The Most Important Lesson I Learned in the Army

Posted by Kathleen Smith

Jason from IWearYourShirt.comTuesday June 14 is the U.S. Army’s 236th birthday. As a pre-celebration we bring you Constantine von Hoffman’s thoughts on the most important lesson he learned in the Army. Join ClearedJobs.Net next Tuesday as we celebrate the Army’s birthday with the folks from IWearYourShirt!

One day in the early 1980s, me and 40 of my closest friends were out taking a jog up and down the hills of Fort Knox, KY. It was a sunny August day. The temperature was a pleasant 90 degrees and the humidity had managed the neat trick of figuring out how to break 100 percent without actually raining. I remember thinking that you could not have chosen a worse place or time to do any of things which we were being asked to do during Basic Training. That was followed by the realization that I had volunteered for this. I remember all this because that was when I started to laugh. Then, without me explaining a thing, so did the guy next to me. And we kept on running.

The ability to laugh in an absurd situation and keep on keeping on is the greatest skill the military teaches. I’ve encountered it in every vet I’ve ever known. I wish I could put it on my resume because it has been essential in every job I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, you can’t even really bring it up during the interview. “Laughing in the face of adversity? That was job one.”

Some examples:

  • My best friend in Basic was Andy Martin from Enterprise, AL. One time as we were going up either Agony or Misery – I never could tell them apart – we had to fall out and run a good bit slower than our comrades. A sergeant who was at least twice our age ran by us, up the hill and out of sight. As we watched him go Andy said to me, “Now you know why there’s an officer class.”
  • Andy was the first person I’d ever met who used chewing tobacco. There isn’t a lot of call for it in Manhattan, surprisingly enough. Now tobacco was never a big thing for me. I’d smoke the occasional cigar if there were enough whiskey to drown out the taste, but that’s about it. However, Andy did get me to chew. As we were heading out for our night map-reading test Andy offered me a chaw and said, “You might as well. We’re going to be lost out here all night.” He was right on both counts.
  • My brother, a sergeant, told me this story that happened while he was stationed outside of Fallujah in 2004. A box came in the mail for his buddy. As you know, “officially” you’re not supposed to send alcohol and/or anything with pork in it to someone stationed in a Muslim nation. And, as you know, everyone does it anyway. Because of this ban, the folks at home tend to disguise these items when they ship them. So my brother’s buddy opens the package and one of the things in it was a bottle of mouthwash. Without waiting a moment he screws the top off and takes a swig. Just as fast he spits it out and yells, “It’s mouthwash!”
  • I wrestled in college. Just in case you are impressed by that let me explain: I went to New York University which is not now and never has been a wrestling power house – to put it mildly. Our coach and one of the finest people I’ve ever met was Jack Peckett. Doc (he had a Ph.D) had been a pretty good college wrestler before he served as a major in Vietnam. The man had seen Rocky Horror Picture Show more times than anyone I had ever met. One time as we pulled up at a tri-meet (wrestling being what it is you can have several teams wrestle at once) vs. the US Merchant Marine Academy and some other school we had no chance against, he looked out at the gym, then back at his van full of nervous wrestlers and just quoted the movie: “Whatever happened to Fay Wray?” Which, at that moment, was the perfect way to say, “Don’t take it too damn seriously!”

The ability to laugh under pressure has to be learned, it can’t be taught. Especially not in business school. Even though it never gets mentioned in books on leadership, it is an invaluable skill that can truly inspire others. Too bad it’s so hard to tell a recruiter that you can do it.


This entry was posted on Monday, June 06, 2011 7:37 pm

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