“Hard Won Wisdom: Peter James Kiernan”
“I grew up in a blue collar town on Long Island, NY. I was a pretty average kid, went to public school, ran track and swam in high school and was an honors student. I worked construction as a teenager and was a lifeguard. I enlisted in the Marine Corps the day after my 18th birthday.”
Describe to me the moment you decided to join the military. Who or what led you to that decision?
“I don’t think there’s a single reason why we make decisions. I decided to join the military in part because I grew up in a place that was intimately affected by 9/11. Over 40 people from my town were killed that day, and my uncle is a survivor who worked in the towers. I also decided to join to follow my convictions; I saw some truth to the quote, “a society that makes a great distinction between its warriors and its scholars will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” Wanting to be neither, I decided I would be both a warrior and a scholar.”
What was your job in the Marine Corps? What type of training did you have to undergo to be certified for that position?
“I was a MARSOC Raider and conducted special operations and combat missions in Afghanistan. To become a Raider, I had to pass a grueling selection, and complete the arduous Individual Training Course. After that, I spent 52 weeks in language school learning Pashto and went to various other military schools like the Scout Sniper Basic Course and Freefall. In total, I spent 39 months in schools gaining skillsets I would use in Afghanistan and later in life.”
Who are some of the Marines you worked with that had an impact on your service?
“Looking back, there are two Marines who stand out as mentors during my service. They were both senior sergeants who had multiple combat deployments. I felt extraordinarily lucky to have what I saw as heroes of the post 9/11 era, veterans of the invasion and great battles of Iraq, take the time to mentor me in life and teach me the important lessons of leadership.”
When you hear the term “leader” who is the first person that comes to mind?
“When I think of a leader, I think of those young sergeants in their early twenties on the battlefield, who shoulder the daily responsibility of life and death decisions. Those sergeants are the ones who have to make the split-second calls, willingly putting themselves in harm’s way and inspiring their Marines to do the same. They don’t have a degree or get paid much, but they possess the hard-won wisdom of combat and the invaluable courage to accomplish the mission.”
Describe to me your most profound experience while wearing a uniform.
“If I had to pick one, I’d talk about one of my first missions in Afghanistan. We were prepping our partner forces, Afghan Commandos, for a mission. Because I spoke Pashto, I was translating to the Afghan platoon leader, explaining the general plan and key points of a terrain model. At the end of the brief, I handed him a piece of paper where I wrote down the instructions we had discussed for the raid we were about to conduct. He looked at the paper quizzically and said in Pashto, ‘Yes sir, but what does this say?’ It was at that moment, while I stood there embarrassingly realizing that he was illiterate, that the full weight of my privilege came crashing down on me. Here I was an enlisted Marine, a foreigner who could read and write the native language better than an officer. I was instantly confronted with how fortunate I was to have a public education and to be an American.”
What taste, touch, or smell symbolizes the Marines Corps to you?
“If I had to pick a smell, it would be freshly expended gunpowder. I can’t say how many tens of thousands of rounds I shot during my six years, but it was enough to distinctly sear my memory.”
How has military service changed you? How have you continued to serve after the Marine Corps?
“I joined the military with a conviction to serve because of an indebted obligation to my community and country. Ironically serving in the military only strengthened my commitment to public service, having witnessed the sacrifice of my peers first hand. After the military, I decided to give back by raising money for gold star families, to help those families shoulder the unseen burden of loss. I also looked for ways to improve things for veterans, paying forward the opportunities I received. Now I continue a career of public service in state government.”
What should the average civilian know about the military?
“I think some people are quick to judge each other by occupation or level of education. I’ve heard people refer to the military as an employer of last resort. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever met didn’t have a college degree. Experience is the best teacher, and people who have been to war have witnessed elements of humanity, both good and bad, that few will ever know.”
What is your current position as a civilian and how did your Marine Corps experience prepare you for that?
Currently, I work for the Governor of New York, specifically on priority projects and in crisis management. At the core of managing any emergency or crisis, is someone who is cool, calm and collected. Managing stressful situations is always easier when there aren’t grenade concussions and gunfire. The Marine Corps inoculated me to the highest levels of chaotic and stressful environments in the civilian world.”