The major take-away was that you learn not only to trust one another, but to rely on one another in both the good times and the bad times. I also learned I had become quite numb by that time, and the mission tempo was high, and the notion of returning home was creeping up. But you are always taught not to get complacent. Lastly, I learned to keep a positive attitude, even in dire times and/or circumstances. Doing so eases up tensions and makes it easier to focus on what matters.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Attorney Gustavo Mayen, who was an active duty enlisted Marine from 2003 to 2008. He deployed twice to Iraq, in 2005 and 2007–2008, and was also a private consultant attached to various military units in Afghanistan in 2013–2014.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was born in Guatemala, I came to the U.S. when I was 10 years old. I grew up in New Jersey. My parents always taught me about civic duty and taking responsibility for my actions. I did not join the military right out of High School (although I did seriously consider it). I opted to go out there in the world and work. After 3 years of having various jobs and various jobs at the same time (two to three at a time), I understood that even though I kept getting promoted, I was hitting my “ceiling” quickly, as with only a High School education, my choices and path of growing in any career were limited. Around this time I decided this was not me, and not what I wanted to do, so I joined the U.S. Marines in early 2003.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am a litigation attorney with an office in the Boston area. I have had my own law office for about 4 years now. I had been concentrating in criminal litigation mostly, but now have shifted my workload to include taking on veteran benefit appeals for indigent veterans pro-bono for about a year now.
A story I can share is that first veteran appeal I did. Most of this type of law was new to me, and it took a lot of hours of research, both the thousands of pages of discovery in the case, the case law on it, the errors that might have been done on the veteran’s denial for benefits, etc. It was a lot of work, but in the end, I was able to win the veteran’s case. The best feeling was knowing that the veteran was in a better position to get what he was entitled to, and knowing that the “thank you!” from the veteran was not only an honest one but the best reward. As a disabled veteran myself that has been through the process, I know how frustrating and confusing the process could be. I am now trying to even the playfield for other veterans and letting them know they are not alone in their fight for their benefits and what they rightfully deserve.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
Yes. I went into the Marines in 2003, like any other Marine, who went through boot camp and combat training. I then went to my training school, where I learned to be a tank mechanic, that was my specialty. I went over to Iraq, Fallujah specifically (but we went out the wire to various other locations and in various missions) as a tank mechanic and provisional rifleman. On some missions, I would be a mechanic on duty, a gunner, a driver, a provisional infantry dismount helping clearing towns or areas — whatever the Corps and the mission needed.
I went back again to Iraq in 2007–2008. I volunteer to augment a unit (extended my contract in order to do the full deployment). While there I had various titles and responsibilities but was constantly place and given responsibilities a grade or two above my rank as Sergeant of Marines. By this time I had also obtained certification as a Marine Corps Martial Arts (MCMAP) instructor, and my 1st degree black belt, and was teaching classes to both Marines and (when allowed) to members of other military services. During this deployment, I was also in charge of Marines.
Throughout my military service, I went to school and was able to obtain my Associate Degree and finish an additional year of school. If I was not deployed, I was doing any type of school I could, from night school, weekend school, on-line school, testing out of classes, etc. The military gave me the right drive to have a clear mission and objectives that allowed me to do this.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
There are a few. But I think the following is fitting here: On one mission, we were tasked with providing security (both with tanks and as dismounted security) to a road that was getting hit a lot with IEDs and RPGs. We had set up in an old factory and had brought tanks and M88 Hercules recovery vehicles. The infantry units working in the area had taken some injuries from the area, but for the most part, we felt a little safer because the factory was surrounded by a wall, so we had some concealment as to our movements around the factory (it was a pretty big factory), which would help in case of indirect fire (usually mortar fire), as they would not be able to zero in on us without a lot of guessing.
On one occasion, we had pulled up to a corner of the compound to work on the maintenance of a tank. The tank was first, then the M88 behind it, to the left of them were two buildings that were part of the factory. I recall going to get a tool we had left where we had set up camp, which was about a hundred yards away and around the corner. In any case, I found the tool and as soon as I came out of that building, I just heard a “swooooosh” overhead. I take a second to react and realize what it is (a RPG).
I think this is a good time to explain that this mission was about ¾ into the deployment, we always took indirect fire when we were in Fallujah or some of the surrounding towns. In Fallujah, the section where we slept while in that camp was right under the “big guns” so we would always hear them going off (at times right on top of us) once the guns had a target. While at our tank ramp (again in Fallujah camp) we had also taken indirect fire in the form of mortars and the occasional indiscriminate RPG shot into the base, which would “swoosh” on top of us as it traveled into the camp. We were right next to the camp’s burn pit, so it was easy of the enemy to walk the indirect fire based on the smoke from there, but rarely would they have enough time, as our artillery was quick to react and deadly accurate. In any case, you become numb to incoming, follow procedures regarding going into a shelter to prevent shrapnel or other debris for hitting you, and you went on about your day once it was done.
In any case, out in this mission in the factory. I heard the “swoosh” saw it travel on the same direction as I was heading — and the first thing that came to my mind was my fellow Marines that were still in that same spot, I made my way there right away. Luckily the RPG was a dud and did not go off as it hit the buildings next to the tank and M88. I came over and the first thing I told my fellow tank mechanic smoking a cigarette was “I thought I lost my ride back”, we both smirked. We were all trying to figure out what had happened, and no one was hurt. Without tempting fate, we move the vehicles and eventually looked into the building, where the RPG laid.
The major takeaway was that you learn not only to trust one another but to rely on one another in both the good times and the bad times. I also learned I had become quite numb by that time, and the mission tempo was high, and the notion of returning home was creeping up. But you are always taught not to get complacent. Lastly, I learned to keep a positive attitude, even in dire times and/or circumstances. Doing so eases up tensions and makes it easier to focus on what matters.
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 think every Marine knows the story of the two Marines that were on guard at an entrance point in Ramadi. The Marines were on guard of a makeshift base that housed Marines and Iraqi forces. The entrances to these compounds were always guarded. They also have barricades and concertina wire to control any vehicles coming in. In the mid 2000s, these two Marines were guarding the entrance. A big truck packed with explosives drove through the wire and concrete barriers. These 2 Marines did not try to look for shelter or run away, instead of as a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) was heading their way they stood their ground and engaged it with their weapons (even as others try to run away). The truck exploded near the gate (and Marines), many nearby structures were badly damaged, and some inside the compound were injured, but because those two Marines quickly reacted and made the choice to do what they were trained to do, they saved countless lives inside that compound. The unselfishness to me is the embodiment of heroism.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
I believe there are many elements to being here, but what is quintessential is when someone commits an action that puts others above oneself. It is also about making the tough choices, even at the grave expense or danger to oneself.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
No, but at times the term “hero” is used loosely or for any action taken by someone. I do believe it is in death and life situations where a hero or heroic actions are more easily identifiable. But in the end, true heroism does not only happen in these situations.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 top tips of Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Learn to make hard choices. One thing people rarely tell you about leadership is that there will come times when you will have to make hard choices, choices may not be popular, or that comes at an expense. It is just part of being a leader. I used to hate when my own “supervisors” were hard on me or on my actions, but I learned the value of doing this and always expected the best from your Marines when I had to supervised Marines myself and was responsible for their lives and well-being.
2. Do the right thing, even when no one is watching — It is easy to act one way in front of others and ease up when no one is around, but things tend to come out with time or during the wrong time. When I first became a NCO (supervisor) I was hard on myself and would not ask someone to do something I was not doing myself. Eventually, someone notice and I was selected to go for NCO of the quarter (although I did not win).
3. Know your job before you lead others in it. In the military, there are different ways to earn respect. One of the surest and fastest is if you know your job well. In my second deployment, I was completely out of my element. But I learned my job fast and quickly became very proficient. This allowed me not only to gain respect but a lot more autonomy and space to work around.
4. Always look for your replacement — a good leader does not only knows his job but always finds and properly trains someone to do their job. This allows for an easier transition and someone to fill the gap at a moment’s notice
5. Follow your instincts — In one mission, as a driver, following my gut instinct while clearing a town made me cut (turn to my sector) earlier than usual. Doing this saved me (by a second or so) from driving right into a deep hole in the compound used to get groundwater.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
Absolutely. Being in the military gives you a different perspective on life, how to make a plan and execute, and having things like plan A, B, C, and D.
I think all this gets even more refined if you deployed to a warzone. All the training, all the drills, all of it, get applied to real-world events. As a Marine, you already get to think on your feet, but the added pressure of combat, of danger, of being responsible for others’ well-being — that really refines these skills.
You also learn about true trust and true friendship while deployed, there is a connection to one another because that is all you have. The brotherhood develops because you are with the person to your left and to your right in preparing to deploy, and on missions, while you are out there, day in and day out.
You learn about sacrifice. In the business world, and especially as a small to midsize business, you know (or will know) you will work a lot of hours, constantly have to wear many hats, try to make that big contract, etc. In the military, and especially on deployments, you learn the true meaning of sacrifice, from the time you sacrifice from your loved ones to the days and days you may go without sleep because you are focused on the mission, to sleeping on the floor or under vehicles (or anywhere you can safely put your head down), to working long hours to repair a tank when you do not have the parts or the equipment to repair it.
Knowing all this, starting my own business was made a little easier because I was able to properly prepare before executing it. Always having multi-task while in the service also allowed me to be able to balance life/work, and I was also able to obtain my MBA while practicing law (and raising a family).
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. 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?
I would not call it “scarred for life”, I believe that gives the wrong connotation. I would call it more military experience. I think it is important to clarify that most of us that went overseas on combat missions saw, smelled, heard, etc, stuff that we would rather leave over there or as part of that experience, but I would never say we are “scarred” by it. I think that only helps to spread the misconception that all of us combat veterans are “broken”.
I think the biggest thing I struggled with right after deployment was seeking that adrenaline rush you get from deployments. In the long term, I think having kept my focus on seeking an education has helped me focus on that. But there were things that might have been a bit difficult to adjust. I think the biggest struggle is trying to understand how PTSD has affected others and how that has led to some in taking their lives. I had a hard time when I found out a Marine I served with took his life when he lost his own internal fight.
As to the short-term struggle the adrenaline rush, it subsides with time and as you mature and have and grow your family. I believe that focusing on getting my education not only kept me out of trouble, but also helped me focus my energy on this, and at the end of it, I was in a better position in life, so that helped too.
As to in trying to understand the PTSD of others and how I can help, I am not a doctor or psychologist, but I am a lawyer. To that end, I am doing what I can to help the veteran in obtaining their benefits and show them I (like many other veterans) have their backs.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes. As mentioned, in trying to understand with those struggling with PTSD and other issues, I have made it my mission to represent veterans in their benefits appeals at the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims, at no charge to the indigent veteran. Thus far I have not lost an appeal. Thus far I have only had Korean and Vietnam veterans, but I am hoping more OIF and OEF veterans appeal their denials so that I (or other volunteer attorneys) can take on their appeals.
I have called this the Corporal Pablo Mayorga Legal Initiative. Cpl Mayorga and I had a lot in common, and one time, while we were discussing me going to school while in the Corps when I told him I wanted to be someone someday, he told me “why not more, why not someone that makes a difference”. I told him if I could I would. And here I am a law degree and a business degree later.
I have thus done this with no external help (except a mentor), just putting in the time to research and learn this (and how to read medical terminologies and medical charts, as discovery involves much of this).
The whole premise behind the initiative has been to show the veteran someone has their back at this (the court) stage regarding the benefits that they are likely entitled to. By showing the veteran someone has their back and being able to leverage the playfield (since the VA has a cadre of attorneys dedicated to opposing the appeal), I hope to give the veteran not only their day in court but a sense that he/she is not forgotten and does not have to do this alone.
Being enlisted combat veteran Marine gives me instant rapport with the veterans, and at the end of the day, the best reward is knowing that the veteran is in a better position (after the appeal is won) and knowing their “thank you” is sincere and from the heart.
I hope to take on more and more of these appeals, and gradually and structurally use both my law degree and the business degree to fill in this gap in the representation of veterans in an event where they needed the most. Lastly, I hope to make good on my word to Cpl Mayorga. To keep track, I have started the tradition of standing up a toy green soldier for every appeal won. I hope to fill my desk with these stood up soldiers.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think the military taught me one of the key things to any team is trust. It is the way we were taught in the military, especially before and during deployments. Nothing puts more pressure on you than knowing the lives of others are in your hands, and in you doing your job.
But to translate this to the civilian sector, trust is still the cornerstone to every team. Trust is what would allow a leader to know that in his/her absence someone else (that hopefully the leader already groomed and trained) would step up. Trust also has to do with your employees having trust that you will have the team’s best interest in mind regarding actions and decisions.
I think a lot of former military service members struggle in finding this type of trust out in the civilian world. I know I did.
When I took upon a year-long assignment as a private consultant in Afghanistan, all of us in the group clicked quickly and it made for a smooth mission, but we were all mostly former military. Each of us, although for different services at times, was instilled with the same principles, so trust and trusting were easier to establish.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Same as just stated, but with the added point of being able to delegate and always looking for your replacement. We use to learn each other’s roles in the military, this “right seat, left seat” made for an easier transition when units changed. It also made for an easy transition when someone needed to be replaced.
None of us are able to 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?
My mom. When I was in High School my father had a major stroke. I always keep it in perspective how she kept it together and worked so hard to take care of my disabled father while still trying to help us graduate from school and have a “normal” life, and dealing with all other things in the household.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think the legal initiative I mentioned before is a good example of it, one that I continue to do and continue to expand on.
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 am doing it right now. As I volunteer to take on veteran’s legal appeal regarding their benefits, not only am I learning how to do that type of law, I am also constantly seeking and learning on ways I can do this better and be able to help more veterans.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“In the simple moral maxim, the Marine Corps teaches — do the right thing, for the right reason — no exception exists that says: unless there’s criticism or risk. Damn the consequences.” J. Rushing
If you keep your moral compass true north, all else will fall into place. A true leader learns to make choices, even the hard ones. These choices will not always be popular, but if you know what you are doing and why you are doing it, that is what matters.
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 🙂
Not specifically. I am always open to meeting new people and getting a new perspective. When I had nothing and was trying to make my way in the world, I would always ask for an opportunity to prove myself or ask someone for 5 minutes of someone’s time. It got me this far. I think that goes both ways, sometimes it is those with a vast amount of experience or a different perspective that wants to share it with others, or make you see an angle or perspective you may not have thought about. The learning never stops.
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.