Iraq War Veteran and History-Making Climber Wants to Talk Honestly About War
Demond (Dom) Mullins, a Sociology alumnus who was a member of the first all-Black team to scale Mount Everest, wants to protect veterans from the harms of unjust wars.
This past spring, Demond (Dom) Mullins (Ph.D. ’13, Sociology) was part of the first all-Black team of mountaineers to summit Mount Everest. The achievement received widespread media coverage, including a feature on PBS NewsHour. Mullins, an Iraq War veteran who became a national spokesman for Iraq Veterans Against the War after his deployment, turned to mountaineering in part to recapture the positive aspects of his military experience, such as comradery, overcoming obstacles, and the disciplined pursuit of a goal. Mullins recently spoke to the Graduate Center about the meaning of his accomplishment and how he’d like to see veterans recognized.
The Graduate Center: Now that you’re a few months out from your expedition with Full Circle Everest, what would you say the experience means to you?
Mullins: I spent a long time training and preparing for the expedition, and in some ways, it was a culmination — of years of climbing and learning mountaineering skills, as well as of learning how to be a proficient member of a mountaineering team on an expedition. So there was a lot of buildup to it. Without the experiences that I had with organizations like Veterans Expeditions, which introduced me to the skills that are necessary to have a successful expedition, this would have been beyond my reach.
Right now, I’m in Vietnam. I’m doing some regular tourist activities, sightseeing in various parts of the country. But I’m also doing a lot of writing — writing about the expedition, and what adventuring and learning to adventure has meant to me. I’m hoping to turn it into a book. My experience as a veteran and my interest in veterans will come into play from the angle of autoethnography.
GC: Do you hope to inspire other veterans with your book and also through your public speaking events?
Mullins: I speak about my own experience. And I hope that that inspires people. That’s really the only authoritative position that I could speak from. My personal experience, learning to adventure, seeing this expedition as a culmination of my life experience — if that inspires people, then I think that that’s really awesome. And that’s what I hope to offer.
I can’t say that I hope to be a role model. Perhaps there’s something in my experience that allows people of many different stripes to learn things about themselves or see themselves within my story. I think that that would be amazing. But I wouldn’t use myself, or position myself, as any sort of model of behavior. I’m figuring out the puzzle of life for myself. If I bring certain tools for other people to do the same, then that’s excellent.
GC: You enrolled in the Graduate Center’s Sociology program two years after leaving the military. What made you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?
Mullins: After my experience in the war, I sort of haphazardly stumbled into Iraq Veterans Against the War through the suggestion of a professor that I had at the time at Lehman College. And that meeting of Iraq Veterans Against the War was a real watershed experience in my homecoming, and it gave me my first opportunity to speak about how I felt about serving in the war. From there I wound up doing a lot of public speaking for Iraq Veterans Against the War.
I became a national spokesman for them, and that led me to accepting a position on Capitol Hill working as a consultant on veterans’ issues. During that time, what I really wanted most was to be able to speak authoritatively about the particular moment that we were at — in the history of veterans in the United States, understanding their health issues, understanding their educational issues. And so I wanted to go and study further. Sociology, I felt, would give me the tools to be able to study and approach the body of knowledge that I wanted to have an authority over, when it came to veterans, when it came to U.S. militarism.
GC: Do you feel that your time at the Graduate Center influenced how you’ve explored those issues?
Mullins: Certainly. My time at the Graduate Center, and the sociological tools that I learned, allowed me to conduct the largest study of student veterans in The City University of New York at that time. And the research that I conducted gave me the opportunity to make arguments to the City Council of New York in support of veterans’ programs in The City University of New York. So I felt like it helped me give back to the veterans’ community in a way that I thought was valuable. It also allowed me to make arguments and substantiate some claims to The City University of New York when they were debating the necessity of the Pathways proposal, which would ease transfer between two-year and four-year universities in The City University of New York. So yes, absolutely — I think the experiences that I had there and the contribution that I was able to make thereafter were really valuable.
My time at the Graduate Center, and the sociological tools that I learned, allowed me to conduct the largest study of student veterans in The City University of New York at that time
GC: Veterans Day is next Friday. What would you like non-veterans to consider during the holiday?
Mullins: I think people’s performance of patriotism for veterans is rather unnecessary. What I would like to see is more discourse in the public arena about protecting veterans and protecting future generations of veterans from having to experience the unnecessary injuries and unnecessary experiences that they have in war. I think that a more honest conversation about U.S. militarism, rather than paying lip service to veterans and to the idea of patriotism, would be of more benefit to veterans than what I’ve seen in the past. That’s my perspective.
I think that a more honest conversation about U.S. militarism, rather than paying lip service to veterans and to the idea of patriotism, would be of more benefit to veterans than what I’ve seen in the past.
GC: What sort of unnecessary injuries or experiences would you want to see avoided? Are their specific changes you’d like to see?
Mullins: It’s very easy for us to say, right now, as we look back at the war in Iraq — one of the longest wars in U.S. history, one of the most expensive wars in U.S. history — it’s very easy for us to laugh it off now and say that it was an immoral, unjust war. But, you know, it was a huge part of my life. And it was a huge part of the lives of all the veterans that I served with. And so, if we could somehow embrace a real discourse, an honest discourse, about U.S. militarism, then we could avoid the pitfalls of falling into another war like that.
GC: So you want to avoid going into a war that the country will look back on in the not-distant future and say, Well, that was a mistake.
Mullins: Exactly. And there’s not even really a proper way for us to speak about it. It’s difficult to look back on a situation like that, something that has been such a huge experience in the development of a person, and to own the fact that it was wrong, the fact that it was unjust, the fact that it was a waste of resources and perhaps the attention of an entire generation. And the only way to avoid anything like that in the future would be to honestly speak about those things that have already taken place.
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