Guest post by Brett Sheats
For the past ninety-four years, the United States Army Infantry School has been located at Fort Benning, Georgia. Thousands of young, freshly shaved heads enter its gates every year to undergo the metamorphosis from patriotic civilian to steely-eyed mayhem machine.
During their time at Fort Benning, each new infantry recruit learns countless skills that will be key to his survival in combat, from accuracy with a rifle and equipment maintenance to small unit tactics. All of these lessons are neatly tied together with one inescapable fact: As infantrymen, when combat comes, all will look to you. This fact is embodied by the simple, judicious motto of the infantry: Follow Me. This phrase, so engrained in the psyche of these warriors, festoons the front gate of Fort Benning.
I spent eleven months on the Afghani-Pakistani border as a Lieutenant in an Airborne Infantry Company. Mortar and rocket attacks were a common occurrence, and intelligence indicating who was friend or foe was scarce, if at all available. After many months of repetitive patrols and unpredictable chaos, the mind begins to falter. However, the training our soldiers gained from their Non-Commissioned Officers kept our unit functioning at a high level through those final months. It was in these times of incredible stress and uncertainty that the true leaders in our unit – of all ranks – stepped up and kept us moving forward. I learned an invaluable lesson during the war: True leadership does not wear a certain rank or earn a certain salary.
Through this window into the mindset of America’s infantrymen you can see that from the moment they join the military they are taught to lead. However, the converse of that lesson is paradoxically true as well: Soldiers are constantly being led. While a few will distinguish themselves and be placed into leadership positions, the vast majority will be followers. In addition, the chain of command spirals inextricably upward: Even the leaders are led. This duality of leading while simultaneously being led dominates the decision-making cycle of America’s military and shapes the minds of all who wear the uniform.
There comes a day in every service member’s life when he or she leaves the military. For most, an honorable discharge marks the end of one era and the uncertain beginning of another. As veterans pass back through that front gate and into the private sector, one can imagine them looking back over their shoulders to those words that embody military life and wondering, “Who do I follow now?”
The transition from service member to civilian is a harrowing journey for many. A sailor who enlisted directly out of high school probably has never written a resume or conducted a formal interview. Service members are good at prioritizing, and priority number one after separation is often “find a job.” With veteran unemployment over eleven percent, that is not always an easy road. While many do find jobs eventually, the journey of reintegration does not end there.
Some veterans are fortunate enough to find a new, fulfilling career that lends itself to a smooth transition into the private sector. However, over time, many service members find themselves stuck in positions that do not take advantage of their decision-making and judgment skills – skills, forged in the crucible of battle, that are often far in excess of their civilian peers. Emptiness and disillusionment can fester in the minds of these veterans; and the disillusionment can quickly turn to resentment and hopelessness. Even the proudest, strongest veteran can quickly become totally and utterly lost. I have known veterans who were among the very highest performing soldiers in their units but have become below-average performers in their private-sector jobs because they did not feel engaged or utilized in their new positions. Without guidance, veterans can often be ill equipped to figure out the best career for themselves after separation.
I found myself walking down that same lonely path when I left the Army in 2005. After the Army, I graduated from law school and secured a position as a finance attorney at a large law firm in New York City. However, I felt chronically underutilized in my new position and could instinctively tell that it was a poor fit for my skills and ambitions. I was missing that sense of purpose I had taken for granted during my time in the military. Frankly, I was miserable.
Then, in 2011, I discovered an organization called American Corporate Partners (ACP). ACP pairs up veterans with corporate professionals nationwide in free, one-year mentorships in order to provide veterans with guidance in building strong, fulfilling careers in the private sector. I joined ACP’s staff that year because I believed in their mission and wanted to help veterans avoid the missteps I had made in finding a career after leaving the military. It is now nearly a year later and I could not be happier. We are helping veterans lead better, more productive lives – something they have so dearly earned.
When service members join the military, they know what to expect: Three “hot” meals a day, hard work, and not a lot of sleep. In the past, they’ve also expected a tough, lonely road after their time in the military is over. Thankfully, that expectation has begun to change. Finally, veterans are finding helpful voices in the private sector willing to step up, look them in the eye, and say Follow Me.
Brett Sheats is an OEF veteran and proud former paratrooper with the 1-501st PIR out of Fort Richardson, Alaska. Brett is currently Manager of Veteran Relations for American Corporate Partners.