The Number One Thing That I Learned from My Military Service

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USAA Community Thing I Learned from Service.jpg

We can all tell people, sometimes for hours, what we learned from our military service, how it helped us succeed, our funniest memories, and our saddest memories. But, if we had to narrow all of that down to one single item, what would we tell others about our military service?  My lesson would be to always keep contributing.


Contribution is the proactive act of seeking out items to be improved and then performing them to a level that makes a difference with others and within the organization. This sounds simple and it is.  However, the evaluating measure of contribution is actual improvement and not solely the effort of trying to improve something or someone.  When we judge our efforts by ensuring that we always contribute and leads to a better outcome, it makes the act of contributing especially challenging.  The challenge and the success of meeting the challenge delivers life altering positive experiences that you remember forever.


My contributions started when I was a brand new 2nd Lieutenant delivered in a clean, just off the shelf uniform to a hard-working mortar platoon that was a month into a four-month rotation along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  The platoon was engaged in a massive effort to replace, refill, and improve the sandbags and other defensive material around our position along the DMZ.  I was new.  I knew little yet about the Army.  But, I knew how to fill sandbags.  So, I worked alongside every squad and every Private filling sandbags.  This act of stepping outside the traditional expectations of my role and doing whatever I could do helped build trust and cohesion in our unit.


Contributions also must seek out ways to improve and new skills to create. Later, when I returned from Korea and was back in the United States, my Company Commander and I wanted to improve our night fighting skills.  So, we scheduled a 10-day field training exercise in the peak of the summer in the southern United States.  It was pure misery for the entire company.  Cold rations the entire time, almost too hot to sleep during the day, the entire company had rashes from Poison Ivy, night air assaults followed by patrols through the swamp to shoot at a range with Night Vision Googles. (NVG).  On the last day, we did a 12-mile road march into the Battalion area after being awake almost two days.  As we closed in on our company area, the platoons cheered and shook hands – they had some of the best training in their time in the Army.  Sometimes, contributions offer challenge, leadership, and foresight to take the organization to where they feel they cannot go.


When I was in Iraq, I was part of a planning team that created an enemy attack database to show Commander’s the intensity of enemy attack events based on time, location, and type of attack. I had a group of active duty and reservists that determined how to create this database and then use it to plan our own attacks on areas that the database showed us the enemy was focusing their efforts.  My contributions to this effort was to believe in my team, help where I could, and then stay out of their way so they could do great things.  Sometimes the best contributions we can deliver are to believe and enable the contributions of others.


Contributing to the success of the team and to the success of others was my greatest learning from the military. Contributions that made the unit, myself, and others better is something that I strive to do every day.


Share your greatest learning from the military!


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About the Author: Chad Storlie is a Retired US Army Officer, the author of Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and has published over 320 articles in over 170 publications on military veterans, career advancement, business, leadership, strategy, education, financial planning, and national security topics.  Chad excels as an author, mentor, speaker, and teacher showing business leaders and military veterans how military skills make lives, careers, and businesses better.  Chad is an adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota – Carlson School of Management.  Chad has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.  Follow Chad @CombatToCorp and

John GS
Senior Member



Being a leader means setting expectations of what will get done by individual soldiers, squads, platoons, companies, your Battalion or whatever organization you lead.  These goals should be a reach or stretch and will require the best efforts of each person.  It may be something that was not thought possible before and history shows how many people and organizations can make the impossible happen!


For many people, most of life is spent in a hapless pursuit of temporary entertainment.  My time in the Army Reserve was about being part of something larger than myself and having a focused effort to push my physical, mental and belief to new limits.  I loved my 31 years of service, I pray that others find a way to gain the same experience.


God Speed 


@John GS, Thanks for your comments in Community.  I love this concept of connecting everyone in the organization to the organization's overall goals.  This to me is really about recognizing everyone's value and inclusion towards the organization's mission and goals.


Please come back to USAA Member Community frequently and share your voice!  You have a great perspective to benefit all USAA members.

New Member

After reading the above article linked to from the RallyPoint platform I wrote the following on RallyPoint in reflection to that military-centric community.


"A few years ago I was having lunch with a friend. We were talking about TEAMs and how I felt that in the military we understood "team" in ways that civilians appeared not to. I shared that I felt too many "civilians" were in their "management style" trying to spell team with an "I".  He laughed and said "Team IS spelled with an 'I'. Here let me show you!"

Then he took out a pen and drew the picture you see on a napkin. 

Snip - Eye on TEAM.JPG
"You see..." he said as he smiled "....there has always been an 'EYE in team."

"Darn!", I said you are right. But, I told him that I felt all EYES are on the team from the CO to the newest recruit. Then we moved into the topic of Continual Quality Improvement (CQI) and the importance of 'TEAM' as he drew the EYE in team regarding the subject of CQI.

While intuitively I understood this and practiced this as part of TQM (Total Quality Management), it was the first time ANYONE made the point he made using this simple example. So, when everyone's eyes are wide open then everyone can see the mission and the tasks that make up the reasons for the mission with "clear eyed - focus." 

Sir, your line "Contributing to the success of the team and to the success of others was my greatest learning from the military. Contributions that made the unit, myself, and others better is something that I strive to do every day." 

I know you are prior US Army, yet this is no different in the US Navy - TEAM! Here is a link to an 11 pg summary by Gary Tomlinson of Capt Mike Abroshoff's 2002 book entitled - Its Your Ship, which I became aware of and read in very early 2004 (  It is one of a dozen books I keep at the ready as references in my data science and research role. 

As you know, every skill builds on each of the other skills, so even the smallest experiences can have ripples of success in future roles.  Because military people, especially officers and senior enlisted, not only have primary duties where we gain a really rich understanding from those collateral duties.  A collateral duty like serving on several courts-martial boards, or being called as a SME to the US Embassy in Tokoyo when stationed in Japan, etc.  
Yet, skills are never enough without bi-directional leadership. The kind of leadership that Capt Abrashoff demonstrated in his time on the USS Benfold. For me, leaders I valued, way back whose names are not known: Capt, MSC, USN (Ret) Tony Sebbio; LCDR, MSC, USN (Ret) Joe Young; LT, NC, USN (don't know her status) Pat White (Vietnam era Combat Nurse); HMCM, USN (Ret) Richard Fridley (CMC); HMCM, USN (Ret) Bart Fraker; HMCM (SW/AW/FMF), USN (Ret) Barry Mullen; Colonel, USMC, Robert Rackham; BMC (SEAL) USN (Ret - deceased) Henry Walsh. Each of them left an indelible positive mark!

So, I learned two very important things during my military career:

(1) You don't have to know everything, but you DO have to know how to research and find answers to anything.  Then be able homogenized and sensitize that information to derive and arrive at sustainable and meaningful solutions to complex problems!

(2) There in fact is an "I" in team. The eyes of every member of the team must look out for its , the Team's welfare up and down the chain of command!




Nate Szejniuk

HMC(SW/AW), USN (Ret), HM-8432/HM-8404