Dan Edelman is the chancellor of Montana State University Billings. He served in the U.S. Army. He was wounded, was discharged honorably, and found higher education. He has worked with the U.S. Department of Justice, and has run his own accounting practice. He has set veterans' services as one of his top priorities at the university. A full interview is available at billingsgazette.com
Gazette: Where did you grow up, and tell me about your life?
Edelman: I grew up in Chicago, actually a southern suburb of Chicago. I am a first-generation college graduate as well, a family of six. We lived with modest means. Dad was a cop for a while. He couldn't afford it for a family of six, so he ended up working in a factory just for us to make ends meet.
Gazette: It's hard to imagine that it's more lucrative to go into a factory than be a police officer.
Edelman: That's the truth, but I was happier, though, because I remember my dad going off to work. Every day I was worried he wouldn't come home. It was during the bad times. He also worked the ’68 (Democratic National) Convention downtown. I was kind of glad he left the police force.
Gazette: Growing up, did you come from a military family?
Edelman: No. I had a lot of John Wayne movies in my background. We were pretty patriotic. I had some uncles who served. I also had — I call him my brother — but he worked for my dad for a long time. He went to Vietnam, and I looked up to him quite a bit.
Gazette: How did it come about that you gave part of your life to the military?
Edelman: Well, I knew early on I wanted to join the military and I wanted to serve. I also needed a way to finance my college education. We didn't have the means to put me through school. The day after I turned 17, I was down at the recruiter's station, making arrangements for the physical and my mom and dad signed me away, and I enlisted in the delayed-entry program. I was still a senior in school, and I was all set getting ready to go into the Army.
Gazette: Did your parents have any apprehension or hesitation about that?
Edelman: I think my mom was happy to get rid of me. My dad wasn't so happy to get rid of me. I was trouble when I was a kid.
Gazette: Is the south side of Chicago tough?
Edelman: It was a tough area.
Gazette: Was Vietnam still going on when you were 17?
Edelman: It had just ended. But there was still a lot of talk about Vietnam and veterans and things like that.
Gazette: Did it worry you going into the Army? I mean, it's still a dangerous career.
Edelman: It didn't worry me at all. I think the only time I was worried was when on my first day when I went down to the station and actually got indoctrinated and a priest came out and handed out Bibles and started reading. I'm like, holy mackerel, do we get into war today? We didn't. I just knew I needed to do what I needed to do and I didn't worry about it.
Gazette: You knew you wanted to go to college. Tell me how that worked. Your family couldn't afford it so you saw the military as a means?
Edelman: I did. I thought I'd join the military to be an MP (military police) but it turns out that I was too young. They didn't tell me that until the very last minute. The recruiter said, "Hey, you're pretty smart. Do you like girls? Do you like fast cars? What about military intelligence?" I said, "Sure, who doesn't like girls?" I never had the girls or anything like that and the fastest car the Army ever provided me was an Opel Cadet when I was overseas, but it was a pretty good experience anyhow.
Gazette: When you're trained as an 18-year-old going into military intelligence, what's the training like?
Edelman: I was actually 17 when I went in. I didn't turn 18 until November, and I was in advanced individual training. I was taught and trained for the collection and analysis and dissemination of intelligence data. So, what does that mean? Find out what you need to find out, figure it out, and get the information where it needs to go.
Gazette: Did that suit you? Did that match up with what you originally wanted to be, especially when you originally wanted to be an MP?
Edelman: It did. It was hard at first because I didn't know what I was doing and I still had the images of James Bond in my mind.
Gazette: Is it anything like James Bond?
Edelman: No. It suited me well. I advanced very quickly and turned out that I was a pretty good leader of people and could make decisions and was conscientious and straightforward. Folks followed me. It turned out to be a pretty good move.
Gazette: What's the hardest part of being in military intelligence?
Edelman: I think sometimes when you're alone and things aren't going the way they're supposed to, and things could take a real bad turn and you could be killed.
Gazette: Vietnam is spooling down. But, peacetime after Vietnam is not necessarily peaceful because we're engaged in several conflicts around the world ... then we've still got communists and the Cold War.
Edelman: For a long time, I was assigned to the First Infantry Division. We had a brigade, forward deployed to stop the Russians. I was deployed a couple of times overseas in the Cold War. It didn't matter if we were at war or not, my mission was the same. It got pretty tense sometimes.
Gazette: For many born after the fall of communism, it's a different context. Now, we talk about Russia but it's different. Were you afraid of the Russians or the communists? How was that viewed in the military intelligence at the time?
Edelman: As far as afraid of them individually, no. I didn't have a lot of respect for them. I knew what was going on behind the scenes. I saw how they treated their people as well. It was a difficult time. People don't understand it. The freedoms that we have in this country and even in other countries in Western Allies we have. That didn't come overnight. There's a lot of people who died for that, and a lot of people who sacrificed for that. It was an interesting time.
Gazette: What do you remember about the people there, behind the Iron Curtain or in communism at the time? What was the most striking? You were a kid from Chicago and then you were halfway around the world and witnessing a different form of government.
Edelman: The darkness of the buildings. The lack of colors. Things appeared really old. It was just a lot of stuff like that. Here in the United States there are multiple colors of buildings, but there it was pretty dark and dreary.
Gazette: Did you predict or could you see the fall of communism?
Edelman: I always thought it would, but I didn't know when it would.
Gazette: Why did you think that?
Edelman: I just didn't seem it was a sustainable model. The money was going to run out somehow and some way. And that's really what happened. If people get a taste of freedom and what it's like to express your opinion, or to do things or to pursue your goals, your ambitions; the United States didn't say, "You're going to do this." It said, "You want to do this?" And I said, "OK." In the Soviet era, it was up to them to decide what your future path was going to be. I just didn't see that as a sustainable long-term model.
Gazette: When you were overseas, what did you appreciate most about America or what did you miss the most?
Edelman: The language. It was nice to be able to speak English. I was in the Army and any food was better than what they were serving. I missed baseball and football and things like that.
Gazette: How did your time in the military serve or inform what you're doing today?
Edelman: It helped me significantly. It's helped me throughout all my jobs, but this job is probably the pinnacle of it because I learned not to complain about what I don't have. I learned to get the mission done using the resources I have or my brains to figure it out. I learned about survival. I learned about integrity. I learned about people. I learned about responsibility and all those things are so important in my position as chancellor right now. If I am not honest, I'll lose respect and people won't follow me. People won't do what they need to do. If I complain that I don't have enough money to get things done, I'll never get anything done. And, at the end of the day, you can always use more money, so we're pretty mission-focused at the university and we want to put our students first. I got a lot of that from the military where I put my troops first. I made sure they're safe and we came back OK and we did our job.
Gazette: It's one thing being an individual in something like the Army, it's another thing having troops. Did that keep you up at night? If you're leading troops, you're responsible for their lives and safety.
Edelman: I don't think it was difficult because we made sure when somebody was put in a difficult situation, they were trained and prepared for it and they'd come back OK. And they did. It's the same here at the institution — I don't want to put the CFO in charge of academics when the CFO is not trained in academics.
Gazette: What was the most important thing the military taught you?
Edelman: Mission first. Get the job done. Do what you got to do.
Gazette: When you came back, how many years did you spend in the Army?
Edelman: I spent three years active duty, one year active reserves and about a year-and-a-half inactive reserves. I got called back to duty when I was in college. I was sent to Fort Meade for a short time.
Gazette: When you came back, did what you wanted to do with your life, had it changed?
Edelman: It did because I was hurt pretty bad overseas so I was no longer able to do things that I love like play baseball and football and running and things. Physically, it provided me with a lot of challenges that I never faced before. When I went to school, I wasn't real well received, but it was a liberal arts school. It was a good school, but they weren't pro-military at the time. I certainly displayed all the signs of PTSD at the time and got not a lot of help. I went to class drunk a lot. Some classes, I didn't even buy the books. I struggled through a lot of that.
Gazette: What did you go to college to study?
Edelman: I wanted to be a lawyer. I had multiple majors from criminal justice to political science to human resources. All over the place.
Gazette: You were just trying things?
Edelman: Trying not to flunk out.
Gazette: Coming back to the U.S. injured. That's a life-changing experience, obviously. How did your perspective change from when you went into the Army to coming back injured?
Edelman: The medical care wasn't very good. I was still pretty bad off. And, I could have stayed in longer just to get the medical stuff, get surgeries and things. It kind of changed my perception of the military a bit.
Gazette: In what way?
Edelman: Well, I was supposed to go to West Point prep school, a year-long program and when you're done with that, you go to West Point. It just changed the way I looked at the military. I thought: I am really putting my neck on the line, why can't I get good medical care?
Gazette: Is it fair to say that you came back bitter?
Edelman: I would say that would be accurate.
Gazette: The media has covered people who came back bitter and were never able to overcome those things. You don't seem like that now.
Edelman: I stopped the poor-me party. I never really complained about it when I got hurt. I got a job to do, and I have to finish and I have to do some things. I just didn't know how to do it.
Gazette: Why was that? Was it a lack of direction? Lack of support in the Army? What gave you that driftlessness? How did that work?
Edelman: I was a non-commissioned officer in charge of security and intelligence in a battalion. I had a lot of responsibility and I was only 20 years old. I had a lot of respect as well. So one day I was that, the next day I was nothing. There was no transition time. There was no thought about it. I had more responsibility then than I had 30 or 40 years later in my life. So that was a hard time, plus I was hurt. I was angry about that. I was disappointed about that as well. It was a hard transition as well. I didn't know what to do in college. I was never a great student in college and I was always more interested in sports or girls or whatever. College was a little hard. You had at least buy the books and go to class. I didn't master that for awhile. I went to school downtown right off Rush Street which is a party street in Chicago. I fed the local economy.
Gazette: When you came back, you'd gone from this position of respect and authority to a nobody. That has to be very hard and you're younger. There's probably that going on now. What's the answer for the veterans coming back today?
Edelman: Get help. Reach out. That gives me a lot of passion right now. I know I struggled for a long time in college and after college. The people around me also paid a price, because sometimes I could be pretty blunt and bitter as well. So right now what I want to do is to reach out to those veterans who are coming out and say, "Hey, it's OK to be mad. It's OK to be upset. Let's get you some help. What can we do to make your life better? We care." I don't think anybody cared at the time. I remember going on an interview with a corporation and this lady said, "Why would I ever hire you? I just realized you were in the Army." I said, "Well, the Army was good and it trained me." She said, "You chose to go in the Army. You weren't even drafted. You don't have the judgment." I kind of lit her up right there. That was a prevailing feeling in that era, so it was pretty hard. I am very pleased we're not like that to our veterans today. But, I want to make sure that if they come to MSU-Billings, there's a place for them and we'll help them succeed. Whatever we can do.