Veterans Day is an annual opportunity to reflect on the service of our brothers and sisters in uniform. But for civilians, what does that really mean?
Having served as an Army officer and then as a federal prosecutor, I have a humble suggestion. I encourage you to honor veterans’ extraordinary sacrifices by reflecting on what it means to serve our country — not in an abstract way, but today, tangibly, in your own life.
Public service takes many forms, from prosecuting white-collar crime, to serving as a firefighter or a teacher, to volunteering at a soup kitchen on the weekend. Everyone has their own path. But what I know, from over a quarter century in public service, is that our institutions aren’t just the stark marble facades in Washington—they’re the people who breathe life into them. And I know that working together to serve a higher purpose is the only thing that might heal our divides and bind our nation together in a common purpose. I hope that by sharing my own experiences, I might inspire others to service.
My West Point classmates and I graduated and were commissioned as lieutenants in the Spring of 2001, just months before 9/11. Our experience quickly and unexpectedly became like those of the classes from the late 1960s, dominated from the outset by combat deployments. For me, that meant serving in Baghdad as an Army infantry officer from 2004 to 2005 at a time when the conflict shifted into a full-blown insurgency.
I saw soldiers take on any task, however dangerous, and accomplish it in a way consistent with our nation’s values. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars all have similar stories. I am forever grateful for the privilege to have served alongside so many dedicated men and women, whose courage and humanity enabled us to pull together and overcome whatever came our way.
After leaving the military, I found a different way to serve our country. I went to law school and joined the Justice Department in 2009. Where the post-9/11 world defined my military career, the post-financial crisis world dominated the first part of my DOJ career. We prosecuted cases involving systemic fraud in the financial markets, working to restore integrity and trust in the heart of the economy.
Public servants like me went up against a wall of resources and the world’s best lawyers. Without civil servants willing to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the public, important cases protecting the integrity of the financial markets would not have been brought. As in the Army, it was an honor to serve alongside resilient professionals doing necessary work on behalf of the American people.
In 2018, I became the top career prosecutor for antitrust crime at DOJ. Again, I served alongside hundreds of dedicated public servants. What I witnessed was inspiring: career staff working nights and weekends without complaint to ensure competition remains the lifeblood of our economy, and relocating for trials that lasted weeks and months, many with families back at home. When cases did not go their way, they persevered and adapted.
They had a job to do for the United States, and they did it with integrity, and often at great personal cost.
When President Biden took office, I was the senior career antitrust official, so as typically happens during a transition, a career prosecutor became the Antitrust Division’s acting head. Running an agency of 600+ people with a broad and critically important enforcement mission, without adequate resources and staff, during the pandemic, and on the heels of January 6, was a daunting task. Based on prior transitions, I expected political appointees would arrive soon and I would pass the reins.
As it turned out, it would be nearly a year before the first appointee arrived. Fortunately, from West Point and over a quarter-century of public service, I knew when unexpected challenges come, you have to lean on your colleagues and remember your core values. Following that approach, we achieved successes during the transition that few predicted. We sued to block harmful mergers, prosecuted price fixing, and helped to develop and implement the executive order on competition. Once again, I had the privilege to witness what dedicated public servants do for our country, even in an uncertain environment.
Looking back, I am reminded of what an honor it was to work alongside so many incredible citizens, both in the military and at DOJ. From the streets of Baghdad, to the courtroom, to the post-January 6 transition, I saw firsthand what dedicated public servants do for our country. Beyond the essential nature of the work, service in any form bridges the ever-widening gulfs in our society. When you serve, you do so with people from different backgrounds with different views but with whom you must find common ground to achieve a greater purpose.
Those experiences run for a lifetime and form the backbone of our republic.
Richard Powers served as the Acting Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division in 2021 and as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General from 2018-2022. He’s a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served in the U.S. Army as an Infantry Officer, which included a tour of duty in Baghdad, Iraq, from 2004-2005. Powers is now a partner at the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.