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.
I enjoyed reading about your experience and your clear take on how the civilian sector does not understand, and often not trust, the stereotype that they impose, unwittingly, on upon veterans. They cannot wrap their heads around the veteran’s ingrained ethic of selfless service, and “all-in” commitment. They tend to distrust because of their “what’s in it for me” lens that they assume colors the behavior of all people. perhaps themselves never having had the benefit of participating in an enterprise based upon the success of the team and not the individual, and a system that rewards units versus individuals, they have never tasted the true freedom that comes from worrying about someone else and not themselves, and letting and trusting that someone worry about them. I was always struck by the culture of fear that is always just beneath the surface of corporations…people afraid to make mistakes, afraid of who will do what to them, what will happen to them if….whereas I loved the military’s expectations of junior leaders to assume ridiculous amounts of responsibility, take risks, make mistakes, and learn…all the while knowing that the consequences of mistakes could be brutal, unforgiving, tragic beyond measure, but the consequences of inaction due to fear were even worse, despicable, and truly unforgiveable. If you in your current capacity have found a way to translate that invaluable lesson to an outside culture, and to earn it the profound respect it deserves, you have served your country ten-fold more than you time in Southwest asia, and God bless you for that. May your passion never wane, and as a veteran, my deepest thanks.
As for me, I’ll never forget the overwhelming emotions I felt the moment I saw those gates at Benning. I felt as I had finally taken my place in a long line of family soldiers. It’s been 3 years this month since I was the warrior looking over my shoulder as I left my comfort zone wandering “who will I follow now?’. I cried like a child on my last day with my unit. I was scared, and worried about what would happen next. It’s not like there’s a lot of applicable warrior skills you can use in today’s society. And what happened was 3 years of heartache and failed jobs, empty promises from civilian bosses etc… We’ve all been there. Now I”m trying to support a family off $8 an hr… The problem I’ve run into every time is “the boss” loves you to begin with because we are the ones that go that extra mile without complaining, work those extra hours and shifts so your buddy can go have a BBQ with his family. And then “the boss” decides your making him look bad and they start to worry about you doing too good and being replaced by you. As a result I’ve been canned too many times because I was a better employee than my direct bosses. You’r 100% correct about how we soldiers become below average workers. I recently got back into the Army life as cadre for an Army cadet program, and it honestly is the only thing that has kept me from just completely giving up. It gives me hope though to see programs like this out there for people like me.
I enjoyed reading your story. Bless you for serving all of those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe.
My father was stationed at Fort Benning when I was a child. He was a paratrooper. He was also in the first wave of the Normandy Invasion. I recently discovered a paper he wrote in the 1950’s for an Army class in “leadership”. It was about his experience in the Normandy Invasion. As a soldier, his training in leadership emphasized the idea that if you are a designated “leader” and someone under your command is killed or injured, it is your fault, even if it isn’t, simply because you are the leader. In France, my father was a platoon leader who was ordered to take a hill in France. When the platoon reached the top of the hill the enemy was just on the other side and his platoon was outnumbered. Continuing the assault amounted to suicide. He radioed his commanding officer to explain the situation. He was ordered to retreat. He sent a very young man (17 or 18 years old) to notify the platoon that was supposed to be advancing to the right of his own men to retreat. This young man always volunteered for dangerous missions and never asked to be excused from duty. He had won my father’s respect and that is why he was chosen as messenger to the other platoon. Unfortunately the other platoon was not there and my father saw the young man he had put in harm’s way killed before his eyes. As his platoon retreated, only three men made it back alive. One was my father. Because of his leadership training, he carried the burden of guilt for the deaths of all those men for the rest of his life; especially that of his young messenger. When I found that paper recently, it explained for me a lot about my father that I had not understood before.