By Ethan de Seife
November 7th, 2013
A seemingly simple thing came to mind when Major Robert Monette was asked to speak of the field skills of his former colleague Stephen Lunna.
Monette recounted how Lunna, in the midst of a military operation in Afghanistan, took a moment to brew a pot of coffee on his camp stove.
“On a cold morning in Afghanistan, when someone hands you a cup of coffee.… Well, unless you’ve been through something like that, you can’t appreciate how good a luxury like that can taste,” said Monette, 50, of Jericho.
Monette, an assistant professor of military science at the University of Vermont, was quick to stress that Lunna is not merely a fine battlefield barista, but an outstanding soldier.
“When the going gets tough in a combat operation,” he said, “Steve Lunna is the guy you want standing by your side.”
In his 29 years in the military, Lunna, 54, of Williston, developed a set of unique skills. Now retired from the armed services and working at UVM, he has found a way to use some of those same skills in a civilian setting.
A TEACHER AT HEART
It does not necessarily follow that a top-flight military mountaineer would make for a good public-speaking instructor, but Lunna—who is both of those things—doesn’t find them to be all that different. Whether he’s on a cliff face on Mount Rainier or in a classroom in Burlington, Lunna is, at heart, a teacher.
“Specific techniques carry over from the military to the classroom, absolutely,” he said. “How to move around in a classroom, how to ask questions, how to engage students who aren’t paying attention or who aren’t fully understanding.”
Lunna honed those pedagogical skills in an environment far more rugged than that of a college classroom. For 18 years, Lunna was an instructor of mountaineering at the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, which houses the Ethan Allen Firing Range. A specialist in field artillery, he eventually achieved the rank of sergeant major, the highest enlisted rank. Under his guidance, soldiers learned not only mountaineering, but combat operations in mountainous terrain.
Lunna’s students often included some of the most highly skilled soldiers in the armed forces: Navy SEALs; Army Delta Force soldiers; Air Force Pararescue Jumpers.
“For a lack of a better term, they were all studs,” Lunna said with a laugh. “But we were instructing them in a skill that they were not familiar with, so we got their attention pretty quickly by showing them some techniques that challenged them.”
In the snow in Smugglers’ Notch, which he said “can be its own level of brutal,” Lunna would tell new students that they’d be going on a “mountain walk,” and they’d chuckle at how jolly that sounded. “Halfway through the day, you’d see the distant look in their eyes because they’re worn out, they’re cold, they’re hungry,” Lunna said. “‘That’s no mountain walk!’ they’d say.”
A LEGACY OF SERVICE
Military service runs in Lunna’s family: his father was an airplane mechanic during World War II; his mother was an army nurse; and two of his uncles were pilots in the Army Air Corps. Lunna himself was deployed twice to Afghanistan—once from 2005-2006, and again in 2010. His experience there “ran the full spectrum, from bored to tears to incredibly intense, and everything in between,” he said. “We saw roadside bombs, ambushes, firefights, midnight attacks.”
Still, Lunna, who’s traveled all over the world with the Army, named Afghanistan as the single most interesting place he’s been. Not because it was so wildly different—precisely the opposite, in fact.
“I found that, despite the language barrier, people are people. There really isn’t that big a difference … on how (Afghans) approach life,” he said. “They want an opportunity to work, to provide a good existence for their families, they want their children to have the opportunities that they may not have had, they want safety and security for themselves and their families. Wherever I’ve traveled in the world, the human element is relatively similar.”
As a soldier, the thing Lunna missed the most about civilian life was simply having a morning cup of coffee with his wife. As a civilian, Lunna does not really miss being in the service.
“Obviously, I miss a lot of the people, but once I retired, I said, ‘OK, that’s in the past.’ It’s a part of my life that was important, but it was time to move on.”
Lunna is now a trainer in UVM’s Learning Services office, a branch of the human resources department. Lunna instructs not in survival and artillery, but in what he calls “soft skills”—leadership, public speaking and communications. Learning Services classes are voluntary, free and open to students, staff and faculty alike. In the last fiscal year, 2,028 staffers took classes.
Lunna’s supervisor, Tara Messier, said she is pleased he was able to use some of his instructional skills in his new job.
“We are always looking to hire for diversity and to bring skills onto our team that we don’t have,” Messier said. “We certainly did not have anyone with (a military) background on our team. We hired (Steve) for lots of reasons, and that was certainly one of them.”
At UVM, Lunna is also a member of the Veterans’ Assistance Committee, which serves as a kind of liaison between the university and faculty, students and staff who have served in the military.
“UVM has come a long way in recognizing and supporting veterans on campus,” he said.
“From my perspective,” Lunna added, “the issues facing Vermont veterans aren’t a lot different than issues facing veterans everywhere.” He specifically pointed to bureaucratic inefficiency as the root of most or all of the problems faced by veterans.
After nearly three decades facing extreme and dangerous conditions, Lunna seems content to spend time with his wife and four daughters.
“I feel pretty lucky and pretty blessed about how my life has turned out,” he said.