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Study of systems management enhances a soldier's service

Nathan Minami, far right, conferring with Iraqi Army Officers prior to January 2005 National Elections.
Nathan Minami, far right, conferring with Iraqi Army Officers prior to January 2005 National Elections.
Photo courtesy / Nathan Minami

If one had to use a single word to describe Nathan Minami, it would be "patriotic." While the student in system design and management enacts his commitment to the American people in all his words and actions, his patriotism is best exemplified by his 14-year career in the U.S. armed forces.

Minami, who entered MIT's SDM program in 2006, will return to the military after graduation in June. Halfway through the academic year, he praised SDM for its emphasis on group assignments and collective learning. "Everything is teamwork in the military. After SDM, I will be returning with a better understanding of how to incorporate a variety of diverse perspectives for the collective good of the whole," he said.

Minami's path to working toward the collective good of the whole began with a vision--he'd be a doctor. Describing himself as a "lower-middle class kid who never thought he'd get too far from San Diego," Minami worked hard to prepare for college, with medical school to follow.

To some eyes, he took the long way around. Inspired, perhaps, by his father's service in Vietnam and his grandfather's in World War II, he applied and was accepted at West Point.

There he enrolled in the first of three higher education programs supported by the U.S. Army: He earned a B.S. in Arabic and French languages with a focus on the systems engineering track at West Point; he earned a master's degree in national security studies with a Middle East concentration from the American Military University; and he came to MIT to pursue his third degree, an S.M. in MIT's system design and management program, in 2006.

Minami says that he came to SDM because it teaches what the United States Army and the world at-large need--people who understand systems thinking and can manage and lead in complex situations.

"A single soldier and his equipment can be seen as a complex system," explained Minami. " He must be prepared to quickly assess a situation and determine how to communicate effectively with a wide range of stakeholders, from fellow soldiers, to officers, to Iraqi citizens, in environments that are often hostile and deadly. Deepening my understanding of complex systems will help me better serve my troops and my country."

But Minami had many years and many miles to go between West Point and MIT. After completing his first military deployment--a 45-day peacekeeping mission in Macedonia in 1998--Minami was sent to Germany. While looking for an apartment, he also met his future wife. "My landlady, who had four daughters, also became my mother-in-law. I took the apartment, and I ended up taking the oldest daughter too," he said.

One week after marrying, Minami was deployed to a combat assignment in Kosovo. There he led more than 100 patrols in an effort to maintain peace between Albanian and Serbian ethnic groups, working with several other international military units and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Minami and his wife, Melissa, then moved to Hawaii, where he trained infantry units in combat techniques and managed an exercise and training program that helped prepare 15,000 soldiers for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shortly before his 15-month deployment to Iraq in December 2003, Nathan and Melissa had their first child, Selina. Leaving for his next combat mission was especially hard: Selina was on the verge of taking her first steps. "She started walking a week after I left," he recalled. Today Nathan is delighted to be at home with his family as his nine-month-old son David begins walking and talking.

Minami considers his deployment in Iraq as an infantry company commander in the 25th Infantry Division to be one of his biggest accomplishments. He and his troops assisted with reconstruction projects, governance and training soldiers in the Iraqi army--in addition to participating in combat operations. Humbly acknowledging that he could only have done it with the help of many others, he said, "I deployed to Iraq with 146 soldiers and brought 146 soldiers home. Not one died and not one had to be medically evacuated."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2007 (download PDF).

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