Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Best and Brightest

Earlier this week, I posted shameless plugs regarding my present business ventures. I closed with a two-fold moral. There is actually a third related moral to that post. To those of you with current or recent military service to your credit the third moral is MOTO (mastery of the obvious). Unfortunately, my experience over the last few years has been that the vast majority of American citizens haven't the slightest inkling of the quality of the force that has been keeping the wolf away from the door recently. I see voluminous evidence of this every day as I deal with the private sector, and an inordinate amount of my time is spent educating business leaders regarding the quality of the young men and women leaving the US military after 4 to 30 years of honorable service to their great nation. There are a lot of nearly universally held misconceptions out there, many born in the Vietnam War era and come of age in the current day, mountains of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

The first misconception that must be dispelled is the idea that the US military is an all volunteer force made up of young men and women who have no other vocational option. The US military is not an all "volunteer" force. It is an all "recruited" force. And therein lies the quality difference not grasped by most. US military recruiters screen hundreds of young men and women to find one qualified for enlisted service. The truth is the vast majority of young Americans are DISQUALIFIED for enlisted service due to educational and aptitude (read: trainable) deficiencies, as well as physical (fighting wars is a physical business, even in the age of smart bombs) and moral (police record) factors.

Once a recruiter screens a young person as qualified for enlistment, that recruiter must sell the young person on the idea of delaying going to college in order to serve his or her country (and thereby gain some discipline, maturity, and money to make for a more successful college matriculation). Frankly, most young men and women who join today never even considered enlisting until approached by a recruiter. Conversely, nearly every young person who walks into a recruiting office of his own volition is not qualified for military service--no matter how sincerely he wants to serve his nation.

Thankfully, the old days of a judge telling a young man that he either enlist in the Marine Corps or go to jail are long gone. In fact, if a judge does tell a young man that, the Marine Corps (or any other service) is legally prohibited from enlisting him. If a young person has unpaid traffic tickets, he is ineligible for enlistment. If he tests positive on a mandatory drug test, he is ineligible for enlistment. The list of disqualifying factors is stupefyingly long. Waivers are given, to be sure, but they are not easy to come by and must be approved by authorities far up the chain of command from the recruiter.

The screening process to enlist is very thorough and possesses several sets of high quality filters. However, enlisting is only 1/3 of the screening process a young person goes through during his or her US military experience. The next third is basic training. But, even before a recruit boards the bus for boot camp, and during an up to one year delay between enlistment and start of basic training, the recruit is continuously screened by his recruiter and prepared for entry level training success. An average of 20% of all recruits who enter the Delayed Enlistment Program don't honor their commitment and refuse to go to basic training. They are not forced to go--that's the "volunteer" part of the process. An average of 15% of all recruits fail to complete basic training, for a variety of reasons. So, a total of nearly 1/3 of those high quality, cream of the American crop, young citizens who initially qualified for and agreed to serve their nation as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, don't make the cut to actually serve in an active duty, Guard, or reserve unit.

The final 1/3 of the screening process occurs over the duration of the first enlistment. More than 10% of the young men and women who honored their commitment to serve and successfully completed basic training, fail to serve their first enlistment honorably and are released before completing their first tour of duty.

The whole point to this narrative is this: The young American coming out of the military after 4 years' honorable service to his nation is of inestimable value to virtually any private or public sector endeavor. He is mature, disciplined, and trainable. He is punctual, industrious, and possesses a level of initiative and sense of responsibility rare in his population cohort. He is a finisher. He is a team-player, steeped in the necessity and righteousness of equal opportunity and the respect for diversity. Give him some training and responsibility and he will run circles around everyone else in your organization--I see this in action nearly everywhere we place a transitioning military member.

I won't even start to make the case that he's been laying his promising young life on the line for the rights, privileges, and liberties you and I take for granted and enjoy every day, and deserves, therefore, every consideration and benefit of the doubt we can possibly give him.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Shameless Plugs

A short 5 or 6 years ago, if you had asked me to what end the education and training of my adult life had led me, I would have told you that I was equipped to do nothing more than command a Marine Air-Ground Task Force or Joint Task Force into battle against an enemy of my great nation. My political science and history undergraduate work grounded me with an understanding of the tides of human history under the influence of the natural forces of political ambition and resource need. As a Marine infantry officer I was taught to survey the battlefield for enemy weaknesses and use my forces and supporting arms to exploit those weaknesses in order to achieve tactical, operational, and even strategic effects. An assignment with the airpower zealots of the US Air Force taught me to look for critical nodes against which to apply relatively small, but highly accurate, packages of combat power in order to achieve strategic effects. While on assignments with the Marine Corps Recruiting Command at two different points in my career, I learned the recruiting tactic of "need satisfaction selling." Post graduate work leading to masters degrees in human resource management and strategic planning seemed to cap a life of preparation for moving a large amount of people and things against the will of an enemy. When I finally hung up my active duty spurs, I had an inkling that, although I had not had the opportunity to participate in the destruction of enemy of my nation, I might be able to apply a combination of two or more of the above and scratch out enough of a living to keep gas in my boat and bait in the live well.

When an acquaintance from my Marine Corps recruiting and marketing days asked me to help him form a company to provide consulting services to a major US truck and engine corporation, I wasn't sure I had the private sector savvy to make it work. Turns out combat is combat is combat, whether with the aim to crush an armed enemy, a political opponent, or an economic competitor. The planning, communication, and execution templates are remarkably interchangeable.

We called our company Performance Military Group, (shameless plug #1: and my partner told me to go find a few of my "retired colonel buddies" to fill out the field positions. After a quick survey of the battlefield, I told him that he was going to get just one colonel--me--and that the rest of the team would be made up of tough, savvy, fearless folks who knew how to take colonels' bright ideas and translate them into effective action on the battlefield. I started calling senior Marine NCOs. And not just any NCO. The ones I called were arguably the best salesmen in the world--Marines trained in the fine art of recruiting. As I often tell clients, anyone who can convince 17 year-old Johnny, and his momma, that it is in Johnny's best interest not to go immediately to college, but to join the United States Marine Corps, in time of war, and, oh, by the way, take his graduation trip to Baghdad--that's a great salesman.

When we presented our market research findings to our first client and outlined what we thought the opportunities were, they wanted us to immediately launch a national program to service their 700 dealership locations. I told them no, we would phase this operation, prove concept and develop procedures in a pilot program, and then roll a mature program out to what I was sure was going to be very skeptical dealership management teams. No genius--just doing what I was trained to do. Three years later we have a very viable national program that is guiding a major corporation back into a military market that it abandoned, for reasons lost to anyone still in the organization, four decades ago.

I was taught, by men who know, that the first successful engagement on the battlefield will be your last successful engagement if you stop and smell the roses of success. They taught me to never stop looking for the next opportunity to exploit an enemy weakness. Not long after we started linking our client's dealerships up with military customers in their AORs, we discovered that those dealerships were all hurting for technicians/mechanics. And not just a little bit--nationally our client had a need for thousands. I started asking if they had ever looked at hiring transitioning military personnel. Enough negative replies and "deer in the headlights" looks convinced me that there was a huge gap open on the battlefield through which to drive our organization. We were already on the bases and in the motor pools helping our client sell repair parts and maintenance consumables--it was an easy next step to start asking young warriors what they were going to do once they slung their shields over their shoulders and headed for home. Most had no idea, and the military transition assistance bureaucracy was failing them badly. Long story short, recruiting and placement was a natural core competency, given the military recruiting backgrounds of the majority of our team, and we expanded our offerings and organization to help young enlisted men and women leaving the service of their nation to find jobs.

When our client's dealerships could not, or would not, provide a repair part solution to a military customer, our aggressive field team members started sourcing those needs on their own in order to make a sale that would cement the new relationship with the customer. It didn't take long for some of the smart guys in our group to start recommending that we get into the business ourselves. We formed Force Ready Military (Shameless Plug #2: ) to source and sell "hard to find," legacy system parts and vehicle maintenance kits. In the short time that division has been active, we have sold everything from tank wheel sprockets to concertina wire to military customers in need. And we do it at low margins--I'm a tax payer, too.

The moral of this story is two fold. First, never underestimate the ability of a Marine to brag on his team's successes. Second, some combination of two or more of every thing you have ever learned will be useful in the future.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Super Tuesday Tornado

On business in Salt Lake City, the call on my cell from my home security company was fightening. "Mr. Gregory, we have a fire alarm at your residence. Your fire department has been alerted."

I had been on the phone with Miss Brenda less than an hour before. She told me that she had been invited over to a friend's house to play cards. I had seen reports of bad weather brewing along the Mississippi valley and I asked her if there had been any bad weather at the northern end of southern nowhere. She said no, but then, just before we hung up, she mentioned she could see lightning flashing out to the west.

Thinking that my house had taken a lightning strike and was now ablaze, I frantically dialed Miss Brenda's cell number. I got her voice mail. As I hung up, I noticed a new voice mail on my phone. It was Brenda, "Ed, answer your phone!"

We played phone tag for several frustrating minutes until we finally connected. As soon as I heard her live voice I blurted out, "The house is on fire, get home!"

"I am home," she said. "We've been hit by a tornado!"

Turns out Miss Brenda had second thoughts about going out at night in stormy weather, and stayed home. The Weather Channel told her that tornadoes were headed her way, and when the power went off and the pressure changed, she grabbed a pillow and jumped into a bathtub.

An F1 when it demolished the Caterpillar plant in the industrial park just north of Oxford, the storm headed NNE on a beeline for our community just 7 or 8 miles away. By the time it reached the beginning of County Road 291, it was an F3. The storm roared straight up our road, and ten homes exploded or blew away in less time that it took to write this paragraph.

County Road 291 runs pretty much straight north until it gets to about a quarter mile south of Eegeebeegee, where it jogs west about 400 meters before turning due north again. Our house is a little under 300 meters west of the road. That total 700 meters meant all the difference. Our home suffered significant roof damage and lots of cosmetic dings, but it is still standing. The stretch of National Forest opposite my road frontage looks just like the results of a "daisy cutter" bomb used to clear helicopter landing zones in jungle terrain.

Nearly a hundred trees were knocked down across the road a quarter mile in each direction from my gate. It took friends and rescue workers from our volunteer fire department several hours to cut through that abatis, in the dark, to get to Miss Brenda. Friends told me that they were cutting trees with chainsaws by the light of cell phones at one point. That none of that rescue crew was injured that night is amazing.

That the only significant injury in all of the homes destroyed on our road was a broken leg is miraculous. One young lady, seven months pregnant, had the presence of mind to scoop up her twin 2-year olds, and with the strength of a mother's love, hang on to them as they were picked up out of their living room and blown across the road from their exploding home. One of the twins needed stitches on his foot. Momma went into premature labor, but the doctors were able to stop it. If someone wrote that story in a book, no one would believe it was possible.

Miss Brenda and I drove down the road toward town this evening and past the homesites of our neighbors. Great bonfires of life's treasures turned to debris burned, tended by crowds of family members and friends. These are tough people, these Mississippians. Tough as shoe leather. They are caring and giving by the same measure.

For the past few days, a steady stream of friends and church family has driven up our drive to help clean up, to assist in hooking up a generator, to bring a jug of precious cold water, to drop off a sack of sausage biscuits. Half a dozen youth from our church showed up this afternoon and helped me cut up and haul off several trees down around my property.

I love this place. Not even a tornado can blow me away from here.

Monday, February 04, 2008

So much for inevitability...

Watched the game with a bunch of my new Mississippi friends yesterday afternoon. Pro football, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. It was odd to be sitting around with a bunch of Mississippians cheering for a team from New York City. But then again, it was Eli...

I kept waiting all game for the Patriots to wake up and turn it into a rout. When they marched down and went up by four with less than three minutes left, I was ready to recognize the inevitability of perfection. But then Archie and Olivia's baby boy scrambled out of the pocket and made the play of the decade... He never eluded sacks like that at Ole Miss--don't think I ever saw him leave the pocket.

I was a Dolphins fan in the early 70's. We were stationed in Panama and the Miami Herald was the only stateside paper we could get--so we all followed Csonka, Kiick, and Warfield. They didn't lose any ball games, but they weren't "perfect." They were very good and very lucky and had a great back-up quarterback in Earl Morrall.

Inevitability ain't so inevitable.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Patriot's Dream

Two hundred and thirty years ago the remnants of an army huddled in abject misery outside of Philadelphia. Their commanding general, George Washington, had been unable to prevent the British army's capture of the rebel capital, and as the British and Hessian mercenary troops had settled into relatively comfortable winter quarters, Washington occupied a defensive position in a series of low hills a day's march northwest of the city. There in that heretofore unknown corner of the wilderness called Valley Forge, Washington's men built a village of dirt-floored shacks, and endured a winter hardship that ranks with those suffered in Russia by Napoleon's army and the Wermacht in succeeding centuries.

The Continental Army in the winter of 1777--78 was an army in name only. Numbering scarcely more than ten thousand men when they arrived in Valley Forge just before Christmas of 1777, Washington's command was shoeless, clothed in little more than rags, and short-supplied to the point of starvation. At any one time during that winter, the sick and ineffective outnumbered the soldiers who could have responded to a British attack on their position. Nearly a quarter of the army died of disease, exposure, or starvation that winter. Nearly that many simply walked away from camp and went home. That the vastly superior British army did not march out of Philadelphia and end the American Revolution with one sharp, decisive fight is one of the greatest missed opportunities in the history of armed conflict. Truth be told, that missed opportunity was but the latest in a three year series of inexplicable failures by the British to press home a number of attacks, any one of which would have surely resulted in the destruction of the rebel army and the capture and hanging of George Washington.

Had the British destroyed the insurgent force encamped at Valley Forge, the second civil war fought in by Europeans on the continent of North America would have sputtered to an end like a flame consuming the last bit of wax at the nub of a candle.

Wait..., "second civil war?" Yes, and last (to date). The war we refer to as the American Civil War was in fact a seccessionist war--fought between states. Probably the most accurate name for the 1861--65 conflict would be the War for Southern Independence. I make no judgement here as to the justness of the Southern Cause--I merely argue for a more accurate definition. The war we refer to as the American Revolution was more truly a civil war, fought between colonial factions for and against British rule. The first civil war (Prince Phillip's War), fought a century earlier, pitted British-American colonists and allied Native American tribes against a coalition of other Native American tribes attempting to throw the European invasion of North America back into the sea apon whence it had come. Confused? You should be. History is not an easy subject like, say, astro-physics. But, I digress...

Here's the rest of the story. Later in the Spring of 1778, meddling by arm-chair generals in Parliament resulted in, not a war-ending offensive to crush the reeling rebel remnant, but a British retreat from Philadelphia back to a defensive position in New York. The opportunistic French, at the lobby of the American emmissary in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, had entered into the war with a formal alliance against their long-time British adversaries. The British were now reacting instead of acting. Bolstered by a French army, and, more importantly, a French fleet, Washington was finally strong enough to take advantage of another British miscue--this time at Yorktown in 1781--and defeated the bulk of the British army in America. The rest is, as they say, history.

The moral of this story is clear to anyone with an appreciation of the moments of historical opportunity upon which nations have acted, or failed to act. The United States is at one of those so-called strategic inflection points just now. Do we have the will to press home our advantage, or shall we fritter away strategic opportunity in the name of political expediency and at the whim of hucksters wrapped in the amorphous and undefined cloth of "Change."

When you think about the course you would have our nation take, bring to mind the image of a young patriot standing barefoot in the snow on a Pennsylvania hillside. For what and for whom did he believe he was fighting and sacrificing? Why did he stay at Valley Forge, and endure hardship unimaginable to most of us today, when so many of his fellow citizen soldiers had given up on the fight and gone home?

When you honestly reach your own answer to that question, you will know what to do.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Limiting the Lactic Acid

My return to the gridiron almost ended on the first play from scrimmage. Wide right, I faked to the sideline, planted my right foot, and cut back across the middle underneath the coverage. A split second later I was lying flat on my back seeing more stars than I have seen in a long time. Felt like someone had hit me on my left temple with a sledgehammer.

This morning our little country church held its annual Youth vs. Adult flag football game. I haven't tried to play in an organized football game since #2 son's Hawaiian buddies used me for a tackling dummy ten years ago on the beach at Kailua. But, when the youth pastor asked the congregation for a show of hands from the adults who would come Saturday to play, my twenty-two year old hand shot up before my fifty-two year old brain could catch up. Miss Brenda didn't let me forget about the commitment, and with reluctance made even greater by the sight of twenty teenagers zipping around the field at the speed of youth, I trotted out on to the field and lined up.

When the stars faded, I got to my feet and stumbled over to our sideline. When I got there, I noticed a teammate with a bloody nose. "They're playing rough aren't they--who busted your nose?" He reached out and tapped my head where a large knot was welling up nicely. "You did."

On the next series, I went back in to see if I could salvage a little bit of my self-respect, figuring that I'd at least run a couple of routes for appearances sake and then act my age on the sideline for the rest of the game. On the first play, I ran a short route underneath and the pass went deep and incomplete. On the way back to the huddle the flat-belly playing quarterback asked if anyone was covering me. I shook my head and he said, "Run it again." On the snap, I gave a head fake left to no one in particular and cut across the middle. The ball hit me in the gut at about the same time I turned my head to look for it. I was only ten yards from the quarterback and the ball had enough zip on it to cause me to wrap my arms around it purely on kinetic reflex. I turned up field and turned up the speed. Miss Brenda said she had never seen me run so fast. Truth is I was so open that there was no one running anywhere near me with whom to compare speed. My furiously pumping arms and legs gave the impression of a velocity much higher than actual. Several minutes later I reached the end zone, pitched the ball to the ref, and headed for the sidelines.

At my age, one sprint per game is all they're getting out of me.