A St. Louis high school student watching 9/11 unfold on live television found himself on a lifelong commitment to public service through military aid and an eventual law career.
David Denninger, McDowell County’s resident Assistant District Attorney since 2015, discussed his military background and the events before and after that highlighted his effort toward peacekeeping and justice.
A freshman at St. Louis’ Principia High School in 2001, Denninger’s path to the Army was shaped during one of the darkest moments in American history.
“I was a freshman in high school in Missouri when 9/11 happened,” said Denninger. “We were in class watching on TV and I saw the second plane hit the towers live. And from there, I knew that I wanted to do something to help.”
Denninger joined JROTC at his school – an institution he credits as being “one of the best to experiment with leadership styles” – and later attended both the Army ROTC program at Northeastern University in Boston and airborne school in Fort Benning, Georgia, between July and August 2007. Upon graduating from Suffolk University in 2009, Denninger was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army and stationed Fort Sam Houston, before he was deployed in Afghanistan as a platoon leader for a SECFOR mortar platoon in the 1-181st Infantry. Upon arriving in the Middle East, Denninger recalls that he was taken aback not so much by cultural differences but sensory.
“When you get there, the first thing you notice is a striking, visceral difference in color pallet,” said Denninger. “Every kind of shade of brown, the regions are curved, and the mountains are just a dirt color. It wasn’t until leaving as we were passing by over Canada and Florida that I’d go, ‘Wow, color!’ It was like entering the land of milk and honey after that.”
According to Denninger, his overseas deployment consisted of two different assignments: the first was foot patrol, in which he would conduct Key Leader Engagements with local government officials, gain information and provide humanitarian assistance whenever possible.
“Our objective was to communicate with the civilians and key leaders like council members and not only improve their way of life, but steer them away from being recruited by the Taliban,” said Denninger. “As part of our effort to provide humanitarian assistance, we made contact with a local girls' school in Kabul. They had very limited school supplies in their ‘district,’ and none of the supplies they did have were going to the girls' school. So, we arranged to deliver donated school supplies from the United States directly to them.”
The second assignment in Denninger’s deployment was part of a quick reaction force (QRF) tasked with assisting allied units in rapid response to developing situations. While Denninger says the company was “pretty well liked” by the local population, the QRF was subject to a complex attack in Kabul on April 2, 2011, in which multiple insurgents attempted to infiltrate the camp with improvised explosive devices.
“I remember one of the suicide devices malfunctioned and struck one of the insurgents in the face with shrapnel,” said Denninger, recalling the event.
Fortunately, none of the soldiers in Denninger’s unit were injured as he and several service members were awarded the Combat Action Badge and subsequently commended by then General David Petraeus for their actions.
However, over the course of his service in Afghanistan, Denninger felt frustrated at the overall experience with the operation, predominately over trying to meet the expectation of the humanitarian efforts.
“I went in with a real – a lot of gusto,” said Denninger. “I wanted to get to know the Afghans, and I believed in bridging that cultural divide and wanted to help. But the personal council members didn’t believe in that. It was a corrupt system – even though I didn’t see any direct corruption like money switching hands – but over and over it was a situation of, ‘What can you do for me?’ and not the community. But I met some absolutely fantastic Afghans and was very happy to assist them.”
Following the end of his deployment in July 2011, Denninger found himself in a quick turnaround, as within 30 days he would arrive at Wake Forest University’s School of Law.
“The funniest thing I remember is when I got there, the dean of the law school spoke to us and said, ‘I hope everyone had a restful summer,’ and I just laughed,” said Denninger. “I quickly found out that it wasn’t any less challenging.”
Passing the bar in 2014, Denninger racked an impressive resume in the years in between as a legal intern with the F.B.I. office’s in Charlotte and the U.S. Attorney’s Office and as Fellow in the Office of District Attorney Jon David in Wilmington before becoming Assistant District Attorney in McDowell County under D.A. Ted Bell in January 2015.
Today, Denninger – currently under inactive ready reserve with the U.S. Army – is almost omnipresent in the county court system and, as of 8 p.m. Oct. 3, he – along with his wife Michaela – became first-time parents to a healthy infant son, Jack Mason Denninger.
When asked about what he wanted the public to know about his military experience and his current position in the legal department, Denninger said the following: “Good leadership, I believe, begins with selflessness. Selfless service is the foundation of our democratic model. The more we can choose and elect selfless leaders, the better our country will be.”