On the Ground in Afghanistan

Winter 2009

It’s been almost 20 years since Major Raymond DeGennaro II ’89 attended Hopkins on a ROTC scholarship, and he’s just now on his first active duty assignment with the U.S. military. Several years of educational deferment and a fire in a military storage room that housed DeGennaro’s records threatened to bounce him off the military’s radar altogether. But he’s quickly making up for lost time.

Stationed in Afghanistan less than three months, the former biomedical engineering major already has developed a deeper appreciation of the Afghans’ historical struggle, their gains toward a national identity, and their long road ahead to independence.

“For hundreds of years, the only time the Afghan people have been united is when they’re being invaded. The concept of national identity is foreign to many Afghans,” says DeGennaro, who wears two hats in Afghanistan: mentor to the Corps Surgeon General’s Office for the 209th Corps of the Afghan National Army and medical operations officer supporting the embedded training teams in the north region of Afghanistan.

DeGennaro likens his mentoring role to being a teaching assistant, a position he assumed while working toward his PhD in binaural noise reduction through cochlear efferent feedback at the University of Southern California. “Some need remedial instruction, some just need the tools, and some need their energy directed in the right direction,” he says.

What the Afghans don’t need, insists DeGennaro, is advice on how to fight. “They’ve been fighting since Alexander the Great invaded. What they need help with is running a modern, standing, national military and a strong, noncorrupt government,” he says.

To encourage national unity among Afghan citizens, DeGennaro and his U.S. military colleagues must present themselves as trustworthy, he says. That means not wearing the 40 pounds of protective gear they might otherwise don when working with Afghans at Camp Shaheen—even if it increases their immediate risk of danger.

With more than a third of his mission behind him, DeGennaro is anticipating relationship building of another sort—back in Illinois with his wife and two young daughters. He plans to return home late this spring to his civilian job as a product developer for a database consulting firm. He looks forward to working from his home office, he says. “I want to keep life simpler, to do more things with my family.”

But he doesn’t discount the possibility of someday returning to Afghanistan. “The average counterinsurgency takes 14 years,” he says. “We’ve only been doing this one the right way for about two.”

(Major DeGennaro welcomes classmates to contact him.)