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Lessons Learned from Uncle Sam

Intro

We are all the sum of our experiences.  Whether it is a success or failure, these experiences act as a lesson that can influence future behaviors.  I hate it when people say that there is a set number of rules, personal attributes, or controllable characteristics, that could make you a better friend, more likable person, desirable boyfriend or girlfriend, etc.  There are no predetermined rules. No guaranteed list of guidelines. No coach that will be able to stand behind a doorway or talk through a microphone to an earpiece in your ear to feed you the information you need to navigate through life or personal situations.  

All you need to do is read more.  Read often. And vary the reading.  The more you do, the more you learn.  Also, talk to people more. The more you interact with others, the more you will learn about the unwritten rules and guidelines with applying to the ever-evolving world of communication and public interaction.  It takes practice. It takes time. It takes a willingness to be open to an understanding of the events and situations taking place around you. That is how I learned the things I am about to share. I am hoping that the lessons I have learned will help to guide you through whatever endeavors it is that life has in store for you.  Before I do, I would like to take a moment to tell you a little about myself and about the lessons I learned during my time spent in the military. This list is not the entirety of what I learned, I am still picking things up every day, but these are some of the more important, or more amusing things that I wanted to share. I hope that you enjoy and learn.

I spent four years as an active duty member of the United States Air Force.  I did my basic military training and technical school instructions at Lackland Air Force Base located in the San Antonio area of Texas.  I was then stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base in the Ramstein-Miesenbach area of Germany. During my active duty service, I was deployed to Joint Base Balad in Iraq where I provided security for retrograde operations in 2011.  Upon completion of my active duty service, I immediately registered for classes and used my GI Bill benefits to get my Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies. The week of my graduation from California State University in Sacramento (Go Hornets!  Stingers Up!), I was offered a position doing data entry through a temp agency. 16 months later, I was offered a permanent position with the company and I work for them to this day.

The lessons I am about to share apply to whatever you will choose to do with your life.  Or not. If anything, I promise there will be at least a laugh or two. If there is one thing the military does well, it provides a lifetime’s worth of comedic stories and packs them into a very short amount of time.  Enjoy!

 

Lesson 1:  No matter what your background, everyone starts as a rainbow.

The first day of basic training is guaranteed to be one of the worst days of your life.  The hours are intensely long, you are surrounded by hundreds of men and women, most of whom you don’t know or have never seen before, you are in several places throughout the day and night that are unfamiliar, and the people in uniform, are not the most pleasant.  “Not the most pleasant,” is actually an understatement. They trained day and night for weeks in the art of making your experience as difficult and stressful as possible. They all treat you as if you are the dumbest and most ignorant person that has ever existed, and it gets to the point where you eventually start to believe them.

You are looking around and notice that everyone is clearly thinking the same things as you are, and most likely feeling the same exact sentiment.  “What the heck have I done? How could I have been so stupid? Why would anyone willingly do what I have just done to myself?” You are not alone, because everyone there is thinking about it.  You may not notice it, but underneath all the shouting, yelling, verbal abuse that is being thrown around, everyone else that is there for the first time is on the same page as you. Everyone is believing at this point that they have made a grievous error in judgment and knows that life will never be the same again.

It is referred to as “Rainbow Week” because no one is wearing the same thing and the number of different colors around you is enough to make the MTI’s (Military Training Instructors) even angrier.  There is no uniformity. No sense of order. Everyone looks different. No one knows how to do anything. Worse, no one knows how to do things in unison. As far as the MTI’s are concerned, hundreds of children just arrived at their doorstep and they have to use the many years of military training and experience that they have gained over the years to hold the hand of each and every new recruit through the process of getting organized into different training units.  Nobody cares where anyone has come from. The only thing that matters to them is that you have chosen to inconvenience the MTI’s by being there. As far as the MTI’s are concerned, everyone is equally stupid, clueless, and a waste of oxygen and space.

Rainbow week is where it all starts.  Learn that your personal history is irrelevant.  The only thing that matters is the Air Force and how, or if, you are going to fit in.  It is the start of a life of inclusion, discipline, commitment, service, sacrifice, and daily evolution.  No matter how repetitive things seem, there is always something new to adapt to. Rainbow Week is the “Wake up call” that you could never begin to fathom without ever having experienced it.  It also makes things much more simple later in life. There are a few jobs that are going to humble you more during the initiation process. The most important lesson to learn during Rainbow Week is, “Learn to take your slice of humble pie with a grain of salt.”  Everyone starts as a Rainbow.

 

Lesson 2:  Learn when to shut up.

Plenty of times in life will arise when you are asked or have the opportunity to speak on a subject.  You may think you know what to say, you may have the answer, and you might even be right, but that is not always what matters.  The key in any situation is knowing when it is a good idea to speak up, and when it is more beneficial to keep your mouth shut.

There will be times, situations will occur, when knowing the right answer and sharing it can be a fast route to unnecessary trouble.  It is important in life to be truthful, but that does not always mean that the truth needs to be shared. Sometimes, it is much better for everyone involved, to let the situation be what it is and not attempt to influence what everyone else thinks about it.

The first core value of the United States Air Force is “integrity first,” but there were plenty of times when I, and others around me, spoke up or told the truth about a situation, and everything got worse as a result.  Don’t get me wrong. I believe that if you are going to speak up, it should be the right thing to say and possess the maximum amount of truth, based on your understanding of the situation. But, keeping your mouth shut is not the same thing as lying.

There are plenty of occasions when a question will be asked, or any kind of inquiry will be made, that an answer or the truth is not actually being sought.  How many times have you been in a conversation where there was nothing you could possibly say that would have any positive impact because the other person(s), already had their mind made up or were just asking a question as a mere formality?

It is important to be able to identify and interpret these situations.  There is a famous ideology stating “Sometimes, less is more.” This is equally true in most aspects relating to military life.  Sometimes, the absolute smartest thing you can possibly say is nothing. Using fewer words does not mean, or make you stupid. How could it?  It is only when you do speak that people can say for certain that you very likely have no clue what it is you are talking about. 

 

Lesson 3:  Fair is irrelevant.

Why is he getting preferential treatment?  Why does their unit get all the holidays off?  Why do we have to run towards the gunfire and explosions but they get to run straight for the safety and cover of a bunker?  Why do we have to work 60 to 80 hours per week but they only have to work 40?

These are all questions that will inevitably occupy your thoughts at some point in life.  Even before I enlisted I encountered situations where these questions, or similar, came to mind and the lack of fairness seriously irked me.  The military was just the first time someone gave me a non-diluted answer to my face. Suck it up.

Things in life are not fair and they never will be.  At least, not to the extent you want, expect, or even demand.  That is not the way the world works. Whether it is some distant battlefield, the school playground, the corporate world, or anywhere else you happen to find yourself, fair is just another concept that is thrown around in discussions but rarely finds its way into most real-life situations.

Is it fair to expect a service member that has spent all their active or reserve duty time training in dentistry to man an M-240B machine gun and provide immediate over-watch for incident response?  Is it reasonable to expect a military policeman or security force member to conduct aircraft maintenance on a C-5 Galaxy experiencing an engine failure? Does it make sense for a hospital janitor to perform open-heart surgery while the surgeon mops the hallways?

Not everything in life ends up being fair.  The choices you make are the determining factor in the circumstances you will find yourself in.  That is the way the world works and that is the way life is. Sometimes you end up on the upside and sometimes you end up in the “suck it up” category.  Get over it. If you don’t like the way things are, change your circumstances. There is always a way and thinking that there isn’t is nothing more than a failure of imagination on your part.  It is no one’s fault but yours.     

 

Lesson 4:  Don’t Be That Guy

We all know at least one, and time has arisen at some point in your life where you were this person yourself.  This is a broad label, but anyone that has ever encountered this individual, it is difficult to miss them. This is the person that speaks up when they should follow Lesson #2 (Learn when to shut up).  This is the person that does the one thing that everyone was told not to do. This is the person that makes you wonder how on Earth natural selection missed them.

If you don’t know this person, that is OK.  That is why you are here. A lot of the time, you can tell when it was you or when someone else is behaving like this, but it can be more difficult to identify if it is you and nobody points it out to you. This title is also not gender-specific.  It could be a guy or girl, but for the sake of simplicity, the phrase involves the word “Guy.” Please do not read too much into it. That is not what is important.

There are so many different types.  These are the violators of general rules or principles that are considered socially acceptable.  This is the person at the gym that, instead of asking someone or reading directions, or without any regard for others, uses the equipment incorrectly.  Using a leg machine for their arms. Putting more weight on something then they can clearly handle. Carrying on a conversation in the middle of the equipment.  Playing on their phone while sitting at a machine or on a bench for more than a few minutes. Having more dumbbells at their feet then they have limbs to use them.  The list goes on for this one.

All of those examples are gym specific.  How about some in some scattered environments?  The person that is five minutes late to work every day, a few minutes late coming back from breaks or lunch.  No matter what, they are so frequently late that the rare instances they are on time are comparable to a solar eclipse.  Ever see someone driving down the road and you just know that as soon as you are close enough, they are going to cut you off in a way that risks the front end of your car.  You manage to get next to them within the next minutes and you see they are on their phone and oblivious to the fact that they are operating one of the most dangerous machines on the planet.  This list goes on as well, but you get the point.

No one is fully exempt from this.  We all have our moments where we have done something and then looked back and gone, “What the heck was I thinking?” or “Why on Earth didn’t anyone tell me I was acting/behaving so stupidly?”  The more you can minimize these occurrences, the better for everyone. During my time in the Air Force, there was no shortage of stupidity, nor was there a shortage of people calling it out. By calling it out, awareness was raised and that specific instance became rarer immediately.  Don’t get mad if someone points it out to you. Confrontation takes courage and they are doing you a favor. They are providing you with a heads up that what you are doing is likely not good and the odds are others feel the same way.

This isn’t about just fitting in.  It is about those social rules that are not actually written anywhere, but they should be.  It is about being a better and more productive contributor to the environment you are in. It is easy to forget that you are not the only person in the room, on the road, at the gym, etc. and it is helpful to be reminded of that from time to time.  This is about living in the moment and thinking before you act or speak and making sure that you are not negatively impacting yourself or the people around you.

 

Lesson #5: One Team, One Fight, When Convenient

The overall concept of “One team, one fight,” is a good one, in my opinion.  In theory, if an entire organization was able to consistently operate using that philosophy as the backbone of their functioning, they would be unstoppable.  Sadly, it has been my experience that no organization is able to fully implement it as a strategy, which is why I had to add “When convenient” to the end. It is sad really.  Every time we ever heard “One team, one fight,” uttered by military leadership, my unit knew that at least one person in our unit was in trouble, and rather than just punishing that individual for their mistake, the entire unit was about to suffer.

It was most common with instances of members getting in trouble for driving while intoxicated or getting caught in some kind of drug-related incident.  There were even occasions when it was just some stupid accident or mistakes like backing a car up into something or falling asleep on duty. While I and all the others understand the general punishment, that was the only time the phrase “One team, one fight” ever applied.  Anytime anyone in our unit did anything good or worthy of commendation, the “One team, one fight” philosophy was absent. All of a sudden, good recognition does not apply to everyone. It wasn’t the unit, it was individual greatness.

This has a tendency to find its way into civilian life as well.  How often has your department or team done something extraordinary and it resulted in nothing more than a pat on the back, or only one person getting the prize?  Compare these events to the amount of times that same someone, or others, made a mistake, and everyone had to pay for it in some way, shape or form. It has been my experience that no matter what the organization, this has always ended up being the case.

  I never realized it until I was in the military but this was a recurring situation that we found ourselves in, especially considering the fact that we were stationed in the middle of Europe.  My first run-in with “One team, one fight” happened before I was even officially manning a post for the squadron. A member was caught doing spice and as a result, the entire unit was ordered to appear at the training building on a day off for a briefing, guards were posted at all the doorways, ID’s were collected, and more than 500 men and women were required to line up and pee in a cup.  It took more than half the day and by the end, there was no respect left for the new leadership.

Not long after that incident, another took place.  An off duty member of our unit was caught attempting to drive after consuming alcohol by the local police.  The entire unit was placed on what is called, “6 ring stand-by.” You are not allowed to consume alcohol, you have to be within 30 minutes of the armory, and failure to answer your phone at any time during the “6-ring stand-by” results in some form of disciplinary action.

Not once was the unit rewarded for the successful action or achievements of any other during my entire time on active duty service.  I have also not yet heard of a single instance where the entire unit was awarded for the actions or achievements of anyone. That individual is awarded a medal or commendation of some kind and is given it while everyone else in the unit has to stand and watch.  This also typically takes place on an off day. Truly, “One team, one fight, when convenient.”

 

Lesson #6: There is such a thing as stupid questions.

This is a lesson that you learn on day one of military basic training.  The instructors are trained to put you through one of the most uncomfortable situations of your life.  It is apart of an effort to weed out the members who cannot handle the stresses that accompany military service and lifestyle.  In order to do that, you are basically not going to get everything right and you are certainly not going to get it right the first time.  And even if you do, from their perspective, you have done it wrong and you are an idiot. That is the way it works.

This is when and where you start to encounter the questions that are best left unasked.  The recruiters and their colleagues have been all fine and dandy and were willing to give an answer to just about anything.  That is not the case once you get to basic training. The recruiters absolutely love it when you ask a question because they use it as an indication that you were not paying close enough attention to their instruction.  Or, it is an opportunity to remind you that you are too stupid to live. It is an especially exciting time for them if it was something that they already covered because then it becomes an opportunity for them to openly invite other instructors to come help provide you with more verbal instruction (aka yell at you more).  

This is where two of the other lessons come into play.  Don’t be that guy (asking stupid questions), and know when to shut up.  If you need to ask a question in basic training, you ask one of the designated student leaders.  It is their job to get clarification for you. Plus, running your question through someone else helps to weed out the stupid questions.  Maybe that person has an answer, or maybe they will let you know that is not a question you want or need to ask.

Fast forward to beyond training, or even beyond military service.  How many times have you heard a question get asked that made you wonder whether or not there was any actual merit to the theory of natural selection?  A question that was so ridiculous that the only reason it made any sense was the person asking it just wanted someone else to acknowledge their presence or existence.  We all have. Don’t be that guy (or girl). Think before you speak.  

If you know, or even think, that a question is going to potentially be stupid, run it by someone else that it might apply to.  Maybe it’s a stupid question, or maybe, it has the potential to be a good question and that person can help you word it better. The phrase “It can’t hurt to ask,” clearly never served in any military.  Not only can it hurt to ask, but it will also give the military training instructors great pleasure to watch.

 

Lesson #7: Common Sense is not so common.

If only I had a dollar for every time I, or my colleagues, asked “why are we doing it this way?” or “What is the purpose of this action, other than compromising security?”  I assure you, there would be no need for me to ever work another day in my life. For nearly 23 years of life, before I enlisted, every time I heard someone say that “Military Intelligence” was an oxymoron, I never really got it.

It wasn’t until I reached my first duty station and started participating in active duty functions that it started to make sense, and by that point, it was not funny.  There were instances when it became so frustrating that the right words to describe it, didn’t exist. The absolute worst part, there was absolutely nothing that we could do to change it.  There were plenty of things we could do about it, but none of which would result in anything less than bigger problems for myself or my unit.

Eventually, the joke evolved that, on top of everything else we were issued in order to perform our duties, a yellow flag should be included.  It would be mandatory equipment for any and all security and police posts. This way, anytime someone said or did something that made sense but was not apart of our protocols, the yellow flag could be thrown, and the individual making sense could reflect upon Lesson #2 (Learn when to shut the hell up).

Most of the time, when you encounter situations like these, especially in the military, there is a good chance that just about everyone that it directly effects is aware of how stupid said protocol is.  We all get it. Having eight pockets on your military pants and getting yelled at for putting your hands in any of them is stupid. Getting a ticket for walking down the street on base with your headphones in and not even being a member of the military is stupid.  Yes, I have seen both of these, and then some.

Common sense has definitely fallen by the waste-side the past few decades and it is a tragedy.  Whether you are a member of the military, or just a regular person driving to the supermarket and are losing your mind because no one is using their blinker and half are simultaneously texting on their cell phone while swerving between three lanes, common sense has definitely taken several hits.  It is not too late though. This is an epidemic that can be salvaged. All it takes is a little more attention, and a little more presence in the moment. Don’t be that guy, have a little more consideration for the rest of humanity.

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