Tag: military

Podcast: The Other Fifty Percent

I sat down with Julie Harris Walker from the podcast The Other Fifty Percent: A Herstory of Tech to talk a little about life in the military, leadership, transitioning into the big time technology industry and of course, women in tech and equality.

Check out the podcast here:

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Or in iTunes here:

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And if you like this kind of discussion, subscribe to The Other Fifty Percent podcasts on iTunes. I do. And they’re awesome

The road that lies ahead

I spent a summer some years back in the waterways near the northern end of San Francisco Bay, where the Napa River marshland meets up with Vallejo. The sloughs, as they’re called, were ideal for getting ready for the waterways of the Euphrates River Delta in Southern Iraq. That’s why we were there. Because that’s where we figured we were going.

That summer I packed up my boats and my team and all our weapons and gear and loaded them onto tractor trailers and hauled them up 500 miles of interstate from San Diego. I was 26. And it was my first time doing it. And as the detachment commander, I was in charge and responsible for all of it.

When you’re in that line of work in Special Operations, the small boat teams, and you’re working with the “boat guys” as they’re called, you do it all yourself. You don’t hire a shipping company or a driver to haul your crap. You start in point A. And you get it all to point B. And when you get there, you set up shop and get to work. Most will tell you that the getting there part is often the hardest part of the mission. So when we train, we train the whole way, from the time you kiss your wife goodbye on the way out the door, to the time she hands you the screaming baby when you walk back in a month later.

The key thing to remember when you’re on that kind of haul is that you stick together and you keep moving. No matter what happens. You just keep going through the brutal L.A. rush hour traffic. Keep going over the grape vine pass through the mountains on the I-5. Don’t stop for long.

Not even when something bad happens. Especially when something bad happens. Because it will.

This time, we burnt out the brakes on one of our trailers and had to coast off an exit and roll into a field to let them cool off. The look on the face of the 19-year old kid in my detachment from Idaho, who was driving, when my chief and I rolled up next to him in the chase van to tell him to slow down was priceless. After getting an earful from Chief through the wind between open windows, without blinking or any sense of panic, he barked back, “You first. I got no breaks.”

We sat for an hour in a dirt field with the stink of burnt brake pads in the air laughing about it. It scared me to death though. The weight of responsibility was new for me. And I didn’t want to fail. Or worse, get anyone killed.

Something happened not too long after that’s stuck with me nearly fifteen years later. Cruising up the highway in one of the long rural stretches of the great agricultural mecca of America that is Central California, we passed three cars that had just been in a gnarly accident. Two of them were smashed up badly. The other less so. There were suitcases and boxes strewn all over the side of the road. People were wandering around in a fog, disoriented, hazy. There was a woman holding a crying child. A man with a bloody nose sat next to one of the wrecks staring out in to space.

No one looked like they were too badly injured. At least not from a half mile away at 70 miles per hour. But the police weren’t there yet. And we were fifty miles from civilization. The first thing that popped into my mind was, man, I’m glad we weren’t in the middle of that.

My leading petty officer in one of the trailers popped into my ear over the radio.”You see that LT?”

“I see it.” Was all I said back. And we kept trucking. I heard him key the mike on the radio again, but he didn’t say anything else.

A hundred miles up the road when we stopped for gas, the door of the one truck swung open. My leading petty officer charged across the parking lot at me tattoos and muscle flying. He jammed his finger into my chest.

“Why the fuck didn’t you stop LT?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. In the two hours since, I’d forgotten all about it. I’d forgotten about the accident. I’d forgotten that we drove past people who may have been in need with three trucks full of food and medical supplies. At least four of my guys were trained EMTs. One was a hospital corpsman. And we were all field medical trained. I’d forgotten.

But he hadn’t.

The truth was, I didn’t forget. Because it never really occurred to me to stop. We weren’t obligated. I assumed they were fine. They looked fine. But most importantly, I was laser focused on the road ahead of me and the destination I had been assigned to reach and the very real risk that the road and the environment had just shown me when we burned out of the mountains. I’d closed out everything from my mind that wasn’t about keeping my team safe and getting us to our destination.

For me there was never any decision to be made.

It was one of the great teachable failures of my life. And in the 14 or so years since it happened, I’ve thought about it often.

As bad as I feel about that decision, or lack of, and as much as I’ve tried to make up for it with my actions ever since, there was more than just my own character failure at play all those years ago on that highway. I was behaving like a human.

In 1973, psychologists John Darly and Daniel Batson conducted the experiment that would eventually be known even outside psychology academic circles as the Princeton Good Samaritan Study. Darly and Batson took a bunch of students studying theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary School and gave them a questionnaire to establish their level of religiosity. Then they sent them to another building to go do one of a number of different tasks that varied by participant. One of the tasks, ironically, was to give a talk on the story of the good Samaritan from the New Testament. On the way, the team placed someone in their paths who needed help. Before they left though, they gave the students differing levels of urgency. Some were told they were late and had to hurry. Some were told they needed to hurry or they’d be late. And some were told they had plenty of time.

What they found was interesting. And has served as a bit of an anchor for me in understanding some important limits about people.

Darly and Batson found that the only thing that really mattered, relative to whether or not these seminary students wanted to help, was whether or not they were in a hurry. It didn’t matter how religious they were. Or even if they’d just prepared a talk on what the bible says about the virtues of helping others. Students who thought they had plenty of time usually helped. About 2/3 of them stopped what they were doing and helped the stranger. Students that thought they were late, even really religious ones who were about to give a talk on what Jesus said about helping others, didn’t. Nine out of ten times they just walked past. Once they even stepped over the person laying in need. Because we’re humans.

We’re wired to get where where going and get done what we want to get done. We are not wired to stop and help. The road ahead of us is all consuming. We keep our eyes on the ball. We put one foot in front of the other and get going. We’ve got shit to do and places to go. And we’ve got to put America first…

You get the point.

There’s a trap here though. It’s this. I can tell you today that we got to San Francisco on time. And that we completed the training mission. I don’t remember much about the day we got there. I remember nothing about the hour we got there. Chances were, we stretched our legs, bullshitted a little about the drive and then got to work. And, if that hour happened an hour later, it wouldn’t have mattered much. And if it had to happen that way because we helped people in need, no one would have given a rip. And if they did, they would have been wrong.

Here’s the lesson: When it comes to helping people who need help, our default setting needs to be consciously set on yes. Because if it’s not, we’re programmed for no. And if we throw something into our very near consciousness that feels like danger or fear, like losing your breaks in an 18 wheeler while screaming down a 6% incline, or stories on the news about people who look like the people in need harming the people that look like us, then we get even less willing. We close our doors. We turn inward. And we turn our backs. No matter how good a people we think we are. We are human.

And then we do the next very human thing. We regret.

Some of the deepest regrets we have as people, or as a people are when we’ve refused to recognize the needs of others. When we’ve refused to recognize their need as legitimate, their cause as worthy or their type as human. And we either end up regretting them materially because the outcomes are materially bad. Or we regret them because the pain and suffering of others, ignored, over time erodes our humanity.

There’s power in submitting to the painful truth that other people’s problems are worth solving. Not just when they can’t solve them alone. But when we can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When You’re a Hammer…

I few months ago I wandered into the Tucson airport bookstore, the victim of the dreaded and constant Tucson to San Diego delay, and saw four books on the “non-fiction” shelf by men I’d once worked with. They were war books. They were books on how to lead people differently, based on lessons learned in war. Or ways to live your life better, based on lessons learned in war. These men weren’t distant acquaintances. They were men I knew well. Men at periods in my life that I spent more time with than my family. They were my friends. And when I saw their work, and their stories in majestic hardcover form on the shelf, it made me happy. They deserved to tell their story. And others owed them a listen.

If there’s an upside to war, it’s the character that comes with the sacrifice of the generation that fights it.

You can’t turn on the television or scan your Facebook feed without a lead in that doesn’t say something like “A former Navy SEAL does X” or “this veteran has a message for Y”. There’s much to be learned from us and the experiences that less than 1% of America had fighting a never-ending war that took up all of the most productive portions of many of our lives.

So when we talk, you should listen. When we tell you about what it’s like to sacrifice years of our life to be a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves, then you should listen. And when we tell you what it’s like to serve in combat and fear for our lives and then pull ourselves past that fear to do things only we could do, you should listen. And when we tell you what it’s like to leave our family for years on end to go serve at the leisure of our national interests, you should listen. You should listen when we tell you what it’s like to watch our friends die to protect us. Or what it’s like to sift through body parts after a suicide bomb at a funeral. Or see dead children. You should listen. You should listen to us tell you what it feels like to slam a “Rip It” plug a wad of Copenhagen in our jaw and get your gear ready to go out the door on a raid with Titus Andronicus blaring in your ears.

You should listen to all of it. Because there’s power and wisdom in the lessons that life at war can teach you. Some of my friends have even written them down. I write them here.

When it comes to our opinions on things like politics or how the United States of America should behave towards other nations and other peoples, you should listen to us too. But you should also remember two critically important things.

First, the service of arms, in an all volunteer force, tends to attract a certain type of person. Good bad or indifferent, those that sign up and choose the path to stay against all available options tend to value certain things above others. And those things tend to align with a strong, conservative world view. And for we vets, that world view weaves itself into the fabric of our identity deeply. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we’ll wrap ourselves in and wear it as a shield against realities that perhaps weaken the narrative we’ve told ourselves to help us live with the pain and sacrifice of our life of service.

It’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It simply is the way it is. And you shouldn’t discount what we say. But you should remember the things that shaped our perspectives.

The second is this. When you’ve been a hammer your whole life, the world starts to look like a nail. And the call of the one who promises to swing it, is the one you’re more likely to answer. So take what we say seriously, but also make sure it’s not the only voice your listening to.  If you try to build your house with just a hammer, you get a lousy house.

I’ve gotten asked a few times about the zeal that members of the military are showing for the new Commander in Chief. And whether or not it worried me. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s a good thing. Our military enthusiastically carrying out the legal orders of their Commander is a good thing. If you were looking to them to serve as opposition, look elsewhere. It won’t happen. And it’s not their job. That’s a problem for a different group to solve-the rest of us.

And if you’re worried about the uneven nature of the POTUS coupled with this new found enthusiasm for their leader resulting in the military becoming unhinged and sweeping the nation of the enemies of their leader, rest easy. I don’t have a ton of faith in Congress to do the right thing. I have a little more in the judiciary. And you may see some misguided junior military members doing stupid things like flying Trump flags from military vehicles, which is in fact against the rules, but don’t worry. They’ll be taken care of. Because the men and woman who lead them are perhaps the one group you can bet your ass, has the courage to stand up to the boss, when he’s out of line.

We all raised our hands and swore an oath to defend something for which  we were willing to sacrifice all we’ve had or all we were ever going to have. And it’s not a man. And that’s not changing anytime soon. No matter who’s sitting in that office.

What if it Works?

I’ve asked myself a lot of hard questions since November 8th.

That’s the day I learned the truth about my limited understanding of America’s political landscape.

I asked myself, what now?

That answer was pretty straight forward. We hope for the best. And protect those who need protecting from whatever the best may bring.

I asked myself what I’m afraid of. That answer was pretty straight forward too. I’m afraid of the atrophy and political paralysis of the organizations put in place to protect us from an unsteady hand on the wheel of our government and our defense and our foreign policy.

I’ve asked myself what the people who supported him wanted, above all else. That one was the easiest. They wanted change. And they were willing to pay a high cost to get it. Whether or not we’re going to get it, is a question for the future.

Before we dive into it for real though, a few days from now, there’s another question worth asking. It’s this:

What happens, if it works?

It’s a hard question to answer. Because works is a subjective term. If your car worked like your investment portfolio worked, which is to say, most of the time, you’d fire your mechanic.

But what if we took the subjectivity out of it? What if we set the bar nice and low; a place we’d all agree on. What if we asked the question like this:

What if Donald J. Trump is president of the United States for the next eight years. And what if we’ve realized some change and avoided World War III and managed not to ignite global stability? What if those that feel at risk—women, minorities, same sex couples, poor people, immigrants—actually don’t get rounded up and sent to reservations or lose the rights or benefits that they have as they know them now?

What if eight years from now, Trump’s administration is just like Obama’s. Clearly divisive, but in power during a period of relative stability and focused improvement that only political opponents can say was downright terrible with a straight face. What if that happens?

Shouldn’t we be ok with that among all possible outcomes?

The answer for that one is still pretty straight forward for me. It’s no. And the reason is because it came with a price tag that was too high. And that price tag was our definition of personal leadership.

A few decades ago, I walked into Alumni Hall at the United States Naval Academy and joined the great class of 1999. To say that my experience there was formative would be an understatement. It’s an institution whose mission is etched in stone, literally, on the campus and figuratively on the soul of every graduate that ever survived that crucible, myself included.

“To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government.”

Morally, mentally, physically.

Duty, honor, character, loyalty, responsibility, citizenship.

Those words are the building blocks for a way of living and leading. They’re worth their weight in gold.

Not long after we graduated, my class went off to war. Time and time again, I saw the delivery of that mission pay off. I’ve served under SEAL Team commanders, guided missile destroyer captains and Green Berets. After I left that life I worked for Fortune 100 CEOs and industry leaders. Some of them never stepped foot in Annapolis or ever  once read that mission. But it felt like they had. Because leadership isn’t created by the words that describe it. It’s a common natural truth that requires personal characteristics that make it possible.

It’s damn hard to make people follow you to where the greater good needs them to go no matter what the cost to them. But that’s what leadership takes.

Eight years from now, no matter where we are as a nation, I’m not willing to change my definition of the non-negotiables of leadership. I’m not willing to say that a leader criticizes in public and compliments only when it benefits them. I’m not willing to say that a leader takes credit for the success but delegates failure to others. I’m not willing to say that strength is defined by how viciously you respond to criticism. I’m not willing to say that the weak are fair game for ridicule instead of anything other than my best efforts to protect them. I’m not willing to say that showmanship is more important than substance. And I’m not willing to say that the modern American leadership mantra is Donald J. Trump.

Not long ago, I shook hands with my commanding officer on the tarmac of an airfield in San Diego. His only words were “Bring them back Sean. All of them.” Then I waved goodbye to my wife and kids and got on a C-17 to Iraq. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I would have done harder, if he’d asked me to. I would have laid down in traffic if that’s what he told me my team needed. Because I know he wouldn’t ask me unless he had to. And I know he’d do it himself for me, if he could. Because our relationship was based on the trust that he valued the greater good above all. And he valued himself after everything else.

I don’t know much about the future. But I know there’s very few of us who believe that of our incoming president. If for no other reason that he’s gone out of his way to show us otherwise when others perhaps at least tried. And I don’t know that he’s had to ask anyone to follow him into the darkness for the greater good of others. But we’re about to find out what happens when he does. And even if it works, it’s up to all of us to insist it’s the exception. And not the new norm.

So what if it works?

If the price we pay is our notion of leadership as a culture, then the price was far too high.

The Day We Shrunk the World

There’s a common narrative about the meaning of what happened in Hawaii 75 years ago this past week. It sounds something like this. The forces of evil, previously growing unchecked in their pursuit to conquer the world, had finally awoken a sleeping giant. And though they dealt her a vicious blow, they sealed their doomed fates that morning. The forces of the free people of the world answered back and with a clear and decisive victory for good in an inarguable statement of the strength of moral and just authority.

It’s not a bad narrative. And it’s not entirely untrue. There has been no more clear example of the greatness of the American expression of liberty, democracy and capitalism than the conduct of our people, our industry and our government during World War II. And for a little while, those that perpetrated the injustice of pitching the globe into a war that would kill 60 million men and women did suffer harsh and near final consequence. But both our greatness and their destruction were perhaps less permanent than any of us like to admit. Germany and Japan, a within the span of two generations are now the third and fourth largest economies in the world. Their people enjoy a stability and quality of life reserved for a handful of societies in human history. And we Americans, the victors, have found ourselves tangled in near constant war and have enjoyed the spoils of victory much differently than perhaps we would have thought.

A few centuries ago, before he became a musical and then a political debate, Alexander Hamilton pointed to the true consequence of Pearl Harbor, a century and a half before it happened. As he urged the American people towards union and the acceptance of the newly created Constitution, Hamilton pointed to the poor state of Europe after centuries of war and division.

“The history of war, in that quarter of the globe, is no longer a history of nations subdued and empires overturned, but of towns taken and retaken; of battles that decide nothing; of retreats more beneficial than victories; of much effort and little acquisition.”

Hamilton dreamed of a union unlike Europe, so vast and sturdy that we would be free from threat of external incursions. And he was right. For 150 years, the only material damage ever dealt to us was by our own hand in the bloody war against ourselves to end slavery. But Hamilton could never have dreamed of a world where huge ships could travel the Pacific in a week’s time and launch things called airplanes to destroy an entire fleet of ships in an hour. And he could never in his wildest dreams imagined atomic energy and the horrors of nuclear warfare that ultimately answered them. Pearl Harbor was the moment in time when the world shrunk. And thereafter, no one was ever too big or too united to be free from threat. Pearl Harbor was the stark realization that forever more, anything worth owning was to be owned by someone with the means to defend it.

The lesson of the last 75 years, if we take the time to complete the narrative of what Pearl Harbor means, is one where we’ve realized Hamilton’s vision in painful ways. Where America has fought battles that decide nothing. Where our retreats have been more beneficial than our victories. Where we have exerted much effort with little acquisition.

The world has changed. And the threats have changed with it. Small groups of men with conviction can inflict great injury on world powers. Foreign entities can encroach through cyberspace to impact sacred instruments of democracy. These threats are real and dangerous. But they are very different. And we appear to be content to respond to them with the weapons of centuries past-generals.

Be careful when you respond to different problems with the same answer. National security in 2016 is perhaps not as dependent on military strength as it once was. I say this as someone who spent most of his adult life in the service of arms. I appreciate the notion of service and the benefits of military strength. But we should have learned over the last 75 years that fighting ideas or economic systems with armies, generally just kills our young men and women and not the ideas. And if you staff the team responsible for the security of our people in 2017 and beyond, with generals who fight kinetic wars, as the incoming administration has, then it begs the question, what, if anything have we learned?

Fighting the last war is always how the next war starts. But winning it tends to come with the realization that you’re doing it again.

Well, we’re doing it again.

The Lost Ones

Not that long ago, someplace far away where American soldiers and sailors were deployed, there were two brothers. One was good at building bombs and the other was different. And the one that built the bombs used the one that was different to put those bombs in places and on things that killed people. The one that built the bombs did it because he believed he was fighting for one side in a war. And the other one did it because his brother told him to. He didn’t really understand why. He just knew what he was supposed to do.

First bombs…then play. First bombs…then eat.

One day they were both picked up by the local police. First was the young man with the far off stare and the odd walk that fidgeted with his hands. He flapped his ears sometimes with his fingers. He giggled with delight when he saw people he liked and he simply couldn’t resist watching his favorite cartoon over and over again on the beat up television in his family’s home. He wasn’t hard to find. He wasn’t hiding. But he was confused and scared when they took him away. He didn’t understand. He just wanted his brother. And his TV.

The one who built the bombs was a little harder to find but he was picked up a few hours later. Lives were saved in the community.  It was a good thing that was done.

I’m comfortable with sharing the level of detail in that story because they’re not real. I made them up. Once, a long time ago there actually were two brothers that were planting road side bombs in some far away place. And they were found and arrested by one of the local law enforcement teams my team was assisting. I’d forgotten about it for a long time. It was an unremarkable mission. It was pretty easy actually. I filed it away somewhere in the back of my head with a thousand other memories of far off places and semi-dramatic events.

A few years ago, on a long peaceful run in the hills of Southern California it came back to me. As the endorphin lubricated synapses fired on overdrive in my brain, I cycled through the long slideshow of my past. It’s a meditative experience that I found settled my nerves in the weeks and months after I left military life. That particular day, a thought popped into my head from a distant corner of my conscience. It was about the two brothers and a random thing one of the locals told me about them.

“One of them isn’t right. Like a child.” he said.

And then I remembered the picture of him. He looked a little off. Like he wasn’t all there. I didn’t really pay it much mind. We heard lots of things about lots of people when we did that work. Most of them weren’t true. But we knew with certainty that those two were trying to hurt people. So they had to be stopped. And we helped. And they were stopped.

But they came back to me as I climbed higher into the mountains, running harder and harder, my lungs burning, the music in my ear buds blaring. A thought that I wish I never had came to me. It was the memory of that picture and the look on that man’s face. It was the look my autistic and cognitively impaired son has in most pictures we’ve taken of him. And then the hidden guilt of countless missions and operations and times when in another environment, the human part of my brain might have been more engaged took over. I filled in the blanks of how it all happened with a guilty imagination. And a story formed thinking only of my son in that situation. It burned into my mind. And for a long time, it’s something that I thought about, even though I really didn’t want to. And it hurt.

First bombs…then play.  He must have been so scared.

It’s not a traumatic story. Not the part that actually happened. But I wanted to share it.Because sharing it makes me feel better.  We veterans have a lots of stories in different shapes and forms. And no one gets to hear them. Because they’re nearly impossible to share in the course of normal human interaction. You can’t. So you don’t. And the result is that vets are all walking around in a world connected by people sharing their thoughts and their minds real time and virtually in a world where we may never again be in the same room with someone who knows what it smells like when someone vomits on the hot barrel of a .50 caliber machine gun and it starts to boil and bubble off it. Or what it feels like when you hold an eight year old at gunpoint because he was getting water for his family and accidentally wandered into your camp. And it scared you. They’re not remarkable stories. You couldn’t make a book or a movie about them. But we all have them. And we move around 21st century America with them in our heads and an unmet need to share the language no one but us can understand. And we live, at least a little bit, apart from everyone else, no matter how close we try to get to them.

For the first time in our history Veterans serving and separating from service are at a higher risk for suicide then the rest of the public. According to a 2014 study published in the Annals of Epidemiology, Veterans who separated from service within the last ten years are more likely to take their own lives than other Americans. And not just by a little-41 to 61 percent more. It’s not the combat. Those who never served in Iraq or Afghanistan are actually at a higher risk then those who did. And it’s not the repeat deployments either. The data tells us that doesn’t really matter. What the data does tell us is that when a service member detaches, in modern day America, he or she is at high risk for substance abuse, mental illness and eventually suicide. And it’s not the war’s fault. Or the president. Or the last president. Or the next president. Or Muslims. The data doesn’t really tell us why. But I’m pretty sure I know.  So I’ll tell you.

It’s because they’ve lost their family.

Your family is who you live your life with, suffer your failures and celebrate your successes with. It’s who you lean on to get through things, even if leaning just means standing right next to someone going through the same shit you are and drawing strength from the simple notion that they exist, there, with you. And for many service members in our voluntary force, who weren’t pulled away from another life to serve briefly to be released back into that life with an entire generation of others with the same experience, that loss of family is complete and sudden. And that alone is trauma enough to matter.

I separated from the military twice. And both times, I experienced a deep emotional impact. As a person with no history of mental illness, addiction or acute trauma, and the support of a strong family and church, I got through. But not by much. When you take away any of that support or add previous trauma or mental issues like anxiety, depression or even ADHD, the risk is far higher. For the past two years, my wife has worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in a facility for homeless, addicted veterans. And the common links she makes with almost all her clients is the existence of a pre-existing issue and a lack of a support network when they separated.

It’s not what the American people have asked us to do. It’s what happens to some of us, when we stop.

There’s a common idea that Americans fighting American wars and struggling through the trauma of combat are killing themselves in droves because of PTSD from their service in those wars. The 22 a day number has spread through social media and gained tons of attention. But both the ubiquity of the PTSD term and the 22 a day number are deceptive. Over half of those 22 a day are over fifty years old with decades between their deaths and their service. And statistically, most veterans coincidentally fall into the largest at risk bucket for suicide in America-white men over fifty. The 22 a day is more of an eye opener for the mental health, addiction and suicide epidemic in America at large. Because there’s 90 other Americans a day that kill themselves that never served. And it’s a different problem, with a different solution. The veteran issue is much more focused. And it’s not about fighting or serving . It’s about stopping.

So what can you do?

Well, this Veterans Day, start with a little more than the Facebook posts and expressions of gratitude. Those are great. But we get them all the time.  And for this problem, it really doesn’t help that much. The ones in need aren’t looking for gratuity. They’re not looking for you to feel sorry for them either. Chances are, they loved their service. And if they fought, they wouldn’t change the experience that they had for just about anything. The ones in need are looking for something else- their family. And if they don’t find it soon after they get out, many of them will be in trouble quickly. So if you can, go find someone who loves someone who just got out and share this with them. And if you know someone yourself, go talk to them or email them or Facebook message them. And instead of telling them you appreciate them, ask them a question. Ask them to tell you what it was like to serve in your military. And ask them what they saw. And then listen. And then make plans to get back together and talk some more. And don’t act like what they did was incomprehensible to you. Or that you could never do it. Chances are you could. Because what seems like appreciation, is really just a wedge between the old world and the new for us. And it hurts more than it helps.

If you’re really interested in digging in and caring, go buy Sebastian Junger’s Tribe. It’s the best account of what’s really going on here that I’ve come across. When I read it, I was moved to tears by his recognition of this message and the crisp description of what I lived through. And once you read it, go give it to a vet. It will help. Because this isn’t about pity or public guilt or shame. It’s about reestablishing the connection to their next world. And until they do, they’re lost. And the ones that stay lost for too long, stay lost forever.

Happy Veterans day. Now share.

The Prospect of Service

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Of the 20 Americans that have officially announced their candidacy for President of the United States for the 2016 election, three have served on active duty in the United States armed forces. One, Lindsey Graham (R) was a JAG (military for lawyer) in the Air Force. One, Rick Perry (R), was a cargo pilot in the post Vietnam era Air Force. One, Jim Webb (D), is a real life honest to goodness bona fide war hero, having been awarded the Navy Cross (one step down from the Medal of Honor) Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam. Which means that of those who have raised their hand to participate in the pursuit of our country’s highest office of public service, 15% of them have served in our armed forces; 5% in war.   Though that may seem low, and it certainly is relative to previous presidential races, it’s actually more than representative of our overall population base with respect to military service.   According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, presently, about 7% of Americans have ever served on active duty in the military. And so we should be somewhat satisfied by our turnout of candidates. Somehow it doesn’t feel that way though. Perhaps because we hold the office to a higher standard. Perhaps because we value military service differently than other vocations when it comes to presidentiality.   As usual though, if we take a look at the history behind it, we can gain some perspective on how much this really matters.

Does military service matter?  At the highest level, there’s an interesting pattern that makes logical sense when you take some time to think about it.   We’ve had three presidents who have served in the highest ranks during a time of war and have therefore met what we would consider to be the most relevant prior experience to being commander in chief. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower all were, in whatever historically appropriate capacity possible, the highest ranking officer engaged in the highest level of combat during our three most consequential armed conflicts. Of the 24 years those three men served as president, a total of 6 months was spent at war, the sole contribution to our war history being the 186 days it took for Ike to pull the plug on Korea. Now, there’s a case to be made that those men had seen war and therefore had no stomach for more of it. Which we know from their memoir’s is at least a little true. What probably played more of a factor was simple chronology though. Being “General of the Army” is not a young man’s game. So if you were doing it at the time of war, and you went on to become president, you did so in a very short period of time, within the scope of a decade in each case. We tend to steer clear of large scale war within the scope of the same generation if we can help it. And so the requirement for lofty military command to qualify a presidential candidate for the job is not one that history supports.

If we flip the question around and ask what was the prior military experience of our most effective commanders in chief, we get a somewhat surprising answer. For one, we actually didn’t have a president during our first important war, the American Revolution. So when we look at those who played critically tactical roles as President, the list is quite short. It includes two men with exactly zero days of active duty service in the military. Lincoln and FDR were, head and shoulders above the rest, the most important and successful commanders in chief to ever hold the office of President. When you think about the scope and scale of their burden, it’s remarkable all that they were able to accomplish. Lincoln waged war a stone’s throw from the White House personally transmitting orders to generals in the field from the War Department Telegraph room.   FDR engaged daily with a joint allied staff on strategy in Europe and the Pacific until the day he died. The decisions these men both made, regularly, are unequaled in their complexity and their impact on the nation and the world. Neither ever wore a uniform.

History makes a pretty strong case. Military service is a poor predictor of performance as commander in chief.  So does it matter at all? If not as a qualification to lead the military, then what does it tell us? Does it tell us a candidate is dedicated to a life of service? Perhaps, but to be honest, agree with their politics or not, the list of 20 or so names on this candidate list includes hundreds of years of public service not specific to the military. So, it’s not really about service either. But it is about something. To be clear its actually about two things.

First, it’s a validation that at some point in their life, a candidate has done something that took some grit. Of the three war-time deployments that I had, two were with what we’ll call elite units. The third, the one that I’m least likely to tell war stories about at parties, was with what we would call a “conventional” unit.   That deployment, by a country mile, was the one that absolutely beat me down the most. It was brutal relentless and absolutely representative of what most of our men and women in uniform experience when they deploy. So when we see someone who has served, we can say with confidence, that at some point in their lives, they lived through a truly trying experience. Which is something to benchmark them with when so much of everything else that we see out of them feels less genuine and more contrived. Military service is real. And there’s no way to hide from the “suck”. When you look at this field of 20, it definitely feels light on grit.  But maybe that’s just from where I’m sitting.

The other thing that prior military service does, and this is more relevant for war time service, is that it validates resiliency. Which is actually entirely different than being a hero. There’s something to the notion that heroism is less important than recovery. My experience during the 14 years of war that we’ve been engaged in is a fairly common one for those that served. I saw less “action” than those who served in the worst of it, yet more than those that managed to serve in more peripheral roles. Of the 20 or so months I spent in active war zones, I can clearly count two instances where I legitimately thought that I was going to die. Some level of danger and vigilance were constants but those moments where I actually thought that I wasn’t getting out of it were rare. And frankly, the reason I did was because of luck and other people, not heroism or skill. The fall out of those events was not necessarily contributory to a life well lived either. That which does not kill us…sometimes leaves us with nightmares, anxiety and a propensity to self medicate. There’s something important that follows though. We’re beginning to talk about this more these days but we used to ignore it entirely. It’s the recovery that matters.  The richest part of the human experience is the walk back to the path our life was on when something knocks us off of it. And so for men like James Webb, it’s less about the citation from his Navy Cross, which I encourage you to read, and more about what he no doubt went through in the years after he returned from war to live the worthy and full life that he has. It’s not that you can’t get those experiences without serving. War simply tends to provide those that experience it with more acute opportunities to survive.

With all this in mind, what should we be considering when it comes to military service and our presidential candidates? I think it’s the following question. What did a candidate do with the prospect of military service? For some, because of the time in which they lived and the paths that their lives have taken, the opportunity to serve simply never materialized as a serious consideration. And that’s ok. Lincoln and FDR show that. But for others, the prospect of service was a question that couldn’t be avoided, like those of the “Greatest Generation”. Of the eight presidents that held office after WWII, all of them actively served in some capacity in the military during the war. A little closer to home for this election, there’s the question of Vietnam service.  What did a candidate do with prospect of serving in Vietnam? Did they pursue it? Did they leave it to fate? Or did they run from it? I think it’s fair to put the last of those three choices into the “not suitable” bucket. But that’s just my opinion. And it’s an opinion informed by asking that one critical question of what a candidate did with the prospect of service. The snapshot in time that will be the 2016 election is as such that we ought to be slightly fine with the lean yield of the answer to that question. But the future will likely hold a very different outcome. Here’s why.

My generation of service member has been at war a long time. For many of us, we spent our whole professional careers at war. I was deployed when the war started and finished my active duty career months before the end of combat operations in Iraq.   Our chance to participate in a new life of service is coming. And when it does, the question of the prospect of service will become much more important. My generation has been knocked far off of life’s path and for those of us fortunate to make the long journey back to it, there will be a calling to serve again. We’ve seen much, sacrificed more and fear little. And our time is coming. So when 2024 rolls around or maybe even 2020, ask yourself that question with regard to your candidate of choice.  What did they do with the prospect of service?   Because what it tells of my generation is important.  And we’re getting closer to the door every day.