Since everyone’s social media feeds have blown up this week with “Thank You for Your Service” messages, I am going to take a break from politics and share some very important life lessons I have learned from the veterans in my family. My father, my brother, and one of my sisters all served 20-year careers in the military, and I spent 8 years in the Navy.
You only have one chance to get mad the first time; don’t waste it. This is a classic from my dad, Lt. Col. John Hamilton, Sr., U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.). The point is that in a new job, you need to choose your moments. If you have to dress someone down, and it is appropriate to show anger, you want to make sure that the individual you are confronting never wants to incur your wrath again. I first tried this as a lieutenant junior grade assigned to a Navy hospital while having a frank and honest discussion with a master chief in an open office area. Things got real when he told me, “I don’t like it when a woman puts her hands on her hips when she’s talking to me.” We attracted a crowd. It was excellent in every way; to this day I have zero regrets. I have found this tactic incredibly important some 25 years later as a supervisor and an executive. See also: shame, guilt.
Your troops always come first; ownership is flexible. This originated with my father and was taken up with gusto by my brother, Lt. Col. John Hamilton, Jr., U.S. Army (Ret.). Drew, as he is known, was a battery commander at Camp Stanley in Korea near the DMZ in the early 80s as a captain. Far from good PXs (military department stores) and the comforts of home, Drew excelled in “procuring” unique and popular comfort items, spare parts, and whatever he and his men needed to accomplish their mission and live a little better than the other guys. So much so, several of his colleagues recommended changing his battery’s motto from “Automatic Steel” to “Automatic Steal.” Willingness to commit petty larceny with a flair for drama is a true morale builder and provides a shared sense of purpose to a deployment-weary unit. Drew’s subversive streak developed at a young age: He was famously busted as a cadet at New Mexico Military Institute for running a (well-written and produced) underground newspaper.
Accountability matters. My sister, Lt. Col. Lynn Hamilton O’Connell, U.S. Army (Ret.) is particularly brilliant at legal procurement. And she is particularly fussy that taxpayer dollars be properly applied to government contracts. When she arrived as a major to command an Army contracting shop in Virginia, she discovered that all of her government civilian employees were working far above their pay grade on multimillion dollar contracts. She immediately took two actions. She identified those who were up to the task and processed every single one of them for immediate promotions to the next pay grade. She opened investigations on everyone else. Seriously, do not mess with Lynn, because when working for her you are either getting a meritorious promotion or going to jail.
Everyone has to put up with the bull. This is advice everyone can use from my dad: “Everyone has to put up with the bullshit. No one has to take chickenshit.” Truer words were never spoken. Bureaucracy, delays, weather, acts of God—no one can really prevent them, and we all have to work around them. Pettiness, vindictiveness, laziness—no one should tolerate any of them, and we should all call this silliness out for what it is.
I probably write and talk about my family’s service too much. I can’t help it. But you know what? Military service is a New Mexico thing. We have one of the highest rates of military service in the nation. Nearly 1 in 10 New Mexicans is a Veteran. So I am going to close this column with one request for my Veteran neighbors: Check out your benefits status in the next 12 months if you aren’t getting benefits already. Yes, it’s a pain working through the Department of Veterans Affairs—the bullshit, if you will. But skipping out on benefits you earned just might be a little, well, you know… chickenshit.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.