Wisdom and virtue as a soldier

A profile of Patrick Brehany, Saratoga '13.

Wisdom and virtue. Two words that traditionally helped shape discourse and ideals for those in military service from the classical age on. Today they are seldom heard in conversation about the military, but their purchase is no less relevant, according to First Lieutenant (1LT) Patrick Brehany who currently serves in the United States Army. As an operations officer in Ft. Hood, TX, 1LT Brehany has witnessed firsthand the challenges to leading well and believes steadfastly in the necessity of an enduring first principles framework for truly excellent leadership, both in the military context and outside it.

Despite a slightly fuzzy phone connection from the middle-of-somewhere Kentucky during an army training exercise, 1LT Brehany’s voice seems characteristically steady and gracious. Conversation quickly reveals the kind of strength and magnanimity that we all long to ascribe to military leadership but don’t often see reflected in the media’s representations. For 1LT Brehany, these qualities have been cultivated through long study in the classical and Catholic traditions and four years of military service that included a recent tour of duty in Afghanistan.

As a high school senior in his home state of Iowa, 1LT Brehany sealed his commitment to military service when he applied for and earned an ROTC scholarship. He felt motivated by a sense of patriotism and an awareness of need during a time of war: “I felt that the country needed people to step up at the time. It still does.” The ROTC scholarship allowed him to spend four years studying philosophy at the University of Dallas while also beginning his military training. This unique blend of contemplation and action is evident in the thoughtful but pragmatic way 1LT Brehany seems to approach all of life, and it has served his unit well during his tenure as an officer.

1LT Brehany's platoon poses for a picture with after a mission in Afghanistan (1LT Brehany on far right).

1LT Brehany's platoon poses for a picture with after a mission in Afghanistan (1LT Brehany on far right).

While his university education gave him a strong grounding in Western and Christian thought, these studies did not connect very directly to his military training. “My college classes,” he says, “were aimed at understanding what it means to be better person, but not necessarily what it means to be a better leader.” He found this training in leadership through the Saratoga Fellows Program at the John Jay Institute in 2013. During those six intensive weeks of study, conversation, and community living, he experienced the kind of rigorous intellectual, moral, and spiritual preparation that his education had thus far lacked but desperately needed.

After his Saratoga fellowship, 1LT Brehany began his active military service and spent a year training at Ft. Benning before being stationed in Texas. As a young officer in charge of training, resourcing, and protecting his soldiers, he experienced immediately the comprehensive demands of military leadership:

“You get to know people in a much more personal way than at other jobs. My role as a platoon leader and officer meant I had responsibility that included the personal lives of my soldiers as well as professional performance – if they were struggling financially, had a broken relationship at home, or got into trouble with the law, I had to take a role in resolving that.”

Such high visibility in the military also put 1LT Brehany’s own life and character on display. Beyond the wisdom required for effectively stewarding his soldiers’ lives was the excellence of soul required to live with integrity in front of both his soldiers and superiors. For those who do not live with such virtue, the difference is apparent. “The most effective leaders lead lives of example and virtue,” he explains. “The military doesn’t allow you to isolate your personal and professional life. If you have a problem at home, it’s coming into work, and vice versa. People can’t sustain that division for too long. You have to have an ethical code that you live by.”

1LT Brehany conducts a community engagement with local Afghan villagers near Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

1LT Brehany conducts a community engagement with local Afghan villagers near Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

1LT Brehany’s own ethical code was sharpened during his Saratoga tenure, and he has witnessed firsthand the impact this kind of preparation can make:

“In so many ways I feel fortunate because I was raised classically, in the Catholic faith, and went to school to study the Western tradition. While the Catholic tradition seeks to develop people of integrity to serve God, going to the ecumenical environment of Saratoga gave me more tools and a framework to understand what I was being asked to do in the military -- particularly in difficult or ambiguous situations. So few of my fellow officers have that framework. They are being asked to do difficult things without the principles to know how to make those decisions.”

As an example, he cites how the military handles sexual harassment and assault, a topic often addressed in the news. From the inside, he observes how military leadership struggles to articulate a compelling condemnation of sexual harassment without an objective moral framework to undergird that position. “[Since] the army can’t appeal to anything except secular values,” he says they “have trouble communicating why sexual harassment is unacceptable.”

Even with a strong moral and spiritual foundation, 1LT Brehany readily admits that the pressures of military leadership are immense:

“An officer assumes responsibility for the area that they are assigned to. You are responsible for everything that your unit does or fails to do. There is an enormous amount of pressure to accomplish the mission, but also to be willing to admit you haven’t made the right decision and correct it.”

It is a task that requires great humility, fortitude, and wisdom. And one that he says the Saratoga Fellows Program, with its rigorous curriculum, emphasis on leadership, and intense, ecumenical fellowship, prepared him well to navigate.

“The Saratoga program and training for war have a direct relationship in my mind. When we train for combat in the military, we try to make the training more stressful and difficult than we think the actual situation will be. Effective training should make war seem at least familiar. Like that military training, the Saratoga program is this period of intense preparation that is worthwhile because when you get out there and are surrounded by enemies, of all kinds, you have a background to rely on.”

That intense preparation served him well when he found himself in enemy territory during a deployment to Afghanistan from May 2016 to February 2017. Assigned to provide security in support of counterinsurgency and the stabilization of Afghanistan, 1LT Brehany’s mission required decision-making responsibilities in a foreign context under continuous potential threat that forced him to draw in new ways on the ideas he had studied. As he describes: “While there in Afghanistan, we executed foot patrols outside the base, which comes with a certain amount of danger. It was a situation where I had to rely on time-tested truths to deal with a world that I did not feel capable of engaging on my own merit.  The deployment caused me recognize the efficacy of what I believed in a way I never had before.”

1LT Brehany re-enlists a soldier at Jalalabad Airfield in Afghanistan.

1LT Brehany re-enlists a soldier at Jalalabad Airfield in Afghanistan.

This kind of razor’s edge decision-making is not simply a feature of overseas military missions. It is, more broadly, the nature of our age, according to 1LT Brehany. His military service has helped him see more clearly the high speed and high stakes of life in our ultra-connected, technology-mediated world.

In such a world, the perennial questions of humane living are more important than ever: “I do think it’s very important to think about these big questions because in the world we live in, we don’t know which situations you’re going to be put into, and your actions can have an enormous effect. I continue to think about the things we studied at Saratoga, because I recognize that I may not have the time to seek counsel in the moment of action or decision, and I want the tools and at least some of the answers to be there already, as an innate response.” This wisdom readily resonates just as stoutly off the battlefield or the base as it does on.

Much of our conversation about 1LT Brehany’s military vocation is necessarily pragmatic and strategic in tone. He is, after all, a well-trained military officer. But it is also apparent that his reflections come from a deeply emotional place – one of honor and reverence and love. His affection is evident when he speaks about the privilege of caring for his soldiers. It is also visible in his recent gift to the John Jay Institute of the flag that flew over his base in Afghanistan. Soldiers overseas are able to have flags flown in honor of individuals or organizations. 1LT Brehany explained that the flag “reflects the gratitude I feel to the John Jay Institute for the formation and education I received during the Saratoga Fellows Program. I am absolutely certain that the fellowship made me a better officer, leader, and man.”  That sentiment is also demonstrated in how he prays for our country’s military when, invoking a quotation from G.K. Chesterton about what motivates the true soldier, he says: “I pray that God will continue to raise up men and women who are willing to lay down their lives not because they hate what is in front of them, but because they love what lies behind them.”

1LT Brehany and his platoon sergeant prepare to go on a dismounted mission in Afghanistan.

1LT Brehany and his platoon sergeant prepare to go on a dismounted mission in Afghanistan.