Musings of a 30-Year Military Career
by Colonel (retired) Jon Thompson
Last month, I retired from the Army after serving 30 years as an officer. Over those three decades, I was able to experience things and see places that would not have been possible were it not for the Army. Along the way, I learned a lot based on what I experienced and observed, and I would like to share some of those key bits of wisdom.
- Things do not always go according to plan, but that is not always a bad thing. My initial career goal was to retire from active duty. At my ten-year mark, I went before the Major promotion board. When the list was released, my boss called me into his office and told me that I was not selected. It was crushing news that took me years to get over. So, I left active duty in 1996 and joined an Army Reserve unit in 1998. As an Army Reserve officer, I was able to serve longer than I probably would have on active duty.
- Have a back-up plan. Thinking that I was going to stay in for 20 years, I never had a back-up plan in case that did not happen. So when I found myself taking the long road home from Alaska to Illinois, I really did not know what the future was going to hold for me. Had I put more thought into it before it was that late in the game, I would have had a better plan instead of trying to figure out what I was going to do at the age
- Be proactive in taking care of yourself. I made it through 30 years including five mobilizations and four deployments and never once had a significant pay issue. Yet some of my peers had issues that may not be resolved even today. What was different is that I was not going to wait for someone to do something for me when I could do it myself. I took responsibility for myself and it paid off.
- No one is a perfect leader. My career was impacted by raters and senior raters that failed to do their duty. But I can also look back at times when I definitely failed as a leader. No one is perfect and we are not promised that life will be fair. People will sometimes make the wrong decisions but what matters is the subsequent actions we take. Some of the most valuable things I learned came from leadership failures, both my own and of those senior to me.
- LDRSHIP is more than an acronym. I have heard and read discussions about the efficacy of the Army Values. Some have argued that they are too simplistic and we need a more professional ethic. I disagree with that. Throughout my career, I have tried to live these values, even before the Army formalized them in the late 1990’s. DUTY is why I volunteered for three of my mobilizations as a reserve officer, even though it would hurt my promotion potential by not staying in the same reserve unit. In my view, if all Soldiers truly lived by these words, many of the issues the Army faces these days would be less significant. They need to be more than a tag we hang on a chain next to our ID tags.
- Improve the profession by writing. As an Infantry captain, I wrote five articles that were published by Infantry Magazine. In 2010, upon my return from Baghdad where I served as a Human Terrain Team leader, I wrote another article for Infantry and one for Military Review. I wrote for two reasons. Foremost, I wanted to share my experiences so that others could hopefully learn from them. I myself learned many TTPs from various magazine articles. Second, I wrote to keep my writing skills fresh. Written communication is important for a leader, and too many Army leaders, officers, and enlisted do a poor job of maintaining this skill. The more we write, the better we become, and the better the Army will be.
It truly has been a great three decades of service for me and I will always look back and know I was part of a great team. There is one more lesson that I learned as an ROTC cadet from a Vietnam Veteran Master Sergeant and Ranger Instructor. It really is the only thing I remember from ROTC. This final lesson is one that has paid off when I listened to it and caused me to pay a price when I did not. Simply stated, that lesson is this: “Never pass up an opportunity to use the latrine.”
This post originally appeared on RallyPoint and was republished with permission and first appeared in The Havok Journal 30 September 2016.