The Character of the American Veteran: My Project RELO Experience

| Adam J. Hecktman


Credit: Project RELO

When I agreed to take part in the
Project RELO experience, I was about as informed as you are now. All I knew is that it had something to do with spending time with military vets. Perhaps like you, I thought I had a good handle on the value that America’s veterans bring to an organization. Leadership, of course. Tenacity, certainly. Endurance, check. However, after going through Project RELO, my perspective has permanently been altered, and I see that while those are qualities that vets unquestionably bring to the table, they woefully understate their value.

Project RELO is a non-profit that brings business leaders together with veterans on a multi-day series of “missions” on a military base. For a short three days, business leaders live what can only be described as a glimpse of the military experience. We witness the kind of deep professional education, personal development, character building, and intellectual challenges that have defined their military careers.

During the day, our military vets were our guides at the massive Camp Grayling in Northern Michigan. Our “battle buddies” took us through simulators where we fired imitation rounds from real machine guns and other military weapons. They ran us through convoy training and virtual reality simulations. We experienced mock negotiations with tribal leaders, navigated underground sewer tunnels, and simulated an urban assault. This just scratched the surface of helping us appreciate the extent to which our military members are trained.

At night, we debriefed, ate dinner, and had deeply earnest discussions around the fire. Incidentally, this was my first experience sleeping in a tent (best sleep ever). We learn from the veterans, in a very personal way, what they bring to an organization.

Although it can hardly be compared to a military experience, Project RELO enabled me to formulate a mental model of how military experience brings out the adaptive, collaborative, communicative, and loyalty traits in these men and women. These are merits that so many companies in corporate America say are terribly hard to find. It is best to grasp these qualities by meeting my veteran friends:

Casey: Each business leader was assigned a battle buddy. Casey was mine for the first half. Casey is a young, enthusiastic, incredibly energetic, highly intelligent young man with a strong sense of kinship. Immediately upon meeting Casey, you are part of his family. His loving and empathetic nature could lead you to believe that he was raised with strong parental bonds. Negative. It was his many deployments overseas, in battle and in peace, that kindled his collaborative spirit and his recognition of the value in every person. It was during his infantry experience, starting at age 18, where Casey formed his notion family. Casey depended on his team in the ways his team depended on him: emotionally, professionally, and, at times, existentially.

Marsha: Marsha turned 29 years old on this trip. She had been in the military for 10 years. Marsha decided early on in her career that she would take every opportunity that the military afforded her to build on her already solid foundation of intelligence. She took whatever downtime she had, even when deployed overseas, to study new languages, learn new skills, collecting associate degrees and certifications along the way. Marsha has a hard to describe warmth and sweetness about her that draws people in. You immediately know that she is a person with whom you want to spend time. A person that you want to converse with and who makes it very easy to open up. These qualities no doubt served her well professionally. Marsha’s job in the military was gathering human intelligence.

Mike: Mike (“Fletch”) claims to have only two emotions. While he may only show two, spend any amount of time with him and you get the strong sense that he is a far more complex person. A first responder now, Mike’s military career was as a Naval Officer. His passion and talent is developing others. Mike took us through a simulation that demonstrated the difficulty of keeping a motorized convoy together. Without realizing what was happening to us, we (the business folks) went from a disorganized mess to a semi-organized team. During our de-briefing, Mike helped us realize that the difference from our beginning to our end was that we discovered the power of communication. If Mike could bring us that far and make us feel that proud in an hour, imagine spending your career under his tutelage.

Jimmy “Fixit”: Jimmy “Fixit” was my battle buddy for the second half. He is without question the most selfless person I have every had the pleasure of knowing. We call him Jimmy Fixit because there is nothing he cannot fix. Part of a familial line of welders, it is not just his ample technical skill that makes up his gift. His military experience honed his resolve, creativity, and genuine desire to make others safe, happy, and great. Forget any notion of vets being rigid and protocol-driven. He showed me that one of the most valuable skills that a military vet brings is adaptability. Jimmy is quick to tell you he loves you, and he means it.

Rick: Proud father of four in West Seattle. Rick is warm, kind, and has a razor sharp intellect. He better. He is a retired US Coast Guard Rear Admiral. From Rick, I learned that American vets bring more than technical skill to a project. They bring an adaptive and collaborative mindset that is often overlooked when thinking about vet value. Rick taught me the importance of character, which is essential when you are the Commander for keeping over 3000 men and women (sometimes over 4000) in a state of readiness to respond to just about any emergency situation. Rick is the perfect gentleman.

Christian: Our guide for Project RELO, Christian, embodies and personifies leadership done well. When you talk to Christian, you are the only thing in the world that is important. You want to succeed because he wants you to succeed. You won’t fail because he assures you that you won’t fail. He will subtly facilitate the kind of teamwork, collaboration, and support that drives you to want to make others succeed. Christian loves people, teams, organizations, and of course, the veterans. All he wants from you is to share that passion. He does this by tapping into your potential and helping you realize your part — your value — in the team experience. Christian was a Captain in the Marines and is now the CIO of a large global enterprise organization.

Adaptivity. Collaboration. Passion. Compassion. Command. Character. Intellectual horsepower. Empathy. Scale. Enthusiasm. These descriptors appear time and again in corporate job descriptions and reqs. And here they are, in ample supply, in our military veterans, just waiting to be applied to the corporate domain. It seems to me that correcting the veteran underemployment problem should, in theory, be a no-brainer. Yet it hasn’t happened.

What I learned about our military veterans in this immersive training experience was nothing short of profound. Everything I knew about vets before was cliché. Eating with them, sleeping with them, learning from them, relying on them, laughing with them, crying with them, they awakened in me the pathway for developing the same attributes that I admired so greatly. If they could give me this level of personal growth in 72 hours, imagine what they could bring your organization.

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Credit: Project RELO

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Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.