By Sharon Goldman
Brian Leary ’68
As a struggling student at an upstate New York teachers college in 1960, Brian Leary didn’t have high hopes for his academic future. And with the U.S. military draft still in place, joining the army seemed like a good idea, since enlisted men enjoyed greater control over their deployment. “It was one of the two smartest things I ever did,” he says. “The other, of course, was attending GS.”
In the Army Leary became a “spook,” someone who listened in on and translated other people’s telephone conversations—a role that greatly expanded during the Cold War. After a rigorous course in German at the Army Language School, Leary spent two years in West Berlin surrounded by men with similar backgrounds.
“I was thrown in with a lot of guys in the exact same situation, who had a shot at college and hadn’t done well or lost interest,” Leary recalls. “But they were very bright people, which made me feel like I wasn’t as dumb as my grades would have indicated.”
After his Army stint, Leary found out about GS from a girlfriend who was a Columbia student. “She said it sounded like the perfect fit for a veteran, and it was,” he says. Leary began at GS in 1965, and in 1967-68 served as editor-in-chief of The Owl, then the school’s student newspaper. “It was when everything was going on around campus, from anti-war demonstrations to a plan to take Harlem’s only park and turn it into a Columbia gym,” he remembers. “One thing I recall is that everyone had an armband of one color or another—each meant something different.”
However, Leary says, he was not particularly involved in the turmoil of campus issues, nor did being a veteran make a pronounced difference in his GS experience. He kept busy, though, supporting himself, driving a New York City taxicab at night while attending classes during the day. He also got married while at GS, eventually raising a daughter, who recently gave birth to his first grandson.
After graduation, Leary attended law school at the University of California, Berkeley. He then joined a small law firm in Oakland, California, eventually becoming a senior partner. Now retired, Leary has grateful memories of his academic experience at Columbia. “GS saved my life,” he says simply. “I had been a lousy student, but GS gave me another chance. As it turned out, I was pretty smart.
Christopher Sheridan ’90
As a student at GS, Christopher Sheridan had considered enlisting in the military. That should come as no surprise, since he comes from a long line of military officers. In fact, his “umpteenth great grandfather” served as one of George Washington’s aides–de–camp. His father was an officer, and his maternal grandfather was a captain in WWI. “It’s kind of odd I didn’t do it earlier—at our house, you don’t sit down at the Thanksgiving table unless you served your country,” he says.
But during his senior year at Columbia Sheridan broke his left elbow, creating a bone chip that led the Marines to reject his application. After six years working in investment banking, he decided he wanted to do something “easier and more fun.” He enlisted in the Army and was eventually recruited to become an officer in the Special Forces. During training, however, he broke his ankle and two vertebrae and took over a year off to have several surgeries and months of physical therapy. As soon as he was healed, in December 2002, he was sent to Afghanistan, with dozens of soldiers under his command.
“It was like going to The Show,” he says. “I had been training for seven years for that exact moment.” His experience in Afghanistan, where he spent all of 2003, was overwhelmingly positive. “We got to watch a democratic process evolve and to watch women get the right to vote, to go to school, and to drive. That was a huge influence in my life—I was part of making their lives better. I did my duty, and I’ll leave it at that.”
After his service was completed, Sheridan returned to investment banking and now works for Merrill Lynch. He believes MilVets is a considerable asset for educating other Columbia students about veteran issues. “When I was there, it was really only 15 years after Vietnam, but professors were talking about it as if it happened yesterday,” he says. “Now, I hope people listen and say, ‘These are hard-working individuals who enlist and do their term and want to get an education.’ I think that’s only positive.”
Marilyn Charlot ’96
As a vice president in the technology division of investment banking heavyweight Goldman Sachs, Marilyn Charlot says her current career is one of her life’s big surprises. Joining the military was another: born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in Brooklyn, Charlot knew little about the military when she signed up in 1985. “At the time, I wanted to open my own restaurant, and a conversation with an Army recruiter convinced me I could learn about the food business in the military, as well as receive a cash bonus,” she says.
Charlot was stationed in El Paso, Texas, and was then deployed to Germany, where she lived for three years. A stint in Alabama came next, and then she was transferred to Korea, where she served as a mess sergeant, supervising hundreds of other soldiers. When Operation Desert Storm began, she was on standby to head to the Middle East, but the war ended while she was being processed.
“I really enjoyed the work,” she says of her military service, but adds that she came home confused and angry about how little she knew about the politics of war. “The Army was definitely a positive for me, as I look back on it, but I was really torn about everything that was going on at the time.”
After changing her mind about a career in food service, she began to consider other options. “I realized that having a restaurant would be way too much work,” she says. “I started looking at a career switch, when my sister, who had always wanted an Ivy League education, started talking to me about Columbia.”
When she entered GS, Charlot says she didn’t want people to know she was a veteran. “I didn’t want to be associated with that experience—in fact, I hardly even talked about it. But it was just because I was in turmoil over it.”
Through her studies she learned a great deal about politics and economics and became interested in a career on Wall Street. “I felt my leadership skills and military background would work well in a corporate environment,” she says. “I realized I’m the type of person who really likes big institutions.”
The Columbia education “saved my soul,” she says. “I really found the answers to so many things there. I was surrounded by very mature people that I was really able to talk to. It was the perfect place for my transition.”