An interesting idea from Stanley McChrystal

Stanley McChrystal, the former four star general in charge of the war in Afghanistan, wrote a very thought provoking  opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal.  He articulately argues that all Americans, not just those in the military, should serve the nation in some capacity.  With around 1% of the population in the military (which is an all-time low during wartime), there has arguably never been a time in our history when those who actively serve and civilian populations have been further apart.

McChrystal argues that national service, in which a young man or woman can make the choice in how to serve, would make the nation stronger and create a more robust and resilient citizenry.  He challenges the government, the private sector, and the American people to do something to collectively better the nation.

His piece presents an idea that would fundamentally change how our citizens participate in society, and it will certainly generate some controversy.  Even though it will certainly make many people uncomfortable, it is something worth thinking about; in particular is how he proposes that veterans could become an integral part of the program with his proposal that  “[r]eturning military veterans would be treated as the civic assets they are and permitted to use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to support a period of civilian national service, since such service helps them transition to life back home.”

I found his proposal to be very interesting.  I wonder how many boats his article will rock…

Here is a link to the article: Lincoln’s Call to Service – And Ours

The text, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal Online Edition (in case you are not a WSJ online subscriber), is below:

Lincoln’s Call to Service—and Ours

A proposal that would help young Americans understand that civic duty is not restricted to the military.

By STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL

My father first took me to Gettysburg when I was 12 years old. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, home from the first of two tours in Vietnam. I remember in particular the hundreds of obelisks poking over the berms, the oxidized plaques attached to rocks and the statues lining the roadways. All spoke for the thousands of men and boys who had died in the grass and dirt serving their nation.

I was young, but I recognized the gravity of the place.

Though I went on to have a career in the military, the visits to Gettysburg with my father were not preparation for soldiering as much as they were early lessons in citizenship—a particular understanding of citizenship that President Lincoln defined and challenged us to fulfill when he delivered his famous address there. It’s a citizenship that does not simply reflect upon the sacrifices of others, but that honors their sacrifice through action: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Today, as ever, the task is unfinished. Yet the duties of citizenship have fallen from the national agenda. Talk of service is largely confined to buoyant commencement ceremonies. And too often it is just that: talk.

Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military—a historic low during wartime—leading to a broad, complacent assumption that serving the nation is someone else’s job. As we’ve allowed our understanding of service to be so narrowly limited to the uniform, we’ve forgotten Lincoln’s audience: With the armies still fighting, the president exhorted a crowd of civilians on their duty to carry forward the nation’s work.

It is right that we send off the young Americans graduating this month from high school, college and professional schools with speeches. They should be congratulated for completing the many exams now behind them. But we must remember another test—Lincoln’s test of citizenship—and begin to mark these important junctures in life not just with words, but with real-world commitment.

Universal national service should become a new American rite of passage. Here is a specific, realistic proposal that would create one million full-time civilian national-service positions for Americans ages 18-28 that would complement the active-duty military—and would change the current cultural expectation that service is only the duty of those in uniform.

At age 18, every young man and woman would receive information on various options for national service. Along with the five branches of the military, graduates would learn about new civilian service branches organized around urgent issues like education, health care and poverty. The positions within these branches would be offered through AmeriCorps as well as through certified nonprofits. Service would last at least a year.

Returning military veterans would be treated as the civic assets they are and permitted to use a portion of their GI Bill benefits to support a period of civilian national service, since such service helps them transition to life back home.

The new service opportunities would be created in accordance with the smart rules that have guided AmeriCorps since its founding in 1994, which allow that program to field tens of thousands of service members without displacing workers and who fill vital niches their paid colleagues do not.

Serving full-time for a year or two needs to be a realistic option for all young Americans, regardless of their family’s finances. So civilian service positions would be modestly paid, as AmeriCorps positions are now. (Most AmeriCorps service-members receive a $12,100 stipend for the year, and if they complete their term of service, a $5,550 scholarship to help cover tuition or to pay off student loans.) Government agencies focused on the challenges that these service-members address, as well as the corporations that will benefit from employing Americans whose leadership will be cultivated by service, should step up to fund these efforts.

Instead of making national service legally mandatory, corporations and universities, among other institutions, could be enlisted to make national service socially obligatory. Schools can adjust their acceptance policies and employers their hiring practices to benefit those who have served—and effectively penalize those who do not.

More than most Americans realize, the demand to serve already exists. In 2011, there were nearly 600,000 applications to AmeriCorps—a program with only 80,000 positions, only half of which are full time. The Peace Corps received 150,000 requests for applications but has funding for only 4,000 new positions each year. This gap represents democratic energy wasted and a generation of patriotism needlessly squandered.

Some, particularly after having just observed Memorial Day, might think that only war is capable of binding a generation and instilling true civic pride. But you don’t have to hear the hiss of bullets to develop a deeper claim to the nation. In my nearly four decades in the military, I saw young men and women learn the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship by wearing the uniform in times of both peace and war. They were required to work with people of different backgrounds, introduced to teamwork and discipline, unified by common tests, and brought even closer by sacrifice. Some discovered, often to their surprise, that they were leaders.

This transformation is not exclusive to the military. Those who disagree need only visit young teachers working 18-hour days together in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In rural Colorado health clinics, in California’s forests, or Midwest neighborhoods devastated by tornadoes, skeptics would see teams of young people—affluent and poor, college-educated and not—devoting their days to a singular, impactful mission.

Universal national service would surely face obstacles. But America is too big, and our challenges too expansive, for small ideas. To help stem the high-school dropout crisis, to conserve rivers and parks, to prepare for and respond to disasters, to fight poverty and, perhaps most important, to instill in all Americans a sense of civic duty, the nation needs all its young people to serve.

Whatever the details of a specific plan, the objective must be a cultural shift that makes service an expected rite of citizenship. Anything less fails Lincoln’s test.

Gen. McChrystal, a former commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan and of the Joint Special Operations Command, is the chairman of the Leadership Council of the Franklin Project on national service at the Aspen Institute.

A version of this article appeared May 30, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Lincoln’s Call to Service—and Ours.

Thoughts about Memorial Day

Memorial Day marks many things: the unofficial start of summer, the exciting end of the school year, and for those who have been touched by war an opportunity to remember those who are no longer with us.

Across the nation, before the burgers and hotdogs hit the grill, tens of thousands of volunteers place tiny American flags and floral arrangements among the headstones and grave markers those who have gone before and in defense of all of us.  There are parades, speeches, and picnics in every town and city across the nation.  Veterans, both young and old, don their old uniforms and walk down boulevards with their medals glittering in the sun as the citizens for whom they fought look on.

Newspapers print pictures and stories of the fallen from wars present and past.  Television networks hold war movie marathons and radio hosts interview veterans and politicians and families of servicemen who are currently overseas.

Flags fly on every street.  People cheerfully greet the beginning of summer by celebrating in that uniquely American way of barbequeing and soaking up the sun in back yards and parks from Honolulu to the Hudson and everywhere in between.

It is a good day.

And it should be.

Memorial Day is the day when we all remember those who have bourne the cost of freedom, but it is more than that.  For me, and for so many others that have gone “over there” and come back again, the day is a celebration of the very purpose of military service.  Every holiday cookout and parade and picnic is made possible by the thousands of men and women who stand atop the metaphorical wall and keep the American way of life safe and free from tyranny.

I am often asked if Memorial Day should be more solemnly commemorated, and my answer is no.  It shouldn’t because the traditions of a free nation and the joyful celebration that begins the summer and ends the school year is the very reason that we chose to serve in the first place.

Memorial Day commemorates those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect America.  It also a celebrates of what America is: families and friends together without fear of oppression or danger.  That is what we have all been fighting for since the colonies gained their independence from the British and became the United States of America, and we would have it no other way.

Happy Memorial Day!

 

Calling the VA. Again.

In theory, I have undergone all of the physical examinations, evaluations, pokings, and proddings that are part and parcel of transitioning from Active Duty to becoming a veteran.  After over a dozen trips to various clinics and hospitals at the end of my time in uniform and during my first year or so of post-military life I have been informed that all of my examinations are complete.  To make sure that they were all indeed finished, I logged into the VA website regularly to see if my status had changed.

To my utter lack of surprise, it didn’t.  Growing tired of logging in and viewing at an unchanging screen on the VA’s eBenefits webpage, I looked forlornly at the telephone on my desk and resigned myself to another early morning attempt to get through to the VA.

So, early the next morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and staggered into my office.  I punched in the VA’s telephone number, and much to my surprise (not really) found that even though it was a couple of hours before the rooster would crow (on the West coast, at least), all operators were busy.  I was, however, offered the option of having a VA representative call me back the following week at a time that would be convenient for me.

I figured that the following Monday at about 0900 was convenient enough, so I hung up and waited for the weekend to pass.

It did, and sure enough my phone rang at about 0905, with a live human being on the other end!  Very exciting indeed.  After providing my social security number and other identifying information, the nice lady on the other end asked how she could help me.  Although deep down I didn’t think that there was much help to be had, I asked anyway.

“Can you tell me the status of my case?”

After a few moments of furious typing on the other end of the line, my VA friend replied:

“It’s under review.”

Which is exactly where it has been for nearly nine months.

We talked for a few minutes, and then I hung up.  In order to spare you from the rather boring conversation, I’ll just cover what she had to say.

1.  All of my examinations are complete.  That said, if they find something that they need to look into I will again be headed off to the examination clinic.

2.  My results are somewhere between the clinic and my case file.  Even though it has been nearly two months since my last exams, the results have not made it to my case team.  Not surprising, but still disappointing.

3.  Once my team receives my results, they will merge them with my file and put it in the queue.  When my file comes to the top of the pile they will evaluate it and let me know the result.

How long will that take, I asked?

“Nine to twelve months.”

Sigh.  Good thing I’m not in a rush.

The importance of differentiation

There are many career paths that you can take in the military.  The obvious ones include those that involve fighting, but there are a whole lot of jobs that don’t.  For every infantryman who carries a rifle into harm’s way there are anywhere from three to ten or more men and women in uniform who make sure that the grunt on patrol has the ammunition, water, fuel, and everything else he might need.  Every tank has a crew of four, but before it rumbles into the fight dozens of mechanics and ordnance specialists and electricians perform hours and hours of maintenance to make sure that the vehicle is in tip-top shape.  For every naval aviator who catapults from the deck of an aircraft carrier there are thousands of shipmates aboard who do everything from chipping paint from the rusty decks to keeping the nuclear reactors on line to making and serving chow.

Those jobs are all crucial in order for the military to accomplish its mission of keeping the nation safe.  Interestingly, within the military itself, even though all of those duties are important there is a definite difference in the prestige associated with them.  In the Marine Corps, for example, the infantry is considered to the ultimate expression of the service; everything else as they say is just support.  In the Air Force it is the fighter pilots who have ruled the roost for decades, and in the Navy the ship drivers and aviators are those who wield the most power.  For the Army, it is the infantry and armor branches that hold the most distinction.

Unfortunately the most prestigious positions in the military are also those with the least direct corollary to civilian employment.  There are no civilian infantry battalions, fighter squadrons, tank platoons, or aircraft carriers.  There are, however, plenty of jobs in those support areas that are often viewed as second class within the military.  The civilian world does not need artillerymen, but it does need electricians.  It needs truck drivers, and mechanics, and logisticians.

In short, the civilian world needs people with definable and useful skills.

Skills, for example, that an employer can put to work immediately without taking the risk of hiring someone who may or may not know enough about the business to be effective.

Unfortunately, many of the skills that those in uniform who have spent the majority of their time at the pointy end of the spear have developed are not directly transferable to the corporate sector.  Being a leader is great, and undoubtedly the leadership skills that our warriors have gained in Iraq and Afghanistan are first rate.  That is great for the military because leading people to do amazing things is what the military is all about, and the best military leaders we have are those who are dedicated to mastering their craft and being the most proficient soldiers or sailors or Marines possible.

Leadership in the civilian world is leadership in a different context.  An infantryman can demonstrate his leadership through arduous training, bravery, and a consummate grasp of tactics, weapons, and equipment.  By being a first rate infantryman, he can lead by example and inspire his fellows and juniors to shoulder their loads and step out to meet the enemy.  The best leaders we have are those who are the best at what they do: they are the best infantrymen or tankers or pilots or ship drivers.

The civilian world is no different.  The best CEOs are those who have dedicated themselves to learning their businesses inside and out.  They inspire their people to great achievement by understanding their industry and markets and customers and then being able to align the company’s employees to meet their goals and objectives.  They challenge their people and recognize those who excel.  Instead of using medals to motivate their corporate troops, they use other things such as money and stock options and trips to the Bahamas.  They lead by example and are masters of their craft.

It is here that the perception that many military leaders, particularly those in the combat arms, runs awry.  I cannot count the number of conversations that I have had with my peers and friends in uniform in which we talked about how we, the combat leaders, had all the skills that would make us tremendous leaders and invaluable assets to any company that would be lucky enough to hire us.

How wrong we were.

Sure, corporations want great leaders.  Every company does.  They also want people who know their business or have a skill that the firm needs.  Therein lies the rub, and brings to mind a story from my days as a young and motivated Captain:

I once had an officer who was a student of mine at the artillery school.  He was a graduate of the Citadel, which is a renowned military college in South Carolina.  As a cadet there he rose to a high position of leadership in the Corps of Cadets, and he was without a doubt a fine leader.  That said, he was a lousy student.  When I asked him why this was so, he answered that he joined the military to lead men and learning about how to load and fire an artillery piece was interesting but not particularly relevant to his desire to be the next MacArthur.

I explained to him that leadership is not something that you have because of rank or position, but instead it is something that is earned through the respect of those you lead.  He would never be a good leader in the artillery if he did not show that he was a solid artilleryman, and to be a solid artilleryman he had to learn how to load and fire an artillery piece.  People who show up and start barking orders without knowing what they are talking about are idiots, not leaders.

That is the point that so many people in the military miss.  Sure, we all developed leadership styles that inspire young men and women to enthusiastically throw themselves into the crucible of combat, but those styles were largely based on our professionalism and mastery of our martial craft.  None of those same people would have followed us if we didn’t know what we were doing.

The lesson here is that if you, as a military leader, want to bring your talents to the civilian world you will need to more than just be a “leader”.  You will need to differentiate yourself and show that you can do more than just lead.  Can you read a balance sheet?  How about a profit and loss statement?  Do you understand marketing, or finance, or accounting, or any of the countless other things that make the business world run?

The corporate sector has lots of great leaders.  How would you feel, as an infantryman, if the CEO of a company was hired to become your battalion commander and take you into combat?  Would you follow him?  Of course not.  Why, then, do so many military folks drink their own bathwater and believe that they corporate sector is waiting for them to leave the service and take over their businesses?

To be competitive in the job market it is important for each and every person who transitions from military service to find something that they can offer a potential employer besides war stories.  Those who have learned a skill or trade, while maybe not being on the front lines and earning medals for valor, take those skills with them when the leave the service.  That is their point of differentiation that separates them from all of the other candidates for a job.

As a leader, what is yours?

What do you miss about being in uniform?

When I hung up my uniform for the last time I realized that a huge and fundamental part of my life had changed.  What I did not appreciate at the time, however, was how much the people that I had served with during my career were in that change.

The military is, in many ways, a closed society.  We go to work on bases that are segregated from the civilian population, and we spend days, weeks, and months on end training and preparing to defend the nation from its enemies.  We deploy away from our homes on ships and airplanes with people just like us in the berthing spaces and seats next to us.  Being in the military is an intense and all encompassing immersive experience.

It begins with the shock of meeting your Drill Instructor or Drill Sergeant or whatever your service calls the steely eyed killer who breaks you of all of your nasty civilian habits and transforms you into a Marine, Sailor, Soldier, or Airman.  It continues as you go through training to learn your military craft, and the bonds between you and your compatriots is cemented when you show up to your first operational unit.

It continues as long as you wear the uniform.  Whether you stay in for three years or thirty, you experience a shift in your soul by wearing the cloth of the nation.  You become a critical part of a team, and live your life with people who would willingly die or kill for you — and you would willingly do the same for them.  It is an incredibly powerful experience that suddenly comes to a shocking end when you get out.

One of the questions that I ask in the military transition survey (if you have not taken it yet, please follow this link and help me gather more data: Military Transition Survey) is what you miss the most about serving in the military.

What do you think the most common answers are?  Cool training?  Seeing new and exciting things?  The pay and benefits?

Nope.

The two most common answers by a wide margin are these:

Feeling of camaraderie with my fellow servicemembers

and

The people you served with

After spending a lot of time personally reflecting about my service, the people that I have met, the places I have gone, and the things that I have done, the thing that I personally miss the most about my time in uniform is the same.  I miss the people that I served with.  All of them.  Even the ones that I didn’t like very much, because at the end of the day they were still on my team and ready to fight by my side.

Relationships are powerful, and they are probably the one thing that you can take with you when you leave the service.  So if you are on the way out, make sure to get some email addresses and phone numbers of those you want to keep in touch with.  Find a veterans organization that you like and spend some time there.  Departing the military will drill a hole into your soul, and it is a hole that only those who have served can really help fill.  So don’t wait until it is too late, and reach out to your friends before it is too late and, like your last day in uniform, they are behind you.

Why are transition assistance programs not as effective as they should be? The answers are out there, but nobody is asking the questions.

When Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines leave the military service they are generally young, fit, and eager to get to work in the civilian world.  Many go to school to obtain an education, but many more jump headlong into the job market.  Unfortunately, they are not as prepared as they could be to compete in the cutthroat employment marketplace.  It is not because the government is not trying to help transitioning military folks learn the skills they need to get a job, because there are a multitude of programs out there to help with transition.  Unfortunately, those programs are not nearly as effective as they could and should be.

The Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, and Department of Labor have spent many millions of dollars (over $50 Million in 2012 alone) on various programs designed to help veterans make the transition from military service to the civilian world.  These agencies are charged with conducting classes, seminars, and counseling that is designed to help those who are hanging up their uniforms with the challenging and often confusing process of becoming a civilian again.

Despite the efforts of these agencies, there is a serious problem with unemployment for recently discharged veterans.  The population of younger veterans who are recently discharged is having the toughest time, with those in the 20 – 24 year old age bracket hitting an unemployment rate of 35% in March of this year according to a Syracuse University study that was released last month (available here: March 2013 Employment Situation of Veterans) .  That stunning number is well over double the rate for the same population of non-veterans.

That means that a lot of our veterans are out of work, and as a result the DOD is paying a lot of money out in the form of unemployment benefits to those who can’t find a job.  It is a shocking amount of money.  I mean really shocking!

How shocking?  Try nearly $1 Billion dollars a year (the actual number was $928 million for 2012 and is on track to increase in 2013).  Almost one billion dollars.  For unemployment benefits.  For veterans who cannot find a job.  And it comes out of the DOD’s annual budget, and every dollar that is spent on unemployment benefits for a veteran is a dollar that is not spent on the people still serving or the equipment that they use to keep our nation safe.

Paying unemployment insurance for separated military personnel is not new for the Department of Defense.  In fact, the DOD has been paying millions of dollars in unemployment benefits for a long time, but the billion dollar pricetag is unprecedented. In 2003, the military paid about $300 million on such benefits, and a decade later that cost has over tripled.

There are a lot of reasons for the increase, with the most obvious being the increase in the number of people leaving the military and having a rough time finding a job in the tough economic conditions that exist today.

That is only part of the story, however.  The Obama administration, to their credit, has increased funding and awareness for the plight of jobless veterans.  Unfortunately, those efforts are not paying the dividends that they should be.  With such a high level of emphasis and funding for transition training and education, you would think that the unemployment rate for veterans would be at or below the non-veteran level.  Unfortunately, it is not.

That is where the data from the Orders to Nowhere Military Transition Survey becomes very interesting.

As I continue to research the subject of military transition, I have been analyzing the data from the survey and a few data points really jump out.  The first data point is how little feedback about the transition process is actually gathered by the organizations that are actually doing the transition training.

Every branch of the military uses After Action Reviews (AARs) to gather feedback from events and learn from the lessons that the AAR provides.  Pilots debrief every mission in order to become better aviators and infantrymen get together and discuss the lessons that they learned from their combat or training engagements.  These debriefs and lessons learned sharing sessions are part of every service and every career field.  Capturing lessons and learning from experience is a crucial part of what makes our military unbeatable.

Unfortunately, the AAR process does not seem to apply to transitioning or recently transitioned veterans.  Despite the culture of learning from experience, the vast pool of potential data sources — recently transitioned veterans — is virtually untapped.

The data shows that, of respondents who left the service between 2003 and 2013, less than one in five had been contacted by the Department of Defense or their branch of service about transition.  Of those one in five who had been contacted, less than half (0r just under 10% of all respondents) were asked to participate in an AAR of the transition process.

In other words, fewer than one in ten recently discharged veterans have been asked to help make the transition process better by providing feedback on their experience.

That, to me, is an incredibly disappointing statistic.  It is not particularly surprising, however.  Nobody officially asked me anything about my transition, and in my many conversations with veterans I have found that nobody asked them either.

Millions and millions of dollars are being spent every year on the military transition process, yet unemployment rates for veterans continues to exceed their civilian counterparts.  Nearly a billion dollars is being spent by the DOD on unemployment benefits for those unemployed veterans.  You would think that somebody would connect the dots between the efficacy of the military transition programs and their effect on the unemployment rate, but sadly the most readily available resource of feedback is largely being ignored.  Nobody is asking the vast majority of people who have gone through those transition programs and entered the civilian workforce about their experiences and how the transition programs could be improved.

The answers are out there.  Too bad nobody is asking the right people the questions.

In yet another shameless plug- I can never get enough data in the Orders to Nowhere Military Transition Survey.  So if you have transitioned from the US military (it doesn’t matter when), please take the survey!  If you have take it, I thank you.  Please ask others to take it too!