It would have been hard to find a more unlikely recruit than Ryan Friedrichs.
Friedrichs (’99) spent the first 10 years of his post-college career working to engage young voters and other underrepresented groups in Washington, D.C., and Detroit. He got a master’s in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and made a national name for himself in the world of civic engagement, finding real success in a highly competitive field. Then he surprised almost everyone by leaving it to enlist and serve in the Army’s parachute infantry company, 173rd Airborne Brigade.
On its face, the decision looks like a wild turn away from a carefully curated career. But Friedrichs sees it instead as keeping his professional life aligned with his ideals — in this case, spreading out the deployment burden by offering his own shoulders to help carry its weight.
“Year after year I’d watched too small a group of soldiers carrying too heavy a deployment load for way too long. And, as so often happens, it looked like the underprivileged were carrying the burden and the privileged were on the sides. To me, it looked like those carrying the heaviest weight were those in the infantry — the airborne enlisted infantry to be even more specific. And that’s where I ended up heading.”
Friedrichs had thought about enlisting since September 11, 2001. He’d considered it while he completed his master’s, and during the years he worked as the executive director of the grassroots organizations State Voices and Michigan Voice. When he completed the five years he’d pledged to the organizations, he found himself still drawn to serve. He discussed it with his wife, Jocelyn Benson, who is currently the interim dean of Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, and they agreed 2010 was the right time for him to enlist.
Friedrichs signed up for a three-year tour of duty plus additional training. His unit went to Afghanistan in July 2012, and remained there until the spring of 2013, when they returned to their base in Vicenza, Italy, where they are stationed today. In between his soldier duties, such as patrolling villages near the unit’s outpost or jumping out of an airplane with 100 pounds of equipment strapped to his body, he’s using his organizing experience and policy skills to think about what it will mean to integrate a million veterans into civilian life in the next few years.
To that end, Friedrichs wants to help round out the picture that’s usually painted of returning vets. The record levels of divorce, the soaring rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the high suicide rates are accurate, but Friedrichs believes it’s a mistake to keep the focus narrowed only on veterans’ struggles. He wants people to know vets are also skilled, hardworking, and potentially incredible employees.
“Veterans can lead and they can serve and they should be asked to do so. Too many people see veterans as possibly damaged goods,” he says.
For example, Friedrichs points to the resourcefulness of his fellow soldiers. His team learned Dari, the main Afghan dialect spoken where he and his team were operating, and they patrolled continually with Afghans. Every interaction they had required amazing reserves of intelligence, sensitivity, professionalism, and nerve — a set of skills that make veterans incredibly valuable employees.
“I would love to hire these guys. They are some of the most disciplined and responsible people I’ve ever met who’ve been through a tremendous number of complicated experiences.”
It’s a topic to which Friedrichs hopes to bring attention when he returns to the United States as a veteran himself in 2014.
Working in tandem with these goals is the nonprofit his wife recently started, Military Spouses of Michigan, which helps military spouses combat isolation and help one another. It’s part of an overall goal to increase awareness and educate people about those who serve in the military.
“I know I want to continue to work on veterans’ issues,” Friedrichs says. He also notes that the timing is critical. “I feel like the next few years are a huge opportunity for us as a country. More than a million veterans will pour back into our ranks, a whole new generation of veterans coming into the United States. If we get their reintegration right, we strengthen everything—veterans and the country. If we get it wrong, we’ll pay a heavy price for a long time.”