Let them in and let them be real: A Veteran’s Story

bootsI didn’t pay too much attention to it in 10th grade, but in 11th grade I started to get stressed about it. People were making decisions, they were choosing paths, they claimed to know what they wanted to be when they grew up. I was skeptical and confused. And stressed.

Did they really know what they wanted to do? How did they figure that out, how did they know?

I had no idea.

I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know what I was good at and there just was not anything in the way of a “job” that really appealed to me. And then a dude came to our high school. A Marine recruiter came and talked to some of us one day and he was just an amazing human being. He had that uniform on and that haircut on and he was a serious individual. I just had not seen anyone that carried themselves that way, that talked that way.

After high school, I attended college briefly because I thought there was still a chance that I might play professional football…shortly after my first and only season of college football I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

On August 3rd of 1987 I stepped off of a bus in San Diego, California to start boot camp…and it was not very long before I was really wondering about what I had gotten myself into. There were really angry drill instructors in my face screaming and shouting and I didn’t know what they were so angry about and I could not even understand what they were saying. It is hard to do what someone is telling you to do when you cannot understand what they are telling you to do.

I figured it out.

I figured it out and I survived boot camp. I graduated as a squad leader and was promoted. Then I went to North Carolina for Infantry Training. Then I went to Virginia for Security Forces Training. Then I got my first assignment and spent a year in Keflavik, Iceland (didn’t see that coming!). I went from Iceland to 29 Palms, California. I got promoted. I got promoted again. Then Bridgeport, California for mountain warfare training and assault climber training. Then Thailand. Then I was off to Army Ranger School, then Okinawa, Japan and then Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and back to California.

It was quite a ride.

I came very close to staying in, but near the end of my enlistment decided to give civilian life another try and at least pick up a college degree. The United States Marine Corps taught me a great many things, including what I was capable of. I had no idea. No. Idea.

You probably have no idea what you are actually capable of either. How can you know that you can rappel down the side of a mountain or out of the ass-end of a helicopter without doing it? How can you know how long you can go without sleep or without food, how can you know that you can march 10 or 20 miles with 60 pounds of gear on your back until you have to actually do it? The Marine Corps put me in challenging situations that taught me much about myself. I got to do a lot of stuff that “normal folks” do not ever get to do.

Throwing grenades is kind of fun.

I was fortunate. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but I loved the Marine Corps. It was an incredibly valuable experience for me, I am confident that there was nothing else I could have done with those four years that would have been more valuable to me. It changed me, it was a transformative experience.

My military experience is mine, other folks have their own experiences. I do not want to make a bunch of blanket statements about people that have served; we are as diverse as any social group. But I am comfortable saying that folks coming out of the military have been exposed to some things that most of the folks in your workforce have not. And because of that they can bring new language, different approaches, and fresh perspectives to the work that your organization does.

In addition to their individual talents, knowledge and ethics they can bring additional diversity and novelty into your organization. You just have to let them in.

And let them be real.



Raised on a family farm in Iowa, Joe Gerstandt has that certain kind of sensibility you can’t help but notice. His unique approach to speaking, extensive community involvement, and personal experiences illustrate Joe’s passion for reaching out to and relating to people. Listen to Joe speak, and you’ll see that he draws from his days as a United States Marine and Gulf War Veteran and his insightful time in sales.

Prior to becoming a celebrated one-man institute, Joe held positions as the Program Director of Education for the Nebraska AIDS Project and the Director of Diversity for Alegent Health.  He has served on the Board of Directors for Catholic Charities, the Young Professionals Council, and Midlands Community Planning Group.  Additionally, Joe has worked with several organizations including Big Brothers, Big Sisters, the National Conference for Community and Justice, and Boys and Girls Club.

Follow Joe on Twitter – @JoeGerstandt

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