Three Questions to Support Learning in Post-Military Life

Three Questions to Support Learning in Post-Military Life
Commander of the 101st Airborne Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team conducts an after action review with soldiers. Army photo by Pfc. Joseph Friend

“Change is the end result of all true learning” – Leo Buscaglia

If there’s one thing that I know we did in the military, it’s learn. We learned how to do stuff. We learned how not to do stuff. There is stuff that we learned that we wish we didn’t know, and we learned that there was stuff that we wish we knew, but didn’t. Learning happened very deliberately, like in formal schooling or planned training. It also happened more subtly, under the shade tree or the hot, hot sun.

Learning doesn’t need to stop when we leave the military. On the contrary, we need to continue to learn in order to grow and be better versions of ourselves. Especially when life punches us in the face.

One of the tools that the Army used for learning was the good ol’ After Action Review. After many formal training events at all  levels, the troops were gathered around to do an AAR. Many times, it was a “check the block” kind of thing. Someone would ask for “three ups and three downs.” Three ups were three things that went right; three downs were three things that went wrong. It was supposed to be a balanced assessment, but, in true military fashion, we often talked about the “ups” for five minutes, and the “downs” for fifty minutes.

Now, I’m not saying that  you have to do an AAR for everything in your post-military life. “Okay, kids, let’s give mom three ups and three downs on that dinner we just ate.” Probably not a way to leave your boots at the door when you leave the service. But you can learn some lessons after big events in your life. Once you leave the military. After losing a loved one. Finishing school, transitioning to a new job, anything. There are lessons in the hard times, no one knows that better than a veteran. One way to look at this is to figure out three different things: what you learned from the situation, what you learned because of the situation, and what you learned in spite of the situation.

What Did You Learn FROM the situation?

Like the AAR, there are good and bad things from any situation in life. We can identify those things that we learned from something; when we lose someone close to us, what did they teach us about life? What did we learn from them that was positive? Either they taught it to us formally, or they taught it to us by modeling it. I remember my father, a Vietnam veteran, sitting down with me before I deployed to Iraq. I was married with two kids already, and he told me, “Talk to your wife. When you get back, tell her stuff, don’t keep it inside. That’s one of the reasons me and your mom didn’t work out.” It was a lesson I learned from him, and one that I didn’t (or haven’t) always applied well.

Same thing from your time in service. Or from a relationship that went bad. What did you learn from it, something positive? There had to be a reason you got with that guy or gal in the first place…you learned that you liked when they did this, or there was something good that they gave you. Remembering that, focusing on that, can be beneficial for future growth.

What Did You Learn BECAUSE of the situation?

These are the three downs. These are the hard life lessons that you took away from something difficult or challenging. Maybe this might only be that you learned that you had the ability to put up with a whole lot more than you thought you could, that your capacity to endure crap was greater than you imagined. Maybe you learned that you failed to see the warning signs in yourself, or someone else, before it was too late. Anyone I’ve spoken to about leadership in the Army said that they learned as much from, if not more from, those bad leaders they had. We learn how to be a better leader by NOT doing what they did, a positive to their negative. What we learn because of the situation can be just as important as what we learn from the situation.

What Did You Learn IN SPITE the situation?

These are the lessons that take a little longer to understand. This is what we learn that is separate from what it was intended that we learn. Despite someone’s best efforts, things just don’t get through, and despite their efforts to impede your progress, you still move forward. In spite of trauma, we learn growth. In spite of rejection, we learn connection. Even though we lose someone, we can get to the point where we remember them for the life they lived, rather than the ending that came. In spite of war, we learn peace, and despite anguish we learn joy. It’s the lessons that we learn that are seemingly opposite of what we experienced; and, in that, there is growth.

What have the hard situations in life taught  you? Taking the time to reflect on past hardship can drive future success, if you learn from it. We learn most from those we know, like, and trust, and if there is one group that veterans know, like, and trust, it’s other veterans. Share your thoughts with your fellow veterans in the comments.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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