A Soldier’s Journey to MIT

Nate Minami, far right, conferring with fellow soldiers in Iraq

By Patty Eames and Lois Slavin
January 30, 2007

If one had to use a single word to describe SDM student Nathan Minami, it would have to be "patriotic." While his commitment to the American people shows in his words and actions, it is best exemplified by his 14-year career in the US armed forces.

Nate Minami, far right, conferring with fellow soldiers in Iraq

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 and one day become a doctor. However during his senior year in high school, perhaps because his father served in Vietnam and his grandfather in WWII, he felt compelled to join the military. Minami applied, and was accepted to West Point, where he enrolled in the first of three higher education programs supported by the U.S. Army – earning a B.S. in Arabic and French languages with a focus on the Systems Engineering track. Later Minami graduated with a M.A. in National Security Studies with a Middle East Concentration from the American Military University. His career has taken him around the world to 23 countries on five continents, ultimately leading him in 2006 to pursue his third degree, an S.M. in MIT’s System Design and Management program.

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. He says that he has benefited most from his System Dynamics classes, which have taught him how to understand and manage the complexity of different socio-technical systems.

"A single soldier and his equipment can be seen as a complex system,” explains 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. I also believe it’s something all of us everywhere could use in order to learn to work together peacefully and effectively in many different endeavors."

But Minami had many years – and many miles to go from West Point to MIT. Upon graduation, he flew to Cairo, Egypt to improve his Arabic language skills. On his first day there, Minami tested the Arabic he’d learned at West Point on a taxi driver. When it became clear that Minami’s knowledge of a Lebanese dialect would not make the cut in Cairo, the two strangers communicated in Spanish, discussing their mutual interest in engineering and technology. Subsequently, throughout his military career, Minami has continued to learn local Arabic dialects and improvise with alternative language skills to communicate with civilians and soldiers across many cultures. He has achieved competency in the Spanish, Arabic, French and German languages.

After completing his first military deployment – a 45-day peacekeeping mission in Macedonia in 1998 — Minami was sent to Germany. In 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 explains.

One week after marrying Melissa, Minami was deployed to a combat assignment in Kosovo. There he led over 100 patrols in 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. Here, as in many other countries, Minami’s foreign language abilities served him well. In this instance, the German he had learned from his wife helped facilitate communication and operations among international troops and with local civilians, many of whom spoke German.

Minami and his wife 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, with Selina on the verge of taking her first steps. "She started walking a week after I left," he remembers. Today Nathan is delighted to be at home with his family as his nine month old son David begins walking and says his first words.

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 explains "I deployed to Iraq with 146 soldiers and brought 146 soldiers home. Not one died and not one had to be medically evacuated."

Minami praises SDM for its emphasis on group assignments and collective learning. "Everything is teamwork in the military, and SDM is all about teamwork. I will be returning to the military in June, 2007 with a better understanding of how to incorporate a variety of diverse perspectives for the collective good of the whole. I am very grateful to be part of the SDM community."