Soldier who led a battalion into battle in Afghanistan takes over troubled school in Detroit

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander, International Security Assistance Force commander, speaks with Lt. Col. David Oclander at checkpoint 91 in 2010 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Bradley Lai)

In the heart of a once-vibrant city, a 49-year-old Lieutenant Colonel takes the helm in leading young men and women through an environment of abandoned buildings, poverty and violence. Bound by strict rules of engagement, less than ideal supply chains and an indigenous population that has known little more than a sectarian war zone state of mind of generations.

Every day is a struggle. Every single day is a fight. Despite overwhelming odds, an ineffectual and faraway command element and limited resources, the Lieutenant Colonel makes due with what he has and leads from the front. Above all, he has strength. He is strong for those he leads and they in turn give him strength through their victories. Outnumbered, under constant pressure and deep in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, they take the fight to the enemy every single day.

Except this city isn’t somewhere in Afghanistan. This is Detroit- and the endless fight is for the very souls of many of the city’s seemingly discarded youth.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel David Oclander could have done a lot of things when his military career was drawing to a close. Many of his counterparts were going off to pursue better financial gain.

As he worked for the Joint Staff Command, he would regularly listen to how things were going in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly checking casualties for people he knew.

At one point, the veteran of three deployments realized the troubles that plagued places like Iraq and Afghanistan were much closer to home..

“I was listening to updates from the combatant commanders come in, reporting about operations in theaters,” Oclander told me.

“At the same time, my dad is living in Chicago -I’ve always had a great affinity for Chicago- and I’m also seeing reports…in 2012…coming in about the street violence in Chicago on a daily basis. I looked it up and month to month, there were more kids killed in Chicago than all of Iraq and Afghanistan combined.”

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander, International Security Assistance Force commander, speaks with Lt. Col. David Oclander at checkpoint 91 in 2010 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Bradley Lai)
U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander, International Security Assistance Force commander, speaks with Lt. Col. David Oclander at checkpoint 91 in 2010 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Bradley Lai)

Being a first-generation American with a father from Argentina, Oclander felt that minorities were being largely neglected.

“You hear it on the news, that half of the nation are minorities- black and brown kids. When only 10% of that half of our nation is graduating from college, you have this violence epidemic going on- they’re indicator of broken societies like Iraq and Afghanistan. When people lose hope, they turn to fight or flight. I believe the biggest threat to our nation isn’t overseas anymore. It is what happening in our cities. If we don’t educate our kids, our economy cannot continue, much less our democracy.”

Instead of writing his congressman, Oclander decided to take the challenge -his personal challenge- to the problem firsthand as an educator.

Starting in Chicago, he eventually made contact with a former military comrade in the Detroit education system, seizing an opportunity to lead one of the most historical schools in one of the worst parts of Detroit- Central High School.

“We’ve been in this building for over 90 years,” he said, enthusiastically filling me in about the rich history of the school. “The school has been around for over 160 years.”

Less than five miles from the river that separates the US from Canada and three miles from one of the many automotive plants that gave Detroit a big name, the neighborhood surrounding central was not always the squalid American replication of Beirut or Sarajevo. In the 1940s to the 60s, it was the center of the Jewish population and a peaceful neighborhood with well-kept houses and booming industry nearby.

But when the race riots of 1967 struck Detroit (an event so chaotic that the 82nd and 101st Airborne were called in to help quell it), the neighborhood underwent a huge change.

Detroit Riots

“After the ‘67 riots, the last Jewish family left the area, as most white people did after 1967,” Oclander told me, noting that he is the first principal of Central in fifty years “who looks white.”

Today, it resembles a war zone- a scene that a seasoned combat veteran or off-duty cop would feel more apt to keep a firearm in his lap as he cautiously passed through bumpy streets of destroyed buildings, graffiti and ruined infrastructure. Verily, within visual range of Central High School, destroyed and graffitied buildings stand abandoned as grass reclaims the nearby sidewalks and streets.

Blame bad governing, social neglect or lack of funds -blame anything, really- and no single issue would probably pinpoint what went wrong in Detroit. Still, great things come from the area surrounding Central, including two senators and a Nobel Prize winner. In Oclander’s eyes, he sees a lot of kids with great potential that are sorely neglected by American society as a whole.

“As much incredibly cool stuff that is going on from private investment from billionaires, none of that will survive if we don’t educate the kids in this generation to fill all the jobs that are required,” Oclander told me. “So I have long said that we have to get education right.”

“The bottom line’, he continued, ‘is this has to be an area of emphasis for the city in order to allow the residents of Detroit to rebuild itself and reinvest in itself rather than coming from the outside.”

With limited resources, Oclander does everything he can to let “hands wash hands” in order to ensure his kids get the training, equipment and opportunities they need. Currently, he’s trying to fill unused space in the school with IT incubators, so that he can provide students with mentors and internships in tech fields. In addition, he is even enlisting the help of fellow veterans through the nonprofit group Mission Continues to have kids learn about agriculture by helping with building the local Mosque’s urban garden.

Looking back on his military experience, he admits his “lead from the front” mentality often results in him running “into a buzz saw” with administrators who are all too satisfied with the status quo. Even his former colleagues -who advised him long ago to “go make a bunch of money and throw money at whatever problem you want”- are often baffled by his taken path.

“That passion that I have, I think that originated from my time in the military,” he said.  “Statistically in this school, you had three options: community college, the military or the streets. We serve with guys from Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Memphis, who had no other option. They turn into these amazing citizens who put their lives on the line for each other and grew as people- they just need an opportunity. That’s the secret sauce I’m trying to bring to this community.”

Utilizing the military tenets of discipline, organization and leadership, Oclander has brought great improvements to a tough situation, often with resistance from higher ups from the district, who dislike his flavor or regimentation. Regardless, even some of his most problematic students have turned around to the point where they tell him “we get it now” and are set to bigger and better things.

“Everybody’s a critic,” Oclander said. “But when you don’t even spend more than an hour in the year in my building and start making decisions about what is best for my kids… It can be frustrating.”

Oclander’s influence is evidenced in the once disenfranchised community, where organizations, alumni and individuals who once wanted nothing to do with the school are now offering themselves to help cultivate these kids into a brighter future.

However, Oclander has a request to any who offer assistance: don’t make it a one-time thing.”

“It’s not about you feeling good about yourself where you show up, give a lecture and leave,” he said frankly. “You’re just another adult in and out of my kids’ lives. They’ve had enough of that. I want people who are going to come in and make a commitment, so my kids can have faith and confidence in the adults who are leading them.”

While Oclander’s improvements in the region are limited to his small area of operations, he steadfastly holds out that he can make a difference. Like many veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he gives his all to improve the lives of those around him. Even though the end of the cycle is nowhere in sight, he knows it won’t get any closer if nobody acts. Therefore, battles must be fought on a daily basis until that desired end peers over the horizon. Until then, the applications of counterinsurgency experience are applied to improving the lives of kids and a community who he feels deserve to live and be treated like every other American.

Maybe -just maybe– that is a victory in itself.

LTC (R) David Oclander is a West Point graduate with over 23 years of service in the United States Army, with two deployments to Iraq as well as one deployment to Afghanistan as a Battalion Commander of the 1/508 Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division. His awards include three Bronze Stars and the Combat Infantry Badge.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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