This year the 82nd Airborne Division is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The 82nd is a great unit, and I learned a lot while serving there. Lessons that have served me well over the years. For a three-week period, I am sharing the top three life lessons I learned while serving as an All-American paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division. Two weeks ago I wrote about the first lesson – leaders go out the door first. Last week I wrote about the second lesson – train until it hurts. Below you will find the third lesson.
In our country right now, there is a lot of discussion about diversity and division. Racial tensions are high. We are having a debate about our history. Who should we honor? How should our shared past be remembered? What about the Confederacy, and its leaders? What about the founding fathers? Can we have monuments to those who built our country without erasing the ugly parts of US history? How do we move forward without tearing the country apart? Great questions that do not have easy answers. Diversity is a tough and complicated topic. I do not pretend to have all the answers. I do understand diversity because I have seen a successful model before while serving in the 82d Airborne Division which is also known as the All American Division. It was constituted, originally as the 82nd Division 100 years ago, shortly after the US entered into World War I. Since its initial members came from all 48 states, the division acquired the nickname All-American, which is the basis for its famed “AA” shoulder patch that is pictured below.
When I arrived in 1991 it was still known as the All-American division because its members came from all parts of the US. We had paratroopers from every state, every US territory, various education levels, economic backgrounds, race, gender, creed, and religion. You name it and there was probably someone in the 82d that came from that background. You saw diversity in all parts of the division. I am not going to pretend that everything was perfect. Nostalgic perspectives are not helpful. We had our challenges, but somehow our diversity was not a stumbling block. Rather it was a strength. Everyone brought their best to accomplish the mission. It was an important phase of my life when I learned that people of very different backgrounds can work together successfully. When I reflect on that time I think there are three reasons why diversity was and is a force multiplier in the All-American division.
1. Leadership can be learned – the leaders in the 82d Airborne division come from all walks of life. The first battalion I served in, 1st Battalion of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, had officers from several sources. There were numerous West Point graduates, many ROTC officers, and prior enlisted soldiers who were commissioned through the Officer Candidate School. The diversity of our Non-Commissioned Officers was even greater. It did not matter much where you came from because leadership is not an inherent trait that only a few possess. There is not an elite segment of American society that provides leaders for the rest of us. No, our leaders come from all over the country. Leadership can be learned. I saw this first-hand in the 82d. I learned about leadership from numerous mentors and watched others learn and grow during their time in the division. We were taught important lessons like leaders set the example, and leaders go out the door first. Leadership lessons that stayed with me over the years. The good news is that any of us can learn to be an effective leader – no matter what you background. If you don’t believe me, then watch this short video.
2. Standards are standards – all US Army paratroopers are expected to meet stringent standards. No one gets any slack. When I say no one, I mean no one. Does not matter if you are enlisted, an NCO, or an officer. Does not matter if you are black, white, yellow, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Wiccan, male, or female. You either meet the standard, or you don’t. If you don’t, then you are sent away. It starts in Airborne school, continues with Jumpmaster school, and various other airborne training events you are required to complete in order to be a member of the All-American Division. These demanding standards cause an interesting effect. It builds trust. You trust everyone else on the plane during a jump because you know that they have what it takes to be a paratrooper. In case you are not familiar with what it takes to become a paratrooper – this video explains the training. It is old but still accurate.
Nowadays it seems like some people are always looking for shortcuts to success – hacks for life. I am a big fan of trying to figure out ways to improve my performance by working smart versus just working hard. Many experts can help teach you better ways of doing things. But, make sure you are not cutting corners to get around standards. They exist for a reason – to make sure you are proficient. You build trust with your team members, and demonstrate that you have what it takes.
3. Paratroopers bleed the same color – red, white and blue. I have served in other US Army units, and they just don’t have the same camaraderie as the All-American Division. It is a special place. My observation is that paratroopers understand that we all wear green uniforms, maroon berets, and bleed the same color. When I was at Fort Bragg, the community experienced several tragic events to include two planes colliding that resulted in the untimely death of numerous paratroopers in the 82d. I recall the sadness of that event and the heroic deeds of many during and after the accident. It was difficult days for the Division. Everyone came together in a special way to make it through. Nothing new for paratroopers – we have been doing this for over 100 years. The current Division Commander recently gave a speech about the unit that is well worth watching. It sums up what I said above. Paratroopers bleed the same color – red, white and blue. Airborne, All the Way!!