Aaron Roof - Director of CU Presidents Leadership Class
Service Above Self:
What it Means to the Military
Veterans Day was November 11 and Boulder Rotary dedicated the Friday meeting to recognizing and honoring those who serve in our military branches.
Aaron Roof, currently the Director of the University of Colorado’s Presidents Leadership Class, is a veteran of the U.S. Army. Roof is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy West Point and earned his Masters of National Security and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He served for twenty-five years in many roles including as Operations and Staff Officer, U.S. Army, Special Operations Command, Deputy Director for Special Operations, Joint Chiefs of Staff and as a Troop Commander and Squadron Operations Officer, U.S. Army Special Operations Command. He served all over the world including twelve combat deployments. He came to Boulder Rotary to talk about what “service” meant to him in his career in the military.
War stories are a bit like fairy tales according to Roof. Instead of beginning, “once upon a time…,” a war story starts, “no s@*%, there I was…” So he normally does not tell war stories. However, Roof began with one. No s@*%, there he was, a troop Commander in Iraq in 2006. He was a Counter-Terrorism Task Force Commander, conducting offensive operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was a very tough time in Iraq with Sunni extremists trying to kill any Shia they might find. In addition to trying to protect Shia individuals, the U.S. was investing in the Iraqi central government to help build the capability and capacity to provide services and safety to their people. Roof’s “job” was to disrupt imminent attack planning by senior Al Qaeda leaders. Roof and his team were looking for an individual who was packing vehicles full of explosives to give to suicide bombers so they could drive to public places like markets, schools and restaurants and explode the vehicle.
One day, Roof and his team geo-located the individual’s cell phone at a remote farmhouse south of Baghdad. The Air Force surveilled the farm over the course of a day. At the end of the day, a car pulled up to the farmhouse and three people got out- one was the individual Roof and his team were looking for. He and his team were ready. They had three helicopters in the air and once they landed on and around the farmhouse, they had the building secure within about 40 seconds. They found the building was completely empty. Since bombmakers often had secret rooms and tunnel systems, they weren’t completely surprised but it didn’t “feel right,” according to Roof. They found the cell phone they were tracking in a cinderblock in the farmhouse- it was the only thing in the building. Roof sent the word to all his team to get out of the house at that minute, don’t take anything, don’t talk to anyone, no delay.
Roof was the last out of the farmhouse and just as he made it to the driveway, the house completely exploded. Roof left the story there. (The BRC audience, completely hooked into the story, wanted to know what happened. Roof said he’d get back to it in a bit.)
Roof asked the BRC audience, what are the values of America? Integrity, hard work, freedom, were some of the answers. Roof believes values inform our priorities, which in turn, inform how “we spend our most precious resource- our time.” Generally, if you look at how a person spends his or her time, you can get an idea of what that person values.
Roof’s theory is played out in his interactions with the college students he sees every day. When he asks them what they value, they say they care about academics, fitness, health and service. Roof is somewhat skeptical about the claim to value “service” because many times when the college arranges service projects for the students, no one shows up for the projects. The students almost always explain that they “just don’t have time.” Roof says he asks the students to take their phones out and go to the “screen time” reports. (That’s in the settings section in most phones.) When he asks them to show him how much time they spent on their phones in the last day. Three to four hours is the low end of the usage. You can dig further by looking at what functions the person used during their screen time- for students, the bulk of the time is almost always social media.
Without putting a judgement on it, Roof says that what he’s looking for is what people actually prioritize in value versus what they say they value. People will make time for what they care about. People who prioritize fitness- get up early and go for a run or hit the gym. If you value service, you make time for service projects.
Based on his observations, Roof believes many Americans often make decisions based on comfort. Many people in America spend their time to enhance personal comfort- he calls it comfort based decision making. And Roof was clear that there is nothing wrong with making time to watch a game at home or with friends, but it can become a problem for society when leaders make decisions based primarily on their own personal comfort. Why is that concerning? Roof explained that he thinks it is not good for the long term health of a country or an individual.
Why is comfort based decision making bad for society and individuals? Roof used the “triad of happiness” as a way to explain. The triad was developed by author Jim Collins (he lives in Boulder, he wrote, “Good to Great.”) Collins taught at West Point for three years and although he has not written about that time, he did think a great deal about “happiness” while there. Collins has said that he thinks that the cadets at West Point are happier than the undergrads at the University of Colorado. Roof said Collins’ observations seem strange. He went to West Point and he said it was not an easy experience. A cadet has room inspection two times a day, has to get up every morning at five a.m. and go out to do drills, there’s no alcohol or parties. It is not, “a fun place to go to college,” according to Roof. Looking at the experience of undergrads at Boulder, he said their experience is much different generally. However, the sunny, athletic “fun” college experience at Boulder has another side. CU Boulder has four times the rate of suicide compared to the national average and high rates of depression- a real crisis in mental health. Jim Collins explains the difference in “happiness” with his triangle. Collins said to have a happy life you must have “success” at something- professionally or personally, do something you’re good at. Collins’ second angle is “growth” which is linked to being a life long learner. Collins’ third angle in the triad is “service.”
Roof teaches leadership to his students at CU and he thinks about the balance they have to strike to be good leaders and be happy in their lives. Which brings Roof back to “service.”
Many times, on Veterans Day especially, members of the military may say “service to the country” is the main reason they chose to enter the military. In truth, people have many reasons for joining the military initially; family heritage, college, technical training, the hope to see the world. Roof shared that he was inspired by movies and he wanted an excellent education, which he received when he was accepted to West Point Academy.
That initial reasons for joining changed profoundly and irrevocably for Roof, and for his colleagues once he’d been in military service for some time. His service was no longer about himself, it became about the people, his brothers and sisters in arms, that drove him invest in his military career and excel.
Roof was given the opportunity to train in some of the most difficult military training programs. Programs like “SERE” School. (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) which was founded by Nick Rowe, a man who spent five years in a Vietnam prison of war camp. The school teaches skills for a week then they release the student into the woods, set dogs after the student and he or she has to evade the searchers for a week and then the student is captured and treated like a prisoner in a hostile environment. They are stripped, subjected to beatings, loud noise to disrupt or not allow sleep and other torments. (Roof took that course twice!) He participated in these projects so he could be of service to his colleagues in the Army by being as well trained and prepared as he could. Roof continued his training throughout until he was with Delta Force with whom he deployed to Iraq and the counter terrorism unit he spoke about at the beginning of his talk.
Roof remembers waking after the explosion of the house and starting to make a long list of things he needed to do to get everyone safely away. But he was dazed and he couldn’t speak yet. It took him some time to recover enough to get moving. He said that everyone did get out of the house. No one lost their life. They were able to get back to their unit and to the hospital and all checked-out as “more or less OK,” Roof related.
However, Roof was really not OK. He had extreme pain, numbness in his extremities, and other symptoms that developed from the explosion. His spinal cord was significantly damaged. After diagnosing the problem, he had to have surgeries and vertebrae replacement. All of which meant he was deemed no longer able to serve in the Army. Roof said the type of injury he suffered is typical for those deployed in war and many (many) had much more sever injuries which have changed their lives.
Roof said that he has absolutely no regrets about his service in the Army. The injury made his Army career no longer viable, but he said even with the pain, the change in circumstances, the need to change careers, he has no regrets and he feels he is a very happy person. Which brought him back to Jim Collins’ triad of happiness.
Roof thinks that “service” is not exactly the right fit for the happiness formula. For Roof, he thinks it is “selflessness.” He defined it as, “place the needs and wishes of others ahead of one’s own.” He thinks that selflessness may even encompass the triad of happiness. For example, he said, when you’re a successful parent, you’re placing the needs of your child ahead of your own. Or when you’re successful at work, you are probably placing the good of the organization or your co-workers ahead of your own.
Equating the definition of selflessness to his own life, Roof said that much of his training and experience in the Army was “uncomfortable” but he did not think of it that way and was happy to be uncomfortable because it was in service to his colleagues in the Army whom he had a deep commitment and love for.
He is working now with young leaders- college students who have proved they are committed to changing the world. Roof’s work now is to find ways to help them see the benefit of service, or selflessness in service, to their own live and the lives of the people they want to improve. He hopes to find ways to teach that “comfort based decision making” may not serve them as individuals or their ultimate goals.
Roof ended by saying that Rotary is an organization that has incorporated the idea of service, of prioritizing that commitment, into it’s being. He said that his service to the U.S. Army is much in the same way- service above self. And Roof said he could only speak to his own experience, but feels his close colleagues in the Army have much the same outlook- their service wasn’t for “mom” or “apple pie” but for those people he worked with, suffered with and served with, who did the same for him.
Aaron Roof has asked BRC not to post the video of his program and BRC is honoring his request.
You can see our other programs and meetings in the BRC Program Archive. Click on the TV icon below, which will take you to the BRC Program Archive on our website. Please feel free to binge watch.
This article is a synopsis of the program presented to Boulder Rotary Club. The views and opinions expressed by the presenter do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, policy or position of the Boulder Rotary Club and its members.