Dan Shanks wakes up every day and says goodnight to his wife, Sophia, through a computer. This is the best and worst part of his day, all at once. As he begins another tiring, gruesome day of work, she is calling it quits on another.
This is the life to which Shanks has become accustomed. The 1997 Coker College graduate has served as a human terrain specialist for the United States government since July 2010. He is currently stationed in Ghazni Province in Afghanistan.
Human terrain mapping, in essence, is serving as a sociocultural advisor to the military. For Shanks, who speaks the English, Dari and Pashtu languages, it involves talking to local Afghan nationals and gathering their thoughts, grievances and political considerations using social science research methods to get a broad sample to validate the findings.
“Basically, we collect as much information as we can in order to advise the U.S. military how to operate in certain areas,” said Shanks, a former standout on the Coker men’s basketball team. “This could involve geographic considerations, political or tribal battles, or figuring out the different networks of power players – who’s important, who’s not.”
Shanks and his team use the information they receive to try and limit the violence throughout the country. The goal is to provide operationally relevant sociocultural knowledge that enhances the decision making process. He says the best part of his job is when he is successful in helping a soldier make a more informed decision based on the applied and proven research methods they use, which is the reason he pursued the position originally.
“I wanted this job because I wanted to work with the best fighting force in the world,” said Shanks. “Cultural nuances and information can make all the difference in building relationships and alienating the public or not in Afghanistan. I want to help our soldiers understand these foreign countries they have to fight in and, in some cases, rebuild. I feel truly honored that our great country has allowed me the privilege of helping shape even the smallest of decisions.”
While the job brings Shanks plenty of joy, it has its share of difficult times. His not-yet-three-year-old marriage is waiting for its chance at consistency.
“It’s challenging to be married and be 8,000 miles apart,” he admits. “The eight-and-a-half-hour time difference is tough, too, but we get to talk and Skype every day.”
Being able to handle conflicts and distractions is nothing new for the 39-year-old. He’s been on the go ever since he left Coker to pursue a professional basketball career – one that lasted seven years in Europe – all the way to his current location in Afghanistan.
Shanks credits his time at Coker for teaching him how to manage his life. He left the campus with degrees in history and physical education with a concentration in physical fitness programming, but the first challenge involved learning to separate athletics from academics. And his coach, Dan Schmotzer, and favorite professor, Mal Hyman, helped pave the way for him.
“Coker really gave me the chance to find a balance,” said Shanks. “I was an absolute basketball nut. Coach Schmotzer got me going from a playing standpoint, and Mal helped me grow up intellectually. Those two also really gave me the chance to practice positive role modeling. When I was at Coker I was 100 percent basketball. Now, I’d say I’m about 10 percent, and that transformation started at Coker.”
Shanks’ contribution to the men’s basketball program is far from forgotten, however. Many consider him one of the best male athletes to ever don a Coker uniform. Shanks is second on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,895 career points. A knee injury his senior season cost him 10 games and derailed his chance to be at the top, as he sits 80 points behind the all-time leader, Dennis Woolfolk.
He still holds multiple records at Coker. Shanks has the highest scoring average for a season (21.8) and career (18.9), the most points scored in a season (610), the highest free-throw percentage in a season (93) and the highest free-throw percentage in a game (100). He was part of the ’94-95 team that won a school-record 10 straight games, led the program to a No. 14 rank nationally in Division II, and is the only player to win freshman of the year and player of the year honors from the conference in the same season.
During Shanks’ time at Coker, the men’s team won more than 80 games and reached the conference championship three times, winning one. This period changed the dynamic of the program; winning became common and recruiting battles became easier. A lot of credit is due to No. 24.
“When you get old, you look back and you ask, ‘How many times do you really go somewhere that you’ve never been before?’” Schmotzer said. “You’ll have it with the birth of a child, death of a parent – it’s different emotions. The only thing that can take you to a level like that emotionally is sport. That guy did it to me, not only to me but for me. I’ve experienced that only a few times in my life, but he was the main reason for one of them. You don’t get it often, but when you do, you don’t forget it.
“The difference he made to our college is unparalleled. We had some success early in my time here, but Dan’s teams changed everything. He and Missy Paterson were difference-makers for this school.”
As Shanks worked his magic on the court, he and Schmotzer developed a bond off of it that continues to this day. Shanks’ father passed away when he was 15, and he now says that “coach Schmotzer is like a father figure to me.”
The two regularly connect over the phone or through Skype. When Shanks is in town – he and his wife still reside in Hartsville – he will routinely speak to Schmotzer’s team. And of all the hardware and memorabilia that fills the coach’s office, Shanks’ old No. 24 jersey is the easiest one to find, hanging right behind his desk.
“This bond goes deeper than basketball,” said Schmotzer. “I know in this profession you’re supposed to win games and everything, but the payback is the connection you develop between player and coach. In 39 years of coaching I have a large family of former players, but this guy is special. I can’t tell you how tight this is.”
Shanks’ work agreement with the government could last up to four years. When it breaks again in September, he will have an opportunity to continue serving or return home for good and search for a job in the states. For the first time in a while he wouldn’t have to use a computer to say goodnight to Sophia – he could just lean over and tell her himself.
Coker College readies undergraduates for personal and professional success through a distinctive four-year program that emphasizes a practical application of the liberal arts as well as hands-on and discussion-based learning within and beyond the classroom. Coker is ranked among the “Best Colleges” in the South by U.S. News & World Report as well as The Princeton Review. Located in Hartsville, S.C., Coker is within two hours of the cultural, financial and recreational resources of Charlotte, Columbia, Charleston and Myrtle Beach.