Mary Beth Bruggeman: Diversity can be captured in a snapshot, in a photograph. But inclusion is all about finding that authenticity and bringing it fully to the table, and that is not an easy thing to achieve when you've built hundreds of years of culture around normalizing and equalizing people's character traits.
Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
In Episode 6, I sit down with Mary Beth Bruggeman, president of The MIssion Continues. The Mission Continues is a non-profit that helps veterans adjust to civilian life by empowering them to continue serving in their own communities. Mary Beth talks about leading that incredible organization, about the responsibility of teaching military leadership during wartime, and about her experiences as a leader and as a woman in the US Marine Corps.
Mary Beth Bruggeman, welcome to the show, it's an honor to have you on. You are of course president of The Mission Continues, a national nonprofit that empowers veterans to continue serving in their communities and to continue serving their country. You are former leadership instructor at the US Naval Academy, and perhaps most importantly, and impressively, a combat engineering officer in the US Marine Corps. It's great to have you on.
MBB: Thank you, wonderful to talk to you today.
KH: I want to ask about that transition, which you have described so passionately and eloquently in TED Talks and in other forms. And you describe that feeling of taking off the uniform when you left the Marine Corps as leaving an emptiness that swallowed you whole. Why was that? Why did that feeling come down so heavily on your shoulders?
MBB: Well, I think it was a lot of things, but you get into such an intense pace when you're on active duty. And even though I finished out my time in the Marine Corps with four years at the Naval Academy, which sounds like a non combat tour, and it was a non combat tour, but it was probably my most intense tour of my time. And midshipmen are... You're sort of involved with them and leading them all the time, seven days a week. They're extremely creative young people, so they find very inventive ways to do wonderful things and get in a lot of trouble on weekends. So, I found myself just constantly engaged in leading them and wanting so much to be a part of their lives. And to finish out my time in the Marine Corps on that note, with such heavy engagement, such heavy involvement, and feeling so much like I was constantly needed. I always had people walking into my office and asking for my advice, needing my leadership. And on my last day on active duty, it just immediately ended, and it was like a cliff. I shut my phone off for the first time in three years, and it was this immediate feeling of being disconnected from the intensity, and from the need, and that ability to lead people. And realizing that, I mean, just to put it plainly, nobody was going to call me. That was a really difficult thing to process for me, and it led to years actually. It took me a long time to find that again. And even through motherhood and raising three kids and... I left the workforce for some time to be a stay at home mom while my husband deployed and was a commanding officer. It was really challenging not to have that feeling again of people needing my leadership.
KH: I want to talk about how you regained that sense of purpose, and that sense of belonging, and that sense of being needed. But I want to expose subtext to your description of teaching leadership at the US Naval Academy, which is that you were doing it during wartime, and undoubtedly you had students that you were preparing to go into battle, what was that like, and how did you think about that burden as their leadership mentor?
MBB: Well, it was hard. I went back to the Naval Academy in 2003. I graduated in '99. When I went back, I was the only officer, much less Marine, who was in the dormitories who was really directly leading the midshipmen who had been to Iraq. So it was that soon after the initial invasion and the initial deployment that I went back to the Naval Academy. And while most people that go back to lead there go through a one year master's degree program, I skipped that because they wanted to get me into direct contact with the midshipman to start imparting some of these lessons that I had learned during my time as a marine and my time in Iraq. So not only was it not long after I had graduated really, four years down the line. There was just enough separation though that I remembered exactly what it felt like to be a midshipman, and to be young, and to be enjoying my time at the Naval Academy, and yes, focused on graduation. But in '99, I certainly wasn't focused on graduating into a world at war, because I didn't. I graduated into a peacetime Marine Corps. And so, we also focused on friendships, and we had a great time. It wasn't all about that, but I just remember being preoccupied with that when I was 20. So coming back to the Naval Academy and wanting so earnestly for the midshipman to take this seriously, and feeling like they needed to take it seriously in a different way than I had. And trying to figure out how to help that click for them, that this is no joke. You're all immediately going to deploy, and you're probably going to deploy over and over again. And you are leaving this institution with very little time in between before you're standing in front of 30, 50 men and women who are looking to you to know what to do in really challenging, complex and dangerous situations. And so, have fun, enjoy your time connecting with people and building these incredible relationships that you do while you're at the Naval Academy. But take these little things that you think are so mundane, you got to take them seriously. When we ask you to keep your rooms clean, it's not because we actually care whether or not you keep your room clean, it's all about discipline and this discipline means something. And trying to figure out how to help young people understand how serious and how real and heavy this is was sometimes very stressful and sometimes just frustrating. I mean, remembering, I know they need to have fun, but guys, this is serious!
KH: Did the gravity of your responsibility there affect the difficulty you experienced in transitioning to what I think most people would call a normal life when you took off the uniform and had to find your way in the civilian world after the enormous weight of that responsibility you bore?
MBB: Definitely. It felt like such important work. It felt like such purposeful and meaningful work and it felt like I had real responsibility and that I was needed. And really instantly, after taking my uniform off for the last time, I no longer felt that way. I felt like I was just immediately disconnected from that purpose and from the weight of that role. Some people might feel some freedom in that, I didn't, not even for a moment. I mean, I just immediately felt a loss.
KH: But your time in the military wasn't all rosy. I mean, there were some real difficult learning moments, there were some heartache. Can you share your experience of convincing yourself that you had to be someone other than who you were in order to be an effective leader?
MBB: Yea, I had a- generally speaking, an overwhelmingly positive experience in the Marine Corps, but I was also a woman in the Marine Corps, in the combat engineer specialty, at a time when the whole Marine Corps was only made up of, is still only made up of 8% women. And so, now reduce that significantly for the number of women who were in my field. My first experience and leadership was leading 35 men in a platoon, no women, only 35 men, many of whom had never been led by a woman before. And frankly, many of whom who would tell you vocally had no interest in being led by a woman, and that's the Marine Corps that I entered into. And while I loved and still love the Marine Corps, and always will consider myself to be a Marine in every sense, it wasn't easy being a woman during that time, I think it has changed some, but it hasn't changed enough to my liking. And it's a burden to be a woman in that environment where it's so heavily male dominated and there really is only one expectation or understanding of what leadership should look like, and it's square jawed, and it's male, and it's a certain personality type, and it's a certain leadership style. And if you don't come in with those traits innately, you have to conform to them, at least that's how it felt, in order to be recognized and rewarded. I wanted very much to be a good Marine, so I worked hard to be a good Marine. I worked hard to be a good leader for my Marines. At the time, that felt to me like I needed to be more like the men that were around me, so I tried. I suppressed the things that I think were a little bit more natural in my character that had they been allowed to flourish would have been much more valuable in the end to my Marines as a leader than what I manufactured and brought to the table. And I became someone over the course of time that I didn't know very well anymore. And so, when I transitioned out of the Marine Corps, I just had this long process ahead of me of trying to strip that down. You think of it as layers of body armor that you start layering on and wearing. And they not only cover up who you are, but they're also physically heavy and they push down on you. I even had an experience a couple weeks ago where I felt again like it was just somebody putting their hand on the top of your head and pressing down all the time. And to try to lift that and strip off these layers of body armor one at a time, it's exhausting. It's liberating, but it's a skill. It takes time and I think you need help doing it, and that's something that I just want to help other women get through.
KH: You describe the end result of that process beautifully as arriving at your authentic true self. I'm also curious about how you reconcile the beauty of that, of being yourself, and bringing to bear all of the attributes that you have as a teammate, as a leader, with the need in an organization like the Marine Corps for a cohesive culture. I mean, can we put the lie to this notion that you need to conform in order to bolster unit culture?
MBB: Yeah, this is a really tough one. Again, this sort of ties back to the thing that I felt the pressure again just a few weeks ago… Each year, the commandant of the Marine Corps releases a six or seven minute long video. It's a marketing video, but it plays at the Marine Corps Ball that is celebrated on or around November 10th, anywhere where Marines gather around the world. It's a really motivating, exciting message that brings Marines together and is meant to represent the best of the Marine Corps and remind Marines of what they love so much about being a Marine and to celebrate our history, and our traditions, and all of that. It's wonderful. I mean, Marines, whether they're actively serving or not, typically gather around this video every year and watch it with delight and excitement. And I watched it this year and realized that women were just tremendously underrepresented in a way that was devastating to me when I first saw it. Again, my face just fell when I saw this video and realized that, not only were there no female voices in the video, and there were a number of speakers throughout - it was a seven and a half minute long video. It was narrated entirely, none by women. I saw less than five female faces, and that's of the hundreds of people, the hundreds of Marines that were shown in the video, and that was really hard to see. That was just this realization again, that we still don't understand what... Even something as simple, and it is seemingly simple, as representation means to someone like me. When you fight so hard and you work so hard to be accepted and to be part of a group, and then to watch something like that and feel like, "That wasn't for me, that wasn't made for me. I'm not included in that video." And I have fought just as hard as my male brothers to my left and right, and I was in Iraq, and I was a part of this. I helped to pave the way, I thought, for women after me and you hope to be making progress. And there's still not any consciousness around the importance of diversity, and that's diversity. And I separate that from your initial question, which is inclusion, and thinking about how people can actually be their authentic selves, which is much deeper and a whole different discussion. Diversity can be captured in a snapshot, in a photograph. But inclusion is all about finding that authenticity and bringing it fully to the table, and that is not an easy thing to achieve when you've built hundreds of years of culture around normalizing and equalizing people's character traits. Generally in the military, we have people who come from really diverse backgrounds, and they come into this tremendous melting pot where everybody is now equal. Expectations are the same, standards are the same, as long as you can meet that standard. What we hear all the time is this constant in the Marine Corps, "I don't care if you're Black or White. I don't care if you're a man or a woman. You're all the same now. You're all green, you're all Marines." I mean, at the very base, I get why we say that, and I understand how important it is to be that cohesive unit that you described. And I also know the damage that does, not only to the strength of your organization. I mean, when you actually tell people, "I don't care what your individual traits are that you bring to the table, I want you all to realize you're all the same," There's real damage in that. I think our world has come so far, and our country has come so far in recognizing how important it is to be inclusive and the Marine Corps behind on this. They are. They're just a little further behind, and it's disappointing, and I know that they will catch up, and see the strengthen in inclusion, and see the strength in diversity, and what a diverse team really can do to strengthen an organization, but they definitely have not caught on to that yet.
KH: I'm wondering how you respond to the argument that, unless the first woman or the highest ranking woman in a role, or for that matter, African-American or transgender person, is perfect in the job, that they're going to ruin it for everyone who follows. How do we challenge this, I think intentionally cynical, argument from some quarters that we shouldn't make room for diversity unless it is idealized?
MBB: I mean, look, there are mountains of data around when a shift takes place in an organization, and it hovers around that 30% representation mark, so some of this is sheerly in the numbers. When you have one person and we're riding on that one woman to get to the top and to be perfect so that we can all idealize her and idolize her, and she's got to make it there, and she's got to make it there without making any mistakes, we can never be successful. But if there's strength and some saturation in numbers, then it doesn't all fall on one person. I pity the one person that has all that pressure because not only is that really challenging and not anybody's cross to bear. You could easily say that I quit this one. I left the Marine Corps after eight years when I was considered a good Marine. I was doing well and maybe I should have stayed in to provide that leadership, but I also know that I had to make an individual choice for me, so does everybody. So to get past that, having to be one person's burden, strength in numbers. That's where this really important piece around representation comes in. If you don't have representation, then I don't think you ever achieve any level of equity.
KH: Can you share an example in which the consideration of diversity has actually strengthened culture, has actually strengthened a team, a case where someone by not conforming has advanced the mission?
MBB: Oh, definitely. And in fact, I've got one that's top of mind. I was in St. Louis just this past weekend for a program event with The Mission Continues, and we brought together veterans who are going through a program with us, it's called our Service Leadership Corps. The Service Leadership Corps is a six-month long program where veterans come together four times during those six months to better build skills around community-based leadership. So they're all going home to their communities and leading in some way through some of our toughest community challenges. And they come to us for the skills, they come to us for the experience and the training that they need to do that well, and we challenge them significantly during this time. We have this incredibly diverse group of people who come together. Again, they're representative of what you see in the military, so we have a high representation of African-American veterans, Hispanic veterans, LGBTQ veterans. Over represented with women, it's about 40% actually.
And we bring them together into a group that looks a lot like what the military looked like. But we also encourage them and train them and help them build skills around using and recognizing their own authentic voices. We found this past weekend that we had a long discussion around cultural bias. We were working specifically in the neighborhood of Ferguson outside of St. Louis, which many people know from how its portrayed in the news and where the riots were years ago and the racial tension that exists around St. Louis, and we were asking them to challenge their own bias about this community. And watching them share their own authentic stories, openly share their bias, and openly share their everything that makes them different and unique bringing to the team, it strengthened every single person in that room. So the ability to be really open, and really authentic, and trust each other's differences, and learn from each other's differences, allowed everyone in that room to elevate to the next level of competence around trying to solve some really challenging issues. Having people be able to say, "This is something that I've really been challenged with, I don't understand why we all have to be so sensitive around women. Why have we gotten to this place where we're all so oversensitive about things?" And then having a woman veteran stand up in the room and say, "Well, this is why, and this is how it's affected me when people talk about women in a certain way." And to have an African-American veteran stand up and say, "Well, this is how your comments about neighborhoods like Ferguson affect me." And to have that civil discourse in a room where people are feeling really free to be themselves and to bring everything that's in their experience to the table to strengthen the group is really, really exciting.
KH: It sounds like there was even an allowance for and freedom given to the skeptics to register their doubts about this and their doubts were allayed when they were given that chance to have a conversation with somebody who had a perspective that they couldn't possibly have.
MBB: Well, that's the beauty of it. Now zoom out from that to our country and how divided we are in every possible way in our country right now. Imagine what could happen if we had some unifiers, if we had places where we were finding agreement and working through... I mean, we were really open about the places where, "Well, I don't agree with you, and here's why." And if you could actually sit down and have a conversation with someone that you had some trust and faith in, the way by the way we do in our veterans in this country, then just imagine what we can accomplish if we were all able to have that kind of open conversation about recognizing differences and bringing forth the places where we disagree. Perhaps you end at the end of that still disagreeing, but with a much elevated level of respect for the other person and the other side.
KH: It sounds like there's an ulterior motive at The Mission Continues. Obviously, you're giving veterans who have taken off the uniform a chance to reengage and to feel that sense of purpose and belonging again. But there's a reason you're not giving them that opportunity one at a time. There's some real significance to the team element.
MBB: Sure. Well, we have what we call service platoons. So these are team-based groups of veterans and non veterans, so veterans and community members in 56 cities across the country, and they are working year round to create service experience and service projects in some of our most under-resourced neighborhoods and communities, and it is very intentional that they do this in teams. It's a way of recapturing that feel that you belong somewhere, that feeling that you belong in a unit again that is so familiar to our military. This is your new unit patch. I mean, this is your identifier and this is what brings you together into something new and it's not just veterans. Your new identity is you connected with community. They're wearing the same blue shirts with the same shield and what identifies you as a veteran is what you bring to the table, But you're joining a new unit that includes all the people out there that have some passion for continued service.
KH: And how many veterans have gone through the service platoon program to date?
MBB: We've trained several hundred leaders of those platoons, but we activate about 25,000 veterans and community members, veterans and non-veterans, in service every year through those service platoon experiences, through the service projects. So, we're investing deeply in the leaders of those service platoons, and in the program I talked about, the Service Leadership Corps. And then they're going home and they are becoming these points of light and starting a movement of veterans and non-veterans who are coming together to find places where they can agree, and they're doing it in service projects on the ground in some of the communities that need the most.
KH: What's the significance of including the non-veteran in that experience, in those platoons? Why does that matter to you?
MBB: Well, that's part again of expanding this identity. So you come out of the military and so many veterans transition out of the military and have a Rolodex full of friends and neighbors, all of whom are veterans. Their identity is so wrapped up in being a veteran or being a soldier, a Marine, or a sailor, or an airman, that now the transition out of the military is that much more challenging. I mean, we're all taking that uniform off eventually, so you will be a civilian again. And if you can't find that new identity as a civilian and some continued social connection as a civilian, you go into that danger territory of being much more at risk for mental illnesses and social isolation that can lead to so many different challenges. So our goal is to ensure that people stay connected, and to start to break down that separation that we have currently in this country with 1% of our country serving on active duty, there is a divide. Again, I think if we can reach across aisles and across all of our differences on the ground, this is a place where we can agree, and it's a place where we can find some connection to somebody that isn't like us and doesn't have the same experience.
KH: I'm sure you have seen examples of that born out of a service platoon or an individual veteran through the act of serving again, making a real connection with a civilian or community and helping to bridge that gap. Is there one that stands out in particular?
MBB: There are so many, and this is what's so gratifying about this work, is you just need to hear one of these stories every now and again to be reminded exactly why we do this. Fortunately, we've got thousands of them out there. I get excited about a lot of these folks, but I've got an example in a veteran named Derrick Clark who grew up in a community in Pittsburgh called Homewood. Derrick is African-American, and he grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Homewood that is poverty stricken, that really suffered in the drug crisis of the 1990s. He joined the military and served honorably for his years that he was in. And then when he went home towards the end of his time when he was getting ready to transition, Derrick realized, "I have a passion to continue this service, but it's not Afghanistan or Iraq that need me now. I'm going home to Pittsburgh." And so he did. He went right back home and he went right back home to Homewood and connected... It was not easy, first of all. He felt initially like so many people describe, like I've described. He felt really disconnected from his tribe, from his unit. Took some time to figure out where he could fit in and belong again and felt that loss of not having a place to repurpose his service. And it led him to depression, it led him to suicidal ideations, it led him to a number of different challenges that brought him right back to some of the issues he had during his childhood and what he grew up with. It was when he found The Mission Continues that he had an opportunity to once again feel like he had some power to change things. He joined a service platoon in Pittsburgh that was working in his hometown neighborhood of Homewood. The ability for him to be back in Homewood in a way where he was now providing an example of not just leadership, but now he's providing an example of an African-American leader. So where he grew up celebrating Black History Month, and that was widely celebrated in the schools that he went to, and the young kids in Homewood grow up studying leaders like Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman. And now Derrick Clark comes home and he's someone else that they can look up to and say, it's not just Martin Luther King and icons of our past, but in fact, we've got real leaders from this community who have done incredible things and are coming home to provide this example and helping us see that this is what a veteran looks like, and that's not so far away from what I could be because he was me. And so, that's a very personal point of connection. This was Derrick going home to Homewood, to a community that he could connect to. But if you expand that out to thousands of veterans coming home and going home to communities like Homewood and providing that example again, now you start to think of it as a movement that can gain some steam and an idea that I think is really exciting.
KH: It's clear to me that everyone at The Mission Continues is animated by this ethic of service, and part of that is perhaps selection bias. You're pulling from the ranks of veterans out there looking for an opportunity to continue serving. But do you think there is a way to translate this ethic of service that you have rekindled in these veterans and make it catch fire across the country? You alluded earlier to the division writ large in our country and I think that service might be a way to address that, but is that unrealistic?
MBB: I hope not. That's the big idea, so I don't think so. I mean, there's a couple things that work in our favor here. One is the fact that, again, veterans are really powerful lovers of social change right now. So, when you put a veteran at the forefront, at the face of a movement, it does tend to get more traction, whether that is advocating on behalf of national parks or advocating for something as polarizing as gun safety, or advocating for community leadership, or advocating for national service. Veterans are community members, we care about all sorts of different things. We're not these binary robots that care only about certain things that we might be pigeonholed into. So when you put a veteran at the face of that, I think you have an opportunity to create change right now in this window in our country, in a way that we haven't in the past. But I also know that we have to be careful that something like national service is not politicized. It already has been, it's probably too late. But we got to figure out a way to break down that wall where this has to be something that people from every side of every argument can get behind, but you have to tell the story in a different way. For some people, the hook might be a really altruistic belief that we can make our country better. But to believe that we can really make our country better, and that national service will be fulfilling and give back a sense of purpose and social connection. There's another argument that can be made that this is a really smart economic play for our country. There's work that needs to be done. We have young people who will benefit from being a part of that transformation in our country, whether we're talking about infrastructure, whether we're talking about education. I mean, there's so many places where we really need people doing some big transformative work in this country. So, I think we can marry those two arguments, which might sound like they come from different sides of an aisle or a idea space. But whatever the reason is, let's come together around the basic premise that asking people and giving people even an opportunity, whether it's mandatory or not, but giving people an opportunity to serve where they have energy to do that and making sure those opportunities exist and are impactful, I think it could save us.
KH: I know you've got to be really careful in answering a question like this because you're the president of a nonpartisan nonprofit. But there is an unavoidable political message in the way you talk about service and the way you talk about shared sacrifice and the importance of service and citizenship. I've heard you talk about the patriotism of immigrants all wrapped up in this larger ethic of surface. I can't help but ask you about the political throughline of the way you talk about The Mission Continues.
MBB: Well, I'm definitely leading an organization that works very hard to be nonpartisan, because we are leading a diverse group of veterans who are on every side of the political spectrum. So I have a responsibility to represent those veterans, but I also have a responsibility to go beyond representing them into leading them, and where we as an organization have a vision for how this country could be stronger. We are working hard not to further polarize any issues and be a part of really partisan issues. But I do think there's some basics of things that we believe can strengthen our country that we can get behind, that regardless of what side of the aisle you're on, that we can find a way to talk about it in a fashion that is not polarizing and that brings people together. My hope is that veterans being a part of those conversations, again veterans being these trusted agents who are often seen as being unifiers and trusted as being nonpartisan, and whether they are or not, again, this is a real benefit that I think veterans have today, is that we have this elevated level of trust that we're not coming in with an ulterior motive, that we are coming in with truly this belief that we can put country over party, that we can work to make this country better without any expectation of reward for ourselves or for our particular identity group. So I'm riding on that. As an organization, we're going to keep moving forward. We're not going to go backwards in this country and where we see an opportunity to align around the best ideals of country and citizenship. That's what we're seeking to do.
KH: Love it. We always end with the same question, what is the biggest, bravest decision that you have ever been a part of?
MBB: Well, I will set aside I think the obvious answer to this, which is marriage and childbirth, because you can't go back from that and you have to go into it with just a 1,000% total commitment. But also, leading a nonprofit like The Mission Continues and being part of this leadership team for several years now. This is not only a big idea, but it is a scary idea in today's world that we believe that veterans can be a part of such incredible transformational and systemic change in this country. And you can't do that halfway. So we're an organization at a size now where we're barreling down on a certain path, and we're on it, and we're really hyper committed to it. It has to be that way because if you waver in your conviction that this is an idea that will work, and that this is something that is going to play out for the positive benefit of this country, and that we're going to be an enduring institution that's here for a long time. There's no time, there's no energy, there's no opportunity to shift course on that. And while we will always make decisions that keep us entrepreneurial and hungry to be better and smarter, we're on a path and we're in search of this really big idea and this really big vision. And again, you just don't get to something like that if your commitment is shaken in any way, so we're 100% committed to it. We know it's a positive good thing that we're doing, and we know it's exciting for this country, and we're marching towards it.
KH: Well, thank you, Mary Beth, for your leadership of The Mission Continues, for the example that you have set for so many veterans taking off the uniform. It's been great having you.
MBB: Thanks, Ken. It was great talking to you.
KH: Thanks again to Mary Beth Bruggeman for joining me. Her TED Talk is linked in the episode description below. Next week, I’m talking to Bill Kristol, longtime conservative commentator, about his vocal criticism of Donald Trump. Bill and I talk about the importance of having two responsible political parties to balance one another and we want to hear from you. What do you think is the biggest obstacle our country faces to achieving that balance? Leave us a message at 216-245-5421 or send a voice memo to [email protected].
Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Our theme music is Climbing to Greatness by Cody Martin.
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I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcasts about big decisions.