Nov 11th was Veteran’s Day and I was a parade participant. I am not a retired General, I am not a celebrity, and I am not good looking. I am only an Army veteran. I was on a float with about twenty other military veterans representing all the other military services, officers to enlisted ranks, and service periods from the Vietnam War through the Cold War to Iraq and Afghanistan. As the float wound through the downtown, I began to realize that I was seeing something very special and unique in America and not for the reasons that I even imagined.
One of the differences from a traditional parade was that there were military spouses and children on the float with us. Family has become a central part to all-volunteer military service and most of America does not see the importance of spouses and children in the day-to-day life of military servicemembers. The modern-day military for Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Soldiers is all about combat deployments. Combat deployments center around training for deployments, the combat deployment itself, and then rebuilding the unit and equipment following the deployment. The immediate and extended families of military members make combat deployments possible as much as the military personnel themselves. As someone with multiple combat zone deployments, it was great to have my wife by my side to recognize her sacrifices for my service.
The diversity of color, experience, personality, and socio-economic status of military veterans is still a constant highpoint of my military service. As I got on the float, the first thing that struck me was the concern, comradeship, civility, and politeness of everyone present. Veterans introduced themselves, passed water to each other, passed the good-natured inter-service jokes, and made sure there was space for everyone to sit. To head off the skeptics to my earlier sentence: even the Marines were polite. Whenever I gather with military veterans, I am continuously struck by our ability to celebrate our dedication to the United States and use our diversity or character, color, and career as a unifier, not a divider, to bring and keep us together.
Humor is an integral aspect of the military experience that is increasingly missing from the American civil interaction experience. As the float slowly snaked its way through the downtown, a retired female Marine Master Sergeant (yes, I was a bit scared if her) complimented me on my “ability to present a pleasant and good-natured facial appearance while simultaneously integrating a non-threatening and complex fore and aft upper appendage movement to the citizens gathered before us”. In Army terms, she was giving me a very good-natured ribbing for being able to “Smile and Wave.” America today takes itself too seriously and that seriousness and ill humor makes us miss multiple instances to unite and strengthen our bonds as human beings and citizens.
As I surveyed the street side crowd, there were faces old, young, brown, black, tan, white, and variations in between. America is changing and America has always been changing. Veterans innately understand the benefits and challenges of change and how diversity-in-the-ranks enables effective change. The American military handles change and diversity through a three-pronged approach. There are: (1) common training programs in institutional ethics, (2) universal and published standards of accomplishment for promotion, and (3) universal standards for job performance. When I joined the Army Special Forces, everything about my past was immaterial. My name was replaced with a number, no instructor knew my education, my SAT score or my parent’s income, I was a blank page. It was only after I proved that I could shoot accurately, navigate quickly through forests in the night, lead teams in training missions, and speak a foreign language that I became a Special Forces soldier. Today, anyone of any background can be a Special Forces soldier if they meet the published standards. Diversity and change are challenges, but only an unsurmountable challenge when we have different, unstated, and selective standards of performance for each group. The US Military proves that high standards with strong ethical leadership make diversity in a rapidly changing landscape a strength, not a burden.
As the parade passed the last waving faces, I felt better about the United States and the citizens of the United States than I had in years. America has all the leadership, strength, intelligence, and ethics to meet and surpass its current round of challenges. What America needs is a dedication to people, an open expectation of common standards, and the desire to teach, train, and promote any person in America with the passion to succeed.
Chad Storlie is a retired US Army Special Forces officer and an adjunct Professor of Marketing at Flagler College. He is a mid-level B2B marketing executive and a widely published author on leadership, business, military and technology topics.