A Lesson A Year: 8 Things I Took From the Army

This July I will transition from the US Army to civilian life. It’s an exciting and big change, and as with all such events, long periods of introspection and reflection often follow. As I’ve sat through classes teaching me how to dress in the civilian workforce, use proper etiquette, and refine my resume, I’ve had time to think back on the last eight years (four active and four inactive reserve/ROTC in college) with laughter, sadness, and some humility…

Year 1: Teamwork. As a freshman cadet, one lives, eats, sleeps, and trains as a team. In the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets, we freshmen were grouped into Training Companies: teams of about 20–30 new cadets. These people were your assigned friends for a year, like it or not. “The Corps” as it was called has a tradition of “Spirit Missions.” That is, freshmen cadets sneak out of their bedrooms in the middle of the night before a major event/march/football game and make large paintings on a particular patch of pavement on campus, or hang an obnoxiously large graffitied banner someplace high and seemingly inaccessible. During these events, teamwork was crucial. A few cadets would do the painting or banner hanging. Some members of the freshman training company would be lookouts for university police, staff, or other cadets. A few cadets stayed behind to cover for the rest of us if anyone happened around and started asking questions. Another one or two cadets were door-watchers. These members were crucial as they were in charge of opening the door to the building (from the inside) so as to not have anyone’s ID card register in the building at the wrong time and blow the whole mission. Heaven forbid another freshman training company showed up to mark the same spot. That could lead to a brawl.

Year 2: Things aren’t always what they seem. After the glow and “new car smell” of being a freshman cadet wears off and upperclassman life begins, we were left in a bit of a gray area. More experienced and knowledgeable than new cadets, but not quite experienced enough to fill major leadership roles, life as a Sophomore Cadet was pretty low-key and self-structured. We began to learn more about what an Army Officer’s job really is like, and dreams of being the world’s best special forces commando, the next best Jason Borne, or 5-star general began to fade away to the gruesome reality: few would be eligible to apply for those jobs, much less know where to begin or even make it to the finish. And so with my back no longer to the fire, I began to wonder what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I began to look for a change, a way out, a new direction for my life. Ultimately I stuck with it, knowing that I’d owe time in service under my contract if I didn’t finish school first.

Year 3: To thine own self be true. I came out to myself when I was 10 years old. I had always felt like part of myself knew what I was before I had a label or a knowledge of what homosexuality actually was. I struggled for years. Even after this third year, I continued to struggle in some form or another, but this year was defining. I became comfortable knowing who I am and that it was ok to not ask permission from others to be myself.

Year 4: Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Cadet Commander: in charge of 80 officer-candidates daily lives, training, and wellbeing; Team Commander: in charge of a newish competitive marksmanship team recently increased to 30 people and conducting combined training with local law enforcement; Soon-to-be Army Officer: building my professional skill set and knowledge base; Student: facing 21 credit-hours. In some ways my fourth year was a literal hell. As a Cadet Commander, I found myself dealing with issues I’d never considered. Part mother, part counselor, part disciplinarian, and part friend, I donned a different hat depending on the person I led and what their particular needs were. During that year, we saw cadets, both good and bad attrit, leaving feelings of both remorse and jubilee. I dealt with the aftermath of one of our members committing suicide and the absolute horror and sobriety of having to conduct a parade the following morning without being able to tell the rest of my unit what had really happened…then getting blamed for his death by some of my leaders…then the gut-churning task of collecting and packing up the deceased’s possessions for his family. By the end of the year, I was done physically, mentally, and emotionally. A few good men took me aside after they noticed that I was falling apart, counseled me, and gave me the tough love that I needed to hear. As, one-by-one, they took the rank insignia off their chests and told me they liked and cared about me as a person (both actions deeply moving and symbolic in the military) I slowly began to open my eyes to the fact that through all my experiences, trials, and tribulations, I had neglected myself. And, as COL Chase said to me, “how do you expect the people under your charge to take care of themselves and seek help if they see their leader doing the opposite,” I had some self-help to do.

Year 5: “Save your frieking money!” I had an instructor. He was a jovial and rosey-cheeked man, but nevertheless intimidating. On of his favorite things to do to a class of soon-to-be new second lieutenants was leap onto a table at the front of the room and chant advise to the high heavens…we even had a Facebook group devoted to the absurd things he’d say in class. Despite his sometimes off-color rantings, he was always consistent with one: “SAVE YOUR FRIEKING MONEY!” he’d bellow from the top of the table, stomping his feet in rhythm. He’d seen it time and again, he recounted: new officers commissioned into the active army after having spent their college days squandering every last cent of their monthly stipend. “What about the costs to travel out to your first duty location?” he’d ask. “Food? Housing? And how about the month or two it will take the Army to process your financial paperwork to get paid?” Nonetheless, most of us would roll our eyes and refocus on our next jolly. Part guilty of the same, I inevitably found myself listing some prized possessions on eBay and using my of my graduation present money to pay my way from Virginia, to New Jersey, and then to Seattle, Washington. Lesson learned. I’ve saved way up and focused heavily on investments since then.

Year 6: First Impressions Are Lasting Impressions. There is a school of thought in the military. An old school of thought, that individuals coming to a new unit should send letters of introduction to their new commanders. It’s a dying practice, but one that senior level commanders (more of the baby boomer generation) tend to appreciate. As most people don’t do this, I decided to set myself apart and start branding myself by participating in this ritual. Using my networking skills, I ascertained the commander’s name and a work address for him and sent away my letter. A week later, I had an email from him, welcoming me to the unit. A month later, I arrived at the unit with a few new people already added to my network and already a name for myself. A week and a couple of interviews later, I landed the job I wanted. How did some of my contemporaries fare? Well, of the four of us who came to the unit at the same time, I was the only one who got the job I wanted. The others waited…and waited…and waited: one guy waited over a year in a “filler position.” Because of my impression, my competence, and my hunger, I even took that coveted job from guys who had already been in the unit for a year or more.

Year 7: Mind Your Company. We’ll fast forward six months in that job. My direct supervisor and his right-hand leader left to pursue other assignments or retire. They were both superstars. Their replacements: not so much. The new right-hand leader and I had interpersonal issues with each other. Why? Couldn’t tell you. When we met there was a sort of tension…a mutual acknowledgement of some form of dislike. His and my relationship was a crash course in Robert Greene’s “48 Laws of Power” and this gentlemen had 30 years of life experiences on me and, needless to say, was much more adept at applying Greene’s principles. I found myself being discreetly undermined and slandered. By the time I realized what was happening, the damage was too great to undo. But I learned a valuable lesson. I learned to trust my instincts about people and to rely on those people that are trustworthy.

Year 8: Set Yourself Up For Success. “Nobody will look out for your career for you.” People love to throw this phrase around in the military. Partially as a way to avoid taking responsibility for developing subordinates and partially as a hard lesson in reality: know what you want out of life and your career and devote all your energy to realizing it. For me, this year signaled the end of my service obligation. I made the decision to leave the military and pursue my life goals: entrepreneurship and giving back to society in differently impactful ways. I began investing more heavily than in the past. I’ve read more and more about business and society. I took courses on business, Six Sigma, etc. Some people won’t like you for it. Some people can’t fathom leaving the organization, especially after they’d devoted 15+ years to it. But it’s not about them, and it’s ok to be selfish sometimes.