Sweeping a Dirt floor, and Drinking Nescafe


Two of the most important skills the military gave me!

Transferable skills are consistently the focal point of discussions around veterans’ hiring programs and employment after the military.  Skills such as leadership, time-management, and teamwork are often mentioned as traits that position veterans for success after their time in uniform.  Nevertheless, what I find even more valuable- at work and everywhere else in my life- are the lessons I’ve learned through the many multi-cultural experiences I had serving alongside diverse people around the world.  These experiences have given me- and thousands of other veterans - a true sense of the importance of diversity in our lives- both at work and everywhere else.    

Sweeping the Dirt Floor in the town of Pelince

In 1994, I served as part of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Macedonia.  At that time Macedonia was one of the world’s youngest nations- formerly part of the Yugoslavian Republic.  While the nation itself- its constitution, and government- was new, the history and culture of this fledgling nation were steeped in centuries of history.  Citizens from across ethnic factions, religious backgrounds, and economic means were all part of a new nation- and the principles, fundamentals and beliefs that shaped their everyday lives were anything but new.  They were a proud people- even if they had very little- or nothing- to their names.  As we patrolled the rural northern border of this newly formed nation my soldiers and I learned what it truly meant to take pride in what one has- no matter how little that may be.  Nowhere was this truer than in the town of Pelince. 

Pelince was more of a village than a town, and its citizens struggled to get by.  Given it was only a few kilometers from our U.N. outpost the people of the Pelince had grown accustom to our daily patrols through their village.  The shopkeepers, farmers, and school children would approach our patrols, greeting us, welcoming us into their homes, and their lives.  Nearly twenty-five years later I still remember one shop keeper, Milan, who made it his daily mission to welcome us into his modest shop.  Milan had been a farmer for years, but soon after the fall of Yugoslavia he sold his land and decided he would become one of the first small-business owners in the region.  Milan’s shop was not what you and I may think of when we hear that word – sparsely and randomly stocked with any items that he could get his hands on.  To us, however, joining him inside of his humble business was not about capitalism or convenience shopping- it was about learning, and experiencing life through the lens of a new culture- something most of us would have never imagined experiencing first-hand. 

As we would enter the village, everyday Milan would be there welcoming us into his business with broken English and endless handshakes.  And, what always struck us was how his wife- or eldest son- would be there, perpetually sweeping the shop’s dirt floor.  To Milan and his family, this shop was their hope, their future, and the pride they took in it permeated through all they did- including sweeping a floor that was no more than dirt.  For all of us, who’d grown up in a very different world, it was a reminder of what really mattered: taking pride in what one has, and what one does. It’s a transferable skill we all learned in a shop in remote Macedonia and remember to this day. 

Nescafe Coffee in Baghdad

I’ve always considered myself a coffee drinker- even in high school it would help me get through my first few classes of the day.  As I joined the military after college the habit become even more prevalent as we’d drink cup after cup to get through long days- both in the field and back in the barracks.  At times, it was a natural break, and an opportunity to commiserate and complain- something soldiers are apt to do.  When I deployed to Iraq in 2006 that coffee addiction took on a whole new level- but who would have ever thought it would be Nescafe. 

For those who’ve not visited the middle east what you may not realize is that Iraqis have an affinity for instant coffee- and Nescafe is at the top of the list.  Given the austere circumstances we were working under instant coffee happened to be the easiest way for us to get our fix.  But for Mohamed, and Iraqi who worked alongside of us, Nescafe was his brand of choice.  I vividly remember how he would point at the container and say, “the best, the best.”  Each morning, early afternoon, and at the end of the day we’d share a Nescafe together.  With his broken English, and my even more broken Arabic, we’d talk about our families, our children, Iraq’s future, and his aspirations for a better life for his family.  I remember around Christmas and the celebration of his Eid al-Fitr, we exchanged gifts. Thanks to a well-timed package from my family I presented Mohamed with an entire case of Nescafe.  I’ll never forget the warm smile, and how he immediately opened it to prepare our evening coffees.  I couldn’t tell you how many coffees we shared over that year, nor can I measure how much I learned about his culture, as well as the similarities we shared- even if my taste for Nescafe was certainly not one of them.  

Diversity goals can be met by a recruiting initiative, and inclusive policies can be achieved through enforcement.  But, to get to beyond that, to a place of belonging there must be understanding.  Veterans from all backgrounds understand that- they’ve lived it within their own ranks and through the cultural experiences they’ve had across the globe.  As these women and men transition from the military into their next missions in organizations within all industries it’s understanding why someone sweeps a dirt floor, or the understanding achieved through shared moments drinking instant coffee that represent the best of their experiences.  They are the transferable skills that can truly make a difference.    


Follow the #SHRMDIV hashtag on Twitter for highlights from the SHRM Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition October 23-25.



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