Steven Kerns ’20: “Leading people toward a better world required me to trade in my rifle for books”

Steven Kerns ’20 was a high school dropout, a self-described ‘rebel without a cause’ from Long Beach, Calif., when he joined the U.S. Army as a teenager looking for adventure, with vague notions of changing the world. As soon as he deployed to Afghanistan and entered the war zone in May 2007, his romanticism was knocked out of him.

As a soldier with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team—Kerns chose to become a paratrooper to overcome his fear of heights—he was assigned to the notoriously dangerous Kunar and Nuristan provinces. On Nov. 9, 2007, two squads out on foot patrol were caught in a vicious ambush and under assault by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. Then Kerns’ base came under brutal attack, forcing Kerns and his fellow soldiers to fight for their lives.

After the attack on the base was finally repelled, Kerns and his comrades there were ordered to stay put; the risks were too high to attempt assisting the squads under ambush. “I knew my friends were being killed,” Kerns recalls. As he later wrote in his personal essay to HLS, “Their voices haunted our radios.”

Although Sgt. Kyle J. White received the Medal of Honor for saving lives during the ambush, five men from Chosen Company and a Marine advisor were killed. Chosen Company had spent over a year together in Vicenza, Italy, so each death was a piercing loss, Kerns says. But the death of 23-year-old Corporal Sean K. A. Langevin, whose wife was due to give birth to their daughter Zoe a few days later, had a huge impact on Kerns. It was the impetus for his journey into “post-traumatic growth,” he says.

“Although I’ve never met Zoe, this little girl has inspired me to do everything I can in my power to be a better person,” says Kerns, “so that one day when I do meet her, I can tell her, ‘I knew your dad, and he is a better man than me.’”

Over the next months, the base endured constant attacks; when Kerns finally left and landed at Bagram Air Base in relative safety, he felt a wave of unimaginable relief. But it was fleeting. Minutes later, he learned that nine men from 2nd Platoon in Chosen Company had been killed in the Battle of Wanat, often described as the deadliest battle in the war. “We lost nine guys just four days before we left for home,” Kerns says, including his best friend from basic training, Corporal Gunnar Zwilling. “I entered the deepest numb of my life. I was out of touch with my emotions for a long time.”

Kerns fulfilled the rest of his military commitment at Fort Irwin National Training Center, in California. Three days after leaving the Army, and armed with new-found resolve, he started classes at Long Beach Community College, where he soared academically and began to put his quiet promise to Zoe into action. “Leading people toward a better world required me to trade in my rifle for books and replace the unfocused ambition of my youth for the dedication of my life,” he wrote in his HLS essay.

Kerns decided to spearhead an effort to build a memorial bench to honor Sgt. Israel Garcia, who was killed at Wanat and who, like Kerns, had attended Long Beach Poly High School. Despite initial resistance by the school, Kerns organized a diverse group including artists, musicians, government officials, and veterans to raise money and build the bench. “This experience allowed me to begin leaving the war behind me as I knew that I could lead people to positive change in our society,” he wrote.

After community college, he enrolled at California State University in Long Beach, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in environmental science and policy, and receiving the Outstanding Graduate Award in his major. As an intern for a California congressman, Kerns assisted local veterans with their VA claims, and he also worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena. As part of an National Science Foundation program, he designed and executed a six-week experiment in the Costa Rican rainforest, where the devastation of deforestation fueled his interest in environmental preservation. After college, he was an AmeriCorps CivicSpark Water Action Fellow for a year in Chino Hills, Calif., where he helped design plans for storm water runoff and strategic drought resistance.

“What’s the point of my friends sacrificing if we’re destroying the planet?” he says. “I have that desire to protect our country and make my friends’ sacrifice worth it.”

With an eye on a career in environmental law and policy, he was accepted to several very good law schools. But he was reluctant to apply to HLS—with his 163 LSAT, he was sure he’d be rejected. His girlfriend insisted that he apply, and not long after an interview with the HLS admissions office, he got a phone call that, as a guy who’d dropped out of high school, he never expected. When he learned he’d been admitted the class of 2020, he says, “I got this wave of relief. I knew I was one step closer to making good on that promise to Zoe.”

Having served among soldiers he considers heroes, including those who lost their lives, Kerns downplays his own military contribution. “But I’m so happy to have been in that arena with those people. Just being part of that whole thing fundamentally changed my life. I think it’s true for so many of the Chosen soldiers I was with, that the platitudes you get told in basic [training], for a moment came true, and we lived what warrior culture espoused,” he says. “It imprints you, and I’m deeply grateful for that. We paid a heavy price, one that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. You could offer me $1 billion to wipe my mind and I wouldn’t.”

Kerns says he’s come full cycle from youthful romanticism to losing it amidst the horror of war to finding a new sense of purpose. “I replaced my teenaged idealism with the dedication of adult life,” says Kerns, who wants to focus on environmental law and its intersection with national security. Once he is a 2L, Kerns also plans to do pro bono legal work for military veterans through the HLS Veterans Law and Disability Clinic.

Kerns says he’s met a few HLS students who’ve told him they’ve never known a soldier, which confirms his belief that putting a human face on soldiers is something America needs right now. “If you don’t have humanization of the military, then you get a bunch of policy decisions I don’t support,” he said. “If the blood of an American soldier is cheap in this country, then the blood of an Afghan is cheaper, and cheaper still is the blood of a person killed by a drone strike in country that doesn’t make the news. When blood is cheap, then perpetual war is easy, and if that’s the case, then who or what are we serving for?”