For several years, I was a soldier-medic in the U.S. Army. I saw countless military and family members. Now I am a veteran looking back.
I learned more in my first year of the Army than I did in all my years of college. There are things we all learn in the service no matter what our rank, MOS (military occupational specialty), or time in service.
I'm not talking about stuff like how to read a map or how to clean a rifle. I'm talking about vital, important lessons that follow us throughout life. These are the lessons everyone, military and civilian alike, learns but nobody actually sits down to teach us.
The difference here is that the way the Army teaches them is so swift and brutal that they are never forgotten. Also, most civilians enlist fairly early in their adult life. This ensures that these lessons are instilled before we make any seriously stupid mistakes later on.
Now you're probably thinking of noble character traits that are expected of all soldiers. You're probably thinking of the things that make really dandy motivational posters: honesty, hard work, sacrifice, and so on. Yes, these are all very important things, and, yes, time in service will inspire them. But I'm thinking of other lessons. In the Army, you'll learn to...
(Note: I will refer to the soldier/person as "he." This is only to keep things simple. There are many female service members doing their best to make our military the best fighting force in the world. Also, I only talk about the US Army because it's the only branch I served in. However, after talking to other service members in other branches over the years, I'm confident they learn these things as well.)
10. Know Your Place
A person can live a hundred years and never know his place. A civilian may never figure out where he belongs and never fit in anywhere. In the Army, I promise this will never be a problem. You will definitely have a place. You will have a team and a job to do with them. Any assumptions otherwise will be corrected immediately.
Your place will be drilled into you until the day you leave. In a weird kind of way, this can be comforting. There's less to think about when you know your place. If your place ever changes, you will quickly adapt to meet the needs of your mission. If you don't, someone will square you away soon enough.
Your rank will change over time but your rank will always be the way others address you. Your first name goes out the window. Also, getting ahead is fairly straightforward. The requirements from one rank to the next are the same for everybody.
Later, as a veteran, your place isn't guaranteed but it's definitely easier to figure out. Before signing the dotted line, you were just another angry, rebel man-child. Now once you're out, you are a grown adult ready to prove yourself in the world. Unlike the military, the civilian world will not give you a place so you will take it upon yourself to make your own.
But before that, long before that, your friends and family will be surprised to discover that you've learned to...
9. Be Polite
Are you polite? I'm sure you are. I thought I was until I joined the Army. The respect you learned in the military works in the civilian world.
You will always know who to call "sir," "ma'am" or "sergeant." No questions asked. Most soldiers have memorized rank insignias even before they've started Basic Combat Training.
Most "emergencies" you face in the civilian world are insignificant compared to day-to-day disasters in the Army. As a soldier, it's easy to keep your cool in situations that would ruin a civilian's day. The line at the post office or ATM is a relief compared to the line at your base's one-stop in-processing or even at the DFAC (dining facility). Because it's easier to keep your cool, it's easier to stay polite.
There's more. It's hard to describe, much less explain. Whenever I was off post, I felt different. Civilians looked different to me. I felt I was above them all somehow because I was a soldier. It felt like calm confidence. Armed with this new confidence it was easy to be polite, especially to women, children, and the elderly.
To this day I have no idea what this was all about but I noticed it in service members of other branches of the military, especially the Marines. If you can explain it, feel free to share your thoughts in the Comment section below.
Knowing your manners comes in handy when you need to...
8. Keep Your Mouth Shut
You're probably thinking of something like "Loose lips sink ships." To this day, this is all true and very good advice. But it's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something else: discipline.
On the job or in the field, don't speak unless spoken to. Unless somebody asks you directly, assume that nobody cares what you think and nobody wants to hear it. Unless you have a question about your job or you see something that might affect someone's safety, keep it to yourself.
This is taught immediately in basic training. Drill sergeants have no problem punishing the entire platoon just because one trainee whispered something in formation. Push-ups and side-straddle hops are never in short supply. All trainees get the point in the first few minutes.
As a medic, I worked in a hospital stateside. Patient privacy and confidentiality were as vital then as it is today. No matter what's going on, no matter how juicy it is, the best course of action is always to keep quiet about it and do your job. I don't care who has what. I don't care who they got it from. Keep your mouth shut.
Silence is golden so keep your mouth shut.
7. Deal With Bureaucracy
With an organization as large as the Army there's always a lot of paperwork. Everything has to be documented. Everything needs its signature. Everyone gets in line. Two important themes here:
- Patience: Patience is taught from the first day of in-processing until the last day of discharge. Then, as veterans, we are reminded of it continuously until the day we die. No matter what our rank or what we accomplished, we learn that life moves at the speed of government for everyone.
- Attention to detail: When some of us think of attention to detail we think of our uniform or drill and ceremony. When others think of attention to detail, it's about getting the right forms to the right people. Crossing the T's and dot the I's.
Believe it or not, things have been getting better and things are still looking up. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the many non-profits out there to help active duty and veterans navigate the system.
Also, the White House Veteran's Complaint Line was up and running on June 1, 2017, as promised. Have you called them? Let us know how it went in the Comment section.
6. Deal With Jerks
It's hard to imagine that there are jerks in the Army. After all, we're all on the same side. However, I'm sorry to say that soldiers are people and some people are jerks.
So, how does the Army deal with jerks? Basically, it doesn't. This is where rank comes in handy (see #10). The decision of the higher rank is the one that stands. That's the whole point of the system. Now if the higher up needs insight or information he should be able to trust those around him.
The Army isn't perfect and there are those who just don't get it. Occasional disagreement is expected. However, consistent opposition is unusual. The few who make everything personal and who can't put the mission first will be miserable and won't reenlist.
Yes, "synergy" is highly prized but the Army sees it as a luxury. That is, while synergy is encouraged, it isn't necessary for the mission. There is no quitting and walking away. Military or civilian, if a person thinks everyone around him is a jerk, it may be time for some self-reflection.
There aren't a lot of thin-skinned soldiers. When RPGs are flying there's no time to be petty. This is war. Maybe they aren't jerks. Maybe they're idiots. That's fine because in the Army you learn to...
5. Deal With Idiots
People think the Army is full of idiots. I disagree. I was the only idiot in the Army, and I've finished my time in the service years ago. So what's this about?
Every soldier knows exactly how to deal with idiots while most civilians never figure it out. In the workplace, a civilian can just fire an idiot. Outside work the civilian can rail about the entire thing on Facebook or Twitter. How do you deal with idiots? Let us know in the Comment section below.
The Army loves its acronyms and one of them is KISS, which means "Keep It Simple, Stupid." In other words, it's unofficial Army policy to assume that everyone is an imbecile. The two words here are patience and repetition. This means explaining things as slowly and thoroughly as possible, as many times as possible.
There might be a lot of "stupid" questions. Not a problem. Because of the nature of the job, soldiers cannot make any assumptions. They'll ask specific questions that seem stupid because a wrong assumption might costs lives.
Nobody wants to hear someone say, "Well, nobody told me to..." after an attack helicopter falls from the sky, explodes, and kills everyone on board. The only stupid question is the one that isn't asked.
4. Keep It Neat and Tidy
You've probably seen this in the movies or on TV. It's no joke. The Army makes it very clear that they will not put up with filth or chaos in a soldier's life. I'll venture to say this is the same in every formal military organization in the world.
Everyone is clean-shaven, buildings are clean, and the equipment is clean. Some units spend half their workday simply cleaning things or maintaining weapon systems for the next day. Then, when it's time for some formal event, such as a military ball, expect your supervisor to get his ruler out to make sure your Army Service Uniform is "dress right dress."
I don't have any personal experience in the US Navy, but sailors have told me that they're even worse. For example, when the Navy issues equipment for personnel, they expect it good-as-new when returned. Some sailors opt to simply buy new gear out-of-pocket and turn it in because it takes so long to meet these standards. Is this true? Sailors, let us know in the Comment section.
It's not only about hygiene. It's also about behavior. How to walk or how to stand, there are tiny rules for everything. To be fair, everyone gets on board quickly. It gets intense and loud but nobody is being mean. It's about pride.
Still, in the end, if anyone gets out of line, expect his buddy or supervisor or anyone else to "square him away."
3. Cover Your A**
Speaking of Army lingo, the most beloved of all is CYA and CYA stands for "Cover Your Ass."
If there's one thing that every soldier learns then this is it. No matter what happens, he learns to make sure he does his part the best he can. When he is part of a team, he is sure he pulls his weight and looks out for his buddies. If anything wrong happens down the line he wants to say, "It wasn't me."
This might seem cynical but it's true. Remember, the Army has a lot of moving parts. Eventually, something goes wrong and when it does, it goes wrong big. Nobody wants a faulty parachute on their conscious. That's why there's so much paperwork and why everyone has to sign for everything: CYA.
What truly motivates performance is not medals or coins or any of that. He will accept them humbly but a soldier doesn't need these things to do his job well. What truly motivates a soldier is avoiding punishment. Punishment can mean something like an earful from someone or a loss of life.
Managing risk, expecting the unexpected, covering all the bases this is what we learn in the Army. Then, if something eventually does go wrong we have to...
2. Accept Setbacks
The video above by Navy SEAL Eric Greitens addresses this perfectly.
A soldier quickly learns he is entitled to nothing and, therefore he takes nothing for granted. Life stinks for him because life stinks for everyone; no matter who he is, no where he works.
To "adapt and overcome" is something we all do. However, it's a little different in the service. When something goes wrong, they can't just walk away. They face it and deal with it. Yes, the leadership can call a retreat but if that doesn't happen, the team must hold its position.
Something that really helps is humor. I've covered this before so I won't go into it too much here. The Army can be really funny. The hardest I've ever laughed in my life was at Basic Training. It was at the jokes drill sergeants made at us. But the fun doesn't end there. Whenever something goes wrong or gets boring, expect a joke to lighten things up and keep the team going.
Humor aside, many of the world's most famous battles were won because soldiers accepted setbacks and outmaneuvered them. Famous battles are not fought every day. Setbacks come out of nowhere in all shapes and sizes. It never ends.
1. Drive on
This is closely related to #2 but it's a little different. Passed the pain and the glory, the mission never ends. As long as there is a nation there will be national security.
To put it another way, a friend of mine once told me that he had no problem hiring veterans because he could count on them to show up to work on time every day. It's as simple as that.
There aren't many stories about former service members quitting a job via text message after a couple of weeks. It's about gratitude and responsibility. Gratitude and responsibility are two unofficial Army values that are just as important as the others.
He who can put his comfort aside for the team and the mission will win. Mental fitness is part of this. The book below is "Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life," by Navy SEAL Eric Greitens. It shows us all how we must accept setbacks and drive on. The video in #2 touches on this.
Most of the time, it's boring stuff. It's the tame, day-to-day stuff that (no matter how simple or boring) can mean life or death for someone else.
Can you combine what you learn above to make the most of yourself here? The service teaches you how and you'll never forget it.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Military or civilian, what did you learn?
Adonis Torres on October 25, 2019:
Been out for 44 yrs, Those were the best times for me. This article was spot on great...
Ray on June 21, 2019:
Been out of the army for over sixty years, this article is “right on”. Thanks for posting it.
Brig Sushil Bhasin on February 06, 2019:
I served the Indian Army for 34 years. A wonderful experience.
Learned many important lessons like this. Now looking for some nice, humorous episodes on what I learned about TIME in the Army.
Matti Matti on November 08, 2018:
Thank you very much such as wonderful article
Ralph Schwartz from Idaho Falls, Idaho on June 16, 2017:
Great piece - former Army - I've often thought along similar lines, but your analysis was much more in-depth and should be an object lesson to people