A Veteran's Message for Memorial Day

My wife, Jill, retired General Martin Dempsey, and Yours Truly at the evening reception for Feagin Leadership Forum on 18 May 2018.

My wife, Jill, retired General Martin Dempsey, and Yours Truly at the evening reception for Feagin Leadership Forum on 18 May 2018.

Make It Matter. To be honest, those aren't my words. Those are the words of Retired General Martin Dempsey, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a former member of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, I used to work for him. By "work for him," I mean to say that I was one among the herd of lieutenant colonels who spoke with him in ten-minute intervals as he was being ushered to his next meeting with someone of much greater importance. Like every officer on the Joint Staff, I had heard the story behind the words of his personal mantra. I was reminded of that story this past weekend during the Feagin Leadership Forum at Duke University, and given the timing, I would offer Make It Matter as a Memorial Day message for all service members and veterans.

The Feagin Leadership Forum is an annual seminar held during the spring at Duke University. I participate in this event as part of my continuing education and development as a leader and executive coach. Attending this conference were prominent leaders in medicine, business, and academia from across the country. This year's topic and the subject of the retired general's presentation was how to influence without authority. Stated another way, how do you lead and inspire others when you are not the person in charge? General Dempsey conveyed the importance of having the passion of an immigrant's spirit, the courage of a warrior's heart, and the humility of servant's soul in everything we do as leaders. It was a powerful message, but the most impactful moment came during the question and answer portion of his presentation.

One of the many accomplished medical professionals in the audience asked General Dempsey how he lived with the burden of making decisions that cost lives. Like military leaders, doctors make life and death decisions each and every day, and sometimes soldiers - or patients - die as a result of those decisions. Military leaders and medical professionals live with those very real consequences. It was a tough question, and his answer revealed an honest moment of vulnerability that brought tears to his eyes and the eyes of almost everyone else in that room.

General Dempsey told the audience about how he attended memorial services for fallen soldiers from his unit. He was a division commander deployed to Iraq during the time that the nation fell into chaos. He admitted that he often struggled to find the right words of encouragement for the surviving men and women of the squad or unit. He knew that more dangerous and difficult days were ahead for the remaining members of the team, and therefore, he wanted to inspire them to be at their best. After all, they were still in the fight. He told the Feagin Leadership Forum that the right words for those moments happened upon him one night while he was sleeping. Those words were Make It Matter.

As he spoke, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. He opened his wallet and produced two laminated cards not much larger than a credit card. He raised the cards above his head so that the people in the back of the room could catch a glimpse of what he held in his hand. On each card was the picture of soldier. Each card also had some details about the life of that soldier. He had only the two cards on his person at the time, but he has 132 similar cards in his possession - one for each soldier who died under his command. He said that he rotates the names but always carries 2 or 3 cards with him at all times. As for the rest of the cards, he keeps them in a box on his desk. Etched on the top cover of that box are the same words he offered in response to the doctor's question . . . Make It Matter.

"It was our job to make the sacrifice matter, to make the mission matter, to make every day matter . . ." General Martin Dempsey, U.S. Army (Ret.)

What struck me most at the time was the setting. He wasn't saying this as the most senior ranking officer speaking to an assembly of future battalion and brigade commanders. Most of the people in the room were medical doctors, business professionals, or leadership scholars. Many were only medical students. He wasn't wearing a uniform with rows of medals. He was wearing an ordinary jacket and tie. While he spoke, he did his best to move around on two surgically repaired knees. He didn't need the title or the aplomb of his former position to command the room. He did that on his own. He wasn't speaking to the crowd as General Dempsey. He was just being himself. He was just being Martin Dempsey. He was just being the humble son of proud, blue collar parents of Irish Catholic descent. He was demonstrating through his example just how to inspire without authority, and he shared with me a meaningful message for my life.

As I sat there trying to hold back my own tears, I took a quick inventory of my life. Like so many other combat veterans and military leaders, I struggle with the memories of the fallen from my many deployments. So I had to ask myself: Am I truly living life to my full potential, or am I just trying to make it through the next day? Am I inspiring others through my example, or am I hoping someone in charge will make a difference and do the right thing? Am I creating the joy and happiness that I want for me and my family, or am I settling? In everything that I do big and small in each and every day, do I Make It Matter?

When he finished his presentation, the former Chairman received a standing ovation. I don't know what the medical professionals, business leaders, or students took away from his speech, but my takeaway was quite clear. My responsibility as a combat veteran was to become a living memorial for the men and women who never made it home to their families. So, I offer that same challenge to you. We honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in how we choose to live our lives. So, lead to your full potential. Tell your family how much you love them. Be gracious. Commit to making a difference at your job or in your community. Reach out to an old friend, fellow warrior, or colleague. Forgive, love, and cherish the joy of your life. As a living memorial, be the example that makes this world a better place - one worthy of their sacrifice.

That was my takeaway, and I offer that same message to you as we approach Memorial Day. In all things great and small . . . Make It Matter.