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Veteran Imposter Syndrome
If you don't know, now you know
Stop downplaying your service.
I reflected about a lot this past Memorial Day.
I remembered my four years of service.
I thought about the cumulative generations of my fellow veteran’s service.
I also meditated about the nature of reflection (coming soon).
As I put pen to paper, I realized that I have now been out of the Army for as long as I was in it (horrifying).
It’s not particularly novel, but I do think it’s underreported and deserves any platform it can get.
Basically every veteran you know downplays their service.
Even if they were (or are) the most badass, ruthless, insane Jonny Kim-esque military superhero.
In fact, the downplaying is often more true the more incredible their experiences.
Veterans have internalized that every victory is the result of the group and every failure is the result of their leadership (even when it clearly isn’t).
It’s also a peculiarity that the better you get at your job, the more of a quiet professional you tend to become. It is, of course, not limited to elite units and anyone who aspires to become Tier 1 operator (even just quietly in their mind) tends to embody that attitude wholesale.
It’s an immensely humble act to live this way for an entire career of service and it is pretty much the standard to emulate inside the military (although truthfully achievement still gets communicated internally because veterans wear their resume on their chest at formal functions).
Vets take this mindset of silent competence with them long after they leave the service.
And over time it sometimes turns into feeling like they didn’t do enough.
Usually the mental gymnastics go something like this.
While serving, they do 10 incredible things. Then something unlucky happens like a deployment calendar changes last minute and they don’t do ONE thing they had intended to accomplish. Now the veteran will use that one thing as a reason for them “not really having earned” the right to feel like they did a good job while in the military.
It drives me crazy because I thought like this for years.
I was embarrassed because I felt like I failed.
I went to Ranger School.
I passed my initial fitness test.
Except on the last mile of the run my shoe slipped into a deep pothole and I sprawled out on the pavement.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my foot was broken.
And I wasn’t going to quit.
So I continued through the week. Event after event. Passing everything.
Until eventually on the Land Navigation course a Ranger Instructor noticed me trying to hide a limp.
I got dropped from the course.
I fought to go back and was denied.
And my time in the Army rolled along.
Of course, if I HAD gotten my Ranger Tab this essay would be saying I wasn’t a REAL Ranger because I wasn’t in Ranger Battalion and if I had served in Ranger Batt I would be saying I wasn’t part of the MOST elite unit in Batt and so on in a everlasting chain of minimization.
So for most of my career I anchored on this single thing and felt like I wasn’t REALLY a good Infantry officer, despite the fact that all my evaluations, de facto promotions, qualitative feedback, and performance reviews through a year of training, a year as an Aide to a Battalion Commander, a 9 month deployment to Kuwait and Afghanistan with the platoon I led, and over a year teaching leadership at the Army's Officer Candidate School always put me squarely in the top decile of my peers.
Even now this feels like uncomfortable, egoistic bragging when it’s just straight facts.
Any time a vet accomplishes something we move the goalposts for themselves the instant we achieve it. That’s what makes us incredibly competent in our organizations (both in and out of the military), but it’s shit for our mental health.
And on the practical side of things, this creates a huge PR gap between veterans and civilians as civilians have zero awareness of this dynamic.
In contrast, fellow veterans tend to understand what’s “left unsaid” whenever someone talks about their service and always mentally redenominate their perception accordingly.
Things like “Oh I was in Syria in 2018” sound banal, but in actuality could mean they fought off 500 Russian-supported Syrian extremists during a multi-hour firefight.
(Seriously, read this if you have some spare time today)
This is a rampant phenomenon.
To further underscore my point, I’ve collected a few Minimizations + the Reality from fellow veterans describing things they have actively understated in life, conversations, and job interviews!
“I was in Iraq in 2016, but I stayed on the U.S. base the whole time so I wasn’t really in danger”
“I worked with radios”
This completely glosses over the training involved for Scouts at the Army Reconnaissance Course learning how to build radio antenna’s in the middle of the woods to bounce off the ionosphere (here’s 269 pages of how the hell that works) and ensure constant communication across units in the harshest of conditions
“Well I didn’t really deploy because I just went to Sub-Saharan Africa”
While in reality he managed crucial humanitarian support mission to fight against an Ebola outbreak (which is frankly much scarier than half the stuff I did in Afghanistan)
“I have some cross-functional team experience”
This phrasing masks a number of things, but this particular omission is referring to “live fire” (boom) planning where one resource-less junior officer has to physically (no one answers their phone) coordinate with 10+ separate entities around a base, without a messaging app, where nobody has the ability or desire to talk with each other, no cares about what you’re trying to do, or really cares that you exist on this metaphysical plane
“Oh I was stationed in Europe and did some work with Allied Nations”
Of course this work was actually building transnational partnerships and training flashpoint country militaries like oh by the way UKRAINE which directly and indirectly prepared units for the war they’re now actively fighting
And the list goes on and on.
If you’re a civilian, listen for these minimizing cues and ask for the rest of the story.
Vets generally do want to share more, they just feel weird about it and don’t want to “brag” about their experience (especially when they might’ve attempted to before and no one really understood what the hell they were talking about because their life experience is so unbelievably different).
If you’re a veteran - please send me an example of something you’ve downplayed and I’ll add it (anonymously) to this essay.
I hope this eventually becomes the longest post I ever write.
And that it serves as a reminder to all of us what service really means.
I hope this added value to your day.
Please share this with someone who might find this interesting!
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