By Elaine McArdle
HLS Correspondent/Harvard Gazette
In the fall of 2010, Brad Carney ’24 couldn’t stand what he saw in the mirror.
Depressed and friendless after leaving the U.S. Army, Carney was wasting his days on the couch in his dingy apartment in North Carolina, bingeing on Netflix, eating junk food, and regretting his life but with no plan for turning it around.
A native of the Midwest from a middle-class family, Carney had joined the Army after flunking out of college — twice. When he was 19, his frustrated parents kicked him out of the house, and Carney spent a month living out of his car at a gas station, begging for food. When Army recruiters promised he could be in the military in two weeks and offered him a bonus to boot, Carney enlisted. After basic and advanced training in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, Carney became a member of the 82nd Airborne Division, an elite corps that specializes in parachute assault operations.
When his unit deployed to Iraq in 2009, Carney helped train Iraqi soldiers in the use of mortars and other artillery. Nine months later, when they returned stateside, Carney signed up for a pre-training program for Ranger School, an elite military leadership program. Ranger School, he explains, “is like having HLS on your resume.”
After two days, he quit.
It was devastating. Carney had failed before, but give up on his own? He returned to the 82nd and lied to his friends, telling them he left Ranger School because he was injured. When his four-year military commitment ended, he rented an apartment in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to be close to his Army buddies. But they were in a totally different world and Carney drifted apart from them. He enrolled in a local college but stopped attending and sat on the couch watching TV, gaining weight, and feeling terrible.
“I’d never quit anything in my life,” Carney recalls. “It weighed on me day and night.
I’d never quit anything in my life. It weighed on me day and night.
I knew it was going to end up defining me, being a quitter. The worst thing was having to look at myself in the mirror. I wasn’t who I wanted to be. I felt friendless, I got really depressed, I stopped talking to anyone, basically.”
One night, a documentary came on TV about the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), an intense, eight-week course designed to test a soldier’s physical and mental strength under extreme conditions. Carney was transfixed. He pulled himself off the couch and went for a run.
“I was absolutely dying,” he recalls. He was grateful no one could see him in the dark, “because I was one of the most fit people in my unit and I wasn’t that person anymore, right? With depression can come just eating all kinds of stuff and I just was not in shape. I was at least 20 pounds overweight. And I was just like, I’m changing this right now.”
Carney contacted the Army and asked for another chance, specifically, to be given a shot at RASP. While awaiting their decision, he hit the gym and started reading “books about what did certain people have that I didn’t, why I failed and they didn’t.” He’d always excelled at physical fitness, so “it was more the mental aspects I had to learn. I had to learn how to suffer.”
Instead of Ranger School, he set his sights even higher: the 75th Ranger Regiment, the Army’s Special Operations unit which comprises among the most elite soldiers in the world. “Those units expect, every single day, a level above and beyond. I wanted to see if I could do something like that,” he explains. “I decided to go straight there rather than where I previously failed because I knew, if I made it through this unit, I’d have gone a step above.”
The Army took him back, and he not only made it through the assessment program but was accepted, as he’d hoped, into the 3rd Ranger Battalion, 75th Regiment, where he served for two years. The experience was, he says, “very, very hard.” To keep himself going, he studied Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” “Those types of books really helped me frame that, if you’re suffering, how do you get through it, and what am I doing this for?” he says. “Reading books like that changed the game for me.”
Serving in the battalion “changed my entire perspective on life,” he says. “The people I read books about were there in the flesh, people you consider war heroes. You’re serving with them, and all of a sudden, my expectations for myself went up. The Rangers drill into you this expectation that it’s a part of your character to be a person who is always willing to go a step further — and that there’s no thank you, you don’t expect anything in return.”
He’d accomplished what he set out to do. “I felt I was no longer a quitter, and I’d demonstrated I could do it,” he says. He decided to give college another shot. He Googled “Ivy League and veterans,” where he learned about the Posse Veterans Program, which trains and supports veterans to achieve bachelor’s degrees at top colleges and universities. It’s a highly selective program — only ten veterans among thousands of applicants were accepted at the handful of schools then participating. Carney worried that his abysmal academic record from years earlier would kill his chances, even though he’d earned straight As in online courses while a Ranger. He set his sights on Dartmouth, which has a strong legacy of military veterans, hoping to “get myself to a place where I would not allow myself to fail, and where they would trust I could do the work.”
He was admitted to Dartmouth in the fall of 2016 — he got the news while he was on a plane, and he began to cry — and received a full scholarship from the Posse program. At Dartmouth, he majored in philosophy, earning a 3.47 GPA, got into competitive bodybuilding, and became an RA and a mentor to fellow veterans and other students. “I absolutely loved it,” says Carney. “It was actually life-changing and I’m not joking.” He also tutored students in the LSAT, having taken it five times himself, each time raising his score significantly until he reached a 172, the 98th percentile.
“I was able to take the life lessons I had learned and what I’d been through to help people understand their lives in their own context,” he says. “I never devalued what anyone was going through, never said, ‘Oh, I’m a veteran so I had it tougher than you.’ We all suffer, that’s almost certainly guaranteed to us. What I did a lot was to try to reframe it to say, ‘You’re suffering now but you can do this.’”
We can go further as humans than we think. If you’re ready to quit, you’ve probably only gone 70 percent.
After meeting a litigator while at Dartmouth, Carney decided to apply to law school, with plans to become a trial lawyer at a major firm while also focusing on pro bono work for veterans and the homeless. “I picked Harvard because I wanted a blend of strong academics with a robust social scene,” says Carney, who this past summer worked at Goodwin Proctor in San Francisco. And with HLS’s large class size and proximity to other schools, he can interact with students at the Harvard Business School, the Harvard Kennedy School, and MIT. “The amount of knowledge in this one place, I don’t think there’s anywhere better,” he says. “I think I have a more grounded position than maybe some others because I didn’t come from money. I’ve been in liberal, elite circles and in working-class circles” and can see issues from both sides.
Among his many life experiences, Carney says he gets the most questions from his HLS classmates about his experience as a veteran. “There are so many interesting people here who have worked on policy and technology and international issues. But I felt the effects on the ground. The Army follows what everyone else sets up. So there are a lot of really interesting interactions here” with classmates. And he enjoys getting together with other HLS veterans, whether to discuss such challenges as navigating the GI bill or just to grab beers. “It’s a little bit special and nice at times to talk about old times,” he says.
When he shares his life story with others, he has advice. “The journey is the whole point,” he says. “You can’t just look at the end point, you have to love everything in the middle. That’s where the work is done.”
When he looks back at that moment that he got off the couch, he says he still asks himself what, exactly, happened. “It literally felt like a switch,” he said in a podcast with 7Sage, an LSAT prep course. “We can go further as humans than we think. If you’re ready to quit, you’ve probably only gone 70 percent.”
(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)