“Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country's cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.” ― Abraham Lincoln
This year, November 11th falls on a Friday. If you don’t work for the U.S. government or a bank, it will probably be a work day. If you’re a student, you may or may not have to go to school. If you work in retail, it will mean the kick-off to an extended weekend sale. It’s also Veterans Day.
As I grow older, this holiday means more to me. Being a veteran means more to me. I realize how much being a soldier contributed to my development as a leader. And I realize how much being a veteran continues to contribute to my development as a person.
I served when our wars were “cold”. I enlisted in the Massachusetts Army National Guard in 1983, and served with the 182nd Infantry Battalion until I received my commission in 1986. I finished my master’s degree, and reported for active duty in 1987. After completing my Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, I served with the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) at Fort Carson, Colorado.
As my training and experience progressed, the military impacted me in ways I hadn’t expected. My relationship with my father, a World War II veteran, changed when I returned from Basic Training. I think we both started to see each other differently. I realized that we were much more alike than we were different. I think the same thing happened with him and my grandfather, a World War I veteran.
In my National Guard unit, I served with veterans of the Vietnam War. When the sergeants learned that I planned to become an officer, they treated me differently than the other enlisted men. The armorer – the sergeant in charge of the weapons – made sure I learned the functions and care of every rifle and pistol. The supply sergeant taught me the basics of accountability. Most importantly, they taught me that the noncommissioned officers – the NCOs – the sergeants – were the backbone of the U.S. Army.
At the Suffolk University Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program, I was trained by more combat veterans – Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Benway, Master Sergeant Bernard and Master Sergeant Taylor. These men were determined to ensure that we had the leadership skills we’d need as officers. And by his example, Major Benway showed us how a good officer interacts with his sergeants.
An injury at Ranger School derailed my career, and I was assigned to division headquarters instead of a line unit at Fort Carson. I was working with majors, colonels and generals on a daily basis.
My two years working with these senior leaders was the equivalent of a second master’s degree. I learned how to step back and see the big picture while keeping an eye on the important details. I watched the balance of meeting the immediate needs of an individual soldier with the goals of a much larger unit. I saw that the best leaders weren’t just intelligent, but that they never stopped reading, training and learning. I was proud that I belonged to an organization led by these amazing people.
When I left active duty in early 1990, being a veteran didn’t mean much to many civilians. I think their image of the military was formed by John Wayne, Rambo and Full Metal Jacket. I was told on interviews that I wasn’t prepared to work with an integrated workforce. A hiring manager said that unlike the military, I couldn’t just order people around.
I tried to explain that the Army was more integrated than their company, and that good leaders never just issued orders. However, my message didn’t get through, and I started to collect rejection letters. I found work as a waiter and a barback.
During the first Gulf War, the public was given unprecedented access to military leaders. Every day, we watched live interviews with General Powell and General Schwarzkopf. Reporters were “embedded” with combat units. Retired military officers became analysts for the news channels.
Public perception about the military began to change. Instead of being seen as brutal, non-thinking killers, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines were portrayed as dedicated and intelligent warriors. Their leaders were well-read, educated thinkers. Even people against the war made it clear that they were “for the troops”.
For the first time since World War II, there were welcome home parades for the soldiers. This reception helped heal the emotional wounds of many Vietnam veterans. People were talking about drafting Powell or Schwarzkopf for the presidential election. Closer to home, I was able to get a new job as a supervisor within 3 months.
Decades later, we are at war again. Because of the duration of this war, and the involvement of National Guard and Reserve units, the number of combat veterans has grown exponentially. Most of us have a family member or close friend who’s served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Too many know the loss of a loved one who paid the ultimate price.
During this same time period, veterans of all ages have become more organized. Through online groups on sites like LinkedIn, veterans are able to network and support each other. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion are growing again. We proudly march in our towns’ parades and solemnly gather to pay respect to the fallen at wakes, funerals and burials.
Connecting with fellow-veterans is both humbling and uplifting. I recognize that I never had to face enemy fire or roadside bombs. Yet combat veterans are often the first to remind me that we share a unique bond. A bond that doesn’t make us better than anyone else. But different.
And that difference has changed us. And continues to change us. Our roles as leaders didn’t stop when we turned in our uniforms. We know that just as our sergeants and officers pushed us to grow many years ago, we must push ourselves to grow today. The journey isn’t over.