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“Military Mindset”

By Jon Harris:

For many, the “Military Mindset” never really fades.

The “Military Mindset” means many things to many people.  The public view of military culture and life inside the military are two very different things.  To those that have never been in this very special culture called the military, it can have all sorts of connotations.  Some see those who were in the military as dangerous warmongers or hapless individuals suffering from all sorts of mental disorders.  Others think it is all about war and combat, screaming and going through seemingly unbelievable torment or physical tasks to be part of the team.  Most of these notions are the product of films, digital entertainment, action novels, or simply opinions of people that have very little actual background or understanding of the military culture.  This article has nothing to do with that sort of skewed viewpoint.

This is about the enduring culture of the military and the way that culture, or mindset if you will, is interwoven into the very heart of those that do and have served.  What this article tries to explain is the real camaraderie and respect members of the military have for each other, the system, the rules, the lifestyle and the country.  The sense of culture the military develops in a person doesn’t just leave when their time in service ends, it continues.  The military is not simply a job that you have and then forget, as you move to the next employer. It stays, it endures.  For those of us that joined, drank the Kool-Aid and liked the taste of it, we never really left.  Many times, you can pick the veterans out, even in a crowd.  It is not the hat or patches on jackets, although that is common as veterans are proud of their service.  It is the way they carry themselves.  The way they stand, talk, courtesies and dress.  All one has to do is look. They are the ones always standing at the playing of the national anthem, many with tears in their eyes. They are the ones you notice glancing at the flag as they walk by a flagpole while so many others don’t even notice it is there.  That respect for what and who they are, what they took into their very DNA as service members, and what they will always feel makes them stand out.  That is the military culture coming through, the mindset.

Today, the military members are of a different generation.  They grew up in a very different world than I did, with very different expectations.  Do they have this same military mindset?  Is this something that just happens when a person serves?  That is a hard one for me to answer.  Time will tell, but from the younger folks I’ve met currently serving or those that have served, I think it’s still there.

I was a Cold War soldier.  I was at the Wall in Berlin, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtin and the reunification of Germany.  I served during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm era.  I left the military “officially” in the mid 90’s.  So I’m out, right?  Well, not so much.  The mindset ever draws me back in.  After my departure from the military, I went on with my life and started a civilian career.  I did what many military veterans did, I bounced for a couple of years trying to find something that fit.  This is much more common than you realize.  Many corporate firms look for military veterans, as they know there is a set of standards and sense of loyalty and responsibility.  Unfortunately some of these same corporations don’t really understand the military culture and find their newly hired employee a little too rigid, a little too strict and one that actually expects everyone to do their job instead of just going along to get along.

That military mindset also has certain internal truths.  When your life is structure and rules, when you know exactly who is who, when you know exactly what is expected, and how to achieve it, success is clearly possible and you actually are the master of your own fate.  That may seem a foreign concept to those not familiar with how the military actually works, but it is how the military mindset understands things should be.

This can be a hard pill for the veteran to swallow when those military cultural norms are absent as in the civilian world with political eddies to be navigated, favoritism, nepotism, and so many just looking to get ahead no matter how they get there.  To the military veteran, assimilation into this world is simply wrong and very hard to accept.  There seems to be a lack of duty, honor and country, an ethos so strongly reinforced by the military, and when absent is sorely missed.  Maybe this is why you see so many veterans gravitate to the police, fire and first responder systems.  These are all based on a military model with uniforms, ranks, a chain of command, and a mission.  This system appeals to the military minded, and it appealed to me as I spent the next two decades in law enforcement.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to go overseas as a security contractor to Afghanistan and later Iraq.  I was amazed how quickly everything I loved about the military came rushing back.  The rules, the regs, even the clothes.  Waiting in line and complaining to the person next to me about the mail, food, cold, heat, living conditions, pay and everything else was actually familiar and comforting.  I felt I knew how to navigate even in a place I had never been before.  After all these years, it was all back.  The respect of those there with you, and the total commitment to the mission was clear.  Knowing with absolute confidence you would protect each other should things go bad, and they could at any time.  Maybe that added to the sense of belonging, knowing that you all depended on each other and on everyone doing their job as our lives depended on it, and sometimes, it did.  One very interesting thing I found while contracting was the fact that culture was the same regardless of the country.  Many different countries supplied military members to Afghanistan and many civilian contractors were from all over the world.  I was amazed how alike we all were.  We all had the same military mindset, the culture and it bound us to each other immediately.

This is the mindset I am talking about.  This culture once engrained, never wanes.  It may be dormant for years, but it is always there.  The folks I worked with were all veterans.  We all shared the same feelings regardless of whether we were 60, like me, or 20 somethings like so many others.  Our experiences were very different.  We had been in different places and at different times.  We were from different countries and many spoke different languages, but we all had a common bond, the military mindset.

Moreover, for us ‘civilians’ that were back in the military world, we were treated as equals. We were all the same.  We were part of the brotherhood again.  We fit right back into the culture as if we had never left, because we never actually had.  We knew who was on first and who was on second.  We all felt we were important and not just a cog in a corporate wheel.  We were part of something that had purpose.  The goal was not to just make more money or constantly climb the corporate ladder.  The purpose had meaning and was actually tangibly important.

We understood.  We understood this was our mindset, this was our culture and where we would always feel at home.

Jon Harris is an OpsLens contributor and former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community.