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Our Veteran Story by SGM(R) Robert Lopez

Real commitment to an organization whose environment is filled with challenges, challenges and more challenges are what I think anyone who chooses a career in the military services faces and engages with on a daily basis. High levels of professionalism and morale, esprit de corps, mental and physical toughness and being ready to deploy to places unknown on a moment’s notice are realities that soldiers live with. Military life is not an easy one for the professional soldier and only someone who has dedicated a portion of their life to it understands what I mean, a place where substandard performance or failure are not acceptable terminology. Having served on active duty in the US Army during the 70s, 80s and 90s, primarily as Primary Staff NCO at battalion level, I experienced high energy atmospheres and demanding work environments. The total package of being a soldier, sergeant and eventually a Sergeant Major I think gave me all the tools necessary to succeed as a civilian. Those normal duty days which were seemingly always 12 hours or more and began with early rising, physical fitness and daily runs were routine to me and were something I enjoyed and took for granted. I sincerely believe that all this in the end prepared me with my transition with becoming a civilian. Throughout my career I always advocated for high levels of physical fitness and mental toughness and held my subordinates to account. This of course is not, I learned sometime later, is not at a similar level or even present in the civilian world. By my estimation that’s a “leg up” already when competing for jobs and presenting yourself to prospective employers during interviews. Physical presentation coupled with the courage and confidence to communicate your knowledge, experience and abilities are winners.

My assignments included Korea, Europe, Central America and the Middle East. I would like to say that my stateside assignments were in places other than just Texas but it was Fort Hood and Fort Bliss with Cav units that ended up doing it for me. I did of course also serve with other units including two Intelligence Battalions and an Intelligence Group, the III Armored Corps, VII Armored Corps, a Medical Department Activity, a Combat Signal Battalion, a Joint Service Defense Language Center and some others. Combat Arms divisions during my career included the 2nd Infantry division, 2nd Armored division, the 1st Cavalry division and the 3rd Armored Cavalry regiment. I truly believe that soldiers serving with any or all “go to war” units, are that much more mentally tough and adaptable simply because of the nature of the organizational mission. They experience a higher level of readiness and operations tempo that’s filled with both good and bad stress. The daily challenges faced daily in garrison, field and wartime environments are extremely demanding. 

It’s inevitable that those soldiers who have chosen to serve and lead such a demanding life must leave and undergo transition sooner or later. Some would say that in fact the biggest challenge of all is leaving it all behind and becoming a real live civilian. Such a change can be very eye opening as it was for me and not without a degree of high stress. As a Sergeant Major with status, respect and armed with total confidence I took the plunge to retire in lieu of accepting yet another overseas assignment. When I declined that assignment, I had six months until my separation and retirement. It was difficult for me to imagine myself as “Joe Nobody the Rag Man”. Kind of funny for sure, but true. So, what I can tell you is that what I experienced back when I retired in July 1995, is that I could have used so much more guidance and assistance from anyone who had successfully gone before me. Unfortunately for me that was not the case and the US Army was in my opinion not entirely prepared to offer that kind of assistance to departing soldiers. My advisement came in the form of an interview that I believe hampered me rather than helped with someone who basically emphasized to me that I would have to change my attitude, that I was not a Sergeant Major any longer and that I would have to expect to start at the bottom echelons of any civilian organization that I aspired to be part of. Of course, I threw that bit of advice away and went about what I thought would work for me and who I was.

I can honestly say that the most difficult experience for me during that period was dealing with and fighting depression that had really wrapped its arms around me. Having been part of a highly disciplined professional society, it was such a sudden change to me that for a time since I wasn’t immediately employed, all I did was what I had done for 25 years before and that is rise early, get in some exercise and go for long runs. The afternoon was more running but sometimes biking, long distance of course. Kinda like I was running away from truly becoming a civilian and accepting that I was no longer a soldier. I also included lots of fishing trips mostly to the coast where I felt free of stress and avoided facing the inevitable…. getting a job. 

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