In Anthony Tata's new, later-in-life career, he's rarely addressed as "sir" or "General," even though some might consider his current position, as chief operating officer of Washington, D.C.'s public schools, to be a combat deployment.
Until June 1 of last year Tata (pronounced TAY-tuh), was a brigadier general in the U.S. Army. During his 32-year military career, which began as a 17-year-old cadet at West Point, he served as a paratrooper, infantryman, and ranger in hot spots including Bosnia, Panama, Kosovo and, most recently, the front lines of Afghanistan. Today, the 50-year-old "Mr. Tata" (or "Tony," as he prefers to be called) wears a jacket and tie to work instead of a uniform and bronze star. And his frontline duty has been replaced by behind-the-scenes strategizing to coordinate and supply what every effective army—or school system—needs: food for the mess halls (cafeterias), land for bases (schools), and equipment for the troops (teachers and students).
There are other differences, including that small matter about issuing orders. "As a general, I could snap my fingers and 3,000, 5,000, 10,000 troops would change their uniform," recalls Tata, who now works and lives in D.C. "Here you've got to build consensus."
Tata's decision to leave the military and launch a new career was planned yet unexpected. After his return from a yearlong tour in Afghanistan, where he was the deputy commanding general of a mountain division and combined joint task force, Tata, long an aspiring novelist, was offered a multi-book contract based on a military-action thriller he had written and self-published under the pen name Aiden Rocke. (Tata says he kept a low-profile about his literary pursuits, and specifically the book Rogue Threat, so his hobby wouldn't intrude upon his military duties; he adds that there's no meaning behind his alias, the first part of which was chosen from a 2005 list of popular names for boys.)
To lead or write?
This new opportunity made Tata rethink his career plans, and in June 2008 he submitted his resignation papers to the Army. "When you're in combat, you reflect a lot about your life and goals and purpose," Tata says. "I absolutely believe my career in the military was a calling, in every true sense of the word. But after Afghanistan, I felt I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve in the military. I decided, 'That was a good first act.' "
Because the Army requires its officers to attend retirement transition seminars, Tata happened to hear a presentation about The Broad Superintendents Academy, which was created by philanthropist Eli Broad to develop talented administrators for jobs transforming troubled urban schools. Intrigued, Tata applied to the program, which he learned had actually been trying to recruit him for years. (Thinking their correspondence was junk mail, he kept discarding the letters unopened.) After an intensive interview process in which 650 applicants were winnowed down to just 12, Tata was accepted into the all-expenses-paid academy.
While the thought of becoming a full-time novelist had great appeal, Tata realized he could continue to write on the side while pursuing a career in education administration. His wife, Jodi, and children Brooke, now 21 and an aspiring doctor, and Zachary, now 16, agreed. Tata also sought the advice of his parents, both of whom had long careers as educators in his native Virginia Beach. (Tata's mother, Jerri, is a former teacher and school board member. His father, Robert, a retired guidance counselor and coach, is at age 80 a member of the Virginia State Assembly and chairman of its education committee.)