If you had told me how I’d look back with fondness on the time I served as brigade commander during the worst of Diyala Province in 2006-2007, I would have smirked. Of course I’d love being a veteran, I can imagine my younger self thinking. It meant I would be anywhere but Iraq.
Ten years — six of them since retiring from the Army — have given me perspective. Now I love being a veteran not because it means optional workouts, less bureaucracy or not having to uproot my family, but because it’s given me an even greater sense of pride in who I am and with whom I served.
I’m a limited edition, part of a unique club. It’s not that veterans, who make up less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, are all that different than everyone else. We simply have different life experiences. Ironically, until I’d been out of the service for two years, I didn’t realize how much I loved and missed those experiences.
The longevity of these life experiences carries through now that I’m in the private sector. Though they translate to all generations, these three experiences are particularly relevant to millennials, who will make up 75 percent of the workforce by 2025.
Someone once asked me what I’d do differently when I served as an infantry battalion commander. It was an easy response. I’d be more patient with my lieutenants, who were often fresh out of school with little experience, yet a core desire to step up and do the right thing. Millennials want bosses who serve as mentors and leaders who treat them with respect.
Another life experience that I carry with me is a willingness to stand up for your people. Good leaders protect their teams so that they are able to accomplish what they’ve been asked to do. I love the fact that I can look back and say, “You know what? I advocated for my people, and I take great pride in what they accomplished.”
Finally, engagement matters. I challenge mainstream business to create the trust, pride and esprit de corps I felt as part of any unit. In 2nd Battalion 7th Infantry, we accepted challenges with “willing and able.” In the 82nd Airborne, we’d reply, “All the way, sir” and in the 1st Cavalry Division, the proper response was “Live the legend, sir.” Employees in a high trust environment such as the Army are six times more likely to achieve higher levels of performance than others in their industry.
When I came home from Iraq, friends asked me, “What did you do over there?” Family asked me, “How do you feel about what you did?” I asked myself, “What did I accomplish?” Veterans Day is an opportunity for all of us — civilian and veteran — to reflect on the achievements and accomplishments of this unique population. Rather than wish someone a Happy Veterans Day, I’ll ask them to share their reflections on their time in uniform with me.
We veterans share the knowledge that nothing is daunting. Sure, we may stumble. We may have challenges. But there is always a solution. It’s simply how hard you want to work to get there.
I don’t regret leaving the military. I remain part of its legacy. While I travel around the country speaking about leadership I take great pride in showcasing the achievements of my fellow veterans.
I love being a limited edition.
I love being a veteran.
Retired Army colonel David Sutherland is president of a consulting firm and chairman of Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.