The Military Veteran Experience and Lessons Learned

Thursday, November 8, 2018
By Colonel (Retired) William H. Snow, Ph.D.
PAU Chair, Department of Counseling

The following keynote address was delivered by Dr. Snow at the Palo Alto City Veterans Day Recognition Event on Nov. 5, 2018. 

A story about Dr. Snow’s speech appears in Palo Alto Online

Veterans Day. This is not a day that just belongs to veterans. It is everyone's day. It is everyone's day to remember and honor the veterans of this county who did what was needed when called to the defense of their country. We remember all of those who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if it were demanded of them in the line of duty.  We remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Most of all, we recognize the devotion and gallantry with which all Veterans exhibited by answering the call, stepping forward and repeating the oath of enlistment:

 "I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

How veterans are honored today will have a profound impact on the future of a country.  A famous Chinese General Sun Tzu came to this observation 2700 years ago. In his writings on the Art of War,  Sun Tzu said,  "Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys. Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death!"  This same thought was reiterated 2400 years later by United States President George Washington. He stated, "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation." 

Maya Angelou, one of America's greatest poets, contributed an essential addition to the words of Sun Tzu and George Washington when she said,  "How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!".

Yes! Today It is not just your fathers, uncles, and sons going into battle on your behalf. It is also your mothers, aunts, and daughters. The United States military veterans we honor now comprise one of the most diverse in our history: Black, White, Native American, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, straight and, gay- a cross-section of American society.  When in uniform though there are only soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and coast guardsmen- all having sworn the same oath of allegiance and all bleeding the same color- red. 

Now let me be clear there are some cultural differences in the various military branches.  Despite being part of the same United States Armed Forces they don't always speak the same language. For example, take a simple phrase like, "Secure the building."

Tell that to someone in the Navy, and they will likely just turn out the lights and lock the doors. Tell that to someone in the Army, and they will hurry to put guards around the compound. Tell that to Marines, and they will assault the building, toss in a few grenades, and after destroying everything inside they will go inside, take over and make a command post in the midst of the rubble. Now tell someone in the Air Force to secure the building. They will boldly charge forward and take out a 5-year lease with an option to buy.

Ok, a bit of military humor. As a disclaimer, I grew up as an Air Force Brat with my Dad, and three brothers all joining the Air Force blue. I am the only one that went Army green, so we do kid each other a bit.

History and Background

The first formal honoring of Veterans is associated with Armistice Day- the end of World War One.  The eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month in 1918, Paris time. The war to end all wars- or so they thought. World War One was not the War to end all wars. Just twenty years later and Americans were again serving in combat in Europe and the Pacific. In 1954 President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor all of those who served in the military at any time. Armistice Day became Veterans Day for us and Remembrance Day for many other countries of the World to include Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

So who are these Veterans that we honor today? The Pew Research Foundation has some interesting facts about Veterans.

  • There are approximately 325 million US Citizens today and 20 million Veterans alive today.
  • Of the 20 million, 750 thousand are World War II vets, 1 and half million are Korean War, and 7 million are from the Vietnam era.
  • Gulf War Veterans now are 7 million and growing- soon to become the largest group of veterans in history since WWII when a US Population of 140 million saw 16 million or 11% of the population serve.
  • We have been deploying our young men and women for over 17 years since 11 September 2001. In a few months, the US Participation in Afghanistan will surpass the 17 years and four months we were in Vietnam. It will become the longest sustained conflict for our military in our history.
  • Today there are about 2 ½ million active duty, reserve, and national guard soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines- about one percent of the US population serving.

Veterans. An increasingly shrinking percentage of the American population-  but never having a more significant impact. Statistics do not tell the complete story. What is it about these veterans? Why are they different? 

General Douglas MacArthur  said, "The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war." Another astute observer Jose Narosky quoted "In war, there are no unwounded soldiers."

Yes, veterans suffer the scars of war- physical injury, emotional trauma, permanent disability and for some the ultimate sacrifice.  Since the founding of our country Americans, almost 3 million have been injured in combat and 670,000 killed. 

Despite the sobering numbers reqarding American casualties and deaths we have been more fortunate than many parts of the world,. In World War Two alone there were about 75 million deaths as a result of the war- about 3% of the world's population. War is certainly hell- approximately 50 million of those killed were civilian deaths.  But, if the men and women of the United States of America had not joined the Allies to cross the English Channel and land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, who knows how much larger that number of civilian deaths would have been.  Today the young men and women still serving in the Gulf, Afghanistan and throughout the world are serving to in the same spirit- a spirit of duty, honor, and country- to hold back the tides of war and protect the innocent.

Seven Positive Attitudes Possessed By Veterans

When you meet and greet a military veteran, I encourage you to honor them for their dedication, commitment, and valor. And yes, there may be some scars but please- no sympathy- just gratitude.  Give any Veteran a chance, an opportunity and a bit of understanding and, they can show you some personal attributes that are hard to come by without the military service they endured. They can show you some life lessons that will benefit you, your family and your organization.  Here are seven positive attitudes  Veterans possess I want to leave you with.

Veteran Attitude #1- You Can Do More Than You Can Imagine.

There are many reasons people do not always go right to college but go to work or even join the military. Often it is an issue of a poor self-image where people doubt their ability as quote "college material." How does the military take these people and help them overcome self-doubts and excel? Every soldier, sailor, airmen, marine, and coastguardsmen go through extensive training to include physical conditioning, mental challenges, and job-specific education.  If you are a young person who has never walked 20 miles with a rucksack, it can seem daunting until you do it. If you are used to a warm, comfy bed, and 8 hours of sleep a night you may find you are tougher than you think and able to forge on with an MRE and three hours of impromptu rest in the back of a 5-ton truck bouncing down a gravel road. You may have doubted your mental ability until you passed your military skills test- of course under the kind and gentle drill sergeant- Just kidding. He or she was tougher than a set of parents, but they made you realize you could do it. As a result, the Army Specialist is keeping the 5 million dollar M-1 tank rolling along. That young Air Force mechanic who is maintaining a 120 million dollar F-22 Aircraft to keep it flying.  Even more impressive is the young Navy enlisted propulsion specialist who is on the operating team of a nuclear reactor on a US submarine. By the way, the new Columbia class sub is projected to cost 128 billion apiece. Talk about responsibility! More importantly, the young marine, rifle in hand with responsibility to protect and the power of life and death for those who oppose.

When the GI Bill was instituted following World War Two, many educators were initially afraid of what these former soldiers, sailors, and marines would do to the hallowed halls of academia. Viewed as the most ambitious educational experiment in American history the GI Bill saw those unlikely to have gone to college before show up at universities across the nation. So what was the result of this bold experiment? Fortune and Time Magazine in 1949 and 1951 published studies on the impact of the Veterans in higher education when 70 percent of the college classes were composed of Veterans. What did University Presidents, Deans, and Professor say? Words like, "the best graduating class the country ever produced"; "by far the ablest students American College professors have been able to instruct."       

It is clear that the military teaches you that you can accomplish a lot more than even you think you can.

Veteran Attitude #2-  Everyone Needs A Battle Buddy And Needs To Be A Buddy To Someone Else.

The warrior ethos  states "mission first, refuse to accept defeat, never quit, and never leave behind a fellow warrior. "Every American going to war worries about two things. First, no one wants to get left on the battlefield. They want to know- will you come back for me? Second, if they get injured how long will it take for them to get help?

Warriors have a tradition of taking care of their buddy, and all organizations would be better served if they adopted the simple buddy system and ensured that everyone has a friend to watch their back. In the Army, we call these battle buddies. Remember, everyone performs better when they know some is watching their back.  The mutual responsibility then is to  watch the backs of your friends and colleagues.

Veteran Attitude #3- The Importance of a Team.

The Military is a team effort. No one does anything alone.  I love the music of the movie Top Gun movie with lead character Tom Cruise- aptly named Maverick. At the beginning of the film, he is a bad example though- the egotistical loner putting others in danger due to his independent spirit. In reality, pilots in the air may have ten or more people on the ground doing regular aircraft maintenance. They need their entire ground grew, air controllers and a multitude of other support personnel. Veterans know the power of a team.  Major operations involve the coordinated deployment of tens of thousands of personnel with the associated logistical requirement to provide food, clothing, shelter, transportation, fuel, etc.  What that means is you have to trust everyone to do their part- or the mission fails.   So If you want to do  meaningful, big stuff- build a great team.

Veteran Attitude #4- The Importance of Trust in Leadership.

In my visits to wounded soldiers and after talking to their medical providers I found that that the willingness of a solider to get back to their unit and potential combat action was not related to the lethality of the combat they were in or could face if they returned to their unit.  It was more about the level of trust in themselves and their training; belief in their battle buddy and team; and most importantly belief in their leadership. Retired General Colin Powell, one of the military leaders I respect and look up to states, "Trust is the glue that holds people together and is the lubricant that keeps an organization moving forward." So if you want to lead- inspire confidence and trust.

Veteran Attitude #5-  The Importance of a Clear, Defined, Important, Compelling Mission

The current and former soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coastguardsmen today have shown that there is no hill too steep to climb, no hardship too great to bear, no obstacle too large, nor threat too fierce to stand up to as long as the cause is just, the mission is clear, the work is important, and they can make a difference. Veterans are people of service and have done extraordinary things that many of you will only dream of. They want to do more.  Leaders need to make sure that if they want people to do something tough they need to make sure the mission is well understood and worth the cost. Now let me be clear, members of the military do their duty as long as they are "lawful orders." Members of the military do not blindly follow orders but want to know clearly what they are doing is righteous. Another great Colin Powell quote speaks to the need to communicate to everyone- down to the lowest ranking person in the room. He states, "Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand." So keep the mission clear, and make sure the people you lead entirely believe it is right and it is important.

Veteran Attitude #6- Get It Done!

Veterans know that if something is important it needs to get done and it does not need to take forever- it needs to get done on time when it matters. General George S. Patton is quoted to have said that " A good plan executed on time is far superior to a perfect plan executed late. “ Let me be clear, veterans can be a bit impatient in wanting faster results. Remember, before the start of World War Two the US military was one of the smallest existing on the globe- Portugal's military was larger. The Active Army had 190 thousand soldiers, the Navy had 125 thousand and the Marines were only about 20 thousand troops.  From the enemy attack on Pearl Harbor to the end of WWI was only three years, eight months, and 22 days. But, in less than 4 years the country grew its military to a standing Army of over 12 million with 16 million eventually serving. What the military did with the support of the US industrial base was amazing. It entered the war and put it to an end. 

This same attitude of "get it done" lives in every Veteran today.  In a deployment of 12 months, you hit the ground running- there is little time to ease into any mission. So try to understand veterans like myself who have a hard time understanding why if something is deemed important enough why it takes multiple committees,  meeting sporadically over several years to achieve anything- especially when the decision is finally made the world has moved on, and there are newer, more important missions to complete. If it is important, lets focus on getting things done.

Veteran Attitude #7-  Be Grateful and Do Not Sweat the Small Stuff.

Veterans returning home have learned to appreciate what is important and not to sweat the small stuff. A veteran who hears someone complaining about the food at the local deli recalls when they ate pre-packaged Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) leaning on the hood of a HUMVV for two weeks straight.  Three hot meals a day, sitting down at a table in a warm room are great.  A veteran hears someone complaining their mattress is too hard  recalls when they were only getting a few hours of sleep a night in the cold hard dirt of a dug in defensive position. As we would say in my younger Infantry days, you are grateful when you have three hot meals and a cot. Finally, veterans are grateful because they made it home when one or more buddies did not.

In closing, I would like to repeat the quote by President George Washington. He stated- "The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation." 

This event makes an important statement to the Veterans that are here today. It also makes an important statement to the potential veterans of tomorrow and the mothers and fathers of those potential veterans. They are now more likely to serve in times of crisis knowing they will have your support and gratitude.

Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."  I hope today I did my part in making sure all of the Veterans here feel understood and appreciated.

Thank you Veterans for your sacrifice and service and let us not forget the sacrifice and support of all the families and friends that supported you during your service.

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