How My Military Service Led to a Global Mindset

Jenn Calaway

Jenn Calaway

Thunderbird Veterans Club President

This is part of Das Tor’s ongoing series, Voices of Thunderbird Veterans, a collaboration with the Thunderbird Veterans Club. In the series, Thunderbird students who are veterans share how their military service led to a global mindset.

I remember lying, drenched in fear and sweat, alongside a Marine lying on the ground on top of his weapon. He was staring intently through his rifle scope towards the guard tower of a makeshift compound constructed of sturdy clay. I peeked over the wall out into the billowing desert sand dotted with jagged mountains as far as the eye could see. I was covering a story at an obscure 50-man combat outpost called Camp Dwyer in the Southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan. I hadn’t had a proper shower in weeks and wondered what my vain, high school self would have thought of my current situation.

I grew up in a small city filled with strip malls and movie theaters, where I spent my days looking for boys at the mall, getting manicures, gossiping over celebrity news, and not knowing a thing about the military or global politics. My eyes focused back on my surroundings and fell to my dust-covered uniform and Canon long-range camera resting on my loaded M16 A2 rifle. “How the hell did I get here?” I thought.

My first real duty station as a Marine Broadcast Journalist, or “Combat Correspondent,” was Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo, Japan. As a video-trained journalist based out of this location, I was able to cover happenings all throughout Asia. I traveled to nearly a dozen countries, telling stories of our military training with other countries, disaster relief missions, and humanitarian aid efforts. Right away, I witnessed things that blew my sheltered, first-world mind. Hygiene seemed non-existent, and children happily played next to pools of urine and the feces from their families’ livestock. Medical anomalies grew from simple wounds never cared for, or that could potentially have been resolved with basic medical practices. People lived with nothing, yet smiled genuinely and waved as our military brigades drove by them. I remember not liking the feeling of viewing these people from this vantage point, clad in an imposing military uniform and carrying a loaded rifle. I wanted to be kneeling beside them, gently helping in any way I could, but I was constantly in awe nonetheless and felt a growing sense of gratitude for the experience.

The following year I served as Public Affairs Assistant to a three-star general in a small camp at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. Working alongside a high-ranking official allowed me some autonomy to organize initiatives designed to foster relations with our surrounding Japanese community. For instance, our base sponsored a local orphanage, where Marines feeling the emotional loss of being stationed away from home could connect with Japanese children. They would chase them around a playground lightheartedly, joke, and teach each other words from picture books. Marines would come back smiling and refreshed, expressing that it was the highlight of their month, especially when they were missing birthdays, weddings, and younger siblings back home in the States. The excitement of the young orphans and the way they would look at their Marine playmates was nothing less than idyllic. Many of these relationships still exist today, preserved through the connecting power of social media.

In another instance, a panel of Marines was asked to serve as judges in a local speech competition for Japanese military members learning English. The laughs that occurred were priceless as Japanese soldiers bravely gave speeches in broken English on everything from serious life decisions to sheepishly farting in front of their significant other for the first time. These special moments widely opened my eyes to the power of communities coming together to share experiences and foster camaraderie on both a small and large scale.

When I found out I was deploying to Afghanistan after returning to the States, I was terrified and had no idea what to expect. I soon found myself as the only broadcast-trained journalist in a region in which video footage was in high demand from television networks all over the world. As a one-woman public affairs team, I was doing everything from working through technical details to establishing the protocol for live interviews between top military officials and anchors from CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC, and other news outlets.

On other occasions, I joined Civil Affairs patrols that would go through villages ravaged by the Taliban and get to know each shop owner, listening intently to their story. These teams would offer substantial monetary funds and resources for the people to begin rebuilding their lives.

After seeing firsthand the good, peacebuilding relations that were taking place in these war-torn regions, I grew frustrated with the 24-hour news networks, who broadcast only stories of destruction and mayhem around the clock, seemingly driven by viewer ratings. At the same time, Afghanistan was a war zone, and I was aware that I was mostly seeing only peacebuilding operations. To this day, I frequently reflect on my experience of seeing thousands of “boys next door” in both the U.S. military and in countries throughout the world just doing their damnedest under god-awful circumstances, driven by a genuine desire to help the community and improve the world around them. Again, I found myself disliking the perspective I had as a military person, but the power of cross-border communication at this scale was unarguable. As a result, I vowed to do anything I could for the rest of my life to actively participate in socially impactful initiatives.

From tiny villages in Bangladesh to combat zones in the Middle East, the military provided me a way to see the world that I never could have imagined and the moral code it imprinted will stick with me forever. The military enabled me to go from a suburban “Valley Girl” type to a concerned global citizen hungry for and open to new cultures and ways of looking at the world’s most pressing problems. It gave me the confidence to believe that I can play a role in changing the world I live in – no matter how small – a path that eventually led me to the Thunderbird School of Global Management. When I attended my first Premiere Day, I connected deeply with Thunderbird’s values of creating sustainable and equitable prosperity and instantly knew I had found my new home.

It is my deeply held belief that the military and civilian populations have so very much to learn from each other. I have given talks, sat on panels and participated in or created many initiatives designed at fostering this very connection. Military veterans’ training in leadership, large-scale organization, and performance under pressure offers many lessons for the civilian professional sector. Military folks also can learn a great deal from our peers while communicating those concepts with care, tact, and situational awareness. While the military is certainly not for everyone, it was my first taste of a world outside of myself and developed rapidly into the global mindset I proudly bring to the Thunderbird’s storied and culturally rich group of “misfits.”

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