“In a world that’s all about the bottom line—or adding to one’s top line—our greatest opportunity for success is being connected to those who have been the frontline.”
Here we are again. Another movie with a narrow perspective about warfighters, with a release timed perfectly as we move toward the day of the year when every American should say, “Thank you for your service.” Veteran’s Day is about honoring those who wore the uniform, who said, “Count me in—I want to help.” Yet prevailing themes determined primarily by forces outside our community continue to shape the narrative of who we are—especially who post-9/11 veterans are.
Sixteen years into this war, we’ve still got it wrong on who the real 1% truly is. Before the flag waving, standing, or kneeling this weekend, I challenge you to consider this. Veterans are more than the “hero” or “broken” themes. And we are better than the beliefs that we’ll show up on time, follow orders, and make varying levels of sacrifice.
The attributes veterans have acquired offer an unmatched currency for America’s corporations and communities.
Yet most hiring managers, investors, and average moviegoers don’t realize this value because they have not been broken down—in the middle of the night, in a combat zone—with us. You see, a two-day mission could easily turn to five when deployed, because rotary wing assets (helicopters) could be rerouted for operations or weather. This happened to one of my teams when we delivered an MRAP to another forward operations base in Eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
On a narrow dirt road chiseled along the side of a mountain, let’s say we were in a less than ideal place to recover our truck.
We needed to get back to our original base, and “down-range” there was always an option to hitchhike a ride with different maneuver elements convoying through the area. That’s exactly what we did on the night of day five—a Kentucky National Guard unit made a pit-stop while passing through our location. There were open seats, so my team filled in different trucks and headed out in the dark of night. I was in the same MRAP as Joel, my solid, no-nonsense former infantry soldier who had a handful of daughters back home in Montana.
It was a cold night, and we were wearing the same clothes and sweat that we’d had on for five days. Nevertheless, our bellies were full from the French chow hall, which served Brie and warm croissants. We knew there was a heightened risk on the route since earlier that morning a French Clearance Unit had unearthed an IED, and the day before a convoy had been ambushed. What we didn’t know was that about an hour into our movement we would be stuck on the switchbacks outside of a Taliban-friendly village because one of our vehicles would break down. On a narrow dirt road chiseled along the side of a mountain, let’s say we were in a less than ideal place to recover our truck.
That didn’t really matter, though, since over the radios, we learned that the quick-reaction force was currently supporting another mission. The last transmission I heard over the radio was, “Standby.” Well, are you going to standby there? Or figure it out and make pain your purpose? As we say in the military, “Embrace the suck.” Joel and I were tagged to pull security while others scrounged all the vehicles and concocted a way to tow the truck.
Innovation starts with a pain point? Really? That’s where an idea is born? Well, I knew all too well about that. And service members learn this whether deployed or in garrison, because the military offers ample opportunities to embrace suck.
Not long after we started moving, a second truck broke down. And we had to do that same rodeo all over again. We finally made it back to base, and surprisingly without coming into contact with the Taliban that night.
I hadn’t thought much about that night until a couple years later when I sat through my first entrepreneur class at Vanderbilt business school. Innovation starts with a pain point? Really? That’s where an idea is born? Well, I knew all too well about that. And service members learn this whether deployed or in garrison, because the military offers ample opportunities to embrace suck.
So next to the belief that we “show up on time,” make sure to add that we’ve earned our grit by making it through some tough times. As far as our ability to “follow orders,” note we have also been through the premier training grounds for independent thinking, where we learned how to take initiative and be resourceful and resilient.
Yet innovation in war or during a time of crisis is nothing new. Stories arising from the recent deluge of natural disasters to the mass shootings in Las Vegas and now the church in Texas prove that not only veterans have learned what only struggle can so abruptly reveal. I nodded with pride when I read articles and social media posts of veterans running to the problem.
Alongside the Team Rubicons were also neighbors and strangers alike, stepping up to their front line, from one account of concertgoers using fences to haul the wounded to safety to so many others who figured it out—who made pain their purpose.
For decades, some of our nation’s most impactful companies and nonprofits came to fruition because of a veteran.
When I reflect on the evolution of innovation in crisis or in war, I always think about roadside bombs. Tactics, techniques, and technology advanced as soon as we figured out how to detect IEDs. They have been pressure plates, command wire, and explosively formed penetrators—which were defeated by the ingenuity of a soldier who jimmied up the Rhino. IEDs were also simply emplaced from the sides of steep mountain roads so the convoy wouldn’t spot the fresh dirt on the top of the path. That’s how we lost Corporal Chris Coffland in 2009, a fallen hero from my battalion.
The enemy, the warrior, the refugee, the flood victim, and even the family member back home—we all changed. People change from combat, from crisis.
And change can also be progress, which can be terribly powerful in unexpected ways. For instance, veterans have a track record of taking the evolution of self after struggle, and becoming a force multiplier in the US economy. After WWII, 49% of veterans started their own businesses. For decades, some of our nation’s most impactful companies and nonprofits came to fruition because of a veteran. (Have you heard of FedEx, Comcast, or Team Red White & Blue?)
Today, a dramatically smaller number of veterans are starting their own businesses, which has nothing to do with a change in attributes, but everything to do with how small the veteran network is post-9/11. Less than 1% have worn a uniform, which means there are far fewer people in their network to lean on, leverage, and ask questions of when starting their own venture. This was what Todd Connor identified when he founded Bunker Labs in 2014, a national not-for-profit with 17 chapters across the country dedicated to educating and connecting veteran entrepreneurs. A successful entrepreneur himself, he experienced firsthand the aforementioned barriers—and decided to be a part of the change. Of course he did—Todd is a former naval officer who served on the USS Bunker Hill (CG-52).
Over the past year, I have been hitchhiking again, so to speak, speaking about The Frontline Generation for the 2017 Bunker Labs Muster Across America Tour. Every veteran entrepreneur I have met at the annual muster events for each chapter reminds me of Joel and all the other soldiers on that convoy that bitter cold night.
In Seattle, I met soldiers like Jared, a Human Intelligence soldier who founded FOB Brewing, and David, who launched the first “rally point” for coders through a new online vehicle. I met a former airman mechanic in Columbus, Ohio who created a nonstick Grypmat that will keep tools from sliding off the airframe. In Raleigh, I met a former navy officer who developed a revolutionary ergo grip for rifles and a nuclear machinist who founded Good Bookey, a charitable fundraising platform that redirects existing social behavior for charitable outcomes.
In other words, we have learned to live for the person to our left and to our right, people from every walk of life, because we have been part of an ultimate team of teams—a tribe.
Recently at the San Francisco Muster, those in attendance who probably watched fellow veteran Shark Tank stars Kimberly, Matt, and Eli from their living rooms (RumiSpice, Combat Flipflops, and Bottle Breacher, respectively), learned valuable pearls of wisdom from their panel—lessons they can apply to the products or services they are still iterating in their own living rooms. All these examples demonstrate, again, that veterans are leading the way in American innovation. Even at home, we know it is not the time to “stand by.”
Generations of service members have risen to the challenges of our times.
In a world that’s all about the bottom line—or adding to one’s top line—our greatest opportunity for success is being connected to those who have been the frontline. Therefore, next to the belief that veterans sacrifice for others—we would have given our lives for you—well, this is absolutely true. In other words, we have learned to live for the person to our left and to our right, people from every walk of life, because we have been part of an ultimate team of teams—a tribe.
When you express gratitude on Saturday, know that veterans deeply appreciate it. And know that a movie is no substitute to sitting down at FOB Brewing with us and sharing a drink. There is a deeper narrative to who we are.
Call to action: Mark your calendar to attend a Bunker Labs event in your city or engage a veteran-owned company and partner. Final stop for the 2017 Muster Across America Tour is NYC November 9th.