On my fourth deployment, I served as first sergeant of an Infantry Company deploying to Baghdad, Iraq at the beginning of the “Surge” in 2006, which ended up lasting 16 months in one of the most dangerous districts in Baghdad. By the time we redeployed home, Charlie Company 1/26 Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, was the most decorated and hardest hit unit since the Vietnam War. One soldier had won the Medal of Honor, three soldiers were awarded Silver Stars, and 122 Purple Hearts were awarded for wounds received in action against an enemy force.
A book was written about my company by a USA Today reporter who spent several weeks with my unit when we took heavy casualties. She was so affected by the events she felt compelled to tell our story. It is called, “They Fought For Each Other” by Kelly Kennedy. That is not something you like to brag about, but something you reflect on as a leader. Did I do enough? Could I have done something different? Would someone have done a better job and saved some of those young men? I ask myself those questions every day. In the end, I believe I was the right leader, at the right time, and did the very best I could under those circumstances. That does not mean the thoughts go away. It just means I have learned to live with the decisions and their results in a time of war.
The toughest thing about leadership is making decisions without knowing what the end results might be. The Army builds and trains great leaders who inspire others to do things most people only see in the movies or read about in books. Managers make decisions daily, but those decisions do not cost young men their lives. Leaders make decisions based on facts and circumstances at the time, then make changes as needed because war is a fluid environment. We then must live with those decisions, right or wrong, and learn from our mistakes to prevent them from happening again.
I come from a long line of military veterans, my great uncles both served and were killed in action in WWII. Family members who served in Korea, my father who served in Vietnam, was shot down, evaded capture and received the Purple Heart for his wounds in action and finally, a cousin who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons learned from those veterans proved valuable in my future as a military leader. One lesson I was not prepared for, was how to cope with the stress, failure, and loss of the ones I called my “family”.
This leads to the most important part of my message. Today’s veteran has dealt with this nation’s longest period of conflict, sustained combat operations, and an influx of patient care into the government system known as the Veteran’s Administration (VA) Medical System.
A Defense Department study of combat troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan found 1 in 6 soldiers and Marines acknowledged symptoms of severe depression and PTSD, and 6 in 10 of these same veterans were unlikely to seek help out of fear their commanders and fellow troops would treat them differently.
Soldiers and Marines coming home from combat do not seek help from medical services because they believe it will affect their ability to deploy with their unit the next time, affect their careers, or make them less of a Soldier/Sailor/Marine or Airman. The stigma of PTSD has been around since first diagnosed in 1980. You are perceived as weak, broken, or a drain on the unit. We as a country and a society must get away from that stereotype and encourage our future veterans to seek help, so they continue to be productive members of society and not a number. 22 veterans a day commit suicide because they believe that is the only solution to stop the pain.
I am a believer in treatment and overcoming or learning to live with PTSD. After 6 deployments overseas, losing soldiers under my care, and suffering injuries from IED’s, RPG’s, and hand grenades I learned treatment sooner rather than later makes a difference. I was one of those that thought I would be viewed as weak and possibly lose my command. My wife and family had enough of the nightmares, sleepless nights, and outbursts of anger and gave me an ultimatum. Seek help or lose everything! I chose to get help and it is the best decision I ever made. I am not cured, I am not perfect, but I have learned how to survive and cope with the horrors I see in my mind every single day.
My mission here today, as a veteran, is to let you, the business professional’s, owners of small businesses, leaders of the community and executives of corporations know that veterans are an invaluable resource, and if given a chance, will make a difference in your organizations. The 18-year-old kids I led every day made life and death decisions, under stress, far away from home, with little to no experience. They show up on time, dedicate themselves to the mission, and work until the job is done. The best treatment for a young soldier coming home as they exit the service is something to devote themselves too. I want your company or organizations to be that devotion. I want you to compare a young student just graduating from college with a BA in general studies to a 22-year-old veteran that has lived a life of responsibility, honor, integrity, and loyalty. There are some things you cannot learn in a classroom. I retired after serving my country for 27 years. All I wanted in life was to find something to focus my passion on. Pay did not matter, benefits did not matter, job field did not matter. I just wanted to learn, be successful, and be part of a team. We the veterans are out there……. in the thousands, just ask us our story.
Once again, thank you for the honor to address this distinguished audience today. Please remember the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice this Memorial Day! God Bless our veterans, God Bless the United States Army, and God Bless America!
I’d like to thank the Veterans who serve with me at S&H Systems. https://www.shsystems.com/veterans