16 May 2013

A Compelling Case for an MBA

It's transition time. I keep meaning to write, but then life gets in the way. Transition gets in the way. Or my excuses get in the way. One day I was an Air Force officer struggling to find the support I thought I needed to help me work through PTSD. A few days after my last post, I received orders to retire from the Air Force, and a warning that I had three weeks to get my belongings packed and my life in order. By the middle of March, with those three weeks of warning, I was expected to know "what I want to do when I grow up."

What I wanted to do was go remodel a home (it looks gorgeous), sleep a lot (and then some more), and completely fall off the grid for about eight weeks. Last week, I plugged back in, ready to give true consideration to what it means to pick a new career.

I reached out for advice from my Personal Board of Directors, and they delivered...as always. When I did a little research on my own, I also delivered. Turns out the new Post 9/11 G.I. Bill gives me 4 years of educational benefits in an educational endeavor of my choosing, and I choose a Georgetown MBA. I like to aim high.

As a part of the application process, I'm required to submit a personal statement answering the specific question of what unique abilities you would bring to the Georgetown Executive MBA Program and how obtaining this degree will contribute to the attainment of your personal and professional goals. (maximum 2 pages). So it's written, and it's here, and I value your very frank and honest feedback. You can post it here, or email it directly to me at eabarber at gmail.com.

Read on:

I am a Major in the United States Air Force, a Human Resources Professional with over ten years of leadership experience, and a passionate believer in the value of creating change through micro-investments paid either in person-to-person interaction or in small sums of local currency.  With a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Masters of Public Administration, I aspire to continue my professional education by strengthening my ability to monetize human resources accomplishments and to foster a culture of passion in order to build stronger leadership networks within organizations.  With my particular focus on achieving results by investing in high potential employees, I believe the Executive Masters in Business Administration program at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University will provide me an opportunity to expand my existing professional skills.  In this unique learning environment, I also strive to continue to build my awareness of the global business dynamics while preparing myself to achieve continued success as I transition from the military into a leadership role in a service-oriented organization.

Growing up in a Navy family, I unknowingly embraced the closeness of the military community, and upon my arrival at Syracuse University for my undergraduate studies, I quickly felt a loss of that camaraderie.  Entering college with no aspiration to be the third generation in our family to serve our country, I was naturally drawn to military service.  The Air Force immediately recognized my potential for success, and granted me a three year scholarship to study English at a time when only engineering and scientific degrees received military funding.  Glowing with patriotism and naturally driven to lead and inspire others, I quickly earned recognition as one of the top cadets in our organization.  The personal interest my supervisor paid me as I applied to what everyone else assumed was an impossible scholarship opportunity was my first professional experience of a micro-investment in a high potential employee.  I remember our conversations of 16 years ago like they were yesterday. 

I excelled academically, and gravitated toward Women’s Studies courses in conjunction with my English degree.  Because of military rules, I was required to wear my Air Force uniform to these classes without exception.  The experience of being asked to speak on behalf of all military women when I considered myself a mere student studying to become a commissioned officer opened my eyes to society’s lack of understanding of our nation’s men and women in uniform.  At first hesitant to share my thoughts about the plight of transgendered populations or the history of the American feminist movement in class, I quickly found common ground with my fellow students.  I helped them humanize the military, and they helped me appreciate diversity of opinion.  The women in my Women’s Studies classes ultimately reinforced my belief that as a leader, a significant portion of my responsibility was to leverage my voice to help key decision makers hear the diverse voices of their many often unheard followers.  Moreover, my role was to make micro-investments in causes and in people who I believed possessed both the capacity and willingness to facilitate meaningful change.  I graduated in three years, eager for the next opportunity.

Determined to best prepare myself for a career in public service, I proceeded directly to George Washington University to earn a Masters of Public Administration.  One year into the program, Al Qaeda challenged my belief that the America for whom I proudly wore a uniform was almighty and all powerful.  I watched smoke pour out of the Pentagon during my walk to work at the Office of Personnel Management on the morning of September 11th, 2001.   My father, at the time a senior Navy officer, worked somewhere in the Pentagon, as did the fathers of a majority of my childhood friends.  Living in Crystal City in an apartment facing the west side of the burning building, the smell of jet fuel and steady stream of smoke spewing from the crash site was a constant reminder to me that my service would be distinctly different than that of my grandfather or even my own father.

My grandfather served in England during World War II as a Logistics Officer in the Army Air Corps, where he prepared the troops and their aircraft to engage the enemy from the air.  His war stories, which he dutifully recounted over and over at my request, inspired my own service while I was deployed as an American Airman leading convoys through the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan almost 70 years later.  Over the course of six months, I led my team of nine on more than 120 convoys, traveling 7 miles each direction to our “office,” across unsecured roads in Afghanistan’s capital city, outside “the wire” of the safety of our own military compound, terminating at the headquarters of the Afghan National Army’s Logistics Command.  We each carried two loaded weapons, wore 50 pounds or more of protective gear, and pretended, as had my grandfather’s generation, to be fearless. 

Together we were so passionate in our desire for Afghans to experience the true American spirit that we organized and led more than a dozen humanitarian and military outreach events, micro-investments, where we donated food, clothing, school supplies from our families back home.  We fostered mentorship and incredible memories at local homes, schools and military outposts across the Kabul Region, and we left Afghanistan prouder than ever to be Americans.  Achieving success in Afghanistan from my leadership perspective meant building lasting personal relationships between Afghans and Americans, and encouraging other Americans to do the same, and as a team, we outperformed everyone in our unit, achieving what I still consider the highest level of success. 

The United States sent me to Afghanistan with orders to focus on gender integration issues in the Afghan National Army.  Of the 4,500 soldiers at our location, a mere 38 were female, most of whom did not come to work on a regular basis, none of whom wore a military uniform, and many of whom were themselves war widows after decades of ongoing conflict in their country.  Working in close harmony with my interpreter Sonia, then a 22 year old woman who had been married, delivered a baby and was later abandoned by her husband by age 16, I slowly learned the personal stories of each of the women at our location.  I visited women’s work sites, spoke with their supervisors, and broke American military tradition by wearing a head scarf during each of my more than 300 strategic meetings with the Afghan women, their male military leaders, and senior NATO officials in the region.  Through this gesture simple gesture of cultural appreciation, I earned the trust and respect of my Afghan colleagues.  Together, we advocated for and later started construction of the first on-site childcare facility at our location.  As single parents, the women told me they were more likely to come to work if they knew their children were safe.  Sonia and I listened, partnered with the Afghan military women, championed the idea to Afghan male leadership, eventually leading the women to create a safe space for 50 children under the age of five.

Midway through my tour, and with no background in grass-roots fundraising, I sent an email to my friends and family asking them to make donations of $25 or $50 to help me buy a computer and make a down-payment on advanced English language education for Sonia.  She’d never owned a computer, had no routine access to the internet, and taught herself English through American music and television.  In addition to their small donations, I asked my friends and family to send a picture of their families, especially their daughters, and a letter telling Sonia about their dreams for her future with her daughter.  I raised over $400 in $25 donations within the first 24 hours of my effort, collecting letters, pictures and personal stories from around the world.  I achieved success in Afghanistan because I intuitively knew that micro-donations of support from people who were passionate about my work there were far more powerful than me writing a check for a computer and an education.  I grew a network of person-to-person relationships across cultural and even language barriers, and I know I made a lasting, positive impression on each Afghan person with whom I interacted.  Passionate leadership is compelling, regardless of the language, the culture or even the context.  In Afghanistan, and throughout my Air Force career, I have delivered passionate leadership and inspired teams of professionals to do the same.     

My unique contributions to the diversity of the Executive MBA program are a devotion to international service, a dedication to mentoring and developing the next generation of leaders, and more than 10 years of professional experience as a recognized human resources leader in roles based in the United States, South Korea, Germany and Afghanistan.  Through my military service and extensive domestic and international travel, I have built a tremendous support network, upon whom I have relied heavily through my career transition.  My professional desire is to leverage my more than 30 years of dedicated to service to the United States as a military child, U.S. Air Force officer and Afghanistan war veteran into future opportunities in non-profit organizations advocating for leadership opportunities for women and children.  

Through participation in the Executive Masters of Business Administration at the McDonough School of Business, I desire to continue to grow my business acumen and expand my horizons outside of the human resources space, therefore opening the door of opportunity for future growth roles.  Most importantly, I look forward to the opportunity to share my passion for leadership and my experience of success in international micro-investments with like-minded peers and classmates in the program.

17 February 2013

My Pope

If this past week is any indication, and I think indeed it was, then perhaps I'm beginning to understand why it took me three months (but really a year) to come back to writing. Parsing through my thoughts to find a starting point took effort. And because I had withdrawn so far away from the rest of the world, finding inspiration to write based on the events of every day life no longer felt like an option.

But then there was this week. I managed to write, albeit beginning at a travel-weary 3am, but I did it. And the responses I received from people who followed Wanderlust through the hills and valleys of Afghanistan, and even those who have only known the morose, whispering version of the former me, were overwhelming. Just as I experienced in Afghanistan, where I pretended to be the even-keeled news reporter, when I am willing to talk about the real stuff, people are willing to listen...and this week, they reached out like never before. Reality, the fact that people who matter will care whether my life is sealed up in a pretty crystal box or is pouring out of the corners of a water-logged cardboard container, started to set in.

And then the Pope resigned. I'm a very non-practicing Catholic, but the mere idea that the leader of the Catholic Church would have the moral strength to admit that at age 85 he was no longer up to the task of leading his flock through modern day disorder felt like a personal victory. Suddenly, in my mind, the mantra switched from "I'm a quitter because I can't stay in the Air Force," (there's that word again) to "if the Pope can admit he's not strong enough, who do I think I am judging myself for leaving?" It really was that simple. Sort of.

My relationship with the Pope resembles my relationship with most men in both its complexity and duration. We met in the fall of 2007, when I attended a Papal Audience at the Vatican with a person I thought at the time would be an important part of my life forever. Though I have meticulously trained myself to ignore them, I have good instincts. I picked our perch amongst thousands of other followers from across the globe, huddled into St. Peter's Square on a crisp November morning. As it turned out, the Papal Go-Cart passed within three feet of us, and I captured Pope Benedict XVI's wave (no telephoto lens required) as the entourage drove by. This photograph instantly became, and to this day remains, one of my most treasured images.   

You need not be Catholic to appreciate the beauty of a Papal Audience. We were surrounded on all sides by others who longed for a shared, faith-filled experience. In most cases, we shared neither a language nor a culture, and perhaps not even a religion. On the Cool Meter, meeting the Pope, leader of 1.2 billion, ranked (in my book) above meeting any American President, Beatle, or superhero. He didn't wave to me personally. I didn't receive a special blessing (though in retrospect, that may have been a good idea). But I shared a space, a moment, with Pope Benedict XVI. It didn't change my life, though the experiential high took a few weeks to dull. Until this week, I hadn't really given my Papal Experience a second thought.

The Pope resigned on Tuesday, effective at the end of this month. The Pope gave his two week's notice. On that same day, the Air Force gave me my notice. They told me I was "disabled," attached a percentage, and sealed the deal with a phrase indicating my injuries were "incurred in a combat zone, though not combat related." It felt like a knife to the heart. I had officially lost control of the career that sent my Type A personality into overdrive. There went the career I've loved to hate for a decade and a half of my life. One that's taught me to ignore my good instincts, to stay in control consequences be damned, and to work twice as hard as the Good Ole Boys just to get by. (Yes, indeed, it's a bittersweet parting of ways.)

The Pope resigned on Tuesday. Speculate as you will, but I think it takes a lifetime's worth of courage to look into the eyes of an admiring flock to admit "You know, I'm just not up to it any longer, and it's time for me to step aside." I didn't have that kind of courage on Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Nor in the eight or so years before, or the several days since. I was too busy hating myself for failing and quitting and doubting and (insert strings of other horrible words here...)

One day, I hope to find the courage to admit that the Air Force's square box "no one can ever leave or we'll call you a quitter" mentality was never the right fit for me. I hope I can find the courage to say (regardless of this piece of paper I've allowed to become my career epitaph) that it was (well past) time to walk away, and to allow someone with the tenacity, energy and enthusiasm the Air Force so direly needs to walk into my shoes. Into shoes that, if my career has made one ounce of difference, can and will be filled by someone else, because I've spent my career preparing the "someone else." 

Today I'm maybe three small steps outside of the eye of the storm. Maybe next week I'll be a yard, then a mile. And I hope with time will come the moral courage to say (and believe) "career number one didn't work out, but that doesn't mean career number two is doomed to fail."

Thanks, Pope Benedict XVI, for a humbling reminder that at the end of the day, we are all human, and for the inspiration to want to wake up tomorrow to embrace a world of opportunities instead of wallowing in my fears.

11 February 2013

I'm a writer. So I should write.

It's been 107 days since I last opened this blog, and even then, it was just to post something "safe" I'd written while I was in the PTSD version of rehab. I had to look that number up. I actually had to look up today's date, which of course is a bit more confusing when it's well past 3am, and my circadian rhythm is lost somewhere between Texas, Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Germany. All places I've been in the past 12 days. If I counted from the beginning of this year alone, I could add Georgia, Florida, and England. If I project my count through the end of the second month of 2013, I could add France and who knows where else. I have 17 days left and, well, if the past almost two years have taught me anything, the lesson left is that anything is possible.

There's a lot I don't say in a public blog that's visible to the universe. There's a lot I won't say for a while longer. There's a lot I won't say ever. Maybe even to those who know me best. And before this one, there are 96 very factual posts, wherein I've been very careful not to allow feelings or emotions to seep in to muck everything up. And there are hundreds of other times where I skipped writing all together because it was easier than talking about what was truly happening around me. And how it felt to live in that moment.

But there are two things people have said to me during the past few weeks that made me want to write more than I've wanted to write since I was hunkered down in my shipping container in Afghanistan, feeling like a war reporter documenting the most precious seconds of the world's most exciting battle. Feeling important. And wanted. And significant.

I was standing on the East Orange platform, waiting for New Jersey Transit to whisk me away into Manhattan. I'd spent the evening before with a dear friend, perhaps one of my closest. The one who helped me accept the brutal fact that my Air Force career would have a Plan B ending vice the one I may have imagined 15 or so years ago when I started this journey. She and I reminisced over Indian food, sharing maybe 60 way-too-short minutes together, coming some three and a half years after our last in-person visit. I've learned not to think of time in that way. Calendars don't matter. But even in life experience, three and a half years (or perhaps three and a half hours) are a remarkably long measure of time for me. Though in that moment, or in those 360-odd moments, the world had somehow stood still, and I was the 23 year old girl who wanted to take on the world. It's amazing to have friends on whom such magical moments are not lost.

My friend's husband and their 5-year old son took me to the station in the morning to catch the 9:07. I was dragging an unreasonably shaped and sized piece of luggage...plum purple and as close to 70 pounds as the airlines would allow. Traveling terrifies me now, but there I was, standing on the platform with my trademark latte in one hand and this unruly disaster in the other. He could sense I was mortified by the idea of going into Manhattan. And he asked, innocently, "Are you writing? I loved reading your blog."

I can't remember how I responded. I can't remember if I managed to hold back the tears until I disappeared into the train car soon to become one of 1.6 million Manhattanites, if only for a few hours. But I do remember responding. "No, I just can't yet. It's still..." and then letting my voice fade off.

Just look at that one paragraph. Two sentences. Both of them say "I can't." That's the easy answer. I can't. But the hard answer, the true answer, is that I won't. Because I am fully armed with every damn excuse in the book on why I deserve a break, and then another break, and then even one more after that. PTSD has become my excuse to stop being, instead giving me permission to rely on how content I am to just slide by. To survive. I let it, this stupid "illness" and the corresponding medications, consume me. And on the other end, I'm no better than any alcoholic or addict, waiting for my next fix. Counting the 12 hours until the next set of pills, and blaming my self-destruction, though relatively harmless all things considered (unless we're talking about the fat, medium and skinny sized jean collection I've now amassed), on "side effects." And I have found a "side effect" for damn near anything.

Closer to 10 days ago, I was in an elevator in San Antonio wearing my Wounded Warrior jacket. I was in Texas to take care of some final business with the Air Force...to look at my official personnel record and talk with a few experts about the future (or quite honestly, the end) of my career. San Antonio is the epicenter of my profession, and also home to the Air Force's largest hospital, with tremendous programs to support our Airmen who come home from Afghanistan suffering the physical wounds of war. The girl in the elevator was maybe eight or nine years old. She looked at me, looked at my jacket, and asked, innocently, "Why are you a Wounded Warrior?"

Simple enough question. But what it felt like she was asking was "How long are you going to hide behind the logo on your jacket and the diagnosis in your record?" And I guess then, in due course, my answer should have been "Until a nine year old calls me out on it."

Which happened approximately 10 days ago, and I suppose is truly sinking in now that I've spent at least 60 of the past 72 hours asleep in bed, overwhelmed by self-induced exhaustion. Exhaustion that came as a result of running like hell to pretend like the last two years never happened. That if "the doctors" would just find the right combination of pills, or "the Air Force" would just figure out how to take better care of me, or "my friends" would stop disappearing. It was always "them." "They" needed to fix this because "they" made it happen. I didn't take any blame because, well, there was none there for me to claim. In my mind, that is.

This morning feels like the beginning of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. "My name is Lisa and I have PTSD." Then people respond with "Hi, Lisa" and we all move on. Somewhere in Utah, a therapist named Amy just heard me say that, and I heard her squeal with excitement from several thousand miles away.

No, I'm not going to walk around making that proclamation to everyone I meet. I said it here. That's enough. It's an illness. Not an excuse. So this game of chicken I'm playing with the blog. Enough. Writers write. And I'm a writer. So I should write. Runners run. I'm a runner so I should run. And humans, we make mistakes. I've made plenty. Not the least of which is neglecting one of the things that held me together through all of this madness...my words. Time to move on.

So there. I have a voice. And I found it. Again. Writers write. And I'm a writer. So I should write.