Lukas Filler likes a challenge.
One of the 6-foot-5-inch former competitive swimmer’s favorite pastimes is surfing … in the New England winter … before dawn.
“Your face, just … hurts when you get hit by a wave,” he admitted. “But the waves are great and it’s not too crowded. You’re in the water with the place to yourself as the sun is rising. … It’s beautiful.”
His next challenge will be on dry land as he attempts to change military culture from the inside out with the help of his master of theological studies degree from the Harvard Divinity School.
Filler’s nature is part easy-going, part Energizer Bunny. Behind his relaxed demeanor are a dynamic drive and a desire to buck the system, or at the very least periodically question those in power.
Enter, the Navy.
A year of travel after school, which included trips to a number of developing countries, helped put things in perspective for the Bowdoin College graduate who majored in geology. “I realized how fortunate I was,” he said, “and that giving back to something bigger than myself was a good thing.”
In deciding between the Peace Corps and the Navy, Filler chose the option that would be the more challenging.
“There’s a good deal of value in taking some of your largest weaknesses and being forced to improve them, which is exactly what the military did,” he said with a laugh, adding that his decade of service helped him work on his sense of discipline, attention to detail, and, above all, his respect for authority.
As a Navy pilot for 10 years flying combat missions in support of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, Filler was involved, both on the ground and in the air, in some of the world’s most violent conflicts, including operations in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, not to mention counternarcotics work in South America. He emerged from the experience — what he described as “a lot of boredom punctuated by moments of terror” — with a deep patriotism, a feeling that the military needs to change, and a desire to make that change happen.
Though he fully supports the military’s mission to defend the country and to help others, he fears a lack of understanding at times has hampered its efforts. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan where ethnic and cultural differences play a critical role in fostering — or hindering — relationships and security, the United States, said Filler, has occasionally faltered.
“We gave people what we thought they wanted. … Our good intentions didn’t always translate into good actions.”
A simple meeting with an Iraqi left a lasting impression and set the stage for Filler’s future work. At a cafeteria on a military base near Baghdad, he struck up a conversation with a former colonel under Saddam Hussein who had been rehired by the United States. As some of Filler’s fellow officers eagerly joined in, their difficulty in communicating their questions, and even simply determining what kinds of questions were suitable, quickly became apparent.
“People were cutting each other off and apologizing for each other,” Filler recalled. “I thought, ‘If a bunch of college-educated officers don’t know what is appropriate in an interaction with an Iraqi officer, how is an 18-year-old enlisted guy supposed to be America’s foremost representative to the villagers in some small Iraqi town? We need to work on this.’”
His master’s from the Divinity School (with a concentration in religion, ethics, and politics) will, he hopes, eventually help him help the military better integrate concepts like morality, ethics, and diversity to influence military and national security policy.
In a similarly inspired endeavor, Filler recently helped organize the first symposium of its kind at the Divinity School in April titled “Ivies and the Military — Toward Reconciliation.” The two-day event, involving top military officials and Ivy League scholars and administrators, explored the nature of the two groups’ sometimes contentious relationship, and potential ways forward.
“I thought, ‘Why aren’t they talking more? They both have something amazing to contribute.’”
Filler’s own moral foundation came from his parents, who hailed from “the hippie generation,” were “into doing the right thing,” and took Filler and his sister to 1980s and ’90s rallies and protests, inspiring in him a strong sense of right and wrong. Later, Filler’s liberal views in a predominately conservative military culture meant that clashes with his superiors were common. But Filler didn’t mind; he liked the challenge. And his commanding officers frequently thanked him for his opposing perspective.
“I felt obligated at the time to speak about the things I disagreed with … to be a dissenting voice.”