Tom Koch grew up on a small farm in southwest Ohio, in a family that embraced a strong sense of service to community and country. His mother worked in nursing homes, while his father dedicated time to a variety of causes—Meals on Wheels; running the local historical society; and working with children with disabilities. Tom’s father was drafted into the Army at the end of the Vietnam War, and his uncle had enlisted in the Marines at the height of that conflict, and his cousin had gone into the Marines as well in the aftermath of 9/11.
That event was fundamental to Tom’s own decision to join the military. “I was in high school when 9/11 happened, and I knew instantly I wanted to serve,” Tom says—so much so that he resolved to pursue college at one of the service academies, ultimately landing at the U.S. Naval Academy. Upon his graduation in 2008, Tom had the choice of being commissioned into the Navy or the Marines, and like his uncle and cousin before him, chose the latter. Moreover, Tom explains: “I admired the Marines who had been my instructors at school and felt that was the place to have the biggest impact after graduation.”
Over the next five years, Tom would be deployed twice to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as a combat engineer—“a job that includes a bunch of different functions related to explosives and demolitions, ‘road-side bombs’ or IEDs, and construction of combat outposts.” In his first deployment, Tom led operations out of a small outpost in northern Helmand. The focus at the time was to control more territory and stymie Taliban influence within the local population, in part by bolstering local governance. Between Tom’s return to the U.S. in 2011 and redeployment to Afghanistan in 2012, the Obama Administration had started to draw down American forces there, and the military effects were quickly evident. Tom returned to find that his old outpost in northern Helmand was gone and previous military gains had come undone. Tom is philosophical, though, in thinking about the ongoing instability of the situation in Afghanistan (and Iraq), invoking words from the famous Prussian general and military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz “theorized that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means,’ and his words remind us of the essential nature of war and its origins, which are political in nature,” Tom observes. “As such, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan must have political solutions, not just military ones.”
Perhaps fittingly, then, as Tom was wrapping up his second tour in Afghanistan and preparing to rotate into a new assignment in the U.S., he applied for a Department of Defense Legislative Fellowship, which would enable him to immerse himself in the political landscape of Washington, DC. As he describes his mindset at the time: “I wanted to take a momentary break from the operating forces and learn about how national security policy is made.” The fellowship placed Tom into the office of Congresswoman Susan Davis, a Democratic representative from California on the House Armed Services Committee who at the time was the Ranking Member of Subcommittee on Military Personnel. His experience as a Marine allowed him to knowledgeably advise the Congresswoman on a variety of pressing military issues, including how to contend with ISIS and how to respond to military crises elsewhere in the world, such as the Russian invasion of Crimea and Israeli actions in Gaza. He also contributed to policy discussions that gave U.S. service men and women new options for their military retirement savings and led to new, groundbreaking rules for the gender integration of military combat units. In all, working on Capitol Hill gave Tom a new appreciation for “the nuances and intricacies of politics” he says. “Members of Congress and their staffs have to weigh their parties, their constituents, their Congressional peers, and their own consciences when developing policy. Not an easy task to do, especially on very emotional issues. If you really try to put yourself in the shoes of a Member, you will quickly realize how complex decision-making truly becomes—a fact often glossed over by the media.”
When Tom’s fellowship year ended, he was able to leverage his legislative experience from Capitol Hill into a new position over at the Pentagon, in the Office of Legislative Affairs for the U.S. Marine Corps, where he continued working on the issue of gender integration in combat, as well as other major personnel matters, such as LGBT inclusion and sexual assault prevention. At the Pentagon, he wasn’t so much in the position of helping to make policy, but rather was charged with communicating the policy perspectives of the Marine Corps to “key Members and staff on the Hill who often didn’t agree with our approach.” In addition to facilitating these discussions, Tom planned official travel for Members of Congress to go on domestic and overseas fact-finding trips. “These trips were extraordinarily complex and involved interaction with our State Department partners in various embassies around the world and high-level government meetings in various foreign countries,” Tom explains. In his one year working in the Office of Legislative Affairs, Tom led seven such trips, to far-flung locations including Burma, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia.
Since matriculating into Wharton for his MBA in 2017, Tom has set his sights on entering the private sector—he’ll be joining Deloitte when he graduates in May—but has still kept one foot in the policy realm. He has spent the past semester interning remotely for the International Trade Administration, in their Office of Finance and Insurance. “As you would expect with all of the talks about trade in the news, there is a lot going on in the ITA, including negotiations around a new NAFTA, Brexit, and, of course, China,” Tom says. “I have been struck by the professionalism of the team and their deep expertise in their sectors.” That sense of devotion is at the core of all that Tom has done—and aspires to do, whether in business or government. As he puts it: “That same ambition to serve that drove me to enter the military is now driving me to serve in new ways—ways that allow me to impact my community, continue to lead, and address new sets of problems.”