Military Lessons

In some ways the military and college are very similar. In both cases (at least for me), the lessons I learned and benefits that I’ve brought with me after leaving have very little to do with the specific skills I was taught. Sure, I am a decent shot with a rifle or machine gun and I know how to navigate with a compass, but the real world benefit I got from those skills pale in comparison to the lessons I learned from my leaders and peers. The real benefit from the military (and college) is being around different people, having challenging conversations, and being put into a mentor/mentee situation. Here are the lessons I learned from some of my military leaders:

  • Drill Sergeant Koehnig was my first real leader in the military. Unlike my other two drill sergeants he took a personal interest in the troops and got to know us as individuals. On more than one occasion he pulled me and Private Amrine aside and would take us on walks through the woods when we were in the field. He would impart a little bit of wisdom on us and ask us our plans for the future. I don’t remember the details of most of these sessions but one particular lesson did stick with me. He basically said, “During your life you are going to have a lot of leaders, good and bad, and there is something you can learn from each of them. Take the attributes from the good leaders in your life, try to be like them, and use the bad leaders to show you what you don’t want to become. Both good and bad can be inspiration for improvement”.
  • Sergeant Baker was, by far, the most influential mentor I have ever had in my life. It is not possible to sum up all his lessons in specific stories. As my team leader in Afghanistan he was responsible for my personal and professional development and health, and he took that very seriously, but he didn’t take the military hierarchy seriously. He challenged authority when he thought the mission plan was bad, he asked us to call him Vinnie instead of Sergeant (something I never got good at), and he demonstrated often that being the biggest or strongest guy doesn’t mean you are the best fighter. He challenged me to evaluate my views on religion and the way I was raised, and he encouraged me to leave the military as a better person than I came in. He wanted his soldiers to be reading and educating himself, and when heartbreak or family problems hit any one of us he was supportive. He was also hated wasting time and would take his team out regularly to train in some advanced lessons for our martial art instead of bullshitting around the barracks waiting for Battalion to release us for the day. Out of everyone I served with I owe Vinnie the most for helping me become the person I am today. I’m sure we don’t agree on things much these days, I rarely do with my military brothers, but I don’t think that will stop us from sharing a beer someday.
  • Staff Sergeant Pearson is the opposite of Vinnie and one of those people who showed me what I didn’t want to be. He seemed to care more about his image than his troops. He had big muscles (that he would order his soldiers to feel) and talked as loud as possible, but I’m still not sure what skills he brought to the table. I did my best to avoid Pearson as much as possible.
  • Staff Sergeant Shearin was not a leader of mine for long but his silent strength always impressed me. He had the most combat experience of anyone in our unit before going to Afghanistan and his calmness in stressful situations acted as a foundation for all the younger soldiers. He was an example of what I wanted to be.
  • Sergeant First Class Barry was my platoon leader and one of the most impressive people I have ever met. Through example he showed that leaders don’t need to be loud or in your face, they can be calm and quiet. In fact, that is a better way to be a leader. When SFC Barry spoke, everyone listened. He also protected his troops from the bullshit that poured from the upper levels of the military. If Battalion had some bullshit detail for us he would do all he could to get us clear of it. Also, he helped protect me from greater punishment when I got in legal trouble with the Military Police. I know that if he hadn’t stood behind me when I went before our upper leadership for punishment things would have been a lot worse for me.
  • First Sergeant Hawley was the leader of my company when we went to Afghanistan and afterwards he moved me from my combat platoon to help in Operations. This may have been a move because I wasn’t particularly compatible with the combat role, or maybe he truly saw some potential in me. It doesn’t really matter what the reason was, he ended up being a mentor to me as I began to transition out of military life. It was pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be re-enlisting and Hawley encouraged me to take classes and hone my non-combat skills. He gave me opportunities to be a leader and sent me to military programs where I could shine. I am forever thankful for the opportunities he provided.
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Burning Man 2013

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This year already feels different for Burning Man. Not better or worse, just different. There isn’t the hype built up that was present last year when anxious burners flooded the internet with videos, pictures, and questions regarding ticketing and the theme. I don’t remember anyone hypothesizing what the theme would be this year and when the announcement was made it barely hit my social network radar. That might be because the organizers did not launch much of a campaign this year to build up excitement or maybe it is due to the fairly obscure theme (Cargo Cult) or maybe both. Regardless, this year is looking to be different from an institutional level and it will be very different for me as well.

My first burn in 2011 was a point of self-reflection. I spent a lot of time just being free and dealing with my personal issues with my military history, relationships, and my future. It was a time of healing. I needed to be comfortable with “me” before I could be comfortable part of a “we”. It was a successful year and allowed me to enjoy myself in a different way in 2012.

My second year was more social. My camp from 2011 had mostly scattered but I was more seasoned and joined some of my friends at a new camp. I was more open to trying new things and made a proactive effort to be part of a community. This wasn’t as successful as I had envisioned due to my personal life at the time, I was just finishing my bike ride across the country and lacked any real foundation. Having a room to myself was an amazing luxury that I utilized a lot for meditational and sleeping purposes.

Now 2013 looks to be different once again. Due to other commitments and changes the group I have gone with in the past will be rather small and not part of an established camp, but there may be many new attendees. Many of my friends are looking to take the plunge, including at least one of my partners. The partner dynamic at Burning Man may take some discussions, particularly given others that might be present as well. Overall though, I am excited about it.

My first year was “me”, the second year was being part of “we”, and the third year looks to be a year where I am an elder or senior member of “we”. So far every year at Burning Man has faced a personal and institutional evolution, something that is scary but also very exciting.