The first stripes I ever earned

Note: Originally posted a shorter version of this last year on my 20th anniversary on Linked in

It’s remarkable for me to think that today is the 21st anniversary of my discharge from the Army. (and tomorrow is the 26th anniversary of my enlistment).

What a long time ago that was. And what a lasting mark it left.

I enlisted after leaving college — I had started at Georgia Tech at 17 studying computer engineering, but quite frankly, was unprepared to be a serious student at the time. I knew it, and they certainly were able to figure it out after a year or so. I joined the army both to pay for school, and because I wasn’t really sure what else to do as an 19 year old without a master plan.

I served five years active duty in what would be the interlude between the two Gulf conflicts, as a moderately good Arabic translator. (I’ll always hold myself up against the native speakers I served with — ‘moderately good’ was a pretty good standard to achieve). I was fortunate to make several life long friends during my years of service. And saddened when I learned of incidents in places far away from their homes and safety where a few lost their lives. The job was demanding, and rewarding, and has nothing to do with what I went on to do as a professional after I left the army. And yet it has everything to do with how I still do things on a daily basis.

It’s a trite thing to say, but I grew up in the Army. I met the woman that would become my bride. I learned what it takes to be relied upon, and to trust my team. I learned how to plan, and to know when to adjust. I learned to ask the people with experience to teach me. And I learned to teach with what little experience I had gained. I learned how to let others lead, and to lead myself.

Almost every lesson I learned in the Army still applies today:

  • Sleep when you can.
  • Eat what’s offered.
  • Go to bed tired.
  • Wake up ready.
  • Serving is an opportunity.
  • Leadership is earned every day.
  • Improvement always takes effort.
  • The person next to you will probably be in a position to save your life some day: treat her accordingly.
  • Be humble.
  • Complain less.
  • Do more.

When I left the Army, we moved to California and I dropped right into the technology career I had paused when I joined. I was fortunate to find a boss that valued the skills I had gained, and generous enough to overlook those I hadn’t yet developed. He was reasonably confident that if my time in the Army had taught me anything, it included a reasonable amount of discipline and willingness to figure it out.

I still rely on those skills daily.