Danny Schaffer: From Paratrooping to Applied Micro

Danny Schaffer: From Paratrooping to Applied Micro

For most people, jumping out of a plane is a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime endorphin rush. Duke alumnus Danny Schaffer thinks of parachuting as an occupational necessity. 

“When you jump out of planes as a soldier, you’re doing so with up to 130 pounds of equipment, often at night, and impacting the ground with a force equivalent to jumping off a two-story building,” he said. 

His paratrooping days behind him, Schaffer has since graduated with his M.A. in economics and become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. He aspires to use his economics degree to aid with reconstruction efforts in countries affected by violent conflict. 

Today students and employees gathered together at Duke Chapel to commemorate Veterans Day. Duke University and the Department of Economics honor the men and women who have served in the military. Check out our interview with the Army officer who went from paratrooping to applied microeconomics.

Enlistment and Deployment

As my time at CU-Boulder was wrapping up, I decided that I wanted to participate directly in world events. For me, it was the challenge, hardship and self-development involved with training in a military environment that was appealing. As events unfolded abroad, I wanted to personally bear the cost and do the fighting instead of someone else doing so in my stead.

I enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantry paratrooper in 2007 and deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. In that time, I was fortunate to work alongside some of the most professional soldiers in the world. There are experiences one gains as a soldier that are very hard to otherwise come by. Some were simply rare, like standing on the ziggurat of Ur or sharing dinners of goat meat with Afghans. Others, like watching people brave bombs and bullets just to cast a vote, were more sobering and reminded me of the importance of our work. At the end of it all, I think these experiences leave you with a more complete view of what is going on in the world. While you lose some measure of independence in this occupation, you get the chance to apply your skills in unique ways and in more places than you would with most others.

Serving in the military taught me to always strive to better myself and to try new things: Too many people underestimate themselves and end up living life without ever testing their limits.

Duke Economics

I was selected to participate in a small program, whereby the Army granted me two years to study while I trained to become a commissioned officer. My undergraduate exposure to economic research had left a lingering fascination with the field, and the master’s program at Duke is one of the best of its kind that also happened to fit well with my timeline.

At Duke, I focused on topics in applied microeconomics. Professor Jimmy Roberts’ course on markets was a great primer on industrial organization, and it got me switched on to applied microeconomics. Learning health economics from Professors Frank Sloan and Charlie Becker was an incredible experience; also, Professor Chris Timmins’ modules on non-market valuation of local public amenities were simply brilliant.

After working as a soldier for six years, the readjustment to academia required many changes in how I managed my time. The easiest part was the social life: It was truly a pleasure to study with so many talented people and to learn from such distinguished faculty. Ultimately, having a military background provided me with a unique perspective and the confidence needed to address the demands of graduate school. There was more than one occasion when I reminded myself that as demanding as my work or schedule was, I had been through harder circumstances before and come out just fine. 

Army Logistics and Operations

As a logistics officer, my goal is to couple my Duke education with my understanding of military logistics and operations to improve how we shape and target our efforts at reconstruction, providing key public services and facilitating governance in conflict-affected countries.

Much recent military activity has involved rehabilitating poor, conflict-affected countries. Solutions to these problem sets depend heavily on identifying the interests of local stakeholders and crafting an approach that takes into consideration their objectives, our mission, and practices that promote cooperation. Understanding strategic decision-making is essential to how we do business. Given the scale of resources committed to these efforts, those of us charged with their planning and execution need all the insight we can possibly acquire.

Grad school taught me to go out and determine why an answer to a problem set is right, instead of identifying it as such simply based on what I was instructed. Often, the approach used in the military and elsewhere is formulaic: we follow protocol. Improvement of this decision-making process to better incorporate information from the context of the problem — accounting for big-picture implications and employing methods to evaluate the effectiveness of our actions — is a task that I am now better equipped to perform.