Global Citizen Soldier

by Jeffrey Billman | photos by Scott Cook

Wes Naylor ’16EDBA

The car crash happened just before graduation, when WES NAYLOR ’16EDBA was about to move to Washington, D.C., and take a job on the Hill, continuing his family’s tradition in politics. That car crash would, in a circuitous way, change his life.

Wes Naylor was a senior studying journalism and political science at the University of Kansas (KU), but the accident prevented him from finishing on time. The school agreed to let Naylor participate in his commencement and made arrangements for him to complete his course work remotely, but he arrived at the Capitol during an election year, working for a senator who was scraping to keep his job. There was no time for school.

The senator—Jeremiah Denton Jr. of Alabama—was a retired rear admiral in the Navy, who had been a longtime prisoner of war in Vietnam. When Denton lost his reelection bid in 1986, Naylor cast his lot with a Kansas congressman, serving as his press secretary.

“I had no idea what it was like working on Capitol Hill,” he says. “Maybe it wasn’t as exciting as I thought it was going to be. The [House] member I worked for wasn’t somebody flashy like Newt Gingrich.”

He was, in a sense, bored. “I’m not ready to sit behind a desk,” he told himself.

After high school, Naylor had only applied to two places—KU and the Naval Academy. He got into both. Had he known where his career would take him, the academy would have been a wise choice, but at the time, he became a KU Jayhawk. Now, wanting to put the Capitol Hill desk job behind him, Naylor revisited the idea of the Navy.

It wasn’t just Denton’s service that inspired him; his best friend’s father had been a naval aviator. Naylor also wanted to explore. He’d never been out of the U.S., and the Navy offered a sense of adventure. And so he went to the recruiter’s office to see about enlisting.

This is where that car accident—the one that prevented him from graduating—played a fortuitous role. It was the late ’80s, the era of Top Gun, and the Navy’s fighter jet program had a two-year waiting list. But because he hadn’t graduated from college, another option was available—the Naval Aviation Cadet Training program, which targeted non-degreed candidates between the ages of 18 and 25. The pay wasn’t much and the program was supposed to take about two years to complete, but when he got his wings he’d also be a commissioned officer.

He finished in a little over a year.

“It was never my intention to be a career naval officer,” Naylor says. He’d do his time and get back to his life. This was an adventure, after all, and adventures don’t last forever.

He was stationed in Iceland, and told his commanding officer that after two years, he wanted to be transferred to an ROTC program in Texas so he could attend law school. The CO told him to check back with him in a year. “After working for this guy for a year, he had just completely turned me around,” Naylor says. “He gave me a broader vision of what being a naval officer was all about.”

The Cold War had recently ended, and Naylor’s assignment involved coordinating with NATO and interacting with remnants of the former Soviet Union, which gave him insight into the realities of national security issues. “Being a political science major,” he says, “that fed into my wheelhouse.”

After Iceland, the Navy took him all over the world, including serving as a tactical action officer on the USS John F. Kennedy and heading the Navy’s ceremonial guard during George W. Bush’s inauguration. In 2012, he was named executive officer for the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division and Naval Support Activity Orlando. This June, he’ll be named commanding officer, a post he’ll hold for two years.

Naylor’s job involves a lot of acquisitions, and he thought some of his staff would benefit from attending business school. So he met with Craig McAllaster, dean at the Crummer Graduate School of Business, which recruits veterans and active-duty personnel. He learned that Rollins was starting a doctoral program in business, a degree he’d considered pursuing. He’d always moved around too much, but now, stationed in Orlando for four years, the opportunity was his.

“It is an investment I wanted to make in myself,” Naylor says. “At some point everybody gets out of the Navy. Having a doctorate in business is a good way for me to break through any stereotype anybody might have about me.”

His assignment will conclude in 2016, at almost the exact time he expects to earn his doctorate, a convergence that might seem too coincidental to ignore. But then again, he was going to leave the Navy two decades ago.

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