April 10, 2003 was the day that the First Battalion Fifth Marines secured Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace in the city of Baghdad, Iraq. A lot of time has passed since then, but the events of that day will never be forgotten by those that were there. I was privileged to have been a part of the First Battalion Fifth Marines, the first Marine infantry unit into the country. We were also the battalion that secured objectives in Baghdad on April 10 which was the largest battle of the war up to that time. I learned quite a bit during that brief period of life and can say with certainty that those few months changed the way that I look at the world.
As I spend more time with men that have served on deployments – that I now serve through Mighty Oaks Legacy Programs, I have spent more time than usual thinking of my time there in 2003. I really enjoyed serving but it was also a hard time. I know many come back from deployment feeling like their purpose was taken from them, many military brothers and sisters come back suicidal or addicted. It is a gift that I get to serve so many of these veterans to help them pursue a new purpose and reclaim their hope.
Last year, I wrote down the 12 lessons I learned in Iraq. I had had some years to reflect and heal. Today I share them with you so that maybe you can see life in a new light too. Please share this with a warrior you love. Here are the lessons I learned in Iraq.
1. God is sovereign.
It occurred to me one day that the best that I could do was not enough to keep me out of trouble. Those on the other side do not care where I went to school, who my parents are or what town I grew up in. I need to be prepared and do the very best that I can, but at the end of the day I must rely upon the sovereignty of God. When I stopped believing that it was all up to me I was finally able to experience peace regardless of my situation.
2. There is no substitute for good leadership.
Much could be said here on the topic of good leadership, but I have always been thankful for the leadership of First Battalion Fifth Marines. From our Battalion Commander to the small unit leaders there was a focus and professionalism that was nothing short of amazing. I believe that it was largely due to this factor that we were so successful. I saw firsthand the tremendous impact that upfront leadership has on a team.
3. The team will win if they practice to win.
While I am thankful for the opportunity to have served with each of the men of First Battalion Fifth Marines, I was honored to have served as the Platoon Commander for the Counter-Mechanized Platoon. While these were without a doubt some of the craziest people that I have ever known, they knew how to win. I learned an awful lot during my time with this platoon (some of which I have worked hard to forget) but the greatest lesson that they taught me was this; If you work hard and train hard and maybe even break some stuff in the process, when the moment comes that you must win, you will. For two years we trained for a fight that we were not sure would come and when it did the Marines, as always, performed flawlessly.
4. The most difficult times in life may become your fondest ones.
While I have never had the desire to return to the time that I spent in Iraq, those days will always be some of the proudest of my life. I am thankful for those that I was able to serve with and for the many lessons that I learned. It is often the really difficult things that we are later grateful to have been a part of.
5. Your initial impression is often wrong.
I do not remember one situation during those early days of the war where something turned out to be exactly what we thought it was going to be. Situations were always changing and we learned to be ready for anything because you never knew what was just around the corner. This is one of those really important life lessons that this time illustrated so clearly. Gather all of the information that you can, whether it is about people, a circumstance, or a geographic location, and then hold off judgment until you are actually there. We often come to conclusions that just are not true and end up hurting us. If you can wait to draw a conclusion you will probably be better off.
6. The people “back home” are dealing with the war too.
At the time that I was in Iraq my two oldest children were three and four. My wife was taking care of them by herself while also dealing with the many administrative issues of life. I knew what I was involved in and how that was affecting me, but often forgot the impact that being away from my family was having on them. We tend to forget that when any member of the family is going through a difficult time that every member of the family is affected. We do not live in isolation and must consider the impact that what we are doing is having on the ones that we love.
7. One rarely understands the significance of a moment until it is over.
This may sound insignificant, but how often do we fail to realize just how important a moment is until it is over? The significance of a major military force moving beyond the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and securing a foothold in the Capitol city of perhaps the oldest civilization in the world cannot be overstated. But while it was taking place most of us were happy to be one day closer to coming home. I do this so often in my life. With my kids and my ministry and my other relationships it is so easy to mistake the extraordinary events as ordinary or unimportant until it is too late. While not every moment can be enjoyed, every moment can be appreciated.
8. Winning is about relationships.
Much has been written on the importance of the team. While I agree that having the right team is essential to any victory, winning is about more than just having the right people in the right place. It is about the relationships among team members that go beyond a skill set or proficiency. It is a relationship built over time that allows you to look into the eyes of those on your team and know what they are thinking. It is about understanding when to push and when to pull back because you know how heavy the load can be before the team will begin to fall apart. Winning is not simply about the team; it is about relationships.
9. Your best relationships are with those who stand by you when things are bad.
Relationships with those who have stayed when your chances of survival were not very good are the relationships in which you need to invest. This is true in combat and this is true in life. Those who stay when everyone else leaves are the ones that care about YOU more than they care about your success or failure. Who runs with you toward the enemy? Hang on to them. They will still be there when the dust settles.
10. A lack of leadership creates a vacuum that will be filled.
This is a reminder to anyone in a position of leadership. Your position may give you an opportunity to lead, but it does not make you a leader. Leaders lead. Where the appointed or anointed or appropriately titled will not show the way forward, someone else will. If you do not want to do the hard work of leading than be willing to follow someone who does.
11. Bad things happen. You have to keep moving forward.
I will never forget the meeting that our Battalion CO had with his staff and officers following the first few days of the war. The meeting was only long enough for him to reflect on what we had just been through and then to give the orders for us to continue forward. It was the way that he started this meeting that I remember the most clearly. He started by mentioning our casualties, both wounded and killed, and then reminded us that there would be a time to mourn and that this was not that time. He immediately turned our attention back to the task at hand and sent us off to accomplish the next mission. I could not even process how I felt at that moment but walked away feeling like I had been told that the loss we had experienced was unimportant. What had actually taken place, however, is that our CO had taught us an amazing leadership lesson. As we move through life bad things will happen. Relationships will be broken, people we care about will be lost, and circumstances will change in an unexpected direction. There will be a time and should be a time to mourn the loss or adjust to the change. But life cannot stop. Just as our Battalion CO had to lead his battalion forward in the midst of tragedy, so we must lead those around us when things are dark. Don’t allow what has happened to define you or to keep you from moving forward. We did have a time to appropriately mourn the loss that was experienced that day and in the days ahead. And so should you. Bad things happen. Respond appropriately and then keep moving forward.
12. The things that you have been through can be a blessing or a curse; it just depends what you do with them.
I take time periodically to remember not only the lessons of war, but the lessons of life. I have found that no single event in my life can set me up for either success or failure, but that there is always something to be learned. I learn just as much from the bad as I do from the good and am always better when I apply these lessons correctly. I have also allowed experience to be a curse in my life; to convince me that I could not succeed because of what happened at another time and in another place. No past experience holds power over me unless I allow it too. How your past influences your future is up to you. What will you do?
Jeremy Stalnecker Executive Director – Mighty Oaks Warrior Foundation