Not Your Typical Westminster Grad
Inspired by a deep sense of service, a true commitment to his team, and an unyielding pursuit of adrenaline, Alex Lemons (’02) chose a unique career path after graduation.
On track to pursue his graduate degree and run his own skateboard apparel business with his brother, Lemons decided instead to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps and volunteer for service in Iraq. Because he majored in both history and English at Westminster, not many would have thought his education would have prepared him for jobs as a scout sniper or a counterinsurgency team member, but Lemons credits his education as a key to his military success.
“I really knew how to speak to people and get my point across, whether it was in arguments or just selecting the right words at the right time,” said Lemons. “I got that from my English degree at this school [Westminster] because of the amount of writing I had to do and all the presentations in class.”
Now, after serving multiple tours in Iraq, recuperating from a major shoulder surgery, and battling an unknown virus, Lemons has returned to Iraq for a fourth time after being handpicked by General David Petraeus, the commanding general of Multi-National Force-Iraq.
Paired with two Marine officers, both Harvard graduates, Lemons is serving on a special three-person counterinsurgency team focused on living with the locals and fixing problems no one else can solve. The team is exempt from most bureaucracy since it works directly with the Iraqis and for the general. In August 2007, they deployed to Ad Diwaniyah, a city where Polish troops are based, that’s known as a hot spot for the smuggling of goods, services, and weapons.
“Everybody had a different set of skills to bring to the table,” he said. “I was trained as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), and I know a lot about tactics, mechanics, weapons systems, and training. Capt. Seth Moulton knows a lot about politics and the ‘ins and outs’ of working with people. Capt. Ann Gildroy has the same set of skills, but also knows a lot about contracting and economics—and with all of that combined, what you have is an armed counterinsurgency team that General Petraeus can send to fix problems that nobody else can handle or that nobody else wants to take.”
During the mission, the team encountered many challenges dealing with insurgents and other issues in the Polish-occupied province. However, Lemons found his communication skills and powers of persuasion helped overcome some of those obstacles.
“The first day we moved in, two Polish soldiers were shot in the neck. We evacuated them and they both survived, but when we got back, the Polish general said we can’t do this anymore…the operation is over. I had a way of showing him that things weren’t that bad and explained he had shown a lot of courage by going out there, without saying he was a coward for not continuing the operation. I basically boosted his confidence and showed him the way ahead was going to include bad things like this, but that it wasn’t likely to happen again because we were going to have a better plan.”
The Polish general was persuaded to stay in the province long enough to complete the mission, and no other coalition casualties were sustained.
The education Westminster provided Lemons was also helpful in preparing him for his current deployment.
“In regard to liberal education and being exposed to lots of people and lots of different ideas, that was one of the best things I could have when it came to working with the Iraqis because I came with an open mind,” he said. “I realized that if I was going to understand anything they wanted to tell me, I needed to know the history and culture before making arguments about what they should or shouldn’t do.”
“The problem that a lot of people have with counterinsurgency is they want to stay Amerocentric. They want to live on a big base and do everything the American way, but it’s not our country, and when you’re working with the Iraqis and if you want to solve the problems that are there, you have to solve them in an Iraqi way,” he continued.
“I would say the biggest thing my liberal education did, which sounds somewhat counter to the military, is that it taught me to question orders when you know they’re not going be successful no matter how you carry them out…the idea that I can still be critical of things.”
In addition to the skills he honed during his Westminster liberal education, he also believes one particular subject helped him adapt to his lifestyle.
“Sniper school was the hardest training I’ve done in my life, even next to Westminster,” said Lemons. “But Latin was the perfect training for boot camp because it was so structured; you can’t break any of the rules. I had Bob Welsh as my instructor [a Vietnam vet], and the way we had to learn it and the amount we had to do…it was very militaristic.”
As part of Westminster’s mission, the college strives to prepare students to lead lives of learning, accomplishment, and service. There is probably no better example of a graduate who exemplifies that goal than Alex Lemons.
“I could have been graduating right now with a PhD with the track I was on, and a lot of people ask me if I have just wasted my time by putting off my personal goals, but I would say the opposite. I think service is a very important part of school and in life in general. If people can’t serve their country in the military, that’s fine. However, they should find some way to serve, if only so they have a better awareness of what’s really going on in their communities, in the country, or traveling throughout the world.”