Clearing up some Misconceptions

CDR Carl B. Forkner, Ph.D., USN(Ret)

SHARED: This article is shared by permission of the author, Andrew McPherson, a Navy SEAL who is preparing to transition to civilian life later this year. His article is written from the perspective of a transitioning service member and the perceptions and realities that go along with this period in a service member or Veteran’s life.


As I begin the season of my Transition from the US Navy, I have encountered many new challenges. I am told I am a bit behind my peers when it comes to corporate America and that I speak an entirely different language! The misconceptions “civilians” have about what being a member of the military, and more specifically the Special Operations Community means is the single biggest hurdle I am experiencing. Many people I have encountered when connecting with members of corporate America have some “idea” about what men and women who spend time in the military bring with them to corporate America.

 They range from: 

“Being a robot and only being able to follow orders.”

TO 

“We lack the ability to be creative, innovate or adapt to situations.”

 TO 

“We are only trained to fight wars and do the dirty business that comes along with that.” While these things are facts of SOME days in the military, they are by no means an accurate representation of my experience.

The Idea that I am a robot and can only follow orders is one of the most common misconceptions I have had to battle when interviewing or meeting people who did not spend time in the Special Operations Community. For most of my adult life, I have been in the military. I have completed multiple deployments, train ups and participated in some fascinating things both in the United States and overseas. So, the thought that we are robots could not be further from the truth. In our ethos, there is a line that we all must live by; it goes like this “In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates and accomplish the mission.” As Special Operators we must live by this statement or many times we will fail.

During my time in the military, I have been presented with several problems that any Special Operator could solve, but the problem was in front of me, so the onus landed on my shoulders to handle the situation. I was given an opportunity to develop safety programs and training to reduce the risk of injury on a particular vehicle platform that was causing multiple injuries across the military. Without being told, I knew that due to my position I had unique access to the problem, and a tremendous need to solve it. I did not need to wait for orders I just knew it needed to be done. I brought manufacturers of equipment, specialists, and experts in the fields of training and education as well as in driving together to formulate a course of action. After being the glue that developed or repaired these relationships, I lead the development of new training, convinced manufacturers to make safer and stronger products and introduced a process that was adopted by everybody that saw it, all for a net increase in the cost of $0 to my unit or the DoD. I do not pretend to be a subject matter expert in any of the areas that I “outsourced” but I do know how to solve complex problems in a fiscally constrained environment. Special Operators have this ability and see it as a required skill to efficiently navigate the modern world of military operations, after all, you must make it to the target to execute the mission. These actions were not contained in the U.S. and directly translate to any situation in corporate America that requires complex problems to be addressed in horizontal and agile fashion with little to no money or direction. Sound good to anybody??

 At every stage in my career, I have been presented with missions that many would consider impossible. They had never been done before or at a scale/pace that seemed realistic. There was gear that was not available or, in some cases, invented yet that could facilitate the execution of a mission. Ingenious individuals within my community have consistently risen to the call and completed the impossible. Granted we do receive a significant amount of support, but when everything is so cutting edge and moving fast, sometimes you have to “fly the plane as you are building it” Another tenet of being a Special Operator is “We demand discipline. We expect innovation.” This means we are selected because we can do the right thing with the information we currently have and do it regardless of being specifically trained to do so. It also means that we must be big dreamers and at times learn/hone complex skill sets in a very short period.

The military has developed or enhanced many things people depend upon. I was fortunate enough to be trained as a medic and have gotten to see the growth that military medicine has brought to the world. To do this, and many of the other things I was required to do while on active duty, I had to learn quickly. My “school” for becoming a medic was six months long. That could seem like a long time to some, but you may change your mind when you look at what was taught. Two college level anatomy with lab courses that end with a test that requires one to know the answers to the parts of the human anatomy and spell it correctly. Two college level Physiology classes with a similar final exam, how to prescribe over 100 medications to people of all ages and how to be a paramedic. I do not say all of this to embellish myself with pats on the back for how great I am; I was one of 10 men that did the same thing! With this education behind me, I was sent to a team. Much of the “equipment” we were using was made or adapted from other items a medic could carry at the time. We used tape, triangular pieces of cloth, small wooden dowels and plastic bags to make many of the things we needed to save our teammates if they were injured in combat. It is very rewarding to see how this necessity has brought about amazing technologies and procedures that are saving lives in both the military and the private sector. Being innovative when someone’s life is on the line is possibly one of the heaviest tasks that can be placed on a person, and as Special Operators, we excel in doing this when products are not available on the market. This is just one example of having to be innovative and flexible. I could write pages and pages of stories about how my team made something out of nothing. However the point is made I think, Special Operators are the epitome of innovation and flexibility. 

The hardest thing to overcome in my transition so far is getting people to understand that I am not a conventional Soldier, Marine or Airman. I can utilize my very different and specialized experiences to solve complex problems, and I can and have done it outside and inside of the military. It is easy for me to make decisions with imperfect information and I feel it is my responsibility to own any decision I make. In 2012, after a yearlong deployment, I was asked to develop a program that would, in a very short time, need to produce world class medics to support our teams overseas. I had to leave the sun of SoCal and moved to Mississippi. I traveled there with only a vague directive, “we need more medics, and yesterday” I had no idea where we would be conducting classes, no idea what the curriculum should look like and I did not even have a budget! My 3-man team was determined not to fail. We got to work and started getting the experts involved. We partnered with Universities in New Orleans, the Louisiana Board of EMS, LA and MS State representatives offices, NASA and the city of New Orleans to develop a one of a kind world-class curriculum that blended military medicine with civilian. We produced medics after 24 weeks that had a wealth of book knowledge, hands-on experience and the confidence and equipment to deploy in support of our country. Oh, and I forgot to mention, they were also qualified as Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technicians- Paramedic. One of the greatest strengths of Special Operators is to be a sort of chameleon. I had to adapt to the situation. I had to know my audience, from the Executive to the Paramedic on the street. I had to engage and convince the Deans of major colleges that what we are doing was ethical, good for all involved and served a higher purpose. I had to lead students and staff from the military in a manner that showed them how they needed to act in very delicate and high-profile engagements. Later in my time as a Fellow at The Honor Foundation, I learned that these were called soft skills. I also learned that I had a natural and trained ability to utilize them very effectively in the civilian world. They were a universal language. 

In the end, I have learned that I know more about corporate America than I thought. I speak a very similar language that easily translates to any culture with high performance as a goal. I am not as far behind as I expected or was led to believe by some in the corporate world. I am fully confident that any Special Operator will exhibit many of the same abilities to learn fast, know the audience and continue to innovate while simultaneously making process improvements with favorable long-term growth for any team they join. I learned my biggest, and possibly toughest mission in this transition is to get my foot in the door so I can show corporate America what they have been missing. 


Many thanks to Andrew for allowing his article to be shared here. He is one of many exceptional leaders who is or has experienced the challenges of transition and shared his experience so that others may gain further understanding of the many dimensions of the military-to-civilian transition.


Semper Fortis!

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