Student Spotlight: Army officer Justin Crocker on military life and Yale

After spending a decade serving his country, Captain Justin Crocker is enjoying a temporary transition to civilian life — and to life as a Yale graduate student.

Captain Justin Crocker spoke with YaleNews about his transition to life at Yale. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)
Captain Justin Crocker spoke with YaleNews about his transition to life at Yale. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

“I’m still getting used to it [being settled],” he explains. “Getting used to that notion is pretty difficult, but honestly it’s been great. We’ve been here just a few weeks now but having the predictability in my schedule has been really nice.”

As one of six Army officers to be awarded a 2015 Wayne A. Downing Scholarship, Crocker will spend two years at Yale studying national security strategy and diplomacy in Central and South Asia at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Awarded through the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the scholarship provides Army officers with a graduate education centered on issues of terrorism, insurgency, and other threats to national security.

“We’re basically given the world,” comments Crocker. “We’re able to pick any school we want to go to as long as the program of study is relatable to our work. A lot of guys will go for a master’s in public policy or global affairs or international affairs.”

Growing up: Crocker’s father and grandfather were both in the Air Force, and he was born at Travis Air Force Base near Vacaville, California. He was raised there until he was 13, and he has also lived in Oahu, Hawaii and Dayton, Ohio.

“I had a very normal childhood, save for the fact that I was in a military family,” recalls Crocker.  “If there is a singular aspect that defines my childhood, it’s the military experience: lots of moving, raised amidst other military families and children.”

His childhood experiences made Crocker realize that the military was “an honorable profession” and strengthened his desire to one day follow in the footsteps of his family members.

“They taught me it was important to serve something greater than myself,” he says. “The Army appealed to me because I felt, and still feel, soldiering is the most honest form of service. Getting your hands dirty and solving problems from the ground up — literally — was very appealing. Technology changes constantly, but soldiering has remained relatively unchanged.”

Why Army: At the age of 17, Crocker decided to enlist in the Army straight out of high school. While his decision was based largely on a need to find a way to pay for college, he found he enjoyed being in the Army.

“I liked the camaraderie of it, and it was a challenge. I went to work everyday feeling challenged and feeling like I was bettering myself,” he says.

After serving three years, Crocker decided the time was right to go to college. Through the help of the Army, he was able to enroll at Ohio State University and graduated magna cum laude in 2005 with a B.A. in criminology.

In addition to being able to get a college education, Crocker joined the Army rather than another branch of the military because he felt that the Army gave him the “most choices.”

“My career has taken me from a rifleman to a platoon leader to a special forces officer to Yale for two years to get a master’s,” he says. “There are not many organizations out there that offer that kind of flexibility and opportunity. Just at Jackson, we have students who helicopter pilots, intelligence officers, foreign area officers that are going to go and work in embassies and these are all Army folks.”

Deployment: Since graduating from college, Crocker has been deployed three times: once to Baghdad and twice to Afghanistan.

“In Baghdad, it was during the ‘surge’ from November 2007 to February 2009. I was a rifle platoon leader and was responsible for securing a certain sector by working with Iraqi local police and the Iraqi army, and then using funds to help build up a sustainable security in that area,” he says.

After completing the Maneuver Captain’s Course in 2009 and the Special Forces Detachment Officer Qualification Course in 2011, Crocker was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom from September 2012 to May 2013.

“I was a Special Forces officer who was responsible for a team, and we were conducting what we call ‘foreign internal defense,’ which is essentially training Afghan special operations units to conduct security-type missions,” he notes.

During his second deployment to Afghanistan, from April 2013 to November 2014, he was director of the center responsible for the support and sustainment of Special Forces teams working in eastern Afghanistan.

The path to Yale: Despite his successes within the Army, Crocker always knew he wanted to go back to school.

“Taking a ‘step back’ from the operational Army and reflecting on my experiences and how they fit into the bigger national security picture was important to me,” he says.

He learned about the Downing scholarship and decided to apply. A big factor in his decision to apply for the scholarship, he explains, was that he could quickly return to the Army after graduating. Unlike other scholarships for Army officers, the Downing scholarship does not require officers to go on a “utilization tour,” a specific assignment after graduate school such as working on the Army staff or Joint Staff in the Pentagon or teaching at one of the Service Academies. Instead, Crocker will go back to his position as a special operations officer within the Army.

Noting how much he enjoys being part of a team, Crocker says he chose Yale and the Jackson Institute specifically for its “small, tight knit cohort as opposed to some other programs that were a lot bigger.” Crocker cites an overnight trip to the Berkshires during the first weekend of orientation as evidence that he made the right decision.

“The Jackson Institute put on a really good orientation program,” he says. “It was a very good home to come to, and they really helped me and everybody with the transition into grad school. Jackson really set us up for success.”

The smooth transition to Yale, he says, has allowed him to focus on his goals during his time at Yale, namely gaining new “hard skills” and gaining new perspectives on problem solving that he can apply in the field.

“I think that’s what we’re really missing in the military: those hard skills of analyzing not just the programs we’re implementing, but defining the second and third order effects of those,” he explains. “I want my fellow students to challenge my preconceptions and thought process. This will help me make better decisions in the field when the decisions I make will have strategic-level impacts and lives are on the line.”

Beyond Yale: While Crocker is relishing the challenge of being a student again, he’s mostly looking forward to being settled with his wife and newborn son.

“Being in the Army, I’ve been gone or deployed over the last five years more than I’ve been home, and so it’ll be really nice to be reacquainted with my wife and initially acquainted with my son, to spend some time with them. Next summer will be the first summer in probably six years that we’ll get to actually plan a vacation,” he says, with a smile.

Despite this break in service from the Army, Crocker still plans on a long-term future with the Army.

“I’d like to stay for another 10 years or so and then continue some form of service after that,” he says. “I feel a strong calling to service so I want to continue serving even after I get out. I don’t know what that’s going to be yet, and that’s one reason I chose Jackson and Yale … the devotion to service is pretty unique in this university.

“The brighter side of what the Army does happens when we go into an area that has been affected by conflict for a while, and we’re able to help people that are less fortunate,” said Crocker. “Really why I continue to serve is the people I serve with. I love serving the U.S., and I love the U.S., but I don’t remain in the Army because of my desire to serve my country. I look at that as an added benefit; really I get my satisfaction from the people that I serve.”

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