In the Danger Zone

Robert Knight

When Robert Knight, BA History ’85, graduated from Mason, Top Gun was a hit movie, so it wasn’t surprising that Knight joined the Navy and set out to “get jets.” What is surprising is that 24 years later he would find himself stationed in Iraq with the Army’s 305th Psychological Operations Company as a noncommissioned officer.

Top Gun pushed me over the edge,” says Knight. “It took my mind out of the video game aspect and made the challenges real. It showed me that flying was a very human business.”

After joining the Navy in 1986, Knight enrolled in Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1987 and underwent flight training. “As it turns out, landing a high-performance tactical aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier was a bit much for me, but I was a pretty good A-6E bombardier/navigator,” he says. “Life often turns out for the best.”

Knight logged more than 1,300 hours as a bombardier/navigator of an A-6E Intruder, a carrier-based attack aircraft. When the Navy retired the Intruder in 1997, Knight left active duty because of a drawdown in forces—the talents of A-6E pilots and personnel were not interchangeable with other aircraft.

His next destination? Law school, but he realized that the preparation for this profession was vastly different from a career in aviation. So he returned to Mason and took several classes including some political science courses as a nondegree student.

“I felt like I let myself down educationally back in the day,” Knight says of his first experience at Mason as an undergraduate. This return provided him the opportunity to apply himself academically in new ways.

“My professors were intelligent, well read, and engaging. The education I received was first rate,” says Knight. “It more than adequately prepared me to go to law school.”

Coming from a family of attorneys, Knight followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and enrolled in law school at American University. He graduated in 2002 and landed a job at a Washington, D.C., law firm.

After his years of military service, Knight found life at the law firm lacking. He needed something more fulfilling. He looked to public service, first as an Arlington County firefighter, then as a public defender in Norfolk, Virginia. Over time, he realized he needed to return to where the action was.

In 2007, he resigned his commission in the Naval Reserve and joined the ranks of the Army enlisted as a sergeant. Although Knight could have come back as a major, he believes he would have ended up serving as a staff officer, which is essentially the same as his role in the reserves. He chose to be more directly involved with military efforts.

“[Being in] the military is not the easiest job,” Knight says. “It is often difficult and dangerous, and it’s a long time away from home.”

And Knight is a long way from home. Since March,he has been in Iraq working as a contracting officer’s representative with the 305th, where he facilitates contracts between the U.S. government and Iraqi-owned companies.

“It may not sound glamorous, but ultimately the sense of purpose and service I get from wearing a uniform is something I haven’t found in any other professional pursuit,” he says.

Knight would like to complete 20 years of military service. After this deployment, he’ll have 16 years. As for his long-term goals, Knight plans to go back to practicing law and would like to become a civil and criminal appellate attorney.

“[Mason] has been a constant in my adult life,” says Knight, who still stays in touch with friends he made here more than 25 years ago. “Even now, for all I know, I may go back and get another degree.”

—Rashad Mulla

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