Three lives linked by call to duty, common tragedy
The sacrifices of Harvard Law graduates who took unconventional paths leave friends and classmates searching for answers about themselves
WASHINGTON - They were three best friends at Harvard Law School who turned their backs on lucrative careers to follow an exceedingly rare path: Michael Weston, who jogged through Harvard Yard in combat boots and openly scorned corporate life, joined the Marines. Helge Boes and his girlfriend Cynthia Tidler, who shared their friend’s sense of duty and adventure, joined the CIA.
Their choices - made out of passion, patriotism, and an urge to live an unconventional life - intertwined their fates.
Boes, a covert CIA operative, died when a grenade went off during training in Afghanistan in 2003, leaving Tidler, whom he had married after school, a widow. In their grief, Weston and Tidler reconnected and married earlier last year. Three months later, Weston deployed to Afghanistan; he died there in October, in a helicopter crash, widowing Tidler once again.
In law school, their interest in military and intelligence work made them oddities to many classmates. Now, in law firms and investment banks across the country, some who knew them are questioning their own career choices. Indeed, their friends said, the close relationship of the three, their commitment to confront America’s enemies, and the tragic arc of their lives underscore how rare it is for people with privileged educations to volunteer to fight America’s wars.
“To see people who could have done anything making that kind of sacrifice, it is hard not to look inward and ask, ‘What kind of sacrifices are you making?’ ’’ said Rob Simmelkjaer, a former classmate who is now a vice president at ESPN in New York.
“I think there are a lot of people who see two guys who really gave the ultimate sacrifice,’’ said John Carey, a partner at Patterson & Sheridan in Palo Alto, Calif. “And there is a lot of guilt.’’
Boes, who participated in ROTC in college, and Tidler, who had spent years learning martial arts, started dating immediately, holding hands as they walked around campus. Weston was more aloof.
“He never bought into that whole, ‘We are going to be rich and famous and make lots money,’ ’’ recalled Kristin Oliver, a classmate who kept in touch with Weston until his death. “He was contemptuous of it.’’
Weston was the kind of guy who had lawn chairs in his apartment instead of furniture. He aspired to own nothing more than he could fit into his car.
Later in life, he kayaked the length of the Mississippi River and studied auto mechanics with as much gusto as he had mastered computer science at Stanford. He once camped in a San Francisco park for weeks during a short summer internship - showering at the YMCA - because he didn’t want to pay rent. Raised by his divorced mother in State College, Pa., Weston arrived at Harvard and quickly realized he did not want a Harvard kind of life. He didn’t want to be like his father, a successful partner at a Los Angeles law firm.
His father had dreamed of going to Harvard, but Weston got in and wished he were somewhere else.
“He looked around and said, ‘This is it?’ ’’ said Carey, who lived in the dorm with Weston and remained close to him throughout law school.
But Weston soon found his passion. At the end of his first year, he sat next to a group of Marines on an airplane and was struck by their camaraderie and sense of purpose. As soon as he landed, he announced that he was going to join.
“I was shocked, and his family was shocked, and most of the law school was shocked,’’ recalled Melissa Brown, his girlfriend at the time. “He is certainly the smartest man I ever met. He could have built himself any number of careers using the engine of his mind.’’
Weston’s decision seemed all the more strange to some of his peers because he wanted to join as an enlisted “grunt,’’ not a military lawyer. That summer, when most of his classmates worked high-paid summer jobs, he went to boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
“People thought it was bizarre. Quirky. Maybe crazy,’’ said Orin Kerr, a former classmate who is now a professor at George Washington University Law School. “Everybody at Harvard was trying to fit in, and Mike was going out of his way to stick out.’’
At the time, the military was not even allowed to recruit at Harvard because Harvard administrators opposed the don’t-ask-don’t tell policy as discrimination against gays. It was trendier to protest the military than to be a part of it, Weston’s friends recalled. Since 2000, only about 22 Harvard Law graduates, out of some 4,500, have pursued military careers, according to a spokeswoman for the school. By comparison, Notre Dame Law School had twice as many sign up - out of about half as many graduates.
Boes, a German-American who had grown up in Berlin around US military families, already had a military-style experience by the time he reached Harvard. After writing his honors thesis at Georgia State University about Burmese freedom fighters, he journeyed into the jungles of Myanmar alone to join them, living alongside them for nine months, according to his brother Henrik.
“How exactly he got to Burma - and to rebel territory to boot - is still shrouded in mystery,’’ Henrik wrote in an e-mail. “Helge was simply not someone who was satisfied with sitting on the sidelines.’’
After contracting malaria in Myanmar, Boes returned home and went to law school. He dreamed of being a foot soldier in the US Army, Henrik said, but a soccer injury forced him to give that up.
At Harvard, Weston urged him to consider serving the country in other ways, including the Central Intelligence Agency, Brown said.
When they graduated in 1997, it was Tidler who joined the CIA as a lawyer, while Boes took a job at a law firm in Washington. They married in 1999 and settled into office jobs. But Boes was restless. In 2001, he took a deep pay cut to join the first class of covert CIA operatives to be deployed in the field after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
That year, CIA director George Tenet recruited an unusual number of lawyers because he wanted to change the clandestine services by hiring operatives “who had more critical, out-of-the-box thinking,’’ said Mitch Wenzel, whose son Gregg was in the same class of CIA recruits and died in a hit-and-run car crash while he was working undercover in Ethiopia in 2003.
In February of the same year, Boes died in Afghanistan when a grenade exploded unexpectedly during a training exercise.
“He was there tying his boots, and then he was gone!’’ an unidentified person who said he was a colleague wrote on a memorial website dedicated to Boes. “The only mystery for me is why he had to die while so many of us lived; and lived through much more dangerous situations.’’
In all, Weston served three tours, rising to the rank of major.
“There is nothing I have ever done that feels as important as what I have done there,’’ he told a documentary film crew in 2008. “That’s a hard thing to give up. It becomes almost addictive.’’
Deployed first as a lawyer, Weston found a way into combat, where he used his Ivy League education in subtle ways. He visited ancient ruins to better understand the country. To motivate the Iraqi soldiers that he was training, he read them speeches from Shakespeare’s “Richard III.’’ He advised the young Marines serving under him to read “Catch-22.’’
“Most of us were in awe of him,’’ said Ben Hackworth, 28, one of his men who read the novel. “He was a superhero.’’
One night as he was preparing for an ambush, he penned a letter to a law school friend about how much he enjoyed combat.
“I do not want to die, but I also am not very concerned about it,’’ he wrote. “None of this will matter in a hundred years, and maybe doesn’t even matter tonight. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. In fact, I have traded most of what I have and part of who I was for it already.’’
Weston was serving his first tour in the Iraq War when he learned Boes had been killed. He was devastated, and also stunned to learn that his friend had joined the CIA, according to Oliver, who delivered the news. From his military camp in the Middle East, he wrote a tribute for Harvard’s Law Bulletin about how Boes loved good beer, soccer, and his wife.
“It was obvious from the day they met that she completed him,’’ Weston wrote. “They were my best friends while I was at the law school; knowing them made bearable a time in my life that was otherwise frustrating and disappointing. . . . He was a born soldier, and in the end he found his way back to his true calling.’’
“He felt like he had played a major role in getting him to go in that direction . . . and I think he subsequently felt responsible,’’ said Brown, who remained in close touch with Weston even after they broke up. “It was soon after that that he started talking about going to Afghanistan. I knew then that he would find a way to get to Afghanistan and that he would probably die there.’’
When Weston got back to the United States, he contacted Tidler and helped her move to a new apartment. He wanted to make up for lost time. Over the next couple of years, their friendship grew.
In 2006, after Weston lost a man in his unit - Lance Corporal Jourdan Grez - Tidler accompanied him to a memorial ceremony he planned at Arlington ceremony and on visits with the fallen Marine’s parents, according to Armand Grez Jr., Jourdan’s father.
When Weston returned for his third tour in Iraq, he called Tidler regularly to check on her.
“She is doing OK,’’ he wrote to a friend. “We do not talk about Helge, although he is always there. . . . Sometimes I think the best I can do is distract her, but occasionally I think I might be able to make her happy.’’
Weston and Tidler married this past May in a low-key ceremony, just before he deployed for a two-year tour in Afghanistan as special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“When I saw them together, he seemed happier and more content than ever before,’’ said Oliver. “With her, he had a real chance for happiness.’’
Boes’s parents traveled from Germany for the wedding, where they were embraced as family.
“We were happy for Cindy,’’ said Boes’s father, Roderich. “We wanted to see her snap out of this engulfing sadness.’’
Watching Weston deploy to Afghanistan was difficult for his new bride, who asked him to promise that this would be his last unaccompanied tour, according to Weston’s father.
“She said, ‘Mike I’ll marry you, but this is the last time you will go anywhere in the world without me,’ ’’ Steve Weston said. “I think that she thought, as all of us did, that Mike had survived all these tours in Iraq, so he’d make it through Afghanistan.’’
On Oct. 26, Weston’s team executed a narcotics raid in an isolated, insurgent-filled bazaar in Badghis Province, in Western Afghanistan. After a firefight, the team boarded their helicopter and lifted off, but it crashed. Three DEA agents, including Weston, were found dead in its burning wreckage.
“The first thing we thought was ‘poor Cindy,’ ’’ Grez said. “She’s really struggling. . . . But she knew that this is what it was all about.’’
Tidler, who has left the CIA, did not return phone calls for this story. But her loss has prompted former classmates to reflect on the nature of heroism, passion, and how their own lives measure up.
“In the legal profession, you ask people, ‘Are you happy with your job?’ and they say, ‘It keeps from having to think about what I really want to do,’ ’’ said Keith Sigale, a tax specialist at Golberg Kohn in Chicago. “This is clearly what Mike wanted to do.’’
Carey recalled that day in law school when Weston returned from a job interview with a patent attorney and declared: “I’d rather be shot than have to do that for the rest of my life.’’
“After he was killed, I just remembered that story,’’ said Carey, who is now a patent lawyer himself. “Most people . . . say, ‘Look at the soft, cushy lifestyle they gave up.’ But if you asked them, they wouldn’t think that they gave up anything. They didn’t want those careers.’’