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Finding Career Purpose in Tragedy’s Aftermath — Chris Marvin

Contributor: Andrea Yeh

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Chris Marvin, WG’11, Managing Director of Got Your 6.  He previously served as a US Army officer and Blackhawk helicopter pilot and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal.  After returning from combat, he has worked as an advocate for other veterans, notably as the Director of the Fellowship Program of The Mission Continues. Marvin earned an MBA from Wharton, where he was a student in Friedman’s Total Leadership course.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: As a wounded veteran, what was your experience like when you came home?

Chris Marvin: ChrisMarvinI was wounded in a helicopter crash near the Afghan-Pakistan border in 2004.  I was a platoon leader for an army aviation unit.  I was 25 years old, I had 25 soldiers and officers under my command, I was in charge of $25 million of equipment, and to top it all of, I was also in the 25th infantry division.

I broke both of my arms and my foot, damaged my face, knees, hips and shoulders.  When I came home, I was really struck by a few different things.  First, there are a lot of people willing to help.  I was very lucky that I had family that was very supportive, and the medical system was helpful to me during my four-year recovery.  About a year after my crash, I was going to my mailbox, and I pulled out an envelope that was addressed to me from a nonprofit I had never heard of.  Inside was a $500 check.  At the time I didn’t need the money.  These people didn’t know me and didn’t know whether I needed it or not, but they sent it anyway because they had my address and they knew I was wounded.

SF: They were trying to be helpful.

CM:  Yes, but to me, it felt like they assumed I was in need of charity or pity, and I didn’t feel that I needed that. I had a lot to live for and a lot to get back to and wanted to be challenged to continue my service and leadership.  So, I gave the $500 to a local food bank because I knew that the community—wounded veterans or not—needed that money more than I did, and it set me on a path.  I found that little spark that resided in me to help people. And I used that to help others understand that veterans, wounded veterans especially, are not always in need of charity.  A lot of times we just want to be challenged to continue our service here at home and to be part of something greater than ourselves.  I spent a lot of time working with other veterans and on the national network to help veterans re-instill that sense of purpose in their lives.

SF: Why was it important for you personally to be able to help other wounded veterans?

CM: We have a group of people who have chosen to serve in the military over the past decade or so.  If you think about it, these are a few million people that have raised their hands and volunteered to fight the longest war in the history of America. They’re predisposed to service in some way and they’re taught leadership skills funded by our taxpayer dollars, so they’re tax-subsidized leaders, if you will.   And when we come back and are out of our uniform, we don’t stop feeling predisposed for service and trained to be leaders.  We want to continue to do that.  The problem is that oftentimes Americans don’t expect us to do that.  They thank us for our service and expect that we’re done.  But for me, I was 25 years old, and I had a lot ahead of me.  I wasn’t done with anything; I had barely started anything.  For me, it was important to rediscover a sense of purpose, and I did it in a few different ways.  A couple of years after I received that check I discovered a nonprofit that was challenging wounded veterans to do service in their communities.  That nonprofit was called The Mission Continues, and I got in on the ground floor and led their fellowship program for a few years before I came to Wharton.

SF: Tell us a little more about your role in leading the fellowship program at The Mission Continues, which was co-founded by Eric Greitens, who was one of the subjects of my recent book, Leading the Life You WantHe was one of the six people I profiled, and you’re the one who introduced me to him.

CM: He’s a great leader and a great mentor.  I was in recovery and living at home in Hawaii.  They were just getting started and didn’t have a lot of funds.  We were giving out fellowships for wounded veterans to engage in volunteer service in their own communities.  We were able to do this for a few dozen people while I was there.  Since I left, they’ve really blossomed financially, and they’ve given out thousands of these fellowships.  They’re the leader in what we now call the veterans empowerment movement, which refers to these groups of nonprofits that aren’t treating veterans as charity cases but are instead asking them to step up and become leaders in their civilian communities.

SF: What led you to Wharton?

CM: I was lucky that because I was wounded, I was then exposed to people from the military community who are operating at a very high level like Eric Greitens or others who had served in the military and were making the transition to bigger and brighter things.  I thought that maybe business school would be a good for me.  I look back on these things, and they all stem from one incident, one event in my life, which was being wounded in combat.  It took me a long time to realize it, but that helicopter crash was a pivotal event and I came to understand the idea that something so tragic could also be something so beneficial.

SF: In Leading the Life You Want, I describe how great leaders find creative ways to use their experience, sometimes traumatic, to benefit others.  What did it take for you to convert that terrible experience into a transformative event that propelled you to a better life in some way?

CM: I don’t think there was a moment when I decided that I was going to change.  I think that was always in my mind.  Whether it was conscious or not, it was hard for me to admit it out loud.  There was one fatality in that helicopter crash, and you don’t ever want to say that that was the best thing that ever happened to me because that day wasn’t a good day.  It wasn’t about that day or about where the helicopter ended up or about the individuals that were injured and the one that died.  It was about every day beyond that day.  I think that it was always innate in me—even as I lay in that hospital bed—either get busy living or get busy dying.  You either give up or you don’t, and I never had any intention to give up even when I was still trapped in that helicopter before they extracted me from that aircraft.  While we often say that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, I don’t believe that’s how society tends to look at returning wounded veterans.  They often assume that we’re in a really bad place, but maybe for most of us who have been wounded—depending on our injuries—it could be and probably should be one of the better things or best things that’s happened to us, at least from the perspective of a formative experience that’s full of growth.

SF: What exactly did you have to do to be able to convert that experience into something of value in your future?

CM: I think one of the major lessons is the idea that in one moment everything I had to wake up for in the morning was gone.  Then the only thing I had to wake up for was my physical therapy.  So I focused on that for a while until that was no longer something that I needed to focus on all day every day.  And then you try to focus on something else.  The discovery is finding that sense of purpose, and I had a lot of things fill in the blanks before I found The Mission Continues.  I used to be the guy who played really conventional sports in high school—golf, basketball, baseball, and track—and I ran track in college.  But after my injuries, I couldn’t do almost any of those.  The one thing that I can’t do very well now is run and jump, which is very ironic for a college triple jumper.  But I started surfing and doing yoga, which are low impact.  I also learned Hawaiian; it was part of my experience of being there and being in that culture.  I took up these things to fill that time gap and that purpose gap. There were many things that I found to fill my time, of which the Mission Continues was not the least of them, in working with other veterans to find their purpose.

SF: So tell us about how Got Your 6 works.  What do you do, and how does it help?

CM: Got Your 6 is the endeavor to change the narrative in America about the veteran.  So you heard me tell the story about the $500 check and how I didn’t want to be treated with pity or with charity.  We think that those narratives are too prevalent in our culture.   We’ve done some great surveys asking Americans what sort of cultural perceptions of veterans are typical, and it’s two things: broken heroes.  It takes a measure of cognitive dissonance to believe that someone is both broken and heroic at the same time.  For us, those things are fine—we’re not telling anyone that they’re doing anything wrong—but at Got Your 6 we try to normalize the portrayal of veterans.  We specifically focus on the entertainment industry.

We have relationships with the major studios, networks, and agencies in Hollywood where we’re able to work with their content creators.  We help inform them about the breadth of veteran experience that they could be incorporating into their shows and films.  We show them that they don’t have to very heavy-handed about it.  It doesn’t have to be a veteran show about a veteran character with a veteran storyline.  The best example is Modern Family.  Ed O’Neill’s character is a small business owner, a patriarch, and a loveable guy who mentions every once in a while that he was in the Navy.  So he’s a normalized veteran.  He’s a lot of things, and he happens to be a veteran.

SF: That cues the watching audience that there’s a normal guy who’s doing normal things who is also a veteran.  How does that help returning veterans?

CM: I think what our society has done over the past decade or so is to exceptionalize veterans, whether it’s positively or negatively.  Our society has a notion that veterans are different and separate from civilians, and when you exceptionalize, by nature, you’re segregating—you’re pushing them outside of societal norms.  Our society has the conception that how a veteran will react to societal norms is different from how a civilian would, but it’s just not true.  One of the biggest things we joke about is how veterans are people too.  They’re mothers and fathers and husbands and wives, and they’re living the rest of their lives—usually the majority of their lives—after their military service.

SF: But they have had a unique experience, right?  So in some ways, that does make them exceptional.

CM: Not everyone’s had helicopter crashes.  In fact, less than half of the people who served in the military since 9/11 even went to combat.  That’s important, but all of us did maybe two things that were very similar: we all wore a uniform at some point, and we all received tax-subsidized leadership training.  So you as taxpayers have invested in this cohort of people by given us this training.  There’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask for a bit of a return on that investment. That is what we’re trying to promote and what the data support as well.  A lot of the problems that we hear anecdotally about veterans aren’t supported by the general cohort’s data.  Take, for example, unemployment.  Veterans have been more employed than civilians for around 102 of the last 105 months.  When people try to narrow it down and say that that young veterans are unemployed at a higher rate than all other people, perhaps they are, but that’s usually because they’re young or they’re job switchers or they’re taking some time off.  Usually it’s not because they’re veterans.

SF: There are a couple things that are in the news that I want to make sure that I get your take on.  American Sniper had a huge box office this past weekendYou have seen it; in fact, I understand that you prescreened it.  What’s your take?

CM: I was lucky to prescreen it and attend the premiere in New York, which was fantastic.  We at Got Your 6 think that for the most part American Sniper got it right for veterans.  That means a couple of things.  Veterans are really nitpicky about the technical details. Nobody in Hollywood is going to get it perfect, but as far as films go, this one got a lot of the technical details right.  To the degree that it is showing the American public what it might be like to be in Iraq or Afghanistan, I think it did a great job of that.

I think that what is really revealing for American Sniper was that when Chris Kyle, the character that Bradley Cooper plays, runs into a little bit of difficulty, he’s able to solve the difficulty by helping other people.  I think that’s a storyline that’s not always going to be worthy of the big screen but that we see over and over again in the veteran community.  Veterans who might be struggling and looking for that sense of purpose can often find it if they start helping other people.  That’s the language that you speak as a veteran and as a military member.  That’s why you do this in the first place.

SF: Part of the struggle is that his commitment is so overwhelming that it creates real tension in his marriage.  What did you think about that portrayal of work-family conflict?

CM: It’s a really tough nut to crack when you talk about some of the difficulties that families deal with when they’re separated. The military causes these separations and, in the last decade, on a more frequent basis for many.  About 4.3 million people have been in the military, and about 2.5 went to Iraq and Afghanistan.  That’s a large group of people who fought the longest war in the history of America.  It was an all-volunteer force, so this isn’t something that’s forced upon them and their families, but it doesn’t make it any easier to have mom or dad gone for six, nine, or even twelve months.  I think American Sniper deals with that well and deals with some of the reconciliation at the end, and that’s really important as well.

SF: To see their struggle and how they had to work through that tension was very powerful.  It seemed realistic to me, though perhaps a little soft around the edges.  We didn’t really get into the guts of the difficulties, but you saw the tension and the psychological disengagement that he continued to suffer.  He was so focused on the war even when he was back at home, so much so that he couldn’t be a part of his family’s life and that was a real struggle for him and for his wife.

CM: American Sniper did a really good job to show his desire to be back with his unit when he was at home and his desire to be with his family when he was with his unit overseas. This guy was at the top of his profession—he was one of the greatest American snipers. He’s really great at that, but he also wants to be a really great dad and husband too.  You can’t do both of those things at the exact same time.  They are in a way mutually exclusive.

SF: But he finds a way, over the course of his life, to create a kind of harmony.

CM: I think over the course of his life, he does, but not within the deployments.  Clint Eastwood and the team did a great job of showing the back and forth.

SF: You were at the White House today.  Can you tell us what’s on the horizon for Got Your 6 and what work you’re doing with the federal government?

CM: The big thing we’re able to do, because we work with nonprofits and the entertainment industry at the same time, is that we can bring the subject matter experts—the people who are working with veterans at nonprofits—to the content creators in Hollywood to help create some more true, real-life scenarios.  I hope in the future American Sniper and other films like Lone Survivor that have done it really well won’t be the exception.  They’ll be the norm.  And I hope we’ll have a part in doing this as well.

SF: So we’ll be hearing more from you.  What’s the key message that you want our listeners to take away from what Got Your 6 is all about?

CM: We want people to believe that veterans make America stronger and that veterans make America stronger when they come back to your community, your church, your school, your neighborhood, and your workplace.  The training that they’ve gotten, the leadership experience they’ve received, and some of the struggles that they’ve endured have made them stronger.  Instead of broken, we like to say battle-tested.  And I’ll leave one call to action for your audience.  The next time you’re with a veteran, and you want to say thank you for your service, please go ahead and do it, but promise to ask a second question or make a second comment as well.  Dive deeper into the conversation.  Don’t walk away after thanking them because I’ll just speak for all veterans and say that’s the part that we actually don’t like.  We want the second question.  We want you to ask something else and show us that you care a little bit about what we’ve done beyond the “Thank you for your service.”

To learn more about Chris Marvin and Got Your Six, please visit www.gotyour6.org, or follow on Twitter @GotYour6 or @ChrisMMarvin.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Andrea Yeh Andrea Yehis an undergraduate junior majoring in Operations and Information Management and in International Relations.

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