In 1965, right at the beginning of the Vietnam War, I was drafted into the U.S. military. I was twenty-one and headed to basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
The first thing anyone says when they hear you’ve been drafted or when you get to basic training is never to volunteer for anything in the army. But my thinking was that if no one is volunteering and you do volunteer, you’re going to come into the spotlight in a very positive way.
Marching to my own beat.
My experience with volunteering in the army was not only positive, it taught me three big life lessons that I use to this day:
- If no one is volunteering, make sure that you’re the person who is because then the spotlight is all yours.
- By volunteering when no one else is, unique opportunities open up, and you develop new connections and capabilities, and also credibility.
- Regardless of whether you’re getting paid as an entrepreneur, always create as much value as you can for people who can use your capabilities.
Being useful never gets old.
At Fort Knox, Sundays were free of any training, which made for a pretty long day. I had grown up Catholic and had been an altar boy for eight years, so I started going to mass. At one of the masses, I noticed that there was no altar boy, and afterward volunteered to serve mass for the remaining eight weeks or so that I would be there.
The week before we got our orders to go on to the next level of training, I got a message that I was to report to the colonel I had volunteered for at mass, who asked whether I would be interested in being a chaplain’s assistant.
We talked about what that involved, and he asked me a number of questions about my skills. I had to admit that I couldn’t type, I didn’t drive a stick shift, and I didn’t know how to fire a .45. I learned that in combat situations, the assistant is the chaplain’s bodyguard, and oftentimes, it’s on the front lines.
“Are you interested? Your choice,” the chaplain said. My lack of the necessary skills didn’t seem to matter. If I was interested in the position, he told me, I would be taught all three.
I was floored. This was such an unusual army experience. In the army, they don’t ask you if you want to do something; they tell you to do it. I was a bit taken aback by this whole conversation. But I didn’t hesitate. I said that it sounded great and that of course I’d do it. Why wouldn’t I?
My unhappy chaplain.
Volunteering came into play again not long afterward. By this time, I was in my permanent posting as a chaplain’s assistant in Daegu, South Korea. The chaplain I was assisting was a major, and he was a thoroughly unhappy person from what I could tell.
One of the things that seemed to bother him most was that I appeared to be having too much fun. (He didn’t believe that anyone in the army should be having fun.)
You see, the base in Daegu had a great entertainment center. Because I’d been a theater major in university and had theater experience, I went down one day after work, introduced myself to the entertainment director, and offered to help out after hours. He was happy to have the help, and I was excited to be a part of it.
As it happened, one of the actors very suddenly had to be transferred two weeks before the opening performance of a play, and I was asked to fill in. I leapt at the chance, and everyone thought I was a hero for jumping in to save the play. Again, it all started with volunteering, and I was beginning to see a pattern: If you volunteered in the army, all kinds of interesting things could open up.
Another great opportunity and risky decision.
I was really enjoying myself in Daegu, mostly because of my after-hours involvement with the entertainment center. It felt like, in a way, I was designing my own army career.
After about two months, the commanding officer of the base called me in and told me that the entertainment director had finished his tour of duty and was returning to the U.S. “We don’t have a replacement,” he said, “and you’ve been so useful around the entertainment center, you’ve been recommended.” And he offered me the opportunity to step in.
It was a risky choice. I would lose my position as chaplain’s assistant. And since it was a civilian job, when a new entertainment director did come, I would be reassigned, with the possibility of being sent to a combat unit in Vietnam. There were no guarantees.
I didn’t need to spend much time thinking about it. I wanted to be done with the unhappy chaplain, I was excited about the job, and I liked the idea that I still had a hand in controlling my own fate in the army. I accepted the offer.
Volunteering, then and now.
Though I didn’t have the title of entertainment director, I had all the duties—all of which I enjoyed. And from the moment I took over that position, I didn’t have to wear a uniform, I didn’t have to live in the barracks, and I had rights to the officers’ club. I had a Jeep of my own and in some situations a helicopter, and I had six Korean civilians working for me.
It turned out that the new entertainment director never did arrive, and I held that position for my remaining 14 months in the army.
Volunteering has always served me well, and even today, I’ve found that offering my time to create value for others opens up new possibilities in my life.