Yale People: For law student, military built 'phenomenal' skills

If any potential future employers are curious, Alex Frank graduated from Duke University with a degree in physics and is currently a second-year Yale Law School student. He also has experience leading a large team to help disentangle complex socioeconomic and cultural divisions among diverse populations in high-risk areas in order to create and maintain security. Oh, and he’s qualified to jump out of a plane unassisted.

Veteran and second-year law student Alex Frank. (Photo courtesy of Alex Frank)

“Maybe I’ll list that on my résumé,” Frank said, laughing. “Tell all those European think tanks I’m applying to for summer internships that I can jump out of a plane if need be.”

Frank is one of a community of veterans in Yale’s undergraduate and graduate/professional school population. Although his penchant for tea and yoga belie stereotypes of a military man, he spent several years on active duty in Afghanistan and Germany, giving him a first-hand perspective on international relations and the American military that is rare among Yale students.

Growing up in the affluent Cleveland Park neighborhood near Georgetown in Washington, D.C. with a father who was drafted and “hated it,” Frank seemed an unlikely candidate for military service. Spurred by an interest in military history and a desire to serve on a national level, however, he pursued it.

“At that point I didn’t feel the appeal of investment banking, law, grad school — I wanted to do something more purposeful and focused, working on what seemed like pressing problems that we had as a country — so I joined despite my dad’s objections,” Frank said, noting that his father eventually warmed up to the idea.

“Plus I watched a lot of John Wayne movies as a kid,” he quipped.

Frank joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Duke midway through his sophomore year and spent the summer catching up on training.  After graduating, he spent a year at Fort Benning, a military training institution on the border of Alabama and Georgia, attending infantry officer school, Army Ranger school, airborne school, and a mechanized leader’s course.

Frank in full Army uniform with a fellow soldier and local Afghanis while deployment in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Alex Frank.
Frank on deployment in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of Alex Frank)

The year of classes and lectures “was like a first year of undergrad … learning the basics of each discipline,” Frank said. However, it also included lessons designed to cultivate grit and level-headedness in the face of adverse situations, like marching late into the night with lots of gear and little sleep, and working within the chain of command.

“The military has a very formulaic operations order process which is really important for communicating all the key information that you need,” Frank said. “There are all these different components of moving pieces — one second calling for fires on the radio, the next talking to your gunner and driver telling them to be somewhere else, etc. — that you need to understand with great depth to be able to direct and switch between them with great clarity.”

Immediately after he finished at Fort Benning, Frank — then 23 years old — flew to Germany to take charge of a 35-person platoon, then deployed to Afghanistan with “just enough time to learn the platoon’s names.” From 2010 to 2011, Frank led his platoon in counterinsurgency efforts, working to build trust with local Afghan elders in order to “build governance from the ground.”

After a year on active duty, Frank spent two years on duty in Germany and another year working at Fort Benning. He credits this time, especially his experiences in Afghanistan, with cultivating key job skills and a keen sense of contributing to the stability and security of the international world order.

“The job skills that I gained were phenomenal straight off the bat — being put in charge of 35 people at age 23 straight out of college … it really forces you to be able to take firm, purposeful action,” Frank said. “IT seems so abstract, but these governance problems really got me to focus on social issues and governance…and I really saw the power of social integration.”

When he ‘retired’ from the military in 2014 (he’s still on inactive duty and would probably get called to serve again “in the unlikely event that Putin invades Estonia or something”), Frank “knew vaguely that I was interested in…the kinds of policy problems they dealt with in Afghanistan and thought law school would be a good way to address [them].”

He was drawn to Yale for its public policy courses and emphasis on grappling with real-world situations rather than focusing solely on theory. While he enjoys classes and interactions with a few professors, Frank laments how frequently he encounters anti-military sentiment among his peers. He often finds himself combating stereotypes and inaccuracies in defense of the prosocial activities of the U.S. military. 

“I think people can be quite naïve coming out of their very specific bubble…and a central problem is that the bubbles are just so polarized” Frank said, acknowledging that, in the US’ military history, “there have been mistakes, for sure. But, if it weren’t for the American army doing what it does and serving as the backbone of the liberal world order, then there wouldn’t be a liberal world order.”

Frank’s military background transitioned well to activities elsewhere at Yale. Last year, he joined European Horizons, a student think tank dedicated to strengthening the social contract in the European Union, and he leads a class on international law for the Air Force ROTC. Currently, he is working with the New Haven Police Department on a research project about community policing.

“I had this intuition that there were a lot of similarities between policing and counterinsurgency, so I wanted to get on the ground to understand what the issues were,” Frank said. He applies the lessons he learned about community-building in Afghanistan to neighborhoods and families in New Haven that experience security-eroding situations, like gang activity and domestic abuse.

For Frank, grappling with difficult community situations — in New Haven, in the European Union, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere — is not just a bullet point on a résumé or a career path. It’s a life philosophy that he pursues relentlessly, from cultivating clarity of mind via yoga to independently researching cultural anthropology, developmental psychology and sociology, complexity theory, and more.

“My broad guidance is that I take this knowledge from all these different disciplines and I use it to figure out how you create security and social integration at the same time,” he said.

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