A Thank You to My Army

When I first thought about what I should say for Veterans Day, I thought I might write about the importance of decoupling military service and moral authority on patriotism. Or the importance of a well-funded diplomatic branch to ensure the military is but one option in an important toolbox of U.S. national policy options. Or discuss that in year seventeen of a war that seems to have no end, deployments are increasing and debate about the mission is not.

I am not going to write about those things, however. They are important, but can — and should — be discussed any other day. Instead, for Veterans Day, I am going to reflect on the people who shaped my time in uniform and say thank you to those who have taught me about how to guide, lead, support my peers, question narratives, and think big thoughts.

To my mentor: Before I went to Basic Training and Officer Candidate School, I interned for a year at the Pentagon. I had the good fortune of working for a woman who was at the time a public affairs Army lieutenant colonel. Working for her was like taking a 500-level language course before learning the alphabet. In her interactions with the press, her superiors and her subordinates, she showed me the Army can (and often should) be about nuance, communication, and clarity. She was loyal to her position. She was honest. And she gave me a road map that I did not understand at the time, but later proved invaluable.

To my boss: I was honored to have the privilege to serve as an aide-de-camp. This position was the most challenging and rewarding of my time in uniform. My boss was relentless — the most hardworking person I’ve ever encountered. He taught me the importance of pursuing incremental change, of acting with empathy, and of putting forth a consistent, unyielding effort. He made a point of doing PT every morning at 0530 in the base gym even though no one would have begrudged a two star a lesser schedule. He read a non-fiction, non-military book about every place he moved to or worked on. And he taught me what the details and unseen moments of leadership look like.

To my fellow platoon leader: In Afghanistan, one of my fellow platoon leaders was an incredible woman who became one of my closest friends. Often in the military, young female officers are inadvertently pitted against one another. They are forced to complete unofficially because there are simply fewer women as you climb the ranks. When I first met this young woman, I did not see her as someone who would go on to become my confidant, supporter, and friend. However, nine months in Afghanistan and six months of transition back changed that. She is unique in her constant support of other women. She defended her fellow females and amplified their strengths. And she showed me what women supporting women looks like.

To my fellow analyst: For a year, I worked with a brilliant analyst, who also happened to be a Specialist in the Army. I watched as field grade officers who had not met him before would speak to him with condescension or dismissal and then watch with gratification as he rattled off facts and figures at a speed they could barely comprehend. The military is a good place to meet incredibly unique individuals with curious stories, engaging personal narratives, and intelligence that tends to undermine society’s attempt to couple potential with pedigree. My fellow analyst became my beacon of that truth. He demonstrated it every day. And he taught me to never forget that expectations do not determine outcomes.

To my friend: Recommending with conviction Tolstoy, Hesse, and Shteyngart and preferring to debate the finer points of constitutional meaning, my friend was not the stereotypical infantry officer and became my intellectual counterpoint. From attempting to divine methods of measuring economic growth in Afghanistan at a tactical level to conversations on the role of military-to-military engagement in the U.S. global diplomatic framework, he provided a world of policy debates, creative and unbounded. He helped me build a mental framework through which to view the military. And he taught me that seemingly rigid institutions and their most rigid components are often filled with those who can see most clearly beyond.

These people, and many more, were my Army. They shaped my time while I was in uniform, my worldview, and my life. To them, this Veterans Day, I say thank you. I am a better person today because of the time I spent with you.

Margaret Mullins served five years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. She graduated from Georgetown University in 2010 and is currently a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and a member of Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Views expressed are her own.