Tata says his Afghanistan deployment helped lead him to choose a career in education over more lucrative opportunities with defense contractors. Recalling the Taliban's orchestrated attacks against Afghan schools and specifically teachers, Tata says: "I had this crystallizing moment where I realized, 'If the enemy of my enemy is education, then that's a good second calling for me.' The Taliban don't want kids to learn about the world beyond their valley. They want them to stay steeped in darkness and remain pliable."
Connecting that experience to his education career in the U.S. capital, Tata says: "American freedom hinges on the education of our population. It's exciting to be at the eye of the hurricane in education reform."
A new command
Tata began his Broad Academy studies in January 2009. Since the academy is for working people, it operates like an executive training program. Participants attend extended weekend sessions every other month (in a different city each time) and complete other assignments independently and remotely. "It's intense Ph.D.-level work," says Tata about the 10-month-long curriculum.
Once Tata set his military retirement in motion, he retired his literary alter ego and revealed himself to be the author behind the "Threat Series" novels: Sudden Threat and a reissue of Rogue Threat were released in the fall of 2008 and 2009, respectively. Hidden Threat will be published this September, and Tata is currently putting the finishing touches on the fourth book, called Dark Threat. (Tata says he donates all of his proceeds from the books, which are now produced under the byline A.J. Tata, to the USO Metro D.C. Hospital Services Fund for Wounded Warriors.)
Since emerging as the writer who more than one reviewer has dubbed "the new Tom Clancy," Tata has achieved a level of direct fame, complete with guest appearances on several Fox News shows and a following for his commentaries and book reviews (the author of Rogue Threat loved Sarah Palin's Going Rogue) on conservative websites such as Big Government.
But as is true of Washington, D.C., itself, politics makes strange bedfellows. Last spring, Tata was hired by D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, an appointee of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, whose attempt at a second term this fall is being challenged within his own Democratic party. Since Fenty appointed Rhee and gave her unprecedented—and often controversial—control over the city's long-troubled school system, the future of the chancellor and perhaps that of her executive team are uncertain.
Tata isn't concerned. He says he's focused on helping Washington's children by improving the city's public school system. In his still-brief tenure, Tata has been credited with spearheading the repair of a special education school's dilapidated pool, enhancing the quality of food served in the cafeterias, and improving communication and coordination between the system's 127 schools and the central office.
If Tata's current mission comes to an end, he'll simply move forward. "Once I made the decision to retire from the Army, I said, 'I'm going to get out young enough so I can dedicate myself to a second career.' I decided I would do everything I needed to do so one day, I could lead a school district. That goal is now a marker for me in my second act."
What, if anything, might he long for from his first act?
"Well, there are still days," admits the former paratrooper, "when I look up and wonder if I'm ever going to jump out of an airplane again."
Melissa Stanton is a former editor at LIFE and People magazines. She wrote the AARP profiles for the previous episodes of "Your Life Calling With Jane Pauley—"The Joy of Socks" (March 2010) and "A Rural Reinvention" (April 2010).
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