Service to others. That’s the bottom line of Veterans Day to Mark Hamstra, a U.S. Army veteran and principal of Chicago Bulls College Prep.

“I think that’s the broader message than just veterans… how can we collectively recommit ourselves to service? To ideals that are bigger than just ourselves; for our country, for our communities, for peace, for justice – for all those things,” Hamstra says, “I recommit myself every Veterans Day to that.”

Hamstra brings his steadfast commitment to service to his students and the Bulls Prep community, but it all started with service in the military. He says that his military experience gave him the leadership, teamwork, and communication skills he uses to lead Bulls Prep today.

We sat down with Hamstra to hear about his journey, how it impacts his work, and how he thinks military service plays a role as a post-secondary education option for students today.

HAMSTRA’S MILITARY JOURNEY

When Hamstra was eight or nine years old, his grandfather told him stories of his service in World War II. His grandfather was a huge influence on his life, Hamstra says, and those stories were the first thing that compelled him to serve.

Photo shows Chicago Bulls College Prep principal Mark Hamstra during his tour in Afghanistan

Mark Hamstra during his tour in Afghanistan.

In high school, Hamstra continued to see folks from his community enlist into military service. He knew he wanted to go into the military, and his father knew it, too. However, his father also wanted him to go to college and encouraged Hamstra to look at military academies.

Hamstra was accepted to the United States Military Academy West Point, a prestigious military academy in New York, but ultimately decided not to go.

“I met my spouse in high school; we’re kind of obnoxiously high school sweethearts. So, I decided to stay a little closer to home,” he says. 

Hamstra attended Wheaton College, not too far from his home in the south suburbs of Chicago. During his time there, he trained in Army ROTC, studied history, and played football. As soon as he got out of college, he was commissioned as an Army officer. 

On May 7, 2005, Hamstra graduated. By May 8, he was in El Paso, TX for five months of basic training to become an Air Defense Artillery Officer in the U.S. Army. He then served on active duty for six years, going on tour in both Korea and Afghanistan.

“Those two tours were super impactful for me in different ways,” Hamstra says, “My time in Korea, I was young – I was right out of college – so I think from a professional perspective, it was really, really good training as a leader.”

He led a platoon of 25 soldiers in Korea for a year, taking them on a mission he says was “demanding.”

“I just learned a ton about myself; I learned a ton about leadership, learned a ton about teamwork,” Hamstra says. During his deployment, he was also able to enjoy learning about Korean culture and traveling to different parts of Asia such as China and Taiwan.

On the other hand, Hamstra’s later experience in Afghanistan was very different.

“I always have a ton of gratitude that I came home and that my whole team came home, pretty much whole and safe and sound,” Hamstra says.

If you look at Hamstra’s left wrist, he always has a bracelet on. It reads: 

Operation Enduring Freedom
Wounded in Action – 20,144
Win the Day

“It reminds me to make the most of each day,” Hamstra says, “Cause there were a lot of folks who didn’t come home or who didn’t come home whole, both emotionally and physically.”

Since 2001, over 2000 U.S. military members and thousands of U.S. allies have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, the official U.S. government name for the war in Afghanistan.

“I try to live with that perspective every single day,” Hamstra says about being grateful that he was able to come back home.

Photo shows Chicago Bulls College Prep principal meeting his 4-month old son for the first time during his mid-tour leave from Afghanistan

Hamstra meeting his 4-month-old son for the first time during his mid-tour leave from Afghanistan in 2009.

During his tour in Afghanistan, Hamstra volunteered for a team that advised the Afghan army for a year. He says that not only did he grow more in his leadership, but he learned a lot about complex problem-solving in a different culture.

“Your initial instinct is to come in with this Western mindset– like ‘This is right’ and ‘This is wrong’,” Hamstra says, “You have to learn different ways of being and doing that are really unique.”

Photo shows Chicago Bulls College Prep Principal Mark Hamstra during his tour in Afghanistan, sitting next to an Afghan army soldier

Hamstra sitting with a fellow solider during his Afghanistan tour.

Hamstra had to push against that Western mindset and really learn cultural humility when he was part of an effort in 2009 to promote the upcoming elections in Afghanistan to local people.

“I think the way we went about those things at first was very much like: We’re going to show up and talk about what we want to talk about in our full uniform; we got helmets on and sunglasses and body armor. That was not the right way to approach that situation,” Hamstra says.

The right way, he says, took months of building relationships with village elders. And, it took putting aside their weapons and their armor to truly connect with people. Experiences like this, where he had to put aside his own cultural beliefs on right and wrong and practice cultural humility, sit with him today and guide him in much of his anti-racism work at Bulls Prep, Hamstra says, especially as a white man.

Photo shows Chicago Bulls College Prep principal Mark Hamstra in full armor and gear, standing next to a small child, while on his tour in Afghanistan

Hamstra standing in full uniform and gear during his tour in Afghanistan.

THE MOVE TO NOBLE SCHOOLS

Hamstra came to Noble just a month after wrapping up six years of active duty in 2011 (though he continued to serve in the Illinois National Guard till 2018). He had applied for several jobs in schools around Chicago because he knew he wanted to continue to serve others in the city – especially in education. Noble was the only one that reached out to him.

“At the end of the day, Noble saw my resume and saw value in it,” Hamstra says, “I had filled out hundreds of applications and I was about to give up on the whole idea. I was getting ready to move to Germany for three years for another assignment. Then, the principal of Bulls at the time called me, and it happened really quick and the rest is history.”

Many veterans, including Hamstra, serve at Noble Schools. Hamstra says he is super grateful that Noble values their experiences and what they bring to the table. He’s a huge proponent of veterans serving in education.

“[Military service] gives you a skillset around how to motivate, how to teach, how to coach,” Hamstra says, “Once you get out of basic training, no one’s yelling and screaming at you anymore – there’s all these different misconceptions of what the military is. It’s about teamwork and it’s about leadership. And those two things are marketable wherever you want to go, especially in education.”

MILITARY SERVICE AS A POST-SECONDARY EDUCATION PATH

“The military is not perfect in any way, but based on my experience, I think for someone who is compelled by the idea [of service], it can be a really great training ground to learn about yourself and receive a really solid foundation to go do other things,” Hamstra says. 

He encourages anyone considering military service to make long-term goals for after they finish serving and then pursue education or skills to achieve those goals. He highlighted that the military provides excellent opportunities to go to college – either through the ROTC program or other programs to go to college during or after service.

“Always look at your options,” Hamstra says, “Don’t just jump at the first thing that you see from a commercial or a recruiter. Do your own research and really look hard at college options… Don’t sell yourself short. Find a pathway that you think connects with your long-term goals.”

Overall, Hamstra would love to see folks from all different backgrounds contribute to the military. He worries about the growing divide between the military and civilian society that many studies have discovered over the last decade.

“I think that our country is better if people from all walks of life across the country are serving,” he says.

Hamstra continues to be on the inactive reserve list for the Illinois National Guard – a “break glass in case of emergency” kind of role, he says. He hopes to go back into active duty after his kids grow up so he can finish out his 20 years of service.

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