Veteran Presence: Rutgers Alumnus is a Study in Staying Positive

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By Tom McLaughlin

Looking back now, David Christian views his life as a “kaleidoscope” or “multifaceted diamond.”

Patriot, Purple Heart recipient, dedicated veterans advocate, successful business owner, devoted husband and father – these are just a few of the many titles that he has earned, often the hard way, over the years.

The 2011 Rutgers Law School graduate and U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War will share his experiences – and time-honored wisdom – as one of two Purple Heart recipients and Rutgers University–Camden alumni invited to speak on Nov. 9 at Rutgers–Camden’s eighth annual Veterans Day luncheon.

John Rapacz, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War, a 2016 graduate of Rutgers–Camden with a bachelor’s degree in biology, and a current student in Rutgers–Camden’s graduate biology program, will also speak. Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services for the U.S. Air Force, will deliver the keynote address.

The annual event, a special thanks to Rutgers–Camden students and alumni who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Multi-Purpose Room on the main level of the Campus Center.

Christian and Rapacz will then raise a flag together recognizing Rutgers–Camden as a Purple Heart University – the first higher-education institution in the state to earn the distinction.

christian-1While it would be easy for Christian to focus solely on his successes, they only tell half his story, explains the Washington Crossing, Pa., resident.

“I learned that there are some days when you are going to shine more than others,” he says. “Other days are going to be difficult and hard to bear – those are the cloudier facets of the diamond that are going to need a little polishing. But if you don’t think positively that your day will come, then you will never be successful.”

As Christian recalls, he learned a “can-do, never-say-die” attitude at an early age from his first teacher – his mother. A former U.S. Army aide for Gen. Douglas MacArthur during World War II, she would raise four children on her own after Christian’s father had left the family.

“She always had mindset, ‘I’ll take on the world and do it by myself’,” he says.

A native of Levittown, Pa., Christian enlisted in the Army at 17 years of age, seizing on the opportunity to earn an education under the G.I. bill as “the key to getting off the block.” He advanced quickly up the ranks and graduated from U.S. Army Officer Candidate School, making military history as the youngest commissioned officer of the 20th and 21st centuries. He subsequently completed basic paratrooper training at the U.S. Army Airborne School, followed by U.S. Army Special Forces training to join the elite Green Berets.

In 1968, Christian was sent to Vietnam, serving with the 1st Infantry Division, doing reconnaissance work behind enemy lines. In October 1968, he was wounded by machine gun fire and underwent a series of operations. Several months later, he and a comrade were critically burned by napalm and spent several months recovering in an area hospital and later a critical burn unit in Japan – an experience unlike any other that would take a lasting physical and emotional toll.

“That changed my life forever,” he recalls. “I would rather go through anything than experience that pain again.”

At the age of 21, Christian was medically retired from the Army as one of the most decorated veterans of any war, having earned seven Purple Hearts, a Distinguished Service Cross, and two Silver Stars, and a Bronze Star, among others.

Following his career in the military, he graduated on the dean’s list at Villanova University in 1972, finishing his degree in 19 months. He then pursued a graduate degree at several colleges – experiencing anti-war protestors on every campus – before arriving at Rutgers Law School in 1973.

But Christian’s challenges were far from over. With anti-war rhetoric at its zenith, several faculty members made it increasingly difficult for him to earn his degree. Some even doubted his injuries and asked him to disrobe before the student population. He recalls that he was still recovering in an area hospital when the dean held a press conference to announce that he would not be allowed to graduate.

christian-2“Those were different times, and it was truly a horrible experience,” says Christian, who says that plans are in the works to make a film based on his experiences.

Nonetheless, following the example that his mother had set years earlier, Christian pressed on undeterred, becoming an outspoken veterans leader and advocate. In 1978, he was elected national commander of the Legion of Valor – open to recipients of the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Air Force Cross – and national adjutant two years later. He was also a founding leader of two veterans support organizations – the Council on Vietnam Veterans and later the United States Veterans Organizations.

Christian would also serve as a senior advisor on veterans affairs to both Democrat and Republican presidents. Among his major accomplishments, he helped draft a federal agreement to enable veterans to use their military job-related experience to satisfy federal commercial licensing requirements.

“My thought was, if a guy could drive a truck on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan, then he should be able to do it as a career,” he says.

He also helped draft legislation to secure benefits for veterans exposed to Agent Orange, as well as those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 2000, Christian was invited to serve as a military analyst, covering the Iraq invasions, for CNN. He subsequently provided in-depth coverage, focusing on the war on terror, for CNN and Fox News.

Moreover, Christian became a successful business owner in the Philadelphia area; he currently owns and operates four businesses, employing a total of more than 150 people. “They could try to take away my education, but they couldn’t take away my knowledge,” he says, adding, “Work has always been fun. When it isn’t fun anymore, that’s when it’s exit stage left for me.”

Still, there was one mission that Christian dreamed of completing. In 2009, his daughter contacted Rutgers Law School, and then-dean Rayman Solomon, a fellow Vietnam veteran, met with him and invited him to return to the law school and finish his degree.

True to form, he took advantage of the opportunity and added another glowing achievement to his distinguished resume in 2011.

Today, while he could be bitter for all that he has endured, Christian continues to exhibit the same patience, persistence, and perseverance that enabled him to transition from a wheelchair, to crutches, to a cane, to running in the New York City Marathon.

The trick, he says? He learned long ago to stay positive.

“I met all of these challenges and realized that they are there for a reason – it makes your character stronger,” says Christian, who, along with his wife, raised four children in Turnersville. “Sometimes you see the light and other times you think a train is coming at you. But stay positive; it’s the only way to achieve your goals.”

 

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