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Ryan York ’97, JD’01 served as part of a Navy Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan in 2010.Ryan York ’97, JD’01 served as part of a Navy Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan in 2010.

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Alumnus lives Willamette's motto of service by joining the Navy Reserves

When Ryan York remembers Afghanistan, he sees a barren and inhospitable landscape. Snow blankets the ground. He sleeps in a plywood hut, and wherever he goes, he carries a loaded weapon.

York ’97, JD’01 was 32 years old when he was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserves. Three years later — by this time a husband and father to two young children — he was deployed to Afghanistan for a year as part of a Special Operations Task Force.

At times, York thought he was crazy. He wasn’t a teenager like many of his comrades. He had a family who counted on him, and he had just made partner at Davis Wright Tremaine law firm in Seattle.

But he believed he was doing the right thing. Like Willamette University’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” York knew his country’s needs were greater than his own.

“When I’m 75, I can look back on my life and know I did my duty,” he says. “I fulfilled my responsibility to my country and my conscience.” 

Taking a stand

York never gave much thought to military service in his youth. Instead, he focused on bettering himself.

He attended Willamette, where he majored in economics and minored in history. While there, he forged strong friendships with the rugby team and Sigma Chi Fraternity. He also gained a broader view of the world by studying in London through an exchange program.

By receiving a liberal arts education at Willamette, York says he learned how to think critically. He gained a wide breadth of knowledge, and he absorbed skills that will continue to help him evolve as a person.

“At Willamette, you learn how to think,” he says.

York continued his education at Willamette’s College of Law, where he met his wife Heidi and earned his Juris Doctor in 2001. Soon after graduation, he joined Davis Wright Tremaine as an associate attorney, where he developed a specialty in business and corporate law, securities law and corporate finance.

York’s career and personal life were on track. But at the same time, an internal struggle took hold. Like the rest of the nation, he was shaken by events on Sept. 11 2001, when terrorists hijacked planes that killed nearly 3,000 people by crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Penn.

York felt compelled to take action, to do his part to protect individual freedoms. So, after taking time to consider his options and talk with his wife, he joined the Navy Reserves.

“I couldn’t sit back and do nothing,” York says, adding that his grandfather served in the Army Air Corps during World War II while his father served in the Army during the Vietnam War. “I didn’t want to be the generation that does nothing.”

Life-changing experience

In 2010, York was deployed to Afghanistan. Although he’s prohibited from sharing details of his service, he says the experience will forever be etched in his mind. He recalls the cold weather, mortar shells falling around him and working 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It was eye opening to go over there and to draw your own conclusions,” York says, noting the differences between media reports and real life. “There’s a high caliber of people in the military. I have a new appreciation for them.”

As a result of his time in Afghanistan, York says he’s changed as a person. He’s developed more patience, he takes more joy out of simple pleasures and he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

“People complain about such small things, from the traffic to clients getting upset. I can’t even fathom that anymore,” York says. “Complaining about trivial things keeps you from completing your goals.”

Now that he’s back in Seattle, York says he devotes himself to his family, his law practice and the Navy. He enjoys having a say on how his firm evolves, and he takes pride in working with clients who create jobs in the area.

Still a part of the Navy Reserves, York says he’s proud to have done his part to stand up for human rights — a lesson instilled in him while a Willamette student and Sigma Chi Fraternity brother.

“Sigma Chi did a lot for me in helping to solidify my values,” York says. “You gain real opportunities to serve people beyond yourself.”