Ahhh spring, the season when graduates take the stage for commencement exercises marking a new chapter in their lives. Like the budding trees and plants of the season, veterans and or their spouses will give birth to their post-military careers carrying expanded minds and diplomas as their new weapons of choice. Let me offer my congratulations on this achievement and provide a graduation speech you can listen to, or read I should say, at your leisure. Strip off that graduation robe and awkward hat, grab a beer and allow me to pay respect to this important milestone and offer some words of wisdom as you embark on your next journey.
It is a special moment. Special not only because it reflects your hard work and dedication but special because you are special. Thank you for serving. I’m proud to call myself your brother. We veteran’s share a special bond. A bond which is nearly impossible to explain to anyone who has not served. In the words of General Stanley McChrystal, it is a bond “stronger than marriage vows.” I cherish that. Unrelated in name yet related by service we can connect instantly, share stories and heal. I am an Army veteran of 27 years, shaped by service to my nation in peacetime and war. I’m approaching 3 years since my retirement and I still very much feel the Army’s influence on me. I still live by its values and code of conduct. I’m proud of that. You should be as well for the values and culture the military instilled in each of you. Keep it foremost as you navigate your next chapter. There are forces our there which will attempt to strip it away. I’ve two messages for you and I want to talk about a special group of people. First, stay with the tribe, second, stay true to your passion. First, to the tribe. I’ll need to assign you another book to read. Just when you thought all this was behind you! This book is a worthy purchase and you won’t want to sell it back to the campus book store upon completing it. It is Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger does a wonderful job describing what many of us and our spouses experience or are experiencing in our post-military lives. He talks about the power of the tribe, how we experienced it while in uniform and “while each of us were willing die for our country, we are not sure how to live for it.”
Like some of you perhaps, I turned my back on the military after I departed. This is not to say I fell out of love with the Army or was bitter in my transition. Quite the opposite. I adore the Army. I still do. I just needed to close a chapter and believed that trying to shut it out was the best option. As the months and years went by, I learned that I needed to return. I needed to take part in veteran events and even return to the Army to watch former soldiers of mine achieve milestones in their careers. While commanding a brigade in the 101st Airborne Division I invited one of our Vietnam veterans to speak to my officers about PTSD. He had experienced horror in Vietnam as an infantry lieutenant yet, this trauma never haunted him like it did when he retired from service. This is because he was surrounded by people like him who had experienced similar horror. Their days were not filled recanting battlefield stories, yet they spoke each other’s unspoken language. They bonded as veterans. Once away from that environment he suffered. That always stuck with me and I needed to listen to it closely as my time in uniform grew distant. Stay connected to the tribe. Bring your spouses along. My wife and I though happy to be retired miss the communities we belonged to and the healing effects which came with them, healing effects which you may not immediately recognize. You can do that as an alum of your academic institution. You can do it through social media. You can reconnect with those you served with. Find your own special way of bonding with other veterans or special solemn moments where you can remember and reflect on brothers and sisters lost. Stay with the tribe. Need a battle buddy or tribal member? Connect with me on LinkedIn at Rob Campbell Leadership.
Second, discover, if you have not, and stay true to your passion. My passion is making a difference in the lives of others through optimistic leadership. I’m living out that passion right now delivering this speech to you on your graduation and it is why I chose to write a book, coach and speak about leadership. I was lucky, the Army fed that passion for almost 3 decades and I get great fulfillment sharing all that I learned with others. One of the best questions I was asked when transitioning from service was “if money was not an issue and you did not have to worry about bills, a mortgage or putting food on the table and you could do anything you wanted, what would that be?” “What would motivate you to get out of bed in the morning and allow you to go to sleep fulfilled?” The answer to these questions should speak to you. I spent time contemplating this answer. Indeed, I still answer it and allow it to speak to me as the demands of life, shiny objects and job opportunities present themselves. Some of you may be saying, “ok Campbell, you are a retired Colonel with a big fat pension, I have a family to feed.” While that is true, if a paycheck is your only objective, I fear that unhappiness lies ahead for you. Living a passionate, authentic life is anything but easy especially in a polarized, isolated society where constant soundbites attempt to convince us that we can have it all and pay nothing for it. It’s a tough mission and it requires courage. The good news is you possess that courage. Don’t let it lie dormant. Use it and pursue something real. Of course most of us have to work, myself included. That is ok. It’s ok to get a job but to achieve true happiness, never take your eye of that true passionate goal. Make it your new mission. In uniform you dedicated your life to the missions you were given. Use that same extreme level of commitment in this next chapter of your life. Are you brave enough? I hope so. Moreover that person deep inside each of you is hoping you are brave enough.
This graduation speech, indeed any speech or event which lauds veterans is incomplete without recognizing their spouses. You won’t find a bigger fan of military spouses than I. In fact, I call our military spouses, American National Treasures. American National Treasures consist mostly of locations and structures our nation deems 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 numerous units we served. 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.
My wife endured months and years of separation while I trained away from home or served in combat zones. 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. Her contributions speak to the contributions of numerous military spouses. These contributions should be better recognized by our society and by employers wishing to bring some of this magic into their own organization. I find this awareness and recognition to be a battle almost on a scale of the ones I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. But fear not. I’m up to the task! I speak often about these national treasures and help businesses be ready, not just friendly to them and their veteran loved ones. Whether you are a military spouse donning cap and gown or you will return home to a military spouse who supported you once again in this milestone, please accept my utmost respect admiration and respect. Congratulations again for this outstanding achievement. I wish you blue skies and safe landing zones as you take on your next mission.