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. A few dates every year cause me to spend more time than usual thinking about the war and this is one of them. A couple of years ago I wrote down six of the lessons that I learned while serving in Iraq. As I spend time once again thinking about that day, here are six more lessons that come to mind.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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