Donovan Campbell has always pursued excellence. After he graduated with honors from Princeton University, he finished first in his class in the Marines’ basic officer course and later went on to graduate from Harvard Business School. Campbell served two combat deployments in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. He spent a little more than six months in Ramadi, Iraq, at the height of the violence, from March to September 2004. For his outstanding service in that war-torn city he was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and a Bronze Star with Valor. His book, Joker One, is an account of his tour in Ramadi. Here, from an interview on my radio show, Campbell describes what he learned about leadership, sacrifice, heroism, and courage in his tenure there, embodying to the fullest what the U.S. Marine Corps stands for.
“No person was ever honored for what he received,” wrote Calvin Coolidge. “Honor has been the reward for what he gave.”
For Donovan Campbell, a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Ramadi during some of the most vicious fighting of Operation Iraqi Freedom, giving wasn’t on his mind when he first enrolled in the Marine Officer Candidates School after his junior year at Princeton University. In fact, he was mostly focused on taking.
“I need to do something to get serious about my job and career after Princeton,” Campbell recalls thinking, “but I wasn’t ready to do a desk job. My mind-set at the time was, ‘what will differentiate me from the other middle-of-the-rank students?’”
To Campbell, the Marines seemed like an ideal situation. He would use the honor and character building of military service as a springboard to worldly success.
“So I decided to enroll in Marine Officer Candidates School — that will show toughness — that will show that I’m dedicated, I have perseverance, and [it] will really stand out on a résumé. But I didn’t get it at the time — it was mainly about me.”
What Campbell did get was a rude awakening.
“Unsurprisingly, after ten weeks of being screamed at, bored, having my head shaved, and being terrified sometimes, I decided there was no way I would be a Marine. And I went back to senior year thinking, ‘Fortunately I’ve crossed that one off the list — what else is there?’
“But as the year went on, the more I thought seriously about who I wanted to become. I’m a Christian and I had started taking my faith more seriously — I knew my faith called me to do more than serve myself. It called me to put my words into action by serving others. I wanted something that would grow me up and allow me to give back.”
So Campbell made the decision to join the Marines.
“If I join the Corps I can serve, I can give back. When I say I’m a Christian, people will know it means something to me because I’m sacrificing at least four years of my life. I knew I was young, I knew I wanted to learn to lead and I didn’t see any way to do it [other] than to lead. I didn’t want to spend 14 hours per day in a cubicle behind a computer. I also knew I could have a little a bit of an adventure. So I accepted the commission I had earned the previous summer and became an officer in the Marine Corps the day I graduated.”
Flash forward to the city of Ramadi, Iraq, 2004. One morning every minaret from every mosque in the city started yelling “Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!” Pause. “Jihad! Jihad! Jihad!” That day, violence exploded all across Ramadi. Campbell’s unit ended up with 16 Marines killed in action and dozens wounded. In the course of the day’s events, three squads were separated from each other and were taking heavy casualties during house-to-house fighting. Shortly after the fighting started, Campbell, who had just fallen asleep after a 36-hour extended night patrol with his platoon, was awakened by a young Marine informing him of the situation: “You need to go rescue them!” So Campbell, sleeping with his boots still on, rolled out of bed, marshaled his men, and headed straight for the gunfire. For Campbell, it was one of his greatest tests of leadership in the midst of battle.