Vol 10. Issue 16 /May 10, 2010

Lessons on Life, Leadership, and Luck

By Mika Ono

Jay Kopelman, retired Marine lieutenant colonel, has come to several conclusions since he was sent to fight in Iraq: you need to accept the fact that you are not in control of the big picture, lead by example, and take the time to understand what is important to others—then act accordingly.

Kopelman spoke about some his experiences—including the much-publicized tale of how he came to adopt his Iraqi-born dog, Lava—at an April 29 Lunch and Learn event for employees on the La Jolla, California campus of The Scripps Research Institute.

"Jay has worked with a lot of different types of people in difficult situations while holding leadership roles," said Holly Wheeler of the Scripps Research Office of Counseling and Psychological Services, who introduced the lecture. "I thought the type of focus, tenacity, and perseverance that he has had to demonstrate could be relevant to the tough, long-term projects we do here."

Making a New Plan

In 2001, Kopelman was planning a normal life working in the financial services industry. But he woke up one morning and the World Trade Center was on fire. Since he was in the Marine Corps Reserves, it didn't take long for him to be called back into active duty.

"Life is a series of unintended consequences that happen more often than we choose to recognize," he said. "You can have a plan for your life. For some people that plan works out just perfectly. But for the most part, the plan is just something from which to deviate."

He was deployed to Iraq.

Even when not in the middle of a battle, Kopelman obviously commanded troops who were under a lot of pressure. He noted that the military emphasizes the importance of physical fitness and exercise in coping with stress—even doing a few pushups during a short break (a habit he still practices). Good nutrition is important, too, he added.

Kopelman said that his own leadership style tends to emphasize expressing a genuine concern and interest in other people to build morale and trust.

Kopelman, his troops, and their Iraqi allies were part of the Battle for Fallujah in November 2004, "a little skirmish you might have heard of." The Iraqi soldiers were terrified, he said, and hadn't realized what they were signing up for in exchange for their $50 per month salary. The Iraqi soldiers were given six or seven days training before being handed an AK-47 and being told to fight, Kopelman said. There were 250 desertions from the Iraqi battalion the night before they left on the mission.

Especially given the language barrier, Kopelman and the other officers had little choice but to model the qualities that they wanted to elicit in their troops and their Iraqi allies, leading by example.

"We had to be the first ones through a door," he said, "and the first ones down the street. We finally got these guys to fight with us."

The campaign was a turning point for the U.S. military campaign in Iraq.

Keeping Promises

At one point during a firefight in Fallujah, some of the soldiers under Kopelman's command found a small puppy, about five weeks old, in a 55-gallon drum. Although military rules forbid the adoption of animals, the soldiers smuggled the puppy back to camp, with the intention of finding a way for the animal to come home to Hawaii with them when their tour was over.

Knowing the quarantine laws for the State of Hawaii were among the strictest in the world, Kopelman told the soldiers that they had little chance of getting the dog back to Hawaii. But seeing how meaningful the dog had become to them, he gave his word that he would find a way to get the dog back to the United States mainland.

"I was in the middle of Fallujah, in the middle of Iraq, in the middle of nowhere, but... I made a promise," he said. "I had to set an example and be good to my word because if I wasn't, nobody was following me through a door. If they couldn't trust me to get their dog home, they weren't going to trust me to keep them from being killed."

When Kopelman was pulled out of Fallujah, he took the dog with him. In a display of political savvy, Kopelman entrusted the dog to members of the general's staff when he was reassigned to another region. When it was the generals' staff members' turn to leave, they left the dog with NPR reporter Anne Garrels. And so it went, with help from many along the way.

When Kopelman finished his tour in March 2005, he arrived back home in La Jolla, California. Ten days later, the dog—named "Lava" after his rescuers' regiment, the 1st battalion, 3rd Marines, otherwise known as the Lava Dogs—arrived on his doorstep.

Focusing on the Positive

It turns out that reentry into civilian life is not easy, even for a dog.

"The dog is nuts, certifiably," said Kopelman, describing the dog's behavior as typifying post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—hyper-vigilant, overprotective, and at times aggressive. "The vet has diagnosed it. Trainers have diagnosed it. The dog has real issues."

Kopelman began using Lava as a metaphor to understand and talk about issues involving PTSD, for himself and other service members.

"At some point everyone has to raise their hand and say they need help with something," he said. "It's OK to do that."

But helping him to raise awareness about PTSD is not the only effect Lava has had on Kopelman's life.

One day about six months after their return, Kopelman took Lava to the dog park. A seven-year-old blond boy was holding a stick and running around with the dogs. According to Kopelman, Lava decided to play with the boy like another dog and wrestled him to the ground—much to the horror of the boy's mother. Thankfully, the boy was not really hurt, just scared and covered with dog slobber. Kopelman got to know the little boy, his dog, and his mother. Several months later, Kopelman and the boy's mother were married.

Now part of a family with two sons and two dogs, Kopelman has written about his experiences in the books From Baghdad, with Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava (The Lyons Press, 2008) and From Bagdad to America: Life After War for a Marine and a Rescued Dog (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010). Kopelman is currently executive director of Freedom Is Not Free, a San Diego charity that provides financial assistance to wounded veterans and active duty service members, their families, and the families of service members who have been killed in action.

"Life is going to pass you by if you focus on that 99 percent of it that you can't control," said Kopelman. "Part of dealing with the stress and the everyday minutia is not letting it consume you, and not letting it take over your life. Don't focus on [what you can't control]. Focus on everything else—all the good you're doing every day, the good your work here produces, the good you do by going home and being nice to your family."

For more information on Freedom Is Not Free, see http://www.freedomisnotfree.com/. For more information on the Scripps Research Office of Counseling and Psychological Services, see http://www.scripps.edu/services/counseling/ .


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu



"Life is going to pass you by if you focus on that 99 percent of it that you can't control," says retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jay Kopelman, shown here with his dog Lava.