Overcoming Weakness: The Veteran Network

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In the 1998 action film Ronin, Robert De Niro and Jean Reno star as a couple of former intelligence officers hired into a team to track down a mysterious package that’s wanted by both Irish terrorists and the Russians. At a couple of points throughout the film, as De Niro’s character Sam and Reno’s character Vincent end up shooting up multiple French cities amidst high speed car chases, they each get a little help from seemingly uninvolved bystanders who turn out to be active intelligence agents from their respective former employers. When Sam gets help in Marseille from an apparent US intelligence officer and returns to the car, Vincent asks: “A friend of yours?” Sam says, “Yeah, we went to high school together.” At another point, Vincent gets a hand from a different bystander, and repeats the quote back to Sam.

Ronin came out when I was a freshman in college – so prior to, throughout my Army career and even after, I always thought that having an “alumni network” from my time as a Green Beret would be one of the lasting benefits of going through selection and the Q Course and from deploying on an ODA. I figured I’d get out and there’d be this preexisting group of dudes who all served and we’d help each other out professionally and maybe get drinks from time to time. On occasion, me and my civilian business associates might be in a tight spot – and from out of nowhere a bearded guy would drop in and say “I got you covered” and take off. Problem solved. My coworkers would ask “A friend of yours?” And I’d say “Yeah, we went to high school together.”

Man was I wrong.

Green Berets – and maybe even just Army veterans in general – struggle with networking. We have a blue collar mentality that pridefully insists on doing things the hard way – like not advancing yourself through your network but by the quality of your work and the reputation that comes with it. Culturally we hate touting our achievements and are distrustful of many who do. We’re terribly judgmental about each other and ourselves, and avoid associating with anyone considered a low performer, an outcast, or a spotlight-grabber. Add to all this the avoidance of internet publicity that comes with classified work, and you have an entire community that’s missed the wave of professional networking enabled by social media that the rest of the world had ridden for a decade. What I found when I got out were former Green Berets here and there, off on their own with only their loosely dispersed tiny groups of guys they served with – that they maybe kept in touch with.

This meant I had a significant part of my past and my community not represented in a network – and I knew that wasn’t right. Not long after got out of the Army I learned from a great teacher that much of the power of one’s network is found in the ability to connect two or more distinct, separate groups of people (I think it’s known as “associative power”). Near the end of grad school I looked at my network and found that I had a very small number of active Army contacts and a large number of graduating Supply Chain and Marketing grad students. My network wasn’t strong, but it should have been. I’d spent nearly a decade working all over the world in and around conflicts at the center of the world’s attention with some amazing people, and didn’t have much to show for it in my associations.

So I decided to fix that. I now have hundreds of not only Green Beret but other Special Operations Forces (SOF) and General Purpose Forces (GPF) associations that have made my network much more valuable and useful. Here’s how I did it.

1. First I took the data I had – the Green Berets I knew – and asked them if they knew any Green Berets in my area.

2. Next I combined that info with Green Berets I could find online – and with the help of some newfound civilian connections – got a bunch of them to gather at a bar downtown one night.

3. From there this group found that we have even more contacts in common just from discussing our backgrounds and work. At this point the new local network now looked like 10 strong connections (most of whom I’d gotten drinks with downtown) and 20 weak connections (mostly guys who couldn’t make it but with whom I had email and/or LinkedIn contact). 

4. From there the network grew very slowly just from staying in contact with these individuals and meeting their friends and associates – and this is often where the story ends for most of us. But eventually I met up with a few more former Green Berets who were strongly motivated to build up the community locally. One had the idea to start up a private Slack workspace so that we could all connect in a way that we were comfortable with. From this I got an idea of what this loose group of former GBs was looking for from a professional network – this included advice, industry connections, job leads and help interviewing or with resumes. The Slack workspace has probably rocketed our connections number up by an order of magnitude.

5. At the same time I reached out to the larger SOF veteran community and got involved with Elite Meet – a bunch of former SOF from all branches as well as fighter pilots – who were already doing this same thing on their own and even seeking 501(c)3 status and fundraising for in-person events where they got these transitioning veterans in front of executives that want to hire them. Elite Meet was providing things for Green Berets that the Green Beret community couldn’t – a massive improvement on the capability of our community.

6. The local NYC group of GB veterans decided we should formalize our thing – and so we submitted to the Special Forces Association’s national headquarters a proposal to start a Manhattan chapter, focused on professional networking.

7. The formalization and credibility that comes with it attracted more internal and external contacts – contacts with job leads and services that might be able to help former GBs on their own professional paths.

8. My NYC group is now helping repeat this strategy in Washington, DC.

This whole process was spread out over 4 years – but steps 4-8 mostly have taken place in the past 11 months. There are a few lessons learned that helped make the process work along the way:

Lesson 1: Find your G-Chiefs: Those “newfound civilian connections” – people that never served but who act as connections to their industries and professional contacts – have been absolutely critical to success. They bring a different perspective (both on GBs and what we believe our strengths are), lots of connections and knowledge we usually can’t find in our own community, and often a different type of personality than we’re used to. Here’s the non-obvious point about these folks: Like G-chiefs in both Pineland and other conflict zones, the best ones aren’t helping us out of a sense of duty or kindness per se – they’re involving us because they think we have something valuable to bring their own lives and careers.

Lesson 2: Formalization may be more important than you think. My new core group of GBs seemed to get more traction talking to new internal and external contacts once we could say that we were “SF Association Chapter 58 from NYC” and not just a few drinking buddies. Slapping on a name, a charter, a website and an Instagram account can do a lot to bring more people into the fold.

Lesson 3: Persistence Alone is Omnipotent. Around Step 3 I hosted a dinner-meetup event in Washington DC for 12 former GBs – and only 3 showed up (one of whom is actually one of our civilian connections). Most of the guys who couldn’t make it had last minute work or family obligations come up, but I was still surprised and a little demoralized. It’s tough getting a bunch of former GBs, now off on their own, to join up to do anything. But it took continuing to try to grow the network that got this group to a critical mass. 

American veterans our age make up a very, very small percentage of Americans in general, and we all know how few SOF folks there are in the military. But the strength and value of our shared experiences, training and culture provide us with huge benefits that in many ways are best realized as a loose group or network. The more we can create the bonds and associations we should have had, the better off all of us will be as individuals, leaders, and citizens.

This post first appeared in The Quartermaster Newsletter on 17 May 2019

Published by Brady

I work at enabling businesses with Data. I’m also a former US Army Infantry and Special Force Officer with service as a leader, operations officer, planner and advisor across Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa and South Asia. After leaving the Army in 2011 I earned my MBA at Penn State's Smeal College and worked as an IBM Cognitive Solutions Leader covering analytics and AI in national security. My interests include reading, the outdoors, running and food. I’m the Junior Vice Commander of VFW Post 2906 in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey and Cofounder of the Special Forces Association Chapter 58 in New York City.

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