Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “The lessons I learned while in the environments I was placed in cannot be taught or replicated in any educational institution.” With Michael “Rod” Rodriguez and Marco Derhy

I believe my years in the military taught me to be a far better problem solver and team builder, skills that are significant in the business world. The lessons I learned while in the environments I was placed in cannot be taught or replicated in any educational institution. That is why I believe the entire […]

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I believe my years in the military taught me to be a far better problem solver and team builder, skills that are significant in the business world. The lessons I learned while in the environments I was placed in cannot be taught or replicated in any educational institution. That is why I believe the entire veteran community is an asset to the growth of any business and our nation as a whole.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael “Rod” Rodriguez. Michael is a retired Special Forces Green Beret with nine deployments, from his first in Somalia with the 10th Mountain Division to his last in Afghanistan with the 7th Special Forces Group. His last assignment as a Green Beret was as a Sniper Instructor at Fort Bragg in North Carolina (Range 37). After 21 years of continuous service, he was medically retired for numerous injuries. Michael comes from a military family. Both of his grandfathers served during WWII, and his father is a Vietnam veteran. His wife retired recently after 21 years in the U.S. Army, and his eldest son is currently serving with the 82nd Airborne Division and recently returned home from Afghanistan, marking the 16th deployment for the Rodriguez household. Michael does his best to advocate for veterans and their families and speak publicly on the need to decrease the misunderstandings that exist between American citizens and service members. He is an active advocate for the arts and its impact in on everyone’s lives; he practices this in his own life in the form of metalwork and blacksmithing. In addition to serving as the president and CEO of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) Memorial Foundation, in November of 2015 Michael was selected for and served more than three years as a member of President George W. Bush’s Military Service Initiative Advisory Council, with the role of advising and supporting the president and leadership of the Bush Institute on key strategic and programming priorities to support veterans and their families. He also assists several other nonprofits and remains in close contact with both citizen and military communities. In 2013, he was inducted into the Manhattan “Explorers Club” as a “Fellow” for his research efforts on Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress. He is currently a graduate student at Norwich University pursuing a Masters Degree in Diplomacy, but most importantly, a proud grandfather, father, husband and hermano to many.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as the oldest of four sons, and I was fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by my entire family in Southern New Mexico. I remember my first “heroes” were the veterans in my family — my father served in Vietnam, and my grandfathers and many of my great uncles served in WWII. Each of these men left an indelible impression on me, and the stories of their service resonated with me in that they never glamorized the wars they fought in. Instead, they spoke of those they served with, often with reverence.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

I am humbled to be the president and CEO of the GWOT Memorial Foundation. We are the Congressionally designated non-profit tasked with building a nationally-recognized memorial paying tribute to all those who have served, and continue to serve, in the GWOT. It is vital we have a nationally recognized memorial within the lifetime of this first generation of GWOT veterans. They deserve a place to gather, heal, gain new perspective and honor lost loved ones. By building a national memorial in their honor, we are building a memorial to a living war — something that’s never been done in this country. But then again, the GWOT is a war unlike any we have ever seen. This is our nation’s first and only multi-generational war. We cannot look to past precedent on when memorials were built, as this conflict has no precedent. 
 In August 2017, Congress unanimously passed the Global War on Terrorism Memorial Act, exempting the Global War on Terror Memorial from a 10-year waiting period by the Commemorative Works Act of 1986 and authorizing the GWOT Memorial Foundation to oversee the fundraising, design and construction of the memorial.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I began my military career in 1992 and was blessed with the opportunity to deploy to Somalia before I completed my first year in the Army. It was there that I realized the military doesn’t just “hunt down bad guys.” The U.S. military is involved with a multitude of humanitarian and goodwill missions across the globe. After a few years, I wanted do more and decided to attend “Selection” for the U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets. I was fortunate to be selected to become a Special Forces Medical Sergeant and, after two years of training, I was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. After my last deployment to Afghanistan, I was assigned to the 1st Special Warfare Training Group and became a Sniper Instructor at Range 37. It was during my time as an instructor that the numerous injuries I sustained, including multiple Traumatic Brain Injuries, began to interfere with my duty performance. I was subsequently sent to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed and, following months of treatment, I was medically retired after 21 years of service.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

Deciding on a most interesting story after 21 years of service is difficult, but there is a story I have told about a mission in Afghanistan that I think about often. We were conducting a Medical Civic Action Project, which is a mission focused on treating and aiding locals. We were in a small village in Eastern Afghanistan, and about an hour after we started a severely malnourished mother brought me her newborn, who was only a few hours old and still had some remnants of afterbirth on him. I immediately began to assess this infant, who was already dehydrated due to the fact the mother was not producing milk to nourish the child. We had baby formula and necessary items for infants, so I began feeding this child, all the while instructing the parents on how to care for the baby. After a short time, the baby improved and was well enough to be sent home. I gave the parents a care package as well as a baby blanket with the baby swaddled inside. I had a strong attachment to this child, as both the baby and parents looked to me for help, and I did all I could. That was a very long day, especially after we treated more 500 locals, and we remained in the village overnight. The following morning, when we were leaving, I was driving one of the ATVs at the rear of our convoy. I drove by a hut and saw the blanket I gave the family the previous day displayed in a window. I quickly pulled over and walked inside the hut to see the parents sitting at a small table. As soon as I walked in, the parents both looked at me and shook their heads in sorrow, then motioned over to the corner where I could make out the silhouette of a baby wrapped in a burial garb. In spite of my hopes and efforts, the baby I had treated the day prior did not make it through the night. I quickly walked out of the hut, jumped back on the ATV and rejoined the convoy. The entire drive back to our firebase, I had an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. We conducted many other MEDCAP missions after that day, and in spite of the hopelessness I felt, I knew I could never give up hope and vowed to continue to do all I could to provide hope for those in need. Because oftentimes, hope may be all we have.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

I believe heroes are the epitome of servant leaders. To me, a hero will always serve others first and think of themselves last. While some may argue about what a “true hero” is, or what heroism might be, the ones who do not contribute to the discussion are those very heroes we are humbled to have met throughout our lives. I believe many of us look to heroes to show us the way, or provide an example. My first heroes were my father and grandfathers, who served this nation during a time of war. They chose to serve others — first in support of this great nation of ours. That was and still is what a hero is to me. There is no shortage of heroic acts. I would suggest googling “Medal of Honor Recipients” and just reading these tales of heroism. But I would also suggest we all recognize that heroism can be more than single acts — it’s a lifestyle in pursuit of serving others first. Heroes inspire others to make the world a better place.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

I don’t believe a person needs to be facing a life-and-death situation to commit heroic acts. Great bravery can be exhibited in the face of adversity as well. An example of this would be the story of Rosa Parks, who chose to stand up for equal rights for all. Her single act of refusing to give up her bus seat inspired a movement and continues to inspire our entire nation.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”?. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Team Building is perhaps the most important lesson. If individuals who possess these qualities are part of your mission, you will succeed:

1. Ability is the first pillar — Is the individual capable of adding value to the team? There may be a time when many people will want to join the team, but you owe it to the mission and your teammates to be honest about an individual’s capabilities. During my time as a sniper on a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA), we never took someone who was not a sniper to conduct the job of a sniper. The argument can be made that anyone can fire a sniper rifle with reasonable accuracy. However, “reasonable accuracy” is not a risk worth taking, even if the individual’s motives are pure.

2. Credibility is the second pillar — Is the individual the right person for the team? Certain individuals may be too polarizing or not wholeheartedly dedicated to the mission. If that is the case, they do not belong. This question is often easily answered by the entire team.

3. Humility is the center pillar — Is the individual joining the mission for the right reasons, without a hidden agenda or for the sole pursuit of self-aggrandizement? Within the nonprofit space, or any business venture, you may find individuals who are not willing to do the work or completely miss the mark on “serving others first.” This is the trait I would consider the center pillar of team building.

4. Trust is the foundation these pillars are built on — Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something. This belief carries inherent risks, but they are risks worth taking. Find individuals you trust, and, equally important, trust you in return. Trust brings everyone and everything together.

Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

I believe my years in the military taught me to be a far better problem solver and team builder, skills that are significant in the business world. The lessons I learned while in the environments I was placed in cannot be taught or replicated in any educational institution. That is why I believe the entire veteran community is an asset to the growth of any business and our nation as a whole.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

While I did personally struggle after my multiple deployments, as well as when I was medically retired, I do not believe that scars are a bad thing. When you think about it, scars represent healing. I do not allow my scars to hold me back, nor do I believe they make me special in any way. Everyone has scars. Everyone faces adversity in some form or fashion. Mine just happened to occur while I was in service to our nation. I would love to think that we all could respect one another’s scars as well as our individual trials and tribulations, but they do not define us nor make us who we are. Each of us is defined by our actions daily.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am currently the president and CEO of the GWOT Memorial Foundation, the Congressionally designated nonprofit tasked with building a national memorial in D.C. paying tribute to all those who have died fighting, those who continue to fight and those who are still joining the fight against terrorism. Consistent with its mission, the Foundation will recognize and salute the service and sacrifices of all who served in defense of the nation in this conflict, as well as their families and friends.

One of our main areas of focus in building a national memorial is to educate the American people on the multi-generational nature of this conflict. Both my wife and I deployed in the GWOT, and last year we welcomed home our eldest son from his first deployment to Afghanistan. He is an infantryman in the 82nd Airborne Division. That was his first deployment and the 16th collective deployment for our family.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

My “dos centavos” to leaders would be to listen to your team and provide opportunities for them to be heard. Create a supportive environment where they can thrive, focus on empowering them to grow their own leadership traits and abilities. Train your replacement ☺

What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The larger your team is, the more opportunities exist to create the next generation of leaders. Having a large team is a blessing, so be sure to nurture opportunities to develop leaders and build a formal mentorship program within your organization. Do not micromanage.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I could probably list 50 people here, all of whom are deserving of my praise and gratitude and helped get me to where I am today. In my opinion, none are greater than the other. But there is one individual who listened to me and implemented my thoughts and ideas within his organization. He faced some of the toughest leadership decisions in the 21st century and is an individual who still took the time to count me amongst one of his advisors and friends. That man is President George W. Bush. His faith and trust in me speaks volumes to his role as a true servant leader.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When I look back on my life and the circumstances surrounding the multiple injuries I sustained, I am hit with the realization that I probably should have died numerous times. This reality is always my first thought every single morning when I wake up. I begin every day with the goal of making the world a better place. I believe that building a national memorial surrounding the GWOT will provide a place for service members, veterans and their families to gather, heal, gain new perspective and honor lost loved ones. However, I also believe in the power of everyday acts of kindness. Sometimes a smile or simple gesture to a stranger can have the same impact. I do my best every day to commit some act of kindness in the hopes that the goodness in the world will grow.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I don’t think I am a person of great influence, I am just an hombre trying to do his part in this beautiful world of ours. If I could inspire a movement to bring out the good in people, it would be to try and do what I do every single day. Think about how you, as an individual, can make the world a better place that day. As I said, sometimes it is as easy as a smile. Each of us has the capacity to accomplish this small task, it is up to us to choose to do so.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” ― Charles Dickens

This quote speaks to everything I believe in about serving others first. We all can make the world a better place ― the choice is ours.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I have always been a fan of Terry Crews and Dwayne Johnson. Throughout their careers, they each faced adversity yet remained true to their individual values. They always remained positive and did not step on or bash anyone along their journeys toward success. They have always sought to serve others whenever they had the opportunity. I distinctly remember when both of them came together for Dwayne Johnson’s “Rock the Troops” benefit concert. Perhaps they would be interested in continuing to honor our service members by helping us build a national memorial surrounding the GWOT in our nation’s capital.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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