Saturday, December 04, 2004

A Soldier's Story: The Curious Transformation of a Son of Dynasty

The New York Times
December 5, 2004

A Soldier's Story: The Curious Transformation of a Son of Dynasty

Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and his wife, Maggie, have one son, Patrick. He is 29 and has an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. Until a few weeks ago, he was managing partner at Companion Capital, advising wealthy families on their private-equity investments and pulling down six figures.

By next month, he'll be a grunt.

Mr. Daley will report after Christmas to Fort Benning in Georgia, where he will begin basic training as a soldier in the United States Army's airborne infantry. He will start at $1,612.74 a month, with bonus pay if he is sent to a combat zone, which Army officials say is almost certain to happen.

Mr. Daley's career change has launched him on a mind-bending transit between worlds - from a position of security and comfort to one of service and sacrifice, from one unrepresentative segment of society to another. His startling shift in social standing is about as stark a way as any to illustrate the debate about the ways that our volunteer Army mirrors our country as a whole.

Which it doesn't. While the Army is integrated and diverse, its enlisted ranks are filled not by the very rich or poor, but by the sons and daughters of the working class, particularly black and Hispanic Americans.

These are people who often lack options, for whom the military has long offered a choice: Serve your country in return for a job, for computer and technical skills, and a jolt of discipline, confidence and independence. The pay is low, the life regimented and exhausting. But serve your time and you will gain a future - if you aren't killed first. With young soldiers dying in Iraq every day, the choice is stark, and its consequences not at all theoretical.

It's a choice the privileged Mr. Daley did not have to make. So why did he? A columnist in Chicago noted that an Army stint would do wonders to scrub the young man's résumé of teenage blemishes - giving a rowdy house party that became violent, having a run-in with the police, dropping out of West Point. Patrick the G.I. could eclipse his past and march home with honor to join the family business, which is running Chicago.

The mayor's son says he was motivated simply by a sense of duty, which was reinforced by 9/11. He was in Manhattan that day, working for Bear, Stearns & Company. He describes himself as a military history buff and a friend and admirer of many soldiers, both from West Point and from his old neighborhood. His rationale for becoming an enlisted man and not an officer, in fact, seems torn from a management handbook: If you can start at the bottom, he says, you'll learn the most on the way up.

But this does not sound like privilege talking. It sounds like Bridgeport, the old Daley family turf on the South Side, home to legions of the blue-collar dutiful: cops and firefighters, civil servants and servicemen, people who know all about respecting rank, paying dues and being a small part of something bigger than themselves.

Patrick Daley says he is agnostic about the wisdom of invading Iraq, but believes the country needs to make the best of it, which he wants to do on the front lines, in the infantry.

Whether or not he gets there, he has already scored a victory against elitism. He has given his famous father and distraught mother a visceral connection to the war shared by virtually no one in Congress or the Bush administration - or the editorial board of The Times, for that matter.

Talking to reporters about his son's decision last week, Mayor Daley choked up. "It's a challenging time," he said, through tears. How odd to find Chicago's mayor-for-life, the most powerful man in the Central Time Zone, joining that suffering sliver of America - the men and women in the military and their families who are bearing the heaviest burden of this war.