Memorial Day... It's Supposed to Hurt

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. 


Military Spouses... American National Treasures

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.


A Tribute to the Military Child

Month of the Military Child

Attention all military children, past present and future!  Welcome to the Month of the Military Child.  In April, we celebrate you who stand by your servicemember father and or mother, especially when they are called for service in combat.  I am the proud parent of two military children who have become fine young men.  They bore the brunt of separation and the demands of a profession which required a lot of me.  Along with this they benefitted greatly from a life in the military encompassing their entire childhood.  I’m proud of them both for what they endured and who they are. 

Too often we speak of only the hardship placed upon these children and overlook the benefits of military life.  I’ll start with the hardships then finish on the positive.  My sons lived through three combat deployments where I said goodbye then shipped off into harms way not knowing if I would ever see them again.  Each goodbye, where I clutched them tight, told them I loved them then turned and walked away was probably the most difficult thing they could endure as children.  They were boys who struggled greatly with their emotions watching their father depart and living day by day not knowing if he was ok or not.  They witnessed their mothers’ anguish as she assumed the duties of mom and dad and dealt with her own torment.  They are both scarred from this experience I know.  We consider ourselves lucky.  They seem to have survived it though I know it still haunts them.  My oldest has a reoccurring nightmare where he and I are waiting in line to use the men’s room.  I enter a stall without him and do not come back.  I can only believe this represents my leaving him when he was only 11; his cost of ensuring a military childhood, especially one under a nation at war.    

On a positive note, my sons grew up in a values-based society.  Often, I would come home talking about selfless service and duty to the unit, my soldiers and the mission.  They were witness to me talking about someone who had violated integrity or another one of our cherished Army values and they would often see me speak to audience about service to our nation and care for our soldiers and families.  The Army values permeated my personal and professional life and I know it had an impact on them.  Yes, they moved several times.  My youngest went to three different high schools.  While this was certainly not our preference, he and his brother came out of this experience more resilient, able to survive change and function in new environments.  They lived in places like Alaska, Hawaii, Germany, the Pacific Northwest and South East to name only a few.  This alone was a source of education for them.  We traveled from post to post across the United States and overseas enjoying cherished family time seeing places we never would have seen had we not been forced to move 14 times in a career of 27 years.  My sons made lifelong friends across the world and, thanks to social media, remain in contact with them. 

I’m proud of my sons, what they endured, what they have become.  I am thankful for the military, more specifically the Army, who embraced them, my wife and provided experiences of a lifetime.  Happy Military Child month to my sons and to all the military children out there.  I wish all of you health as you overcome the challenges of military life and ask each of you to be thankful for the life you have been given and the strengths it has given you. 

Leading People Means Helping Them Find Their True Passion

As a leader in the Army for over 27 years, I counseled countless people.  This involved performance counseling to help them be better at their job and career counseling to ensure they were pursuing a career path which would lead to promotions and competitive assignments.  However, what I found most fulfilling was “life” counseling.  I did more of this as I aged since I gained personal and professional experiences which I could share.  In standard Army counseling sessions leaders focus on job performance and career progression.  My approach to counseling included more on discovering what troubled a person and if they were pursuing a life of true passion and authenticity.  I would often ask, “if you could wake up each day and do anything, what would that be?” or “what is it you like and dislike about the Army?”  These challenging questions would make people pause and search deep within themselves for answers.  Many struggled to offer immediate responses.  This would indicate they had not reflected on the answer to these questions in their own life.  Some gave answers they believed I wanted to hear.  I could usually tell if someone was being disingenuous.  I really wanted the person to tackle these important questions.  To me the answers were vital to their own happiness even if that meant they were not in the right profession or career path.  For those who discovered they lacked proper introspection and authenticity, I could then steer them toward a more formal and in-depth discovery such as books or seminars to help them discover their “why”. 

I found this to be the most important part of my interaction with others.  As a commander, my job was to keep good soldiers in the Army.  However, personal fulfillment was more important to me.  If a person was living a lie and was serving in uniform to please someone else like a parent or serving because of something not personal, then I believed the Army would suffer.  Moreover, the person would suffer living a life they didn’t fully embrace.  Some stayed in and pursued their warrior calling, others transitioned out of the Army and sought a different path of fulfillment.  I watched a few depart the service, sad to see them leave to the detriment to the Army, though I took solace in the fact they were on to something real and personal.  I’m stuck in this place where challenging people to discover their own passions and live them is foremost on my mind.  I can’t shake it but I’m also very comfortable with it.  In the end, organizations of all kinds will benefit as will individuals who only have this one life to live.  Do you lead people?  Then this should be foremost in your mind too.  For more on this, check out my book, “It’s Personal, Not Personnel.”