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The open wounds we veterans carry. I’m not referring to the physical wounds from a gunshot or an explosion in combat, or even the psychological wounds of traumatic combat experience. I am referring to the closure veterans seek following their service in foreign wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m highlighting the void or open wound they feel as these nations remain in a war-like state with constant violence and fledgling governments and defense forces. Veterans reflect on their wartime service through the lens of fighting for their buddies left and right. While this is true and just, wars are fought to achieve a greater peace. Servicemembers understand this and give their all towards mission accomplishment. When a greater peace is not achieved, many of them feel a void as if the job was left unfinished. This feels like an open wound which may never heal.
I’ve just returned from three weeks in France where I spent time in Paris and the Champagne region. As I departed the U.S., our nation was celebrating Memorial Day honoring our fallen. While overseas, several war-related events occurred, namely, D-Day, Flag Day, the U.S. Army’s birthday and President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un. The Champagne region of France is rich not only in its beauty but in its traces of previous wars. While there, I had a chance to visit the battlefield of Verdun and bear witness to the ground in which some 1 million French and German soldiers lost their lives in World War I. The chateau where I stayed had a small swastika etched in the stone frames of one of its windows indicating German occupation during World War II, another of the many scars of war across France.
Throughout my stay I enjoyed the peace and serenity of the French countryside and felt safe to explore a place which had once seen war on a grand scale. It made me proud to know my country took part in those wars and helped bring them to a successful conclusion. I thought to myself how great it must feel to a World War II veteran to see the very place they fought now in a state of enduring peace. Think of the veterans of Pointe Du Hoc who scaled its vertical cliffs under fire or those who charged the heavily defended Omaha Beach. These men can enjoy a peaceful lunch near these places and take in scenery far different and more peaceful than when they fought there decades ago. There must be some sense of closure to that, a healing of their own wounds perhaps.
Keeping pace with U.S. new headlines while overseas, I was able to watch footage and remarks of the summit between President Trump and the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. This historic event coupled with recent peaceful talks between North and South Korea have sparked a sense of hope in me. I’ve always paid homage to the veterans who went before me, like those who fought in Korea. I stand on their shoulders and they were the first ones I thought of when I watched these events unfold. Could this be closure or partial closure for them? Would this give greater meaning to their service and help mend their wounds? There’s no shortage of doubters and pundits who claim the summit was a mere show with little substance. Perhaps there are some truths to their criticism, but we veterans know better than to call foul during the initial baby steps on the long, arduous road to peace. Indeed, we are far from the day when we can freely roam the streets of Pyongyang like we do Paris today but perhaps this is, in some way, a positive sign. For many, including my Korean War brethren, I certainly hope so.
I wonder if I’ll ever be able to travel to Kabul, Afghanistan with my wife, show her the city, eat Kabobs and study its history. Or if I would ever have the chance to ride my motorcycle across the Hindu Kush Mountains, a place where I fought and lost soldiers and rest in road-side hotels and eat naan bread and Afghan rice. At the age of 50, seeing both Iraq and Afghanistan limp along, it seems unlikely. However, for my own closure and that of my brother and sister veterans, I’ll take what I can get. A peaceful settlement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban or an Iraqi Government which embraces and includes its Sunni, Shia and Kurdish people would serve as a partial suture to my open wound. I’d take whatever speech, summit or agreement which leads to a greater peace for the people of these countries. It is likely I will never travel to Iraq or Afghanistan. They are not bucket list items for me, but I would surely swell a bit with pride seeing some sign that my service and the service of those who lost their lives was not in vain. Until then, I and my fellow veterans will live with our open wounds.
Being funny, breaking up the gridlock of seriousness, not taking oneself too seriously in the work place is a good thing. As the old saying goes, “laughter is the best medicine.” According to helpguide.org, a trusted site for mental and emotional health, laughter strengthens your immune system, boosts mood, diminishes pain, and protects you from the damaging effects of stress. Sound like something you need in your organization? In an era of employee disengagement, high pressure work environments and hyper-focused bosses, I certainly think so. Even as an Army leader of combat-bound units, I never took myself too seriously. I am a klutz who trips over things and accidently scrapes and cuts himself when doing something manually. I have this running joke with my wife when I am doing something manual around the house where I say, in a very matter-of-fact tone, “I’m bleeding.” She always shakes her head and laughs. I’m not the smartest man in the room so I always joke about how I graduated college with a 2.6 GPA. I like to poke fun at people and love it when they come back at me. In my 27 years leading soldiers and caring for families I found that light-hearted humor always broke the tension present in many a meeting. I wore the rank of colonel and held command positions. There existed this stigma that I might be the hard, boisterous, angry Army officer, the one you see often in movies. I needed to break that and humor was my way. I had numerous leadership characteristics such as patience, empowerment and integrity to name a few. These characteristics will help any leader achieve greatness. Whatever yours, add humor to the list and watch your organization flourish.
Humor has its place but there are times in the workplace when it is inappropriate. As I share in my book, I had to temper my sense of humor which I used when I was not comfortable or confident about a topic, especially in a very serious profession like the Army. Only through deliberate self-awareness was I able to overcome this weakness. It is important to keep it clean. Indeed, any humor that degrades or offends people is not humor. I always wanted to let my guard down and joke with people but I would be the first to address anything which offended a person or group. In your organization or in your small team, give humor a stage. Start meetings off with a joke, watch a funny cat video or tell a funny story related to what the group is about to discuss. Hold meetings and events in places which foster fun like a local brewery or an amusement center. Let your own guard down. Confess a weakness and tell a funny story about yourself in the spirit of vulnerability and transparency. Be the leader who knows when to insert humor and when it has no place. Be the leader who introduces humor, helps people let their guard down yet addresses it when it offends. You will apply several leadership characteristics on your leadership journey. Include humor. I’ve seen the tangible effects of humor in a variety of environments and can tell you, from experience, it is great medicine for any organization.
On the last Monday in the month of May our country celebrates Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those who died while serving in the armed forces. For many, perhaps too many, this day marks nothing more than the start of summer, celebrated with a day off from school or work. Stores will stock up on barbecue items, discount beach chairs and gas grills, and vacation destinations will ready themselves for the onslaught of tourists. With the frantic pace of life and what seems to be a growing divide between those who have served and their families and those who have not, perhaps we have lost the meaning of this day.
Freedom is not free. It must be defended and so as we enjoy the relative safety of our communities and travel without worry to destinations of our choosing we must always remember these freedoms come with a cost. This cost is represented by the over 400,000 service members buried at Arlington National Cemetery and countless others at military cemeteries across our country. Each gravesite which memorializes a single servicemember also represents countless families and friends left behind. The cost is represented by the videos, images, books and monuments like the September 11th Memorial which should serve as reminders of the price and fragility of freedom.
I visited New York City on Memorial Day Weekend with my family several years ago and we had the opportunity to visit the site of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. It was still under construction but we were able to walk the hallowed grounds, view images, videos and hear audio recordings from family members. It was tough. We all wept and for a moment wondered why we would put ourselves through this. As we made our way through the memorial and consoled each other, I reminded my sons that this was supposed to hurt. “Lest we forget” I said. While I knew the visit would be sad, I had not expected this level of pain. Yet as we composed ourselves, I was hopeful that this pain would be seared into our memories, that we would always remember the cost of freedom and honor the sacrifice of those who defended it and their families. General Robert E. Lee said, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” He said this perhaps to remind others of the true horrors of war in hopes that they would always remember. This statement rewritten for Memorial Day might sound like this; “it is well that remembering the fallen on this day should hurt, lest we forget.”
So, should we shelve our plans for the weekend, park the boat or camper and send regrets to family members? Absolutely not, however each of us can and should pause in commemoration for the fallen. We should recall the horrors of September 11th and the painful images of war. Remembering reminds us of freedom’s great cost. Remembering causes each of us to renew our commitment to those who stand ready to defend our freedoms. Remembering makes each of us more vigilant, more willing to give of ourselves or our loved ones to our nation’s defense so that we can continue to enjoy future Memorial Days as we will this one, relaxing and reconnecting with those we love.
I don’t always make it to a cemetery or monument each Memorial Day. I visit them when I can throughout the year. And yes, I will certainly do my share of relaxing this weekend with those I love. But I will pause in remembrance as I do each morning while making coffee in my own strange personal ritual of remembering the fallen soldiers I served with and commanded in combat. Whatever remembrance you choose, let the pain return like I do when I think about that visit to New York. Never forget the fallen, for they paid the ultimate sacrifice. Remember, it’s supposed to hurt.
On May 11th, 2018, Military Spouse Appreciation Day, our nation recognizes military spouses for their sacrifices and contributions. This day is part of National Military Appreciation Month. Aside from Memorial Day, most people will let the greener, warmer days of May pass by without much thought or recognition of these women and men. Not this old soldier. I’ll be speaking at a military spouse event sharing my deep love and respect for these selfless servers or as I call them, American National Treasures. I read an article recently which labeled several American public figures as National Treasures, many of whom were entertainers like Tom Hanks and Ray Charles. The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to preserve what it calls US National Treasures, mostly locations and structures they deem worthy of preservation and recognition. We recognize people, places or things as national treasures so we can pay special respect to them, admire their grandeur or contribution to an industry, field or society. This special deference should be paid to our military spouses as well. Overstating this perhaps? I don’t think so. I consider myself fortunate to be married to a military spouse and lucky to be the recipient of her love and support for over 27 years in uniform. I and my sons were direct beneficiaries of her care through thick and thin. So too were countless other people and communities in the 16 different places we called home and over 21 organizations we led. She may not have defeated a terrorist organization, certainly does not wear a chest full of ribbons as I do but her contribution and that of spouses like her is profound and worthy of pause and admiration.
Life as a military spouse is hard. I won’t sugar-coat it. My wife endured months and years of separation while I trained away from home or served in combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. She lived out of suitcases, slept on blow up mattresses, served as mom and dad, wrestled with school transitions and thrust herself out of bed in the middle of the night to welcome soldiers home from combat. With poise and grace and a large dose of bravery she delivered healing remarks to a grieving battalion of families following the loss of our soldiers. She embraced our sons who sent their father off to war not knowing if he would return. I’ve often said, I believe it was more difficult being home with a husband or wife in combat than it was to be deployed. While I was certainly in more danger, I knew when danger was at its peak or when I was in the relative safety of a secured base. My wife never knew and thanks to a constant stream of media coverage, was always reminded of the danger I was in. She lived in constant fear of a notification officer approaching the house to deliver news she could never fathom. Some spouses, our Gold Star spouses, did experience such horror and my family and I and our nation holds a special place in our hearts for them. I would be remiss if I did not make special mention of the spouses of the Vietnam War. They enjoyed practically none of the benefits today’s military spouses do. They faced resentment from a population at odds with those who served in the war and a military which failed to recognize them. I cannot imagine an environment like that today and I am glad that our nation and military has recovered from this national shame embracing these deserving people.
Life crucibles experienced by a military spouse do not come with instruction manuals or a paycheck yet the need for their volunteer service continues. These experiences forcibly create a tough, resilient person who possesses perseverance, leadership and bravery; a person with a hard, outer shell but a warm, loving inner core. Amidst all this hardship, I know my wife is eternally grateful for a wonderful life in the military raising our children on secured bases surrounded by families who honored our nation and subscribed to a set of values like respect, selfless service and integrity to name a few. While I was away she always knew she could count on a responsive support network and tap into a comprehensive community service program prepared to assist in times of need. My wife does not seek sympathy. Instead she continues as she has always done caring for her family and giving back to her community and those around her. Like me, she is grateful for an enriched life in countless places where we bonded, learned, grew and raised our family.
Re-entering the workforce a few years ago, my wife, like many military spouses, experienced hardship. Due to the nomadic lifestyle of the military, she chose to stay home and care for our family while I was away; thus, she found it difficult to re-enter the workforce since she lacked the experience and current credentials needed for her teaching profession. While lacking in these areas, she did possess years of experience in a variety of environments helping me lead and care for and the families of soldiers. Employers focused on her dusty old teaching degree instead of her experience, earned as a military spouse, in leadership, mental toughness and a sense of community and team work. There is no acronym, certification or stand-out accomplishment listed on a resume capturing all these spouses have done. Their experiences and triumphs should be in the form of a PHD, or as an entry on a resume recognizable by all; “hey, is that a military spouse?” As an employer might recognize certifications like PMP, Lean Six Sigma or SHRM which set job-seekers apart, so too should “Military Spouse.” Employers should recognize they are in the presence of someone special and react as if they had just met a celebrity. At the football stadium of the United States Military Academy, West Point, there is a plaque affixed to the wall with a quote from General George C. Marshall. It reads, “I need an officer for a dangerous and secret mission. I need a West Point football player.” A plaque like this should be affixed to the wall where hiring officials reside in organizations across our country. This one should read, “We need a tough yet caring person on our team with a wealth of experience overcoming adversity. We need a military spouse.” What military spouses contributed to war-bound units, they can contribute to organizations of all types. These contributions, more than certifications and current industry experience, are the essential elements which help organizations thrive. If it is SHRM they need, train them and certify them for that but recognize, as this old soldier does, what these wonderful people deliver is the real fuel an organization needs. Give the task to a military spouse, step aside and watch her or him go.
I encourage you to welcome spring and enjoy the beauty that accompanies the month of May, but I ask each of you to join me in championing these wonderful people by sharing this message. Attend local military spouse event, and to admire these national treasures. Talk to them and find out what they can bring to your team. Hire them or ask them to join your organization where you can benefit, as the military did, from all they stand for and all they can do. Recognize, as I have, that while they may walk and talk and look like so many others, they are special. They are true American National Treasures.