What I Learned From My First Military Deployment

A Marine officer's reflection on the lessons he learned, and how they can carry through to civilian life.

I was recently deployed on a tour that traversed the Indian Ocean and then navigated the littorals near the Middle East. My unit visited places like Hong Kong and the UAE. We spent over 200 days together experiencing what it was like to be an expeditionary force, prepared to jump into any mission that comes our way.

The coast of Hong Kong, as seen from our boat.
The coast of Hong Kong, as seen from our boat.

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about myself – I’m not an infantryman putting his life on the line. I’m just a budget officer. I’m a lieutenant, the youngest officer rank, and usually one that people attribute little value and experience too.

People often thank me for my service, but really, I’m only supporting those brave servicemen and women who are on the front lines, experiencing real danger.

Taxiing back to the California shore on an LCU at the end of the deployment.
Taxiing back to the California shore on an LCU at the end of the deployment.

But even though I was only in a supporting role, my deployment put me in a unique environment where I was around my fellow service members 24/7. Unsurprisingly, friction occurred. And that set me on a personal search for an ideal set of principles for effective collaboration and professional development.

I've narrowed them down since the deployment, solidifying the lessons into a few specific points that'd allow me (and hopefully, others) to become a better man in both military and civilian life.

On Dressing Well

There’s an old adage that says, "Nice clothes open many doors." Similarly, I’ve always believed that how you dress is an outward expression of whatever value you attribute to the time and place you're in.

When you're part of a larger organization – the military, in my case – you become an unofficial ambassador of that group. So regardless of your personal feelings, your actions can (and most likely will) ultimately affect the perception of an entire group of people. While visiting different countries, I realized that our very first impression, how we dress, greatly influenced what people thought of us.

Sure, this is easy while in uniform. But once we doffed the camouflage and switched into our civilian uniforms, judgment – whether good or bad – was sure to follow. I thought about how I wanted to be seen by folks in a foreign country, and my conclusion was that I wanted to look like someone who cared about being there.

On Drinking

When it comes to enjoying a drink yourself, I think that good booze should be savored and appreciated. If a drink is meant to be gulped, it probably shouldn’t be drunk at all.

But as you can imagine, there aren't many opportunities to drink during a deployment. So when the occasional port visit comes around, one of the first things on your mind is kicking back a few rounds at the closest establishment that serves them. As soon as we disembarked, the exodus began as every serviceman and woman spread out to search for a drink.

The current zeitgeist around drinking seems almost paradoxical – American culture somehow both demonizes and glamorizes it simultaneously. That dichotomy creates a taboo around alcohol that I believe contributes to the binge drinking issue we have in the US. In the military, at least, binge drinking is far too common, and can lead to a myriad of problems that can ruin careers. I understand that during times of celebration and leisure, it can be tempting to overindulge, but the consequences of doing so usually aren't worth it.

Any admonition to drink modestly is especially important when you're around coworkers and subordinates. But a culture change isn't made by draconian rules and shaming. Instead, lead by example by making sure you always have your wits about you, and that you're taking care of those around you tactfully when necessary.

On Free Time

While afloat, I found myself with a lot of down time. I used it as an opportunity to do research on all kinds of topics that piqued my interest, and that I wanted to be able to have educated conversations about. So I spent my time reading articles, books, professional military studies, and news reports as a form of self-improvement.

And by reading varied opinions, I challenged ideas that I always thought to be true rather than merely comforting to beliefs that I already held. After all, an admission of ignorance is what Socrates believed to be the true sign of wisdom.

Spending your free time in an effective, self-improving way like that will expand your base of knowledge, setting a great example for not only your subordinates, but your superiors as well. You can hold an intellectual conversation about anything topical and leave a great impression on anyone you speak to.

On Gossiping

There's another old saying: "Those who gossip to you won’t hesitate to gossip about you.” A good admonition, but one that I feel misses the mark.

It's not just that you shouldn’t gossip out of a sense of self-preservation. You shouldn't gossip because it's a harmful behavior that can damage another person’s reputation undeservingly. Aristotle believed that one could improve his or her character by making a habit of moral behavior. The opposite is it true as well, and if you take to gossiping, you can easily slip into unbecoming behavior.

During the deployment, we were all together on a ship in close quarters. We lived multiple people to a room, going through the same monotony day after day. Naturally, the rumor mill began to turn. This led to feelings of resentment between shipmates, marred team cohesion, and undermined the professional environment.

Put simply: don't gossip, and don't engage whenever it comes your way.

On Relationships

Before we left for the deployment, the unit Chaplain explained to us that distance doesn’t ruin relationships – it only reveals if you had a good relationship to begin with.

It’s not uncommon to see a young Marine rush into a relationship with someone he or she just met. I laugh at how these young men and women swear that they’re in love with a person they met only a week ago, but really, we've all done this to some degree in our lifetimes.

Naturally, during the deployment I saw numerous breakups, shaken relationships, and even broken engagements. I imagine that those folks felt heartbroken and discouraged that they had lost someone dear to them. But I hoped that they hearkened back to what the chaplain had told us and that they realized that if what they had couldn’t pass the litmus test, maybe it's for the best.

Personally, I found that the distance strengthened my relationship with my girlfriend (and hopefully, future spouse). It showed that we had something real.

On Compassion

The word compassion, in its Latin root, means "to suffer with”. Something I learned all about. Suffering was a common practice on the ship, but there something about suffering alongside my buddies that somehow made the misery manageable.

I think back to the days in officer training when we were sitting in damp, drizzling, miserable 50-degree weather, but somehow content because I was with my friends – usually sharing some form of tobacco. Two years later, I found myself on a boat in the middle of an ocean far away from family and loved ones, but the fact that I had people to share it with made it feasible.

I learned that if part of your team is suffering, you should suffer together. That doesn't sound fun, but it's effects are undeniable: you’ll see unit cohesion and camaraderie strengthen.

I’m grateful that I went on this deployment – it strengthened my relationships, and it taught me meaningful lessons that solidified into meaningful creed. I’m thankful even for the days of suffering and monotony, since they taught me to appreciate what I had back at home. And now that I'm back, I hope to keep up that self-improvement journey.

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