A Pipeline of Leaders

An Essay by Colonel Miguel Howe, USA (Ret.), Director, Military Service Initiative, George W. Bush Institute

There is a disconnection between those who serve in uniform and those whom they serve. We need to realize the skills that veterans have honed in their military service can benefit our society.

Sergeant B.J. Ganem, USMC (Ret.) (left) and Staff Sergeant Jack Schumacher, USA (Ret.) enjoy camaraderie at the 2015 Warrior Open. (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

Back in 2007, B.J. Ganem found himself struggling in a big way. The rugged Marine was having a hard time making the transition to civilian life. A rocket-propelled grenade had struck B.J. during his service in Iraq, resulting in the amputation of his left leg below the knee. He also suffered from multiple shrapnel wounds and traumatic brain injury. What’s more, the Georgian was divorced, bankrupt, facing drunk-driving charges, and completely lost.  

At this low point, B.J. decided to finally come to terms with his transition. Despite his life-altering injury, he got a job as a veteran service officer. Then, he went to work for the Semper Fi Fund, where he helped launch its Veteran-to-Veteran program. 

He also went back to college, earning a psychology degree. He then earned a Master’s of Social Work from the University of Southern California, with an emphasis on military life. 

“My military career ended not the way I wanted it to," B.J. said. "So, I was angry." 

He knew, though, he couldn't fear failure. He had to try something. He couldn't just sit and wallow. "We've got to be leaders," he thought.  “We have to do our part and help carry the load and keep moving forward.” 

B.J., fortunately, did keep moving forward. But he was not alone in his struggles. In our work with post-9/11 veterans at the George W. Bush Institute, we have heard plenty of veterans say that they feel alone and unprepared after leaving the military. Or that they miss the camaraderie, sense of purpose, and clearly-defined values from their time of service. Even more, they don't know how to translate their skills from the battlefield. 

Don’t get me wrong: Post-9/11 veterans enjoy strong support from their fellow Americans. But a disconnection exists between those who serve in uniform and those whom they serve.  

In 2011, the Pew Research Center conducted a national survey that found 71 percent of Americans who had not served in the military had little understanding of the issues veterans face. At the same time, 84 percent of veterans agreed that the public had little awareness of the issues facing them and their families.  

Post-9/11 veterans enjoy strong support from their fellow Americans. But a disconnection exists between those who serve in uniform and those whom they serve.  ... 84 percent of veterans agreed that the public had little awareness of the issues facing them and their families.

Five years later, a Bush Institute survey found that perceptions had not changed. About 70% of Americans who had not served and 84% of veterans still said exactly the same thing. 

Know Our Vets: Explore the challenges and opportunities post-9/11 vets face. Learn more and view infographic

The disconnection stems in part from the culture, training, and experiences that are essential to prevailing on the battlefield. For some like B.J., so are the wounds they incurred in war. 

This mutual lack of understanding is exacerbated by a public perception that the veteran is either a hero or a victim to be pitied. Both of those perceptions overlook the fact that the actual strength of veterans rests in their skills and abilities to adapt to difficult circumstances. Those skills and adaptability have much to offer the civilian world, too, from the front office to the shop floor. 

We could see this civilian-military divide as another negative consequence of war. Instead, we should consider it an opportunity for our society to benefit once again from military training, using the talents of transitioning veterans in everything from executive suites to managing supply chains to serving as community leaders. The military is considered the cradle of American leader development, after all.  

We should consider [the civilian-military divide] an opportunity for our society to benefit once again from military training, using the talents of transitioning veterans.

Creating a community of support

The government plays a critical role in bridging this divide, but a coalition of businesses, non-profits, colleges, foundations, and citizens actually do most of the bridge-building. As an example, the majority of transition services come through companies, schools, non-profits, and communities. In providing those services, they bring our civilian and military populations closer together.  

Josh Borgmeyer (left) and other Trek Bikes employees attend the W100K to provide maintenance and setup for warriors' new bikes. (Paul Morse/George W. Bush Presidential Center)

But this is not just a job for organizations. All Americans can create a community of support and bring our populations together. Here are a few simple ways to do so: 

Know-Understand-Connect 

The best way to know and understand veterans is to meet and interact with them. Non-profits that serve veterans, student veteran groups, veteran employee resource groups, and military recruiting centers can make these connections.  

Young service members particularly can benefit from a civilian guide as they exit the military. Mentors help them translate their skills, acquire new ones, and develop a career path. 

Organizations such as American Corporate Partners, Veteratia, and WisePrime can provide qualified Americans the opportunity to mentor transitioning service members and veterans, too. And they can do so within their own businesses, campuses, and communities. 

Meaningful Career Opportunities  

The values, character, and work ethic that veterans have honed in their military service can benefit many fields. So can the management skills veterans have acquired, along with their abilities to solve complex problems in difficult environments. 

The fact is, American employers have a talent pool awaiting them. To spotlight this reality, the Bush Institute has worked with coalitions such as the U.S. Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes, the Veteran Jobs Mission, and the Blackstone-led Private Equity Veteran Consortium to help companies find, hire, and retain veterans. Their talents apply to mid-and small-sized businesses as well, just as businesses have the expertise to help veterans launch their own enterprises. 

The fact is, American employers have a talent pool awaiting them.

A cadre of leaders 

Of course, the primary responsibility to bridge this divide rests with military service members and veterans. They must own their transitions, just like B.J. and many others have done. 

Transition Responsibility 

The first step starts with understanding the challenge, then planning a strategy, and finally executing it well. This type of approach to a trying situation should be familiar to everyone who has worn the uniform, along with knowing how to use the resources at hand. 

 

U.S. Marines with the Ground Combat Element, Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa conduct an alert-force drill. (Sergeant Tia Nagle / U.S. Marine Corps)

Another element should be familiar, too: Warriors must adapt to their new environment, just as they had to adapt upon deployment. To expect the 99 percent to adapt to the 1 percent is naive.  

Veterans especially need to eschew a sense of entitlement or the temptation to see themselves as victims. Instead, they must find a new sense of identity and belonging. This includes learning the language and culture of their civilian environment.  

Thrive – Lead – Succeed 

Out-of-uniform veterans still have a role to play in providing for our nation’s security. They just play this role differently. It starts with their leadership skills, whether that is at the top of an organization or making sure transportation and logistics operations work efficiently. 

By applying those leadership skills in civilian life, they will help attract young Americans into military service. They also will inspire civilians to work with them in bridging the divide. And they will help stabilize our economy and society, which enhances our security. 

Out-of-uniform veterans still have a role to play in providing for our nation’s security. By applying those leadership skills in civilian life, they will help attract young Americans into military service. They also will inspire civilians to work with them in bridging the divide. And they will help stabilize our economy and society, which enhances our security.

Thriving in the civilian world will bring honor to the military and set the example in their companies and communities. In fact, those who have worn the uniform have a responsibility to reconnect and communicate with those who have not worn the uniform. Living a life of service and telling the story of their military experience is an important way to do that. 

Crossing the divide 

The civilian-military divide does not have to lead to a negative result. In fact, successful transitions that enable veterans to use their leadership and skills bring warriors closer to the civilian population.  

In turn, this helps sustain the all-volunteer force. Those who join the military will know that the skills and abilities they will hone will benefit them, their communities, and the nation. 

Staff Sergeant Jack Schumacher analyzes a putt with his caddy -- and wife -- at the 2015 Warrior Open. (Brad Newton/George W. Bush Presidential Center)

Jack Schumacher, a post-9/11 vet we’ve come to know through our annual Warrior Open golf tournament, is a perfect example of this. 

He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 when his convoy was ambushed and hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, detonating on his right leg and resulting in the loss of his limb. But he didn’t let his injuries define him. He found new purpose with the backing of his wife and his rehabilitation support team.  

Jack took night classes after physical therapy, and in 2014 graduated with honors from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Today, he works for Under Armour as a business analyst for global supply chain operations. 

As Jack says, “Sometimes life gives you a fairway; sometimes life gives you a bunker. The goal doesn’t change, just your perspective and your plan.” 

Jack and B.J. are just two of thousands of post-9/11 veterans who have taken ownership of their transitions and found unwavering support. At the Bush Institute, helping all veterans achieve this kind of successful transition is our mission. Military service can be part of a pathway to opportunity and prosperity for their families and their communities.  By helping transitioning veterans, the nation will benefit from a deep pool of skilled, talented leaders for decades to come.

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