By Kevin Duffy
Military members tend to have a strong sense of identity—who they are, what’s important to them, their goals and boundaries. As it likely does in any given career in a specific field, this identity not only becomes more well-defined over years of service, but also more closely intertwined with the specific nature of the chosen profession.
That intertwining, though, is perhaps more profound for those in uniform than for most others. Each military branch has “core values” that inevitably become important values in the lives of that branch’s members. Each individual’s military uniform outwardly projects aspects of the wearer’s identity as much as his or her accomplishments: every ribbon a story or chapter of life, every pin and device an indication of choices made and followed through with, every stripe or leaf or eagle or star a signifier of longevity and commitment, of how the wearer is perceived and even addressed.
For professionals whose identities tend to be so clearly defined and outwardly announced, however, military members are extraordinarily well-practiced in being what others want to see in them. To wear a uniform in a public setting often means interacting with another person while serving as some type of embodiment of their views on foreign policy or veterans’ affairs, on defense spending or gun culture, on current political leadership or past foreign interventions. Any given person might view (and hence speak to) a military member as a self-sacrificing champion of freedom, say, or a long-suffering victim of a certain political foe’s bad decisions. In extreme cases he or she is an individual in desperate need of access to specialized medical care, or a defender of status quo policies with which someone disagrees. And the military member, confronted with having any of these characteristics imposed upon them, will answer accordingly and respectfully: becoming the veterans’ advocate, the humble and grateful recipient of praise, the apolitical assessor of security issues, the one who takes the high (and neutral) road in a contentious argument.
This is neither a criticism of service members’ genuineness nor a reproach of their private sector interlocutors. It’s merely an observation of a subtle reality that often passes without notice. Indeed, the military remains the United States’ most widely-trusted institution because its leaders and members are staunchly apolitical; despite hailing from every corner of the country and representing every ethnic group and economic status, military members remain remarkably consistent in adhering to the professional imperative of political neutrality.
That’s a good thing, of course, a secularly sacred fixture of American life. And the phenomenon of the uniform serving as a representation of each citizen’s own particular view of the nation is also overwhelmingly positive: for a free and diverse society in which the military remains politically neutral, it should always be thus.
Nonetheless, for those military professionals who choose to enter into deep and meaningful discourse with civilian counterparts, it is often challenging to move beyond rote conversations and enter into a more substantive relationship. How does one best add value to the civilian perspective while taking value back to one’s military way of life, when interactions can be so circumscribed?
One answer, powerful for its simplicity, is to find common ground in common pursuits. And the most common pursuit of professionals, of course, is success. How do I guide my organization to success, become more efficient, optimize the performance of individuals and groups? How do I improve communications, increase awareness, or build networks across disparate entities? Every business, charitable organization, school, church, and community has leaders asking these questions. While not every one of their solutions would be applicable in a military context, many would. And this is where a uniformed professional can start to bridge the civil-military divide in a meaningful, mutually beneficial way—by simply asking civilian counterparts: how can I further excel as a professional?