With a lifelong commitment to helping people in need, especially those in impoverished countries, Brandon Ricaurte ’22 joined the U.S. Army to become a Special Forces soldier, whose mission is to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. As a 2006 graduate of Princeton University, Ricaurte was eligible to become an officer. But he chose to forego a commission and joined as an enlisted soldier because it would guarantee him the opportunity to try out for Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, one of the most demanding and prestigious units in the military.
“I liked that they worked abroad with indigenous forces and that they’re put in really dangerous situations where conventional forces can’t go,” says Ricaurte, who speaks Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese, and two Persian dialects. “It wasn’t just brute force or those other stereotypes about the military but instead was about working with countries and people to find solutions to complex problems.”
During a six-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2016-17, Ricaurte trained a company of more than 100 Afghan special ops soldiers and helped lead those soldiers during combat missions. A Special Forces medic, he managed a mass casualty event in Helmand Province as his team was pinned under mortar and small-arms attack. When 20 of their Afghan special forces partners were severely injured by a mortar blast, Ricaurte and another medic treated penetrating chest wounds and serious head trauma, saving most of the soldiers. He is a recipient of a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and an Army Commendation Medal with Valor.
Even now as a law student, Ricaurte remains invested in the success of the Special Forces’ mission abroad. He is deeply concerned, for example, about the potential withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, where for five years they’ve fought alongside Kurdish partners against the Islamic State’s caliphate.
“I haven’t personally been to Syria but I have friends who have, and in a lot of ways
it’s just abandoning people who’ve placed their trust in us,” says Ricaurte. “The motto of the Green Berets is ‘De Oppresso Liber,’ which in Latin means ‘Liberate the oppressed,’ and a lot of us really take that to heart. So when we’re put in a situation where we’re trying to help oppressed or outnumbered or unskilled partners to achieve certain goals to better their people, and that ability to help them is taken away, it’s very frustrating and feels like we’re letting them down. In a lot of ways it goes against the mission of what Special Forces stands for, and also, I think it’s a lost opportunity for the U.S. to lead the way and to demonstrate some leadership amidst a very complex situation.”
The Syrian withdrawal drew bipartisan opposition, with the House of Representatives voting 354-60 to condemn it. It now appears that a small number of Special Forces soldiers may remain in Syria. “Hopefully it’s not a complete, abrupt withdrawal, which I’m afraid it will be,” says Ricaurte. “Ultimately, the goal is peace in the region, peace in Syria, but not at the cost of the wellbeing of the Kurds as a people. There is no good answer or perfect strategy, but personally I don’t necessarily agree with a very abrupt decision that affects not only the soldiers we’re working with but also our own forces.”
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ricaurte spent most of his childhood in Toledo, Ohio, where his dad, who is from Ecuador, was a physician. With an eye toward living abroad and working in international development, Ricaurte majored in East Asian Studies at Princeton and learned to speak Mandarin. After college, he taught English in Brazil and learned Portuguese, then lived in Beijing for a year teaching English at China Geosciences University. During three years in Ecuador, he perfected the Spanish he’d begun learning in junior high, taught Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and earned a masters degree in development economics. But working in the field of international development meant that “I’d be pretty removed from actual people I was trying to help,” he says, so he circled back to an idea he’d toyed with for years: joining Special Forces.
“I wanted to be part of something I felt was making a difference and would be a challenge mentally and physically,” says Ricaurte, who enlisted in 2013. “I thought, if I don’t do it, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
After basic training and airborne training in Fort Benning, Georgia, he succeeded in passing the arduous selection process and was chosen to become a Special Forces medic, learning to perform combat surgery and diagnose tropical diseases. After passing rigorous training as a combat diver, he was fully qualified as a Special Forces soldier and assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where he facilitated the evacuation of more than 500 U.S. citizens from St. Maarten following Hurricane Irma. In November 2016, his team deployed to Kandahar Province in Afghanistan.
Ricaurte struggled with the decision to leave Special Forces in order to attend HLS. “There’s a great sense of pride for most anyone who serves in the military. It’s something you really believe in and are proud of, with a sense of purpose and great camaraderie,” says Ricaurte, who is a Black Family Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, a leadership development program for military veterans administered by the Center for Public Leadership. “I decided I wanted to get out based on the idea it wouldn’t be the end of my public service or struggle to make a better world but that I would serve in a different way.”
The cost of his HLS education is fully covered through the Yellow Ribbon Program, through which the Department of Veterans Affairs matches the financial contribution made by Harvard Law School. Ricaurte, who lives in Cambridge with his wife Nefforis, is serving in the Army National Guard based in Rhode Island as a Senior Special Forces medical sergeant. While he’s unsure of what career path he’ll take, he says his legal education “will enable me to continue a tradition of service and have an impact and voice for causes I care about.” It will be a way, he says, to honor “the military and other veterans who did not and will never make the decision to get out, either because it’s their calling or because they’ve passed away, while deployed or otherwise.”