My appreciation of the military has grown over the years. With National Military Appreciation Month, Memorial Day, Armed Forces Day and Military Spouse Appreciation Day all falling in May, I wanted to take this opportunity to chronicle my transformation.
We can begin in the mid- ‘60s when I was a young girl and the U.S. was entering the Vietnam War. I didn’t know anything about the war except what I saw on the evening news. I never watched the news on purpose, but we only had one television set, so it was difficult not to see on occasion. What I witnessed were protests against the war, with returning soldiers being spit on and called baby killers. I didn’t realize my bias against military members was beginning.
I went through the rest of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood without any interaction with military people. I didn’t know anyone personally who had served, nor did I seek them out. After all, I had seen enough in movies to realize these people were mean, control freaks—or so I thought. I mean, I saw it on TV, so it must be true, right?
In 2003, my son Kyle was about to have his 18th birthday, and he told me he wanted to join the Army and go fight in Iraq. Naturally, I was proud of his bravery and commitment, but as his mother, I didn’t want him to do that. I was afraid he could be killed or seriously wounded. I worried about what type of man he would become if he was exposed to military combat. I didn’t think it was a good idea at all, but I knew it was his life and his decision to make, so I agreed to take him to the recruiter’s office and sign for him to join because his birthday was still a week away.
Kyle graduated in June 2004, left for boot camp in August that same year and, before Christmas, received orders to deploy to Iraq in June 2005. In the spring, he had to attend desert training prior to deploying. I was worried and scared for his physical and emotional safety.
Then in 2006, I wrote a book titled Leveraging Diversity at Work. There was a military diversity conference being held in Hawaii the following year, and its organizer contacted me because she had read something I wrote on the Internet titled “Diversity from the InsideOut,” which she wanted to use as the title of the conference. She also wanted me to be their keynote speaker. I was so honored. Of course, I said yes, and promptly put the conference out of my mind. I hadn’t thought about military people in a very long time. I had no reason to, since I had no contact with anyone in the military.
As the time approached for the conference, I was becoming increasingly anxious because I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to this military audience. This was not only disturbing but also surprising because, as a public speaker, I’m rarely at a loss for words. On the plane heading to Hawaii, it occurred to me that I didn’t know what I would say to them because I was certain they wouldn’t value the content of my message: valuing diversity by looking first inside yourself to find the barriers that get in the way of connecting with people who appear different than you. I saw military members as mean control freaks, so I was certain they wouldn’t value information that was introspective since their priority was forcing people to do things they didn’t want to do.
Then the major lightbulb turned on for me: I realized that I had formed a bias and prejudice against military personnel. It began in childhood when I had tidbits of information that I believed and had no one to process them with. I then had no personal experience with the group in question except for stereotypes perpetuated by movies I saw. Then, I watched as my son went off to war and feared for his personal safety, and now, I was supposed to talk to these “bullies” about introspectively looking at their barriers to diversity? I was sure I would fail—until I decided to use myself as a case study to illustrate just exactly how stereotypes develop. After all, here I was, their keynote speaker who wrote a book about diversity; when I did exactly what I was about to ask them to do, I realized I had my own barriers to valuing the differences between myself and members of the military. This was one of the most humbling moments of my professional career—standing in front of a military audience and confessing how the barriers existed inside me. I asked for understanding and forgiveness, and from that day forward, I worked to demolish those barriers.
I remembered my son was one of those people I was prejudiced about. I recalled his military friends I had met and liked. I became a Military Family Life Counselor (MFLC) and began counseling military members and their families. I worked at Yellow Ribbon events, speaking about issues endemic to deployment and reintegration.
What happened is what I write about in Leveraging Diversity at Work. When you get to know and form relationships on a personal level with the people in a group you are biased against, you discover that the people you thought were so different have so much more in common with you. You then come to realize that what you thought was hate was actually fear you learned somewhere. The only way I know how to overcome fear is to face it head on; move closer to the people you dislike so you can find the things that connect you.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the one percent of the U.S. population who rise to the calling to join the military. They truly are special people, willing to die for their country and the military person to their left or right. They never leave a fallen comrade behind and they give up their freedom to fight for freedoms for others. I want to take this opportunity and every opportunity to point out what special, honorable individuals our military is and to thank them, and those who love them, for their sacrifices.