Mind the gap!

Breaking the mold of veterans

Traditionally, November 11 is a day of gratitude and/or commemoration, depending on where you grew up in the world. In the United States, we remember wars fought; we also acknowledge men and women who served. Because of the nature of the military experience, there is often a certain stigma associated with being a veteran and, as a result, barriers are created which prevents open communication. I was curious about this “invisible wall”, so I discussed it with a few Sloanies to better understand it. This blog post is a maladroit attempt at bringing down barriers simply by starting a conversation between Sloanies who served and those of us who didn’t.


Perception is reality

What did you think of veterans before joining MIT Sloan? Most of us had never interacted with them but had some expectations or perception of what they would be like. Being a veteran can come with a less than flattering label: strict, overly patriotic, aggressive, rigid, boisterous, gun-wielding, obedient, sexist, homophobic, meathead, insensitive to other cultures, … Do you recognize our Sloanie veterans in these words? I don’t. In fact, they are genuinely kind, quietly confident, competent, and attentive people.

Yet there is still an invisible wall. We (non-veteran folks) often find it difficult to figure out if it is okay to ask about deployments and about time in the military in general. There is an apprehension that if we say anything, we will offend, or that it will trigger some deep, dark memory. The common default is to just say nothing. But their experience in the military is certainly a big part of what they bring to Sloan. Even though we may be interested in knowing more, we shy away from conversations and miss on extraordinary opportunities to learn and to connect.


Fitting in

Imagine an environment where your daily life is regulated by a well-defined code, from clothing and haircut, to communication style, and to language; an environment where feedback is constant, blunt, and concise; where you can sometimes lead and care for hundreds of troops, or forge long-lasting bonds with villagers in a foreign country; a place where stress is part of your daily life, where you work continuously for 20+ hours, for weeks or months at a time, away from home with little to no communication with the outside world. There is no doubt that leaving this lifestyle and jumping into “business school mode” just a few short weeks later is challenging; the transition to Sloan is quite abrupt.

We, non-veteran Sloanies, intuitively recognize the value of (and the skill set required for) leadership experience in the military; a sort of pragmatic, lead-from-the-front style – in crisis management in particular. It might come as a surprise then that one of the major obstacles veterans anticipate prior to starting school is actually being perceived as one-dimensional people. In other words, veterans anticipate being easily cast as “the vet student”, and fear that they may have little to offer to the classroom experience. On the flip side, the hope when starting school is simply to find a new environment where they fit in, and to be regarded as an equal even though they happen to have a less traditional professional background. Just like other Sloanies, veterans joined the MBA program to do something new, creative, personally and intellectually challenging. Well, that and to get a new job!


A two-way street of awkwardness

Let’s not be coy. Non-veterans are apprehensive to ask anything about deployment, and time in the military because they fear they might trigger some deep and dark memory, offend, or even broach a topic of national security relevance. At the same time, veterans are apprehensive to share because they are worried about offending or being judged.  There is no question it is very challenging to talk about an intense experience. So what can we do about it?

Perhaps a general rule of thumb could be “it is okay to ask”. If you are a non-veteran Sloanie, and if you are genuinely curious about the military experience of a classmate and want to know more, don’t be shy. It is okay to ask.  Just like many other topics with other classmates, veterans will share what they are comfortable with.  They will be happy to do so, because they will be able to share their stories, and as a result be better able to relate to, and connect with the rest of the class.


Bridging the gap

How does our perception of veterans affect our interactions with them? There is little doubt people without military experience have a hard time relating to veterans. If you don’t know how to “ask the right question”, if you are curious but afraid to come across as ignorant (not everyone knows what an infantry officer is!), perhaps start by asking simple questions. What did you do on a daily basis? What was the food like? What was the experience like? What is a Marine? There are of course many ways to get to discover what it means to serve, from one-on-one interaction, to “Ask me anything” sessions (there should be one next Spring).

The gap is smaller than we think; we simply have to take a small first step towards one another. If we do not communicate however, a vacuum develops, filled with misunderstanding. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, I am thankful for being part of a diverse group of fantastic people (that’s you Sloanies!) with whom I can have rich conversations, even about sensitive topics. I also want to acknowledge the anonymous Sloanies (veterans, and non-veterans) who agreed to chat with me in preparation of this blogpost.

Matija Dreze

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