At this point in his life, Michael Durham knows there are many ways to serve, to improve people’s lives. When he was younger, he chose one that traveled through Afghanistan and then back to Medford where he is now the city’s director of veterans services.
His advice to young adults is to look outside the armed forces: volunteer with animals, children, the elderly, run for local office, help those who are food insecure, find ways to use their talents to bring about positive change.
Recruiters, he said, are salespeople trying to fill a quota and may not be completely honest about job requirements.
“Would I serve in the army if I was given the choice to start all over again? In the blink of an eye,” Durham said, adding, “but I would serve for the person to my left in battle and to my right. There’s honor in that, no matter what later.
His road to military service was not precipitated by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in 2001, although at 14 and in his freshman year of high school, it might have been.
He remembers the day; his father picked him up from football practice and drove him home in eerie silence: no cars, no people, no traffic, even in the center of Medford Square.
“Now, as an adult, I know it was a terrible day, but at 14, as a child, all I knew was that something was terribly wrong,” said Durham.
It was another sense of duty, instilled by a family anchored in the public service, which pushed him to commit at the age of 19. That and the desire to get a college education without being a financial burden on the family.
“My family was in community service, they were all in public service,” Dunham said.
All five – Jennifer, Jessica, Jacqueline, James and Michael – have internalized core family values: honor, integrity and selfless service.
“To register was two birds with one stone,” Durham noted.
He admits he was thrilled to have the opportunity to fight for the United States in Kandahar. Durham traveled to Afghanistan through the UMass Amherst ROTC program and was commissioned as an officer in the Armored Division serving as cavalry reconnaissance in the Parachute Unit.
“That means we gather intelligence on the enemy, maneuver around the battlefield and report back to our units,” Durham said, explaining his duties.
“We trampled on them,” Durham said, adding that his unit, the 82nd Airborne, had won the Valor Award for the ferocity of its engagements. The Taliban, he said, would gauge the level of commitment of US troops. Faced with eager and well-organized soldiers like his unit, the Taliban retreated to Pakistan to wait for the members to leave.
“They knew the American troop rotation schedule, that the members would serve a year and wait for us,” Durham said. At one point, his unit was about to invade Syria when that government was accused of using chemical weapons on its people.
It was one of the last units to leave the country during the recent debacle in Afghanistan. “The commander of the 82nd Airborne was the last serviceman to leave,” Durham said, adding that none of his comrades were involved in the bombing.
After four years, Durham transitioned from active duty to intelligence school and eventually left the service.
“I had two young children,” he said. “I didn’t want to be deployed again.”
Once in civilian life, Durham earned a master’s degree in financial technology and after working in private industry, he returned to his core value: a life of service. His decision was prompted by the suicide of one of his former platoon members.
“He was battling PTSD, depression,” Durham said of the man he identified as Johnny. “He committed suicide on August 25, 2018. He was a nice boy; I was his section leader.
Durham had volunteered in the office he now heads and was appointed to the position shortly after the former director’s retirement. Now he helps his colleagues on the battlefield make the transition from the armed services to civilian life.
“With the help of the Massachusetts SAVE (Statewide Advocacy for Veteran Empowerment) team and local law enforcement, I have saved three lives over the past three years,” Durham said.
A November 2020 article in Military Times claims that there were 27.5 veteran suicides per 100,000 population in 2018, compared to 18.3 per 100,000 non-veteran U.S. adults. And the numbers keep growing.
Durham is interested in the transition from military to civilian life. It can be quite abrupt. Soldiers go from being at the heart of a company that feels closer than family, to being on their own, often wondering what to do next.
Durham recalls his release; standing alone in a parking lot, a car full of his belongings, honorable discharge papers in hand and wondering “what’s next?” His position at Medford allows him to help answer that question for veterans as they wonder “what’s next.”