On Military Service
By Nick Palmisciano
Veterans Day is a weird day for most veterans.
Like you, I get a lot of texts and emails and Facebook messages and the like from my civilian friends telling me, “Thank you for your service.” And while I know many veterans dislike hearing that statement from people, it doesn’t bother me. I’m appreciative of the sentiment, much in the same way that I am appreciative of “Happy Birthday”.
And I think most of us should take it that way. Yes, I know it is frustrating hearing that same cliché line from every human being that realizes you served, but let’s be fair, most of them don’t know what else to say. It’s ingrained in our culture now, as much as “Bless you” is when someone sneezes.
And while I fully admit that I often fumble with a response – usually I babble on about “It isn’t necessary. I chose to serve,” or “I appreciate it” – the fact of the matter is that most people are trying to be kind, and we shouldn’t read more into it than that.
A common thread that I hear in the veteran community is that “they have no idea what it’s like to serve,” and that’s true, much in the same way that I have no idea what it’s like to cut into someone’s brain as a neurosurgeon or hang off of a skyscraper as a construction worker. We all have unique experiences in life that define who we are and how we look at the world. There is no question that we are different. The veteran community is the most special group of people I have ever encountered, and I literally have devoted my life to giving back to our community, but we have to apply a reasonable standard to people or we are only hurting ourselves.
There are fewer and fewer of us as a percentage of the population. That means fewer and fewer people will understand what it’s like to don the uniform. When there are less real world encounters with veterans, people fall back on books, articles, the internet, video games, and Hollywood. Hence, the stereotypes emerge: we all have PTSD, we all are alcoholics, we are straight-backed authoritarian types who don’t play well with others, all we know how to do is kill and we can’t succeed in the real world, we aren’t flexible, and all the rest of the nonsense that the mainstream media espouses.
Six months after I began attending graduate school, I had to interview for internships. Internships were a huge deal at business school and the quality of your internship set the tone for the quality of the job that you would attain upon graduation.
Luckily for me, my good friend Bob, who had served with me as an infantryman, was a year ahead of me at school. He spent a lot of time teaching me how to conduct interviews, and especially the case interview, a specific interview that revolved around consulting, which at the time was the job that was considered to be the premium profession. I became really good at it, because I worked at it nonstop, and eventually started teaching my classmates how to ace a case interview. I kind of became the “go to” guy for them over the three months when we were all prepping and I took great pride in it.
When interview time came, I got some job offers, and didn’t get others, as is the way of things, but one company stood out to me. They are a big three consulting firm. Some of you know what that means, and for those that don’t, they make a whole lot of money to tell people how to run their businesses. I aced three rounds of interviews and finally was sitting in front of a partner who would give me my last interview and make a decision on my employment. He gave me the interview case and I worked through it easily. I knew I aced it and I could see he was impressed. What he told me at the end though, was shocking. He looked at me and said, “Nick, you nailed every case. Everyone thought you did great. Our question though is whether you can add value coming directly from the military or whether you need to have an industry job first. We were split on it, but I think you need to get some experience in a more flexible environment. After all, we have a matrix organization and you have to work with a lot of people. You won’t have people to order around like you did in the military and what you need to accomplish will not come from a direct order. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. I think you’ll be better suited to succeed next year. So go and do an internship somewhere else and I will hire you next year.”
That’s the real enemy. The belief by many people in the country that we are less than someone who chose a different path in life, or that we are somehow broken. That our experience doesn’t add value the way other “real world” experience does. It is an obstacle many veterans are struggling to overcome. But there’s one enemy that is even greater, and that’s a veteran’s belief that something is owed to him.
Now let me clarify: I believe it is a nation’s obligation to take care of its wounded. I am thankful for the many great organizations that help veterans in need, help veterans obtain work, and help veterans get a leg up upon leaving service. But for most of us, we need to find success ourselves. We need to. We need to find the same motivation that we had to achieve during our service and apply it to civilian life.
A person doesn’t show up on Day 1 and graduate Ranger School. He goes to Basic, then to AIT, then his unit, then Airborne School, then Pre-Ranger, and finally Ranger. There is a progression there of effort, learning, and toughness. The man that pins on the Ranger Tab is much greater and more capable than the man who joined the military 2-3 years previous. And the important lesson there is that to achieve a significant goal requires blood, sweat and tears, not simply the passage of time.
I won’t lie. That rejection, especially for the reason of having served rather than having had a civilian job, hurt. And it would have been easy for me to feel I would never find work or that no one would ever appreciate what I could do. When he told me I wasn’t good enough for him as an intern, he was all smiles. He thought he was giving me good news by telling me that next year I’d be good enough. When I told my civilian classmates what he said, many of them were excited for me. “That’s great, Nick! Next year you’ll be working for X Corp!” I, on the other hand was pissed off. I would never work for that asshole. I would never work for that shitty company. I dug in. I worked harder, practiced more, and chased more employment opportunities.
I accepted an internship with John Deere, a mid-western company that I felt had great values and better people. I had a great summer and came back with a lot of industry experience. The comments from my supervisors were superb. They highlighted the fact that my military service gave me leadership and problem solving experience that my contemporaries did not have. In short, they respected my experience enough to give me a chance, and I refused to tarnish my or my service’s reputation by doing anything other than my best work. As it should be, I believe.
When the summer was over and the full-time job recruiting season started, suddenly I was at a high premium. Several firms came calling, including the same manager who had snubbed me the year before. With all the other firms, I respectfully declined, but with him, I told him that I would never work for a firm that wasn’t military-friendly. He was shocked. They donated money to this charity and that charity, he stated. I then relived the interview from the year previous from my perspective. I explained how he had marginalized my experience, despite my performance, based solely on his ignorance of what members of the military actually are required to do. Now, whether I had any impact on him or not, I have no idea. And I’m not worried about it. The market has a way of working these things out. I would have crushed that job, as I’m sure would the other vets he had a predisposition against in the past. Instead I was going elsewhere. John Deere had believed in me. I would go work for them for a few years until my hobby (RU) completely consumed me and I moved on to the world of fulltime entrepreneurship.
I realize not everyone has the same experience I had, but I believe many of us have similar challenges as we exit military service. I believe the answer for every single one of us is to find a mission and work like hell to achieve it. We all need to find our “Ranger School” to work towards, and when we attain it, we must find the next challenge. There is no better argument against the naysayers than success, and there is nothing that aligns our life more than the pursuit of it.
So on this Veterans Day, rather than get hung up on whether it is weird, or not, that civilians are thanking you for your service, ask yourself if you’ve found your mission and whether you’re working towards it. My personal opinion is that there is nothing more powerful than a veteran with a mission, and nothing sadder than a vet without one. Most of the hires at Ranger Up are veterans. I don’t do this because I am a good dude who wants to give back. That’s what charity is for. I hire veterans because veterans kick ass. They never stop working, never stop pushing, never stop creating, and never stop executing until the mission is done – 100 percent and then some.
And one other thing, thank you for your service.