Photo of Aurora native General Dan Bolger, now in charge of Afghanistan operations for U.S. | MSgt Paul Hughes~U.S. Air Force
Gen. Daniel P. Bolger
Graduated from Marmion Academy in Aurora in 1974
Graduated first in his class at The Citadel
Earned master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (at the time, a record for fastest to complete a Ph.D. program) in 1986
Promoted to commanding general of 1st Cavalry Division for Operation Iraqi Freedom in January 2010
Promoted to lieutenant general May 2010
Defense Superior Service Medal
Two Bronze Star Medals
Meritorious Service Medal
Army Commendation Medal
Army Achievement Medal
Author of several military books (fiction and non-fiction), including “Dragons at War,” “Americans at War,” “Savage Peace,” “The Battle for Hunger Hill,” “Feast of Bones” and “Death Ground”
Updated: December 28, 2011 8:03AM
The Local-Boy-Makes-Good story is a staple of the news business.
Across America, newspapers are filled with these tales. Maybe Local Boy wrote a book. Maybe he graduated first in his class from a prestigious school or set a record for fastest to earn a doctorate at a nearby university. Perhaps Local Boy got a great new job.
We like these stories because the heroes have walked the same hallways and streets that we wander. They probably faced the same challenges that we did — or at least we’d like to think so. Because to see a neighbor leap past our ordinary life gives us hope. It makes the foreign or unattainable seem attainable.
Daniel P. Bolger is Local Boy to the core. The Marmion Academy graduate grew up in St. Charles. He’s modest about his accomplishments to the point where his family doubted that he wanted the paper to make a big deal about his new job. After all, Bolger didn’t trumpet the fact that he’s written six novels, graduated first in his class at The Citadel and earned master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Russian history from the University of Chicago simultaneously.
But when the president is keeping track of your new job, well, that’s hard for the local paper to downplay. On Nov. 5, Bolger, 54, assumed command of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan. The job is more than daunting: He is second in command of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, in charge of 6,000 U.S. and NATO troops from 36 countries, responsible for training 137,000 Afghan police officers and 173,000 members of the Afghan Army.
Not too shabby for the local boy who got turned down by West Point.
Bolger’s family moved to St. Charles when he was in grade school. Early on, he knew he wanted to serve in the military. He revered his father, a Korean War veteran, and Marmion Academy seemed like a great opportunity.
The Bolgers’ St. Charles neighborhood lagged a little behind the ’70s cultural upheaval. Talking to The Beacon-News Wednesday from Afghanistan, Bolger fondly remembered his neighborhood as old-fashioned.
“People flew their flag. People cared about the fact somebody had gone into the service or been called up to Vietnam,” he said. “I didn’t have any relatives that I knew of who would shirk service in Vietnam. My cousins and the people in my neighborhood all went. I didn’t know you couldn’t go.”
Teachers from Marmion remember Bolger as a hard-working, straight-A student. Although he was 6 feet tall, Bolger didn’t play sports at Marmion. He was a member of the drill team and the battalion staff — both prestigious positions.
“He was generally serious most of the time,” said former JROTC instructor Walter Schroeder, now Marmion’s librarian. “He didn’t have time for a lot of nonsense.”
Bolger set his sights on West Point. But the U.S. Military Academy turned him down.
“It was probably the greatest disappointment of my life. It was my own fault for not doing the research and learning more about West Point,” he said. “At West Point, you’ve got to be a whole person. You’ve got to be an academic guy, you’ve got to be a sports-and-physical-fitness guy, and you’ve got to have community leadership. While I did OK in the academics, I think I was weak in the other two areas. That was a tough lesson for me.”
Even more than three decades later, his Marmion teachers remember Bolger’s disappointment. They also remember that he re-grouped and vowed he’d one day teach at West Point (a goal he accomplished in 1989).
“I have to give him that. He was a fighter,” Schroeder said. “He never gave up.”
On side of the Earth
For most of us, Afghanistan is an unknowable place. The challenges seem endless: a brutal terrain, two national languages, a diverse population and vast cultural differences. To an area that foreign, who better to send than Local Boy? If he can find common ground, then maybe the world isn’t so big.
Bolger, who served in Korea and Iraq before being assigned to Afghanistan, says the challenges in Afghanistan are not small. He and Gen. John Allen — the only higher-ranking American in the country — have been tasked with putting Afghans in charge of their own country by 2014. President Obama has set aggressive benchmarks for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Bolger said the country has explosive pockets, particularly along its border with Pakistan.
But Bolger has found most of the Afghan people are warm and receptive. Although it is a poor country, farmers will welcome soldiers into their home and offer them tea or a snack.
“You’ll sit down and talk to them for an hour about their animals and their children and what’s been going on,” Bolger said. “It’s a reminder to me that everyone here is a real person. They’ve got lives, they’ve got children, they’ve got things they’re worried about just like any of us are, and that’s why we’ve got to do our best to help them.”
Bolger has found the easiest way to break the ice with Afghan soldiers is to talk about family. Certainly, Bolger must have rich tales to tell.
A Bolger family meal certainly would be in the running for Most Interesting Place for Flies on Walls. From oldest to youngest, the kids are a general, a priest, a graduate student, a counselor and a comedian.
“It can get a little loud, I’ll say that,” Bolger said.
Bolger’s mother, Joan, who now lives in Aurora, was hesitant to talk about her eldest. Not because she’s not proud. She’s proud of all her kids and was hesitant to highlight one over the others. But she couldn’t help but mention that despite his many duties, her eldest never forgets a birthday, and never brags about his accomplishments.
“He’s a good man. He’s a good husband, he’s a good father,” she said. “We’re proud in so many ways, but his humility is outstanding.”
In the military, Bolger is known as a soldier’s general. He goes on missions as often as is feasible. In 2009, the scouts from the 7th Cavalry Regiment were trying to secure a thickly vegetated island in Iraq; Bolger was right beside them.
In 2008, Bolger returned to Marmion to speak at its annual Military Night. His former teachers talked about watching the students listen to Bolger, who has achieved the highest military rank of any Marmion alum.
“It was very clear he connected,” said the Rev. Joel Rippinger, monk of Marmion Abbey. “And that, I think, is his secret — he connects with the people he leads.”
There is one small catch to the Local Boy story. Because he is one of us, he is allowed to call on us. But don’t worry: Bolger’s requests are simple.
“What I would ask from my fellow citizens is, if you’re inclined that way, pray for us,” he said. “And then I would ask that people would consider flying their flag to support our soldiers. I understand there’s a wide variety of views on the war, but the soldiers serve for all of us, so I hope people consider that.”
Finally, Bolger said an email, a letter or package means the world to those serving far from home.
“Every little compound I’ve gone into — every little combat outpost where our advisers are with the Afghans way up in the hills — you’ll see they have stuff posted from children, stuff posted from Girl Scout troops, just reminders of home — what’s important.”
And with those conditions, Bolger agrees to serve as Local Boy Made Good.
“It’s an honor to serve in the military,” he said. “I’m happy to do whatever I can to represent all Americans, but especially the people in Aurora and the Fox Valley.”