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Crimson and camouflage

IN THE same week that reporters found Walter Reed Army Medical Center outpatients living in squalor in the nation's capital, some of the nation's men and women in uniform were being treated regally in an unlikely place: Harvard University. The university that was a hotbed of protest against the Vietnam War -- and still refuses to allow ROTC on campus because of the military's ban on uncloseted gays and lesbians -- was home to a "salute to Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans" attending the John F. Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School.

In Harvard's more than 300-year history, it is only in recent years that such a tribute would be seen as at all unusual on campus. Both Memorial Church and Memorial Hall honor alumni fallen in past wars. The football team plays at Soldiers Field, and the site for a panel discussion Tuesday by uniformed students was the Kennedy School, named for the president and World War II hero.

But ties between the university and the military began to come undone during the war in Southeast Asia that President Kennedy first committed US combat troops to. This has not, however, kept the services from sending many of their officers to Harvard for post graduate training, especially at the business school and the Kennedy School. There are now almost 100 active-duty or reserve officers at the two schools. Many of them attended the panel, where five officers discussed leadership in combat.

The four men and a woman talked, without boasting, about leading by example, asking subordinates to do nothing that they would not do, avoiding at all cost complacency, and, if necessary, breaking rules. "Be aggressive and ask forgiveness" was the formulation of Army Lieutenant Colonel Frederick P. Wellman, a candidate for a master's in public administration at the Kennedy School.

David Gergen, director of the school's Center for Public Leadership, asked how the officers dealt in Iraq with rising home-front doubts about the war. Army Major Joseph Ewers said he tries to press upon his soldiers the successes in their mission and said "we don't really pay attention to what's going on outside." Ewers said being at Harvard was an honor, but that "you feel an enormous sense of guilt to do something different from what your unit is doing."

At a dinner following the panel at the Charles Hotel, the keynote speaker was a 1983 Kennedy School graduate, Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, director for operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lute said it was his Kennedy School experience that helped him commit to a full career in the military. He encouraged the officers to treat Harvard as a "two-way street," where they are both learners and contributors. The panel gave them a very public chance to do just that.