At Yale, a Blackhawk pilot digs into global affairs (and climbs Army ranks)
While on deployment to eastern Afghanistan in the early years of the Obama administration, Nerea M. Cal, an Army officer, found herself on an unusual non-combat mission: extracting local Afghans from raging rivers.
Heavy rains had caused flash flooding in the area’s usually dry river beds, where local residents often scoured the ground for sticks and other material to use for fuel for fires. When the sudden deluge stranded dozens of people, Cal, then in her mid-20s, put her skills as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot to a new test.
“We were pulling Afghans from the river, and it felt good to help people,” said Cal, who is now a Ph.D. student in Yale’s Department of Political Science. “But what was really interesting was it sometimes took us several times to convince them to get on the helicopter.”
She realized that the locals were used to seeing the massive copters in more-menacing contexts — landing in a farmer’s field in the middle of the night, for example, or conducting a raid on a house suspected to contain an insurgent or terrorist.
Their hesitance to trust the Army rescuers even in such dire circumstances demonstrated “the complexity of foreign policy and how that affects normal people who may have nothing to do with the strategic dynamics,” Cal said. “And that was intellectually really formative for me.”
Cal, who is now 39, has been building on that early insight ever since, delving deeper into the intricacies of international affairs while also rising through the Army leadership ranks.
She took the next step in this journey on the Yale campus on Aug. 28. During a ceremony on Beinecke Plaza — an event she planned herself with support from Yale’s Office of the Secretary, Veteran and Military Affairs, and the university’s ROTC programs — Cal was officially promoted from major to lieutenant colonel.
The rank of lieutenant colonel is something of a culminating one in the U.S. Army because it conveys the authority to command a battalion — Cal has already been selected as a future commander. While she says she’s kept her previous promotions low-key, this time she decided to “do it right” by holding the ceremony in a prominent and public location. She’s invited all of the other students in her Yale program to attend, hoping some will share in an experience they likely know little about.
“I think the military sends a lot of its officers to civilian colleges because it’s a way to engage with the community,” Cal said. “I’m an ambassador of my branch in a way.”
‘Bridging that divide’
The desire to close the division between the military and civilians was also the theme of a speech Cal gave at Yale in 2014, while she was pursuing a master’s degree in global affairs at the Jackson Institute (now the Jackson School of Global Affairs). Standing in Beinecke Plaza that day, during the university’s annual Veteran’s Day ceremony, Cal noted that most of the students she’d met at Yale had never met anyone in the military and had a limited understanding of the armed forces.
Then and now, she says that members of the military “can play a constructive role in bridging that divide by engaging more with our local community, building those relationships, helping people understand what the military does and what people in the military are like.”
Yale is stepping up its own efforts to welcome veterans and active military members into the broader campus community with the recent establishment of an Office of Veteran and Military Affairs. One of the office’s most fundamental roles will be helping students, staff, faculty, and alumni navigate the use of veterans’ benefits, said Holly Hermes, the inaugural full-time liaison. (Hermes, an Air Force Colonel who is an active reservist, previously served in a variety of roles in the Yale Air Force ROTC program.)
But the office also aims to work in a number of other areas, including student programming and alumni events, all with an eye toward forwarding the university’s commitment to sustaining an environment in which military students and veterans can contribute and feel a sense of belonging.
There are roughly 50 undergraduate student veterans at Yale, and more than 150 veterans throughout the graduate and professional schools, Hermes said. About 80 Yale students are enrolled in the Air Force and Naval ROTC programs on campus.
Cal’s studies at Yale have helped her continue to climb the military ladder. After deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, she commanded an Air Assault Blackhawk Company in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina — a job that earned her the Gen. Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. After that she came to Yale for the first time, graduating from the Jackson Institute in 2016, which prepared her to teach international relations at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
She returned to Yale for her Ph.D. with the intent of eventually teaching international affairs at West Point. She is concentrating her studies on international relations and comparative politics, with a specific interest in conflict termination and post-conflict reconstruction. In other words, what role can the military play in ending conflict and helping to transition from war to peace?
“I was lucky enough when I was here for my master’s degree to do some research in Kosovo, where I could see and study about an example where the international community came together and resolved a conflict constructively and then helped a country rebuild,” she said. “I want to understand those dynamics more.”
The Army gives her three years to focus on her doctorate full time (this is her second year). So she is treating her studies like a job, riding her e-bike to campus on a 9-to-5 schedule, then returning home to Hamden in time to help her husband with dinner and bath time for their two young daughters.
Her next stop will likely be as a battalion commander. She says she will draw much of her wisdom for that senior leadership role from her last field assignment, one in which she feels she failed in many ways.
As a battalion's operation officer at Fort Carson, in Colorado, in 2019, she was charged with running training and operations for a 500-person unit. At that time, Cal hadn’t been in an operational environment for five years and had had her first baby just a few months before.
Emotionally overwhelmed by the separation from her daughter, Cal also felt a lot of pressure from her commander, “who was not particularly sensitive to or understanding of what I was going through.” The unit was doing aerial gunnery out in the desert, and Cal faced the additional challenge of trying to get to know and direct a very young unit that needed time to learn, while also meeting her commander’s expectations.
The whole experience proved to be the greatest leadership challenge of her career, but having had time to reflect on the things that both she and her commander did that just weren’t effective, she’s grateful for the experience for all that it taught her about what not to do as a leader.
“As leaders, we need to recognize that we are always learning,” Cal said. “The common joke in the Army is that as soon as you learn how to do a job, they’re going to move you to a job that you have no idea how to do. That’s been my experience, but I’ve found it really invigorating. As long as we maintain a mindset that we don’t know everything, we’re always learning, we need to leverage the people around us and empower them to contribute to the missions, then we’ll be successful.”