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Resolutions

This year, my biggest new year’s resolution is to keep my resolutions! To help me do this, I’ve decided to make my resolutions public. I figure if I let the world know what I’m thinking, it adds a degree of accountability for what I’m promising myself to do. New Year’s resolutions have grown to depress me. Recently, it hasn’t been a moment of rejuvenation–a fresh start. Rather, it’s been more of a signal of the stagnation of life and the quicksand which keeps me from improving as a person and a professional. But 2011 has put life back in perspective. It’s been a year of tremendous family loss, but also a great deal of personal gain. And I recognize how desperately lucky I am to have the life I have, and I’m not going to let a few impulsive decisions keep me from maximizing my potential to make myself a healthier and wiser person. At the end of the day, that’s all it takes to break a resolution, right? Impulsive decisions. The choice to eat the cookie instead of the apple; the extra slice of pizza instead of backing off and drinking water. Or how bout the decision to turn on a re-run of a mindless sitcom instead of read a book? I crave comfort. I love indulging myself. I think it’s a remnant of my time at war in Afghanistan: there’s no such thing as doing anything half-heartedly. It’s either all or nothing. When I want to take a break, I plan a massive expensive vacation. When I want to work, I pull all nighters and won’t stop till the project is done. When I want to eat…I eat till I can’t stuff my stomach with any more food. When I want to sleep, I plan for a hibernation. And when I want to be with friends, well, let’s just say I have been blessed with a lot of good loyal friends who put up with my neediness :)

Anyways- now that the psychology is revealed, let’s get down to the nit and gritty.

1) LOSE 20 LBS: Classic resolution, the weight loss. But for me, it’s a little serious. I gained about 20lbs of bad weight in 2011. A combination of things happened…the most important of which is that I took a job at West Point as an Admissions Officer, which requires me to be on the road almost 4 days out of every 5. Well, I shouldn’t say “requires”…I chose to push myself. I care about my job, my kids, and the cities/schools I get to mentor in. But that means a lot of eating out, not much working out, and a whole lot of travel induced stress. It also doesn’t help that I got promoted to Captain and am making enough money to afford a beer or two every now and then when I go out with buds. This resolution is arguably the most important, and has a couple different parts to it
-Eat right, especially on the road- Haven’t figured this out yet, but I should probably see a nutritionist
-Workout 3x a week: I got a personal trainer, I make him scream at me, it’s like “The Biggest Loser” (just kidding)
-Sleep at least 6hrs/ night. Yep wasn’t doing that before
-Limit alcohol intake to 3 drinks per week.
-Drink water at all meals

2) FINISH MY BOOK: I don’t like to talk about it too much, but I’m trying to write a manuscript and hopefully get it published. 100,000 words is no joke, but I know I can do this. I think this is going to be the year I actually get this done.

3) BUILD A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS: Most people don’t know this, but I recently started a small IT company. We’re doing really well considering the fact that I’m running this thing parttime. But I decided this year that I work best when I am my own boss. I wanted to build something so that when I leave the Army, I don’t have to go from one corporation to another corporation. I am trying to build it up so that my transition can go seamlessly from military officer to small businessman without the whole “going into debt” thing. So wish me luck on that.

4) PUT 10 VETS BACK TO WORK. This, in my opinion, is the hardest one of all. Because I’ve learned that veteran unemployment in particular isn’t always just about the number of jobs out there. In fact, over the course of 2011, unemployment went from 9.6% to about 8.4% whereas veteran unemployment for those between the ages of 18-24 went from 22%-30%. I started a non-profit a while back called the National Foundation for Veteran Redeployment (www.nfvr.org) to try and offer training, transportation, and jobs to veterans in the energy and IT sector; but it’s hard to even lead the horse to water for a combination of reasons. A lack of knowledge is one, geographic inflexibility is another. But the reason that confuses and disturbs me the most is the unwillingness to take initiative after an enlistment of 4-6 years of a very difficult military experience. It’s hard to go from war to work. How do we get in the psychology of the veteran mindset to let the 49% who aren’t signing up with the VA–effectively removing governmental authority entirely from their life–how do we get those folks to come to the table? The other 51%, typically officers, senior enlisted, or folks with transferable skillsets seem to be doing well. It’s the enlisted doorkicker I’m worried about. If you know someone who needs help, let me know. I’ll make it my life’s mission to get em a job.

So thats my 2012. Sounds like a big challenge. But now that YOU know about it, hopefully it will make me more accountable :) I hate failing, but I hate it even more when its in the limelight!


We’re Making Progress on Homeless Veterans!

Earlier last week, the Washington Post informed us that we are coming within striking distance of eliminating Veteran Homelessness. Over 33,000 homeless veterans are now off the street due to the voucher program which, including all administrative costs, will run us about $10,000 a veteran per year. That’s it. Far cheaper than jail. There are people who spend more on vacations, forget their own housing.

It’s a bit of good news in an environment that continually shifts and changes between horrible situations that veterans face versus this ambiguous cloud of pride and suppor they receive from the “sea of good will”.

But there’s something interesting which as made this effort so much more successful than all the rest that I’m not sure if people are paying attention to: they eliminated the requirement to go to drug rehabilitation before coming to the VA for housing. You see, previously, it was thought as a ridiculous handout to provide free housing to someone who was on drugs. Surely, they would never get a job if they were continuing to use. Why would Americans want to spend tax dollars housing those who are not making any attempt to ween themselves off of the national system?

But now, we might have a different set of priorities. We realize that keeping the vets on the street actually can exacerbate their substance abuse problems. I applaud the VA for making that decision. Finding the home means getting a good night rest, it means getting a shower, getting a shave or haircut. It means being able to wake up and start the day fresh. Solving veteran homelessness is the first step to solving veteran employment, which is the first step in solving veteran drug use. It seems backwards in nature because, to the typical American, NOT doing drugs means FINDING a job and therefore having the capacity to BUY a house.

I find it interesting how transforming our conceptions of what is “normal” or “effective” can actually help us better affect those in dire situations


The Behavioral Exchange

Last week, CNN reported that a soldier coming home from combat tours had been shot at a homecoming/holiday party after verbal and physical engagement with a high school football teammate. The soldier was a wounded warrior, coming home from Afghanistan after being injured in a suicide bomb blast. That article went on to interview the soldier’s mother and we understood that this was a good person and someone who probably didn’t do anything wrong, or at least nothing that merited the drawing of a weapon against him.

The article was extremely sympathetic towards the soldier. And I understand completely, this situation is out of hand. But I’m not stranger to the stresses of returning back home. Transitioning from combat to comfort puts a strain on ones personality and our demeanors. What is usually a calm disposition in a combat zone can appear tense and angry in an everyday situation here at home. The forceful nature of small arguments in combat can appear like a threatening temper storm when put back home. My point isn’t that the soldier did anything wrong, but I can’t help but wonder what sort of transition challenges the soldier was facing that might have provoked the attack against him. Was his voice raised very loud? Was he making any gestures that appeared to be aggressive, though they may not have intended to be so?

The importance of this isn’t to isolate who is to blame in this shooting incident. The point of the analysis is to further understand the minutia of what returning veterans do in stressful situations and how our behaviors can either mitigate or irritate confrontations. Interesting discussions worth having around the dinner table at families who are affected by a loved one coming home. I’m interested to hear your responses.

 


5 Ways to Help A Servicemember

During this time in the holiday season, I’ve been there…it gets lonely for a veteran. Sometime this season while you’re putting away the stockings and unplugging the Christmas lights at the end of the year, be sure to remember the folks still serving overseas and how much it pains to not be with their families. Now that I’m back home safe and sound, I treasure every moment I get to spend with them. Here are a few ways you can stay active and involved in a veteran or servicemember’s life:

1) Write a letter
Many organizations, including California-based Operation Gratitude, sponsor letter writing campaigns for veterans. It’s never too late to write a letter of gratitude to a Veteran.
Instructions:
1. Please make sure your letters will fit in a standard size envelope
2. Include your own name and address in the body of the letter
3. Do not write about politics, religion, death or killing
4. Please do not use glitter
5. This is strictly a letter-writing effort to thank Veterans; please do not send any care package items for Veterans
6. All letters will be screened
7. Send multiple letters together in one large mailing envelope or box
Please send as many letters (or copies with original signature) as you would like by regular mail only to:
Thank a Veteran
c/o Penny Alfonso
1970 Rangeview Drive
Glendale, CA 91201

2) Volunteer at a VA hospital
Veterans of all wars seek health care at the nation’s many VA hospitals. And more than likely, there is a VA hospital in your community.
Cathy Pratt of veterans organization Freedom is not Free says visiting a VA hospital can make a big difference for a veteran. Many of those hospitalized may not have family or anyone to visit them. Taking a couple hours every week or month to volunteer can make a huge impact on your life and a veteran’s life. This would also be a great way to teach children American history by introducing them to the people who have preserved America’s freedom.
If you go to the Veterans Administration website, there is a way to sign up volunteer at your local VA hospital.

3) Donate simple things
Not money, but donating small items can help make some lonely lives better. Small donations to VA Hospitals are always welcome. Many patients are on fixed incomes and unable to buy some of the things that could make their recoveries better.
Check with your local VA Hospital, but here are some items they are looking for:
• Magazines
• Coffee and cookies
• New or gently used clothing
• Telephone cards
4) Help the homeless
According to VA, a little more than a fifth of the adult homeless population has served their country. The VA has founded a National Call Center for Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, that provides free, 24/7 access to trained counselors. Call 1-877-4AID VET (1-877-424-3838).
The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars also have homeless programs to assist veterans and several charities are dedicated to helping wounded service members and their families. Coming home from war and returning to the workforce while dealing with the wounds of war can also be economically challenging.
If you are going to donate money to help a homeless or struggling veteran, make sure you pick a reputable charity or organization that has 501(c)(3) designation. Contact your local VFW or American Legion to find out how to make sure your money stays in your community.

5) Say thank you
This may be the simplest and maybe the most effective way to make an immediate impact for a veteran. Many veterans may feel disenfranchised and forgotten by a nation. If you see a veteran or know of one, take a moment to say thank you.
“Thank you for your service,” is a simple statement that can go a long way.

Veterans have given up a lot to serve their country, and many will deal with emotional and physical wounds for the rest of their lives. Knowing that we appreciate their service and their sacrifice can help.
And don’t forget about the veterans still serving. Many of our active duty military personnel have served multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq. If you see a person in uniform in public, say thank you — two words that can make a big difference.

These are just five simple ways to help a veteran, but there are hundreds more ways to make an impact.

Info gathered from CNN.com


Out of sight, First in Mind

If you have been living under a rock the past few weeks, allow me to remind you that our nation is still in a sort of financial and political gridlock that few can really comprehend, or want to comprehend for that matter. But Ive been watching with intense interest and fascination, trying to understand what each side is arguing, willing to concede, and who is going to be the hero of the day. Right now, the only thing I can conclude is that we do have some good people, some good ideas, but unfortunately little leadership in showing a willingness to work together and reach agreements. Except for one thing…everyone agrees that military personnel should be paying more for their healthcare:
Stephen Colbert outlined the situation best in his segment on “the 1%”. Please check it out:

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/402700/november-17-2011/the-word—the-1-?xrs=playershare_fb

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m a soldier, I’m a veteran, and I will personally be the first one to throw my hands up in the air and sacrifice my healthcare and veterans benefits if it’s in the best interests of the country. I will be the first one to acknowledge that the prices for military healthcare have only risen approximately 12% over the past twenty years while the costs of healthcare have risen exponentially. Of course, when I received my two concussions in training, or when a rock was thrown at my head in Afghanistan, I suppose it was in our nation’s best interest to make sure that I was medically insured at a reasonable rate despite the increasing costs of healthcare. There is no doubt…a moderate increase in premiums is in order, and arguably overdue.

But what causes my blood to boil…why should my soldiers be the first ones to give up anything? It’s scary, because at the end of the day, the American service member has the least franchise in the very institution he or she protects. It’s not like a bunch of privates and lieutenants are going to march on Washington demanding better healthcare. They can’t hire a fancy lobbying firm like other industries. And we surely aren’t about to unionize. The American service member is rather defenseless in the political arena, with the only guard of American gratitude to protect itself…At least when it’s convenient.

I honestly do not think that the decrease in veteran health benefits (or comparable increase in costs) is overreaching or out of line. What bothers me is the fact that, in a country of division and polarization, starving for budget cuts, our leaders have found a new rdemographic without the ability to defend itself from the knife on the chopping block. It’s like a wolf finally laying eyes on a sheep that has veered away from the pack. I just hope Stephen Colbert can keep producing enough material to keep our boys out of harms way any more than absolutely necessary.


Person of the Year

Available from: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/person-of-the-year/

Mark Zuckerberg is a name I grew quite familiar with even through my year in Kandahar. Facebook was the novelty through which I interacted with most of the world back home. Though it was accessible only on our trips to the forward operating base — no connectivity on our stranded outpost in the Zhari District. Despite all that Facebook meant to me while at war, I was less than thrilled to find that Mr. Zuckerberg had been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

The distinguished title goes to the man or woman deemed to have had the most influence through the year’s events. Other notable names on the short list included Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, The Tea Party, and the Chilean Miners.

As I read through this year’s selection summary, my eyes scanned for even the mention of one name. A name that has grown to mean so much to so many Americans, but unfortunately too few to be considered “influential”. That man was Staff Sgt. Salvatore A. Giunta, the first Congressional Medal of Honor recipient in the Global War on Terror, and the youngest living recipient by 35 years (he is 25 years old, there are three living recipients who are currently 60 years old).

I stared at Zuckerberg’s bright pale face on the cover of Time; his skin almost as white as the pages upon which the article was written. I contrasted it with the deep tan covering my soldiers’ faces along contours not covered by eye-protection and chin-straps.

I am not upset that Staff Sgt. Giunta wasn’t selected for the award. I don’t shame the periodical for not putting him on the short list. What makes me cringe is the fact that such heroic acts as Giunta’s in defense of our most beloved nation are still not “influential” enough — not valued enough — to move and inspire us as a country: a country for which so many of us cry fierce patriotism, yet feel so little of its burdens.

Tears — genuine tears — filled my eyes when I heard Staff Sgt. Giunta’s Medal of Honor Citation I felt fear and empathy, I felt pride. I had never met this man, I didn’t know who he was. But he made me want to be a better soldier and leader of soldiers. When I saw Giunta’s interviews on The Colbert Report, Sixty Minutes, and dozens of other broadcasts, my heartbeat raged with pride knowing that he and I shared the same uniform. He was humble, and he wore that blue ribbon around his neck for all of us. Every single man or woman in uniform I’ve spoken to has felt the exact same way.

Giunta may not have 500 million Facebook friends. But allow me to paint a picture of his “influence” in a profession of such fierce influence as the U.S. Military. We soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are tired. It’s not only because we spend one year out of every two or three at war. It’s returning to full work just a few weeks after coming home. It’s training and re-training, and remembering. It means never really getting a chance to sufficiently recover from one’s psychological and emotional wounds. It’s knowing that, if we want to stay in uniform, we will inevitably return to war again, and again.

In a military nearing complete exhaustion, Staff Sgt. Giunta gave many of us a second wind. He softened the hearts of the world’s most powerful, yet over extended, fighting force, and inspired us to continue rendering salutes and follow orders into fierce battles … all in the name of a controversial conception of security. If that’s not influential, I don’t know what is.

Today, there are 87 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. In about 30 years, Staff Sgt. Giunta could very well be the only one left. He is not just a hero, he is the hero of a whole generation of twenty year old kids — my soldiers — who go under-appreciated each day of their lives. The purpose of this essay is not to ask you to blindly regard service members as influential. The purpose is to make you evaluate the forces which influence you. Are they tweets and tags? Or bravery and dedication? What are the values which move you on a daily basis, and what are the values you want passed on to the next generation of Americans?

I hope that in my life, I’ll get the opportunity to meet Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta. I want to thank him for lifting my spirits after what I selfishly regard as a difficult year in Kandahar when I know so many others have had it much worse than me. I’d tell him thanks for bearing that medal on my soldiers’ behalf. Of course, if I never get that handshake, I suppose I can always show my appreciation by “liking” or posting” his Facebook Fan page. For that, Mark, I thank you.

The Qualitative Point Average: Rebuttal to Bruce Fleming

Bruce Fleming recently published an OpEd piece in the New York Times which provoked a rather emotional response from me as he referred to the Service Academies as “mediocre”. He cited a football star receiving preferential treatment for drug use at Navy. He complains that we only produce 20% of our respective officer corps, and are obsolete compared to ROTC and OCS programs. He insists that Academy officers are burnt-out leaders, incapable of maximizing tax-payer investment. Now, I’ll be the first to affirm that the Academies do waste  extravagant amounts of time and money for senseless efforts; they need work. But to pin the word mediocre upon these institutions, and thus its graduates who’ve done so much for our country, is absolutely ludicrous.

First, allow me to be the first in Fleming’s supposed vast Academy exposure to argue that YES, an Academy graduate is indeed different than an ROTC or OCS counterpart: not better, but different, and importantly so. I can only speak as a West Pointer, but I believe my perceptions are akin to those from other academies. Every waking moment of my life at West Point was dedicated to serving something greater than myself. Sometimes we serve orders from a higher rank; other times we endure sacrifices to serve the comrades on our left and right. But at all times, we are training and learning to better serve our nation. ROTC programs at civilian universities are simply unable to produce the same intensity in the cadets’ day to day lives.

Most undergraduate students strive for good grades in order to boost their GPAs. Cadets study so they have the answers when lives and equipment are on the line. Most university professors are genius PhDs. West Point Instructors are role models who have already inspired courage in the hearts of 18 year old privates facing battle; they have a vested interest in developing the cadets who will one day serve as their Lieutenants when the instructors take battalion and brigade command. Most college students avoid cheating out of fear of getting caught. Cadets do not cheat out of loyalty to a Code and the realization that honor is a virtue that can save American lives and dollars.

Two of the other Lieutenants in my Company are ROTC graduates, the remaining two are OCS. Do they understand and live up to these principles? Sure they do. I put my lives in their hands each day. But I feel my Academy experiences afforded me greater insight into the strategic reasoning behind the missions we execute. We’re groomed by the higher echelons of the institution to carry out its orders of critical importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t ROTC and OCS Lieutenants who do not embrace such a broad vantage point, but I’d argue it’s a mixed bag. Frankly, in order to truly internalize ethical values, a global perspective, and focus them for a lifetime of service, you need more than 3 ROTC credit hours a semester.

True, Academy graduates only comprise 20% of each service’s newly commissioned officer class. That being said, Academy graduates also make up over 50% of our military’s Flag Officer corps, meaning the Generals and Admirals charged with our nation’s defense; certainly not titles assigned to the mediocre. Is this high Academy concentration at the Flag level due to favoritism and networking? Sure, perhaps in some part. No institution in the world is a complete meritocracy. But I’d argue that it’s largely because of the culture in which Academy graduates are raised as committed leaders with a global exposure, dedicated to a lifetime of service to the country.

Secondly, Mr. Fleming believes that the Academy admissions process unfairly values athletics, rather than an “accomplished cellist or people from religious minorities.” For starters, I was both an accomplished violinist in High School and a Hindu-Vegetarian upon applying to West Point. I feel these factors contributed to my application, not hindered it, and I know plenty of graduates who fit either mold as well. Furthermore, athletics is highly regarded in our profession as a conduit to solid leadership under physical duress; something I believe most officers would argue should outweigh academic prowess in a military academy’s admissions process.

Mr. Fleming further grumbles of lowered academic admissions standards in the interests of affirmative action. As one who has served as a minority at war, I will assert that race and religion are huge issues in today’s military. I will speak from first-hand experience as the only minority platoon leader in my deployed Company: race and religion matter, and the army needs leaders who understand ethnic social tension. I am not ashamed of my Academy for attempting to produce an officer corps that is ethnically representative of the soldiers and NCOs it leads. The Academies do not admit cadets because of ethnicity, but a candidate’s ability to understand ethnicity and the unique role it plays in grueling military social dynamics.

Finally, Fleming does bring up the valid point that Academy graduates aren’t maximizing return in military service of the nation’s half-million dollar investment. Around 50% of West Point graduates leave the Army after their minimum five year commitment, I’m sure the other Academies’ statistics are comparable. I understand why this appears as a drastic waste of tax-payer money, but remember that Academy graduates still make phenomenal contributions to the country out of uniform. At every Academy event I attend, I meet hundreds of lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs, marketing gurus, academics, writers, engineers, and policy makers. Now, Fleming may be angered by Academy graduates’ civilian pursuits; I am reassured by them.

I am thrilled that there are members of the Long Gray Line, former combat platoon leaders like myself, among the financial elites of our American society. It shows me that, among the cohort of Americans profiting most from my soldiers’ sacrifices, there are several who have been in our shoes. There are those who can speak on our behalf when our nation’s power brokers forget the daily blessings they enjoy as citizens of the United States. I am relieved that there are graduates who reassign the military values of service, honor, and loyalty to the mediocre ethical stylings of both Wall Street and Main Street. Perhaps if the CEOs of Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Bear Sterns had a little “service immersion” in their youth, I’d imagine our country would be a lot stronger than it is today. Whether in a Command Post or a Board Room, good leadership transcends its landscape. I’m proud of the Academy graduates who bring weathered leadership where it is most needed.

It seems Mr. Fleming’s criteria for mediocrity rests heavily on academic metrics. But I assure my audience that there is very little that is academic about combat leadership. It is about heart. It is about fortitude, honor, and courage. Now, you may call a West Point or Naval Academy graduate mediocre…but try visiting any other college in America and collecting a thousand 23 year old kids ready to lead just as many lives into hostile fire. I doubt you’ll be successful. To produce a thousand officers with the grit and spirit of warriors and the intellectual curiosity of scholars, we need a venue of tremendous investment and concentration: this is why you need the service academies.

I wonder if Mr. Fleming would have been ready for such a calling at age 23. Even if not, I surely wouldn’t have the arrogance to call him mediocre.

I find it ironic that Mr. Fleming is about to publish a book entitled “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide” considering his most recent opinion piece does nothing more than widen it. But I can somehow understand why he would write an article antithetical to the best interests of reconciling civil-military differences so vital to our national security. After all, the bigger wave he makes with such an OpEd piece, the more attention his new book will receive and hopefully the more books he’ll sell. Well, I know I’ll probably buy one now. Congrats, Mr. Fleming…Mission Accomplished.

To the USMA Class of 2010, I’m proud to have served with you. You’re more than ready for the challenges to come. Thank you for your service. We’ll see you on the objective ;-) . Live, Serve, and Die We Pray…


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