‘The Guy You Want in the Foxhole’
But 31 years later, Milley is the University’s highest ranked alumnus in the armed forces, an honor previously held by Gen. David Petraeus GS ’87. Petraeus succeeded Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan in 2010 before retiring from the army this past August to take up his new role as director of the CIA.
A two-star general, Milley is also the new commander of the famed 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum in Northern New York — and despite having thought about leaving the armed forces over the past three decades, he only keeps advancing.
Milley’s ascendancy to such high ranks in the military was largely unplanned. Milley quickly climbed the military ladder after leaving the University, performing tours in Colombia and Korea; receiving degrees from Columbia University’s Defense Language School and the Naval War College in Rhode Island; and training troops at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Pope.
He frequently considered exiting the military once he had reached certain milestones — after commanding a company or receiving a particular educational opportunity — but ended up sticking with the armed forces each time.
He knew he couldn’t serve his country halfheartedly and wanted to do his best to serve fully, Milley said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. It was only after 20 years of military service that he began to seriously consider retiring — but 9/11 quickly reversed that idea.
Milley — stationed in Hawaii at the time — was awoken by a 3 a.m. phone call from a watch officer who told him, “Our nation is under attack.” Once those words were spoken, Milley knew that his country needed him, he explained.
“After 9/11, I decided that I wasn’t going to get out until I was told to get out,” he said. “You know you were participating in a historic time. As a professional soldier, there’s no way you’re going to turn your back and retire.”
His commitment to the military was reaffirmed after 9/11, and Milley was deployed on tours to Afghanistan and Iraq that sent him oceans away from his wife, daughter and son.
In Iraq, Milley frequently joined enlisted men on dangerous patrols of Baghdad, he said — an unnecessary task for a man of his rank. Yet, according to Milley’s friend Andy Harding ’80, Milley thought it was important to know what his men were experiencing.
After multiple stints at the Pentagon, Milley is now set to assume leadership of a light infantry division that has seen significant activity in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Milley’s friends said they were unsurprised at how far Milley has come in his journey with the armed forces — when Milley, known as “the Milldog” by his friends, invests himself in a cause, he relentlessly pursues excellence, many said.
For example, Harding remembers Milley spending most of his time as an undergraduate as a member of the ice hockey team, in addition to the University’s ROTC program. In his first two years playing ice hockey, Milley did not find much ice time and rarely dressed for games. But while this dearth of playing time may have given most students a reason to quit, it only pushed Milley to work harder, Harding said — and the future general even organized a club hockey team later on.
“He just kept plugging away and wanted to play so badly,” Harding said. “He didn’t give up,”
Off the ice, Milley dedicated himself to the University’s ROTC program, earning senior leadership roles despite only starting in his sophomore year. But though the ROTC experience provided an avenue to military leadership, Milley said, it was his classroom experiences that truly made him the leader he is today.
“What Princeton did for me, as I look back on it, is give me a good basis for what I would call critical thinking — and I think that’s one of the hallmarks of a liberal education,” he said. “It’s a way to frame problems, be skeptical in an intellectual sense of answers and issues and problems you’re facing. It’s almost a worldview or mindset more than a specific instance. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do it.”
Harding described the undergraduate Milley as a well-read student with a tenacity, loyalty and commitment to people that made his success predictable.
“If I needed help with anything ... he would stop what he’s doing, assist and help out,” Harding explained. “He’s just a great friend. He’s the guy you want in the foxhole with you.”
Toward the end of his four years at the University, he took the GREs, the GMATs and other graduate school standardized tests with plans to pursue a career outside the military.
But though he received numerous promotions and accolades in his early career, Milley continued to subjugate his career plans to further serve his country.
This single-minded focus initially surprised Joe Lundie ’80, a friend of Milley’s — but when Lundie considered the tenacity of “the Milldog,” Milley’s dedication seemingly made sense, he said.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘He’ll do his four years ... and probably get out of [the military],’ ” Lundie said.
“But by the same token, you think of his nickname ... once he gets into something, he’s going to do it and do it to the best of his abilities,” he said.
Harding’s predictions for Milley’s career almost exactly corresponded with Lundie’s.
“When we graduated from college, I figured he’d put in his four or five years and go into business and do quite well … but he just pursued it with great tenacity,” Harding said of Milley’s military career.
“The fact that he became a general wasn’t that surprising, because when he approaches something he wants to do he does it really, really well,” he continued.
For now, there is no end in sight for Milley — Harding said he predicts that Milley will eventually rise to be a four-star general because of his trademark grit. He recalled a conversation with Milley’s father, a marine who fought during World War II at Iwo Jima, that proved that this modus operandi worked well for the general.
“When Mark told me he was going to the Army, I told him ‘Don’t do it!’ When he told me he was going to join the special forces ... I told him ‘Don’t do it! Those guys are crazy!’ ” Milley’s father told Harding, Harding said. “But you know, after all these years, he’s the happiest of my kids.”