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Stand-To: A Long Journey Traveled…and It’s Only The Beginning

November 19, 2018
Duance France
Stand-To graduate Duane France reflects on his time with the inaugural class of the Veteran Leadership Program and their shared work ahead.

At the end of the classic Bogart movie, Casablanca, Bogart’s character Rick says to his companion, “Louis…I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

We never hear how that beautiful friendship turns out, and it’s a great ending to a great movie. That’s not how life works, though…time goes on. There is always a moment after something ends; life is a series of transitions and cycles. 

On November 15, a group of individuals - veterans, service members, spouses, those who never served - completed a six-month long leadership development program that brought us together. Most of us didn’t know each other before the program; we certainly didn’t know all of the other scholars in the inaugural Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program. The event brought together a group of people who were making a difference in our own ways, big and small, in our own areas.

We were brought together to see that the whole, indeed, is greater than the sum of its parts. 

As we were wrapping up our final week, meeting with leaders like Admiral William McRaven and President and Mrs. Bush, the thought kept running through my mind: this is only the beginning.

This is, of course, only the beginning of the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program. As the inaugural cohort drew to a close, applications for the next cohort had already begun. As each of us scholars returned to our work, we started to reach out to our connections across the veteran space. “Go for it,” we said, “Don’t doubt yourself.” As much as the Stand-To kickoff event was the genesis of the program, we’re not even out of the first inning in this game…we’re probably not even through the first at-bat. There is much, much more to come. 

In another way, though, and on a much more personal one, this is only the beginning for us individually and the group of us collectively. The story of the “beautiful friendships” that were made has only just begun. Only days after I returned home, I was connecting a local colleague to fellow cohort participants, in order to address the retention challenge in veteran employment. Another of our colleagues reached out to me and a couple of other mental health folks in the group regarding a veteran who had reached out to her for help.

The connections, the bonds, that were created during a six-month program will likely be as strong as those forged by combat.

I don’t say that lightly. The brothers and sisters I served with are with me to this day, especially the ones that I fought alongside of in the Kunar River Valley in Afghanistan. And, as I reflect on the relationships built during this Stand-To program, I consider them the same. If I were to get a call, a message, an email from one of my colleagues in the program, I would answer. Quickly. 

This is the true power of a program like the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program - a very real connection to others whose sole concern is the welfare of the service member, veteran, and their families. We weren’t in it for the prestige. We didn’t know the caliber of the speakers we would meet or the organizations we would be exposed to when we signed up for the program. We had no clue that General Peter Chiarelli would make our colleague Brian Thompson do pushups…although we enjoyed it. We didn’t know that we would visit Starbucks Headquarters, or have dinner with Senator Elizabeth Dole, or a hundred other amazing moments that happened throughout the program.

No, we simply wanted to serve. To continue to serve, as we all did, whether we were prior military or not. To turn around and help our brothers and sisters, to change the conversation, to do more. To be more. 

This program was short but make no mistake about it: it was challenging. We were encouraged to critically examine our thoughts, our beliefs, our way of doing business. We were required to understand ourselves and understand others. We were invested in by an amazing organization, the George W. Bush Institute, and no investment is made without the expectation of a return.

Much like the end of Casablanca, the future ahead is not clear; where we will be in five or ten years is uncertain. Like those who served together, I’m certain that the group of us will always be there to celebrate each other’s victories and support each other during times of loss.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.” Or, in military terms, never doubt that a small group of highly trained individuals who understand the commander’s intent can influence the course of a battle, the “Little Group of Paratroopers” that made a difference on D-Day in World War II. 

The inaugural class of the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program is a group of thoughtful, committed citizens. We are a group of highly trained individuals who understand what is asked of us.

Individually, we were significant. Together, we are mighty.

And the journey is just beginning.