni group here.

As a military officer and Army Ranger, I had 85 soldiers reporting to me. I wrote about deployment experiences in my essays to Harvard, but I also wrote about going to the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina to hand out supplies to displaced residents and to provide security for unsafe areas and explained how that was a good use of the military.

In the military, you’re responsible for crucial elements like rations and ammunition. You’re responsible for people’s lives. It’s definitely a different kind of stress than dealing with a spreadsheet or email in business.
If I could do things over, I would have pursued my military experience full-time before joining the corporate world. The skills are so transferable: leadership, communication, organization, decision making. There are templates in the Army, for example, as to how to brief your superiors on your status. This is exactly the kind of skill a good consultant needs. I’ve gained so much confidence from my military training.

My first impressions of Harvard had to do with the generosity of my peers. So many classmates helped each other get jobs this past recruiting season. No one hoards his or her contacts. My friends are your friends. It’s not cutthroat. We’re like family. When one of our section mates was in the hospital, six of us went out to visit him. In times of difficulty, we rally around the people who are down; in good times, we celebrate together.

My learning team in the first year was very diverse and the international makeup led to some very interesting ethical discussions. I had a Hong Kong native from a real estate family, a student from China, someone from California, a person from Florida, and a female teacher from Teach for America.

All of my teachers were very good. A Harvard professor is like a conductor of an orchestra. When a teacher is having a difficult time connecting with the class, everyone tries to help. Last semester, my section took two professors on as a project and they dramatically improved through the year.

But learning isn’t only occurring the classroom, and this is why I came to HBS. Tonight, for example, I’m hosting a group dinner at my house. I live with six students and we hold monthly dinners for faculty and students. Each one of my housemates invites two students or faculty so we’ll have about 18 people all together. We’ve asked everyone from the dean of admissions and the chief marketing officer at Harvard to some of our favorite professors to come. Our guests tonight are David Ellwood, the dean of the Kennedy School, and Jim Sharpe, a resident entrepreneur at Harvard. Keith Ferrazzi, who wrote the book “Never Eat Alone”, inspired all this.

We ask four questions of everyone: ‘What is the best advice you’ve ever received?’ ‘What is the greatest challenge you’ve ever faced?’ ‘Describe an event that changed your life.’ And ‘What two things are you most grateful for?’

The best advice I ever got was from my grandfather. “Good Man…” were the words my grandfather whispered in my ear after every childhood visit to his lakeside home in Virginia.  My grandfather was a man of strong principles and values.  His life was a walking example of how to treat people well, teach without words, and serve the community.  He was a U.S. Marine officer for 23 years and raised seven children, investing his whole heart in a 66-year marriage to my grandmother.  The best advice I ever received was watching him live, seeing smiles on the faces of his peers when he shook their hands, seeing him mow grass at the church into his 80s, and watching him care for my grandmother as she slowly suffered from Alzheimer’s.  Near his own passing, my grandfather sent me a newspaper clipping announcing U.S. Senator John Warner’s retirement.  John Warner was a former Marine and my grandfather had unshakeable loyalty and pride in the Marines.  In the margin of the clipping, my grandfather wrote – “Am Counting on You Now.”  I will always live to make my grandfather proud.

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  • http://thejourneythroughmyself26.blogspot.com/ Rashida Mingo

    Now, here is the inspiration I came in contact with when I visited campus in April 2010! This is an accurate pic of HBS:)…Not the other article, “Reflections of a Disillusioned Harvard MBA.” Congrats Brett on having such an amazing journey thus far & sharing it! And, Thank You for your service to our country…WHOOOAAA! Rashida

  • http://airforcetomba.wordpress.com Brent

    Great story. I’m on active duty in the Air Force and hope to join your ranks in 2012 (well… by then they won’t be yours). Thanks for serving and keep us updated!

    – brent
    airforcetomba.wordpress.com

  • Ryan

    Great story man, especially the newspaper clipping from your grandfather, that was very inspiring.

    I am also an Army Ranger, served as a Platoon Leader for 15 months in Iraq during the surge and went through extremes of combat and leadership challenges.

    I am also impressed by your resilency. I am going for my third GMAT attempt after taking it upon deployment last year and not fairing too well. I am now more motivated to torch it and move into a top MBA program.
    Good luck to you!

  • Erik Morton

    This is very inspiring to me, I’m a senior in high school, and I plan on joining the army to be a Ranger, and reading this motivates me to try my best to go to “that point” in my life. Thanks.

  • Rose

    Truly inspiring, this is the Harvard I know and the one I’m proud of.

  • Chris

    Good article, but I’m a little irritated with the games people play with Army Ranger versus Ranger School. Mr. Gibson did not serve with a Ranger Battalion. He went to Ranger School–a virtual requirement for all infantry officers and a feat accomplished by Soldiers from E4 (just above private) all the way to Captain .

    The statement “Brett signed up to become an Army Ranger, the elite unit of the U.S. Army that takes on the most challenging missions overseas” is false. He went to Ranger School, and joined a National Guard unit. I’m not sure if it was Mr. Gibson or the author who failed to make this point. These kinds of distinctions are subtle but important to lots of men and women serving. I’m sure, however, Mr. Gibson didn’t overstate this point on his Harvard application…

  • Tom

    Ditto to Chris. At least his LinkedIn profile clears it up…

    http://www.linkedin.com/pub/brett-gibson/3/826/561

  • Mike

    He went to Ranger school…that is far from being an Army Ranger…

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