I spent eight years connected to the military: four in the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college and four on active duty as an Air Force officer.
My first assignment as a new lieutenant was to get a master’s degree from Stanford University. The air force was building its computing capacity and had identified people to help them accomplish that goal. A mathematics major, I worked with computers as an undergraduate so I was chosen for the assignment. After 12 months, I attained a master’s degree in the brand-new field of computer science. I was then assigned to the Air Force’s Data Services Center at the Pentagon, where I worked on computer programs dealing with everything from weapons systems to personnel.
About six months into my assignment, I came home late one day and my roommate said, “You got a call from the White House.”
I had been selected to be interviewed to be a military social aide to President Lyndon Johnson. After a couple of interviews, I was chosen as one of approximately 20 social aides whose job it was to attend White House parties and help the president and Mrs. Johnson entertain guests. Social aides came from all branches of service. One of the Marine Corps aides was Charles Robb, who went on to become Virginia’s governor and U.S. senator. One of the Navy aides was C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb.
Depending on the size of the party, two or three of us would attend, or all of us would be on hand if it were a really large event.
I still had my job at the Pentagon. The social aide job was secondary, but of course since this duty involved the president, it took precedence. So after working during the day at the Pentagon, I would then put on my dress uniform and braid—presidential aides wore their braids on the right—and drive to the White House.
I met astronauts, entertainers, and world leaders. I met very powerful people, some of whom I liked and some whom I didn’t like. It was great preparation for being a university president.
After leaving the military, I used the GI Bill to get a PhD in computer science. I’m glad the veterans of today have the same sort of opportunity through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which was launched on August 3, 2009, at Mason with President Obama and Senator Jim Webb, who sponsored the bill.
I recently had the opportunity to testify before Congress about the new GI Bill and what it does and does not do. All in all, the bill is making a difference, allowing veterans and their families to benefit from what we do at Mason.
Alan G. Merten
President, George Mason University
Dr. Merten is making a career change. Follow the details here.