These days, it feels like we are encouraged to find ways to stand out from the crowd as if being one of many in a group isn’t enough to feel important in our rapidly expanding social lives. We live in a time when social media influencers are revered, and followers are part of the scenery. It’s always better to be an influencer than a follower, right?
When I was a freshly minted 18-year-old in the early 1990s, we didn’t use the terms of “influencer” and “follower.” Those labels were decades away. Instead, we spoke in terms of “leaders” and “individuals.” While the words have changed over the decades, the spirit and context of them remains the same: people want to belong to something bigger than themselves. Often, we unfairly equate success with being the leader and assign lesser success to being a follower, but I believe there are many roles to play in the path to success and one of these roles is as a contributing member of a strong team.
When I joined the military, I made a choice to not identify as an individual but to instead join a revered team and be part of something bigger. To be honest, I was a little lost. I wasn’t a leader, but I wasn’t really a follower either—I didn’t know exactly where I fit in. I felt like that proverbial square peg without a home.
I joined the U.S. Marine Corps not long after graduating high school. I spent a very brief semester in college studying many different subjects but only learning one thing: I wasn’t ready for higher education yet. I had always admired the Veterans I knew and how they carried themselves. I was drawn to the military imagery of strong decision makers, and even the fictitious war heroes I read about in books and saw on TV.
As a kid from a relatively small town I yearned to be something, to be someone, to find my place in the world. So, I joined the Marine Corps. I left Small Town, USA and made the commitment to prove myself on the hallowed grounds of Parris Island. As most USMC Veterans will tell you, I had no idea what lay ahead.
The physical growth and psychological challenges that occur on Parris Island are things of legend and are well-known to anyone who’s had even a passing interest in the military. I won’t mention those things here but would be happy to bend anyone’s ear over a drink who does want to swap Boot Camp stories. Talking about military experiences is likely the greatest and most enjoyable pastime of a Veteran. With all the pushups and sit-ups and Drill Instructor’s screaming cast aside for a moment, perhaps most surprising to me when I arrived at Parris Island was the diversity of people, beliefs, and cultures to which I was suddenly exposed.
Remember my Small Town, USA? I didn’t know it at the time, but it was primarily homogenous in terms of race and religion. But suddenly, in the USMC, I met great people who looked and sounded different than I did and I very quickly came to depend upon them for their commitment, teamwork, and for our similarities (our desire to survive boot camp!). You see, they all joined for the same reasons I did: to be part of something bigger than the individual. To be a Marine.
The military is the true melting pot of our country. Despite all our differences (age, race, religious belief, national origin, you name it), we quickly learned that we were all the same unnamed recruit unified in our quest to be more. Those men and women I served with were some of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. We were all young, scared, proud, and committed people just trying to make our way to graduation day when we could hold our heads high and finally call ourselves Marines. We bonded like only those who share intense experiences do.
We had to depend on each other to make it. There’s a little secret that no one teaches but we all learn in boot camp: no one makes it off Parris Island as an individual. We come in as individuals but leave as Marines. We made our way to graduation together not in spite of our differences, but because of them. I learned—we all learned—that even though we were different in many ways, we were the same at our core and those differences made us stronger. There was no room or time for prejudice or bias; we had to leverage those differences to succeed, and we did so as a team. As a squad. As a platoon. As a company. And after graduation, as a Marine Corp responsible for defending our country.
These are lessons I learned early in my formative years as I left behind the comforts of youth and transitioned into my adult life. I credit the Military with impressing upon me the focus on mission and team and less on the aspirations of me as an individual. I cherish this lesson as one of the foundational principles upon which I base every decision I make—is this good for the team? For the group? For the Company? For the community? For the world? I know I wouldn’t be who I am today without learning this so early in life in the military. The military teaches selflessness above all else, and it does this through the time-honored traditions of sacrifice and teamwork. It is because of this selflessness and focus on unity that our military is able to achieve such spectacular results.
As we approach Veteran’s Day, I’m proud that our nation reserves a day to honor military Veterans. I truly believe that Veterans are the backbone of our nation. Veterans are some of the people who sacrificed their lives to preserve our freedoms, to enable our nation’s democracy, to grant us a free society in which individuals can be who or what they want to be. It is because of them we can celebrate our differences and embrace the uniqueness that unites us as citizens.
I didn’t join the military to be a national hero. That glory was never in the cards for me. That honor is reserved for people far greater than I will ever be, but I stand proudly alongside those heroes as a Veteran to honor them and their sacrifices every chance I get. As I look back and reflect on my life, I think I just wanted someone to be proud of me. With the celebration of Veteran’s Day, I feel that pride from the Nation. When the iconic smokestacks at The Hershey Company headquarters are lit in red, white, and blue on Veteran’s Day, I will stand proudly not only as a Veteran but also as an employee of Hershey because I know my personal and individual military service is being recognized and celebrated. As a member of the Veteran’s Business Resource Group, I see firsthand how the company celebrates the skillset and experience we bring to the organization. I am no longer a square peg looking for a home. I’ve found my place in history as a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran.
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