By Dr. Apollo Emeka
The skills that I gained in the military were born out of unthinkable loss. I was 17 years old. My mom had just died from a quick but ugly battle with pancreatic cancer. School had never been my strong suit, and, reeling with grief, I just couldn’t will myself to attend third-period Washington State History or the other classes required for high school graduation. Despite my lackluster academic showing, I had always dreamed of attending UC Berkeley and joining the FBI. But the day I dropped out of high school, I felt like I’d never get the career or life I wanted.
Then, I met a military recruiter. He told me my dreams of college and the FBI could be realized through the military. I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and scored high enough to have any available job. My recruiter told me that if I became a military intelligence analyst, I could gain the security clearance and requisite experience for the FBI. As for school, I could get the GI Bill to pay for it. After my dad signed for me (because I was still 17 years old), I shipped off and learned so much more than I anticipated. The lessons I learned could fill a book, so I’ll just focus on one: how to work with different types of people.
My First Night at Army Basic Training
I remember my first night in the reception process for Army Basic Training. I was 18 years old by that time. There were 20 of us crammed into tight quarters packed with bunk beds. The men in that room ranged in age from 17 to their late 30s. Some joined for the same reasons I did, feeling like they had little opportunity outside of the military to improve their lives. Others joined to break their parents’ expectations. Some joined seeking vengeance for 9/11, while others joined after feeling stalled out in their civilian careers.
Some came from big cities. Others came from isolated rural areas. Some had college degrees, and some, like me, had opted for the GED. Different races. Different accents. Different everything. The diversity in that room was immediately apparent. Regardless of where we came from or why we made the journey, we were all peers in the eyes of the Army.
Diversity as a Default
During my time, I worked with people who graduated from the esteemed Military Academy at West Point and with young men who’d been shot due to gang violence. I worked with self-proclaimed rednecks and PhD-educated intellectuals. I’m not saying that we sing kumbaya in unison, but the military brings together people that may otherwise never have met and forces us to find resolutions that help us act as a unit. For example, one of my roommates at military intelligence school told me, a Black man, that “slavery was beneficial for Black people.” When I made my Drill Sergeant aware, I got a new roommate from Trinidad, a second-generation immigrant.
We shared all-gender restrooms in combat zones 15 or 20 years before the concept became a political lightning rod…and made it work without incident. Because of the diversity and frequent personnel rotation, chances are good that if you’ve been in the military, you’ve been led by a woman, a person of color or even a woman of color. That’s not often the case in the civilian world. The current Secretary of Defense, Lloyd James Austin III, is a Black man. This position is second only to the President in commanding the most powerful armed forces in the world. Some civilians lack cultural competence when dealing with people who aren’t just like them.
Veterans Have an Expanded Worldview
So, I talked a little about the diversity I encountered in my service, but that was just inside our military. As a service member, you’re also afforded the opportunity to travel and work with people and cultures from around the world. In my 20 years, I worked with government and military officials from at least 10 different countries. I’ve experienced food, music and customs that were unfamiliar to me. I became accustomed to grappling with the unfamiliar.
The private sector is blanketed with well-intended aims for diversity, but most companies fail to reconcile their practices and outcomes regarding diversity with the rosy goals they set. The military is almost the opposite. Regardless of your politics and personal preferences, if you’re in the military, you’ve had to function within incredibly diverse environments. I’m not saying the military is a utopia, but it forces people from different walks of life to march in step and work together. If you want someone who knows how to do that, hire a veteran.
Dr. Apollo Emeka is the founder and CEO of Apollo Strategy Group Inc., an innovative leadership and strategy consultancy for business leaders, companies and the Next Wave of ventures launched by diverse and impactful founders.