It may sound strange to say that four years define one’s career, especially if those four years are at the very start of that career. But for me, the four years that I spent as an officer in the US Army not only started my career, but defined the very framework upon which I have built my life.
An early sense of service
Like most people who enter the military, I had a wide variety of reasons, from the high-minded to the very self-focused. I wanted to learn leadership at an earlier age than many of my peers, I wanted to develop my managerial abilities for my future civilian life, I wanted the college scholarship! There’s nothing at all wrong with those more practical benefits.
But there are a whole variety of ways to pay for college and get great work experience. Those are important reasons, but there was another one as well. A reason that wasn’t as well defined but ran deep and strong. Maybe it because I was the son of immigrants, maybe it was just something formed in me over the years, thousands of small, imperceptible influences. But I heard a call to serve.
This was in the early 90’s, long before the tragedies of 9/11 that stirred the same call in so many. I may not have known how early on, but I knew that I had to serve in some fashion. It wasn’t a loud “look at me, rah rah” kind of call, but rather an almost unspoken duty. All the other reasons were still there, and they were real reasons – but they weren’t the most important ones. Someone had to step up. I decided I would.
The build-up in college
It was always a given that I would go to college – it was just assumed and I never questioned it. I applied to the US Military Academy at West Point. My choice to pursue the Army was once again a blend of the ideal and the practical. I thought the Army would offer the most hands-on leadership training, dealing the most directly with people. And as a practical matter, my eyesight in those pre-LASIK days disqualified me from pilot training, making the Air Force and Naval Academies much less likely choices.
To be accepted to an academy, most people need to obtain a nomination from their congressional representative or senator (there are other categories, such as children of disabled veterans, etc., but the bulk of applicants are nominated). A congressman or congresswoman can nominate up to 10 candidates for each opening. As it turned out, I was fortunate enough to get nominated by then-US Rep Mike Dewine. It was a proud moment just to make it that far. Unfortunately for me, there were two recruited athletes in my district, both of whom were accepted. So I didn’t make it to West Point. However, I guess as a consolation prize, I was offered a 3 yr Army ROTC scholarship, which I was happy to accept. The road had begun.
Attending a large public university, I had many of the typical experiences one would expect, along with the Army ROTC experience. That part included regular physical training, military science classes, and a weekend or so every quarter. I became engrossed in the sub-culture. My friends and roommates were fellow ROTC cadets, I hung out in the ROTC break room between class, it became who I was. Even then, during my college years (all…uh, five of them), the framework for all that I did was taking shape.
Active duty arrives
Finally, exactly five years after I started college, the day had come to report to active duty and begin my career. After my initial training course, I found exactly what I was looking for. I was the 2nd youngest person in my unit – but I was the one in charge. At least nominally. I knew I had so much to learn, from people who administratively reported to me. I knew that my first impression would color everything that came later, so I made sure I made it clear that I knew I had much to learn, but that I wouldn’t shy away from being in charge.
That first assignment was a roller coaster. I made so many mistakes – I zigged when I should have zagged, I spoke when I should have listened, I stayed silent when I should have spoke. But I learned. While others spoke of the catchphrase “managing diversity”, I got to live it. In my unit, there was a white former drug dealer from southern Ohio, a black farm kid from rural Alabama, a young man from inner city Philadelphia, a kid who emigrated to the US from Mexico as a pre-teen, and others. It was a whirlwind, but we all shared the same mix of practical reasons for joining with the undercurrent of that unspoken call.
And as soon as it started, it seemed, that assignment was over. Like so many times in the military, just when it felt like I was hitting my stride and past the learning phase, it was time to move to the next gig. It was about then, at the 2 yr mark of my initial 4 yr commitment that I began to think of the ‘next step’. I thought that I had to go to grad school and get a ‘real’ job, not contemplating an entire career in the Army. 20 yrs till retirement? That was an eternity – I had so much more to do! My four years would soon be up, and it was time to move on.
The next phase
So I began investigating my options, as were my peers. In the mid-90’s, peace was upon us – the Cold War had ended, the Global War on Terror was still a half-decade away. My peers and I saw our futures more in the civilian world. Two of my friends went to law school, an option I considered as well. Eventually I settled on business school. I was fortunate to get into a great school and began the transition. In many ways, business school did its job – it transformed me into a civilian. At least on the surface. It changed the way I dressed, the way I spoke, the way I thought about career options. But it never changed the way I approached problems or people.
Still the guiding light
As I developed in my career, through job changes and layoffs and promotions and more, I still relied on the lessons taught to me in those short four years. When I became a manager, it was in an area that I did not have a great deal of direct experience, coming from another department in the company. Once again, I found myself in charge of others who had much more hands-on knowledge of the job. I employed the same strategies as I did as a 23 year old – showing sincere interest in learning, showing that I was NOT a know-it-all who would try to change everything right at first. I even used some of the same management methods, doing informal quarterly performance reviews on top of the corporate-mandated annual review, for example. I found that while my clothes may have changed, the way I approached others really hadn’t.
A lasting impact
As I reflect back on it all, I’m struck by how much that short, brief time in the Army really influenced me, in ways both large and small. Even to this day, I’ll find myself writing out dates in the military fashion. I’ll write “24 October 2011” instead of “October 24, 2011”. My wife still thinks it’s weird that I don’t write “2 packs of cheddar cheese” on our grocery lists but rather “Cheese, Cheddar, 2 packs”, as if I’m writing out a supply inventory.
And I still use the same approaches to dealing with others, superiors, subordinates, and peers, that I did so long ago. Everything that I’ve done, everything that I’ve learned started with what did those first four years of my career. I thought that I would do my service and then begin my “real” job and start my “real” career. I know now that those four years were the most real of anything I have done since.
Wistfully looking back
In fact, I consider those four years as the last time that my work life had any real meaning or purpose. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had important and challenging jobs since. But that’s all they were – jobs, a way to make a living. None had the sense of mission and importance and service that those first four years had.
Now, looking back, I’ve realized just how valuable those four years were, to both my professional and personal life. They gave me the foundation of how to approach problems, how to lead others, how to work for and influence superiors. In essence, they gave me the tools that I use to this day.
Sometimes I catch myself wondering “what-if”. It’s easy to focus on the nostalgia, of course. There were times I hated it, when I wondered if it was worth the time away or whether it would really help later on. And given the way world events went, there was the possibility of much worse endings to the story. But however it turned out, it would have been a life of purpose, a life lived well.
And I realized last month that if I had stayed in, last month would have been the month I would have been eligible to file retirement papers at the 20 year point. I guess that eternity wasn’t so long after all. To the contrary, it was in the blink of an eye.