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 And his frontline duty has been replaced by behind-the-scenes strategizing to coordinate and supply what every effective army—or school system—needs: food for the mess halls (cafeterias), land for bases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.)
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).