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Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Be willing to make sacrifices.”

Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Be willing to make sacrifices.”

Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Be willing to make sacrifices.” with CJ Scarlet and Marco Dehry

Be willing to make sacrifices. No matter what kind of work you do, be willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team or the business or your family. It may mean swallowing your pride or quashing your need to be right, but you will be the winner in the end when those around you win.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing CJ Scarlet, an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and author. An expert in victim advocacy, CJ has given speeches and workshops at national and international events; and has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, including MSNBC and NPR. The former roller-skating carhop and U.S. Marine photojournalist holds a B.A. in Political Science from Virginia Wesleyan College, and an interdisciplinary M.A. in Humanities with an emphasis on Human Violence from Old Dominion University. CJ is the author of The Badass Girl’s Guide: Uncommon Strategies to Outwit Predators, which has won numerous writing awards, and Neptune’s Gift: Discovering Your Inner Ocean. Named one of the “Happy 100” people on the planet, CJ’s personal story of triumph over adversity is featured in several books, including bestsellers Happy for No Reason and Be Invincible.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I’m the quintessential military “brat.” My dad was a career Marine, so I grew up moving every one to three years and learned to love changing locations on a regular basis. When my father retired, he moved us to a very rural small town in Arkansas, which was vastly different from anything I had ever experienced. The culture shock was overwhelming and I never really acclimated.

Then my twin brother, little brother and two brothers-in-law joined the Corps, so I just had to show them how it was done! I enlisted in 1981 as a photojournalist and left for bootcamp on my 20th birthday and never looked back.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Today is am an author, speaker and advocate on the topic of sexual and domestic violence. I had been molested as a child and sexually assaulted by my recruiter, so I am passionate about keeping people safe from harm.

Last year I published The Badass Girl’s Guide: Uncommon Strategies to Outwit Predators. Now I’m working on a book entitled Confidence Rules for Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Empowering Your Child from 2 to 22. As the grandparent of three toddlers, I worry about how to keep them safe. I mean, I’m an actual expert on self-empowerment and self-defense, but I had no idea how to begin talking to them about how to protect and defend themselves from bullying, sexual molestation and assault, etc., without scaring them to death. I decided to write Confidence Rules for Kids to help me learn what to say to them to protect them from harm. The idea that it will benefit other people’s children just thrills me.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I went into the Marines with a roar and went out with a whimper, sadly. I graduated from bootcamp as the Honor Graduate and E-3 lance corporal. Eight months later I was promoted to corporal, and two years later to sergeant, so I moved quickly up the ranks.

But sexual harassment in the military was (and still is) pervasive, and I found myself the frequent target of sexual comments and advances. I would be typing up a news story for our base newspaper and never knew when a colleague would slip up behind me and plant a kiss on my neck, instantly transforming me from a dedicated professional journalist to a sexual object.

It was demeaning and demoralizing, and by the time I got out, I felt defeated and ashamed for being so impacted by “boys will be boys behavior.” I didn’t appreciate at the time that this behavior was not only inappropriate, but in some cases criminal, and that I had every right to be upset by it. It took me many years to come to grips with what I had endured. My advocacy work on behalf of other victims was a huge part of my healing process. With sexual assaults in the military still on the rise, this is an important, if difficult, topic to talk about.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

I stopped a war on my very first day on the job as a Marine. Seriously, I did! After I completed bootcamp and journalism school, I was sent to Camp Pendleton, CA, to work in the Joint Public Affairs Office. On my first day, I arrived at the office to find only one person there; everyone else was helping with the Marine Corps/Navy joint military exercise on one of the base’s many beaches.

I was tasked with accompanying a TV news crew to the exercise. When we got there, my jaw dropped. The machine gunners were firing, the tanks were rolling, the ships were sailing and helicopters filled with sky. I had never witnessed anything like it! Everything was going great until the videographer decided he wanted to get shots of the machine gunners. He began to step in front of them to get the shot and I bravely planted myself in front of him so he wouldn’t get shot. “Cease fire!” I yelled, waiving my arms up and down like a deranged bird. All down the line I heard, “Cease fire!” “Cease fire!” “Cease fire!”

Well, the gunners stopped gunning, the tanks stopped rolling, the ships stopped sailing and the helicopters landed. “THERE!” I told the videographer, NOW get your shot.” He looked at me like I was nuts and began to film the machine gun nests.

Suddenly, from over the dune, I heard a yell — “WHO THE HELL STOPPED MY EXERCISE!!” It was the base commander and he was ready to make heads roll. At that moment, every finger pointed at me! I nearly died of fright right then and there. Hey, how was I supposed to know the machine guns were firing blanks? LOL. And THAT’S when I earned my nickname “Corporal Gullible,” which stuck with me for the next five years.

What did I learn from this experience? I learned that there are some things you’re just not gonna know going in, and that the best you can do is hope like hell everyone in the world isn’t watching when you screw up. But if they are, hey! you’ll live through it to fight another day.

I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

I served in peace time, so never came anywhere near combat. But I did get to meet some real heroes last year when I attended a retreat in Texas for veterans with PTSD/military sexual trauma and their partners. In addition to the individual therapy offered daily, we vets, (six men, another woman and me) met together three times in a group setting to share our stories.

I was the only non-combat veteran in the group and felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. I decided to speak up, sharing the story of the rape by my recruiter and near-daily sexual harassment when I served, hoping the others wouldn’t find my version of trauma laughable. Instead, they greeted me literally with open arms. One by one, they embraced me and told me how sorry they were that their brothers in arms had mistreated me so badly. Two of the men and the other woman shared their own sexual traumas. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They also shared their stories of the moral injuries they endured when they were deployed in combat and I was so deeply touched by their pain and anguish, that I was literally shaking.

These people were and are heroes because they are carrying the shame and pain of our nation for wounds not of their own making. They will never be adequately honored for their sacrifices, but we ended up — by witnessing each other’s stories — honoring each other. It was the most moving experience of my life.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

To mangle Spock’s quote, a hero to me is someone who does what is needed for the good of the many or the one. Having said that, I have become a pacifist, and while I believe there are some wars which must be fought, I know that’s not the case for the vast majority of the ones we do end up fighting. The fact that our young men and women commit their lives to the security of our country — for truly pitiful pay — awes me.

Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?

No. For an act to be considered heroic, it must simply be one in which a person acts despite possible physical, emotional, financial or other risk to themselves or someone they love. For example, speaking up to a bully or disagreeing with your boss can be considered an act of heroism when it involves personal risk.

Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Commit. Commit to something you care deeply enough about that you are willing to take personal risks to defend it. You don’t have to join the military for this to be true; you may be a nurse or a nonprofit volunteer, or a parent; find something you are so passionate about that you would put yourself on the line for it.

2. Care. Surround yourself with people you care about and who care about you. In the military, you bond with your team, and that cohesiveness acts as a glue that holds everyone together in the toughest times. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily agree with or even like everybody, but you can respect each other and have each other’s backs.

3. Lead yourself first. The military provides ample opportunities to grow as a leader of others, but it’s even more important to lead yourself, meaning you know who you are — authentically, warts and all — and that you continually work to improve yourself.

4. Be willing to make sacrifices. No matter what kind of work you do, be willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team or the business or your family. It may mean swallowing your pride or quashing your need to be right, but you will be the winner in the end when those around you win.

5. Sometimes you have to work as a team and sometimes you have to be a lone wolf. You won’t always have a team at your back, so be ready to stand on your own when you need to.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

Aside from the obvious skills I learned in the military, such as leadership and dedication, the most important thing I gained in the Marines that prepared me for business was a solid work ethic, which is essential to be an entrepreneur.

As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?

What has led me to thrive in civilian life is my commitment to causes greater than myself — my books, my volunteer work and my grandchildren.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In addition to writing my third book, I serve on several nonprofit and corporate boards, including one that works with underserved victims of sexual assault and domestic violence (women of color, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities and men). This work will definitely help others and I’m proud of the impact these organizations are making.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Read The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks and have your team members read it as well. It’s a book that invites deep self-reflection that will make you a better, more compassionate and effective leader.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My mentor, Mary Cantando, has had the greatest impact on me. Her attitude toward life, which centers on gratitude and generosity, helped me move past my anger toward people who harmed me in the past and move into a place of forgiveness and love for everyone. I am a better person because of Mary and I will be forever grateful to her for her amazing wisdom and friendship.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe I have, from my time serving my country in the Marines in the early 1980s, to my nonprofit and government work serving victims of crime, I have tried my best to be a force for good. Most importantly, I believe that world peace begins with inner peace, so I focus much of my effort on becoming the best I can be through inner work and healing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I would inspire, which I am actively attempting, will be to educate every child about how protect their bodily integrity, which includes teaching them to trust their intuition, set and maintain solid boundaries, and take action to protect and defend themselves from harm. Most children are socialized to “make nice” and do what adults tell them without question, including giving hugs to perfect strangers. I want to teach children that it’s okay to put themselves first and do what’s necessary to protect themselves.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is one of my own: “To get what you want, give it away.” I learned this when I was seriously ill and facing death. I remember one afternoon I was feeling particularly bad, and on top of that, I felt like my family didn’t appreciate my attempts to function as the head of the household. My pity party was rapidly morphing into a grand pity ball when I realized just how small and miserable I felt in that moment. I reached over and grabbed the phone and dialed a random number, getting the voicemail of some guy at a computer company. I left him this message: You don’t know me, but I want to tell you that even if others don’t tell you so, you ARE appreciated! I hung up the phone and felt… fantastic! In 10 seconds I went from feeling terrible to feeling great — all because I gave away what I thought I needed for myself. Try it; it works!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’m sure many people say “Oprah” and I’m no different. She is arguably the most influential woman in the world and I would love to share my work with her and get her support for my books.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.


Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “Be willing to make sacrifices.” was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Marco Derhy

Marco is the Founder of Derhy Enterprises, a boutique international consulting firm. He is an author, has more than 19 years in the publishing industry, and has created many unique series that highlight the empowering lessons learned from the experiences of high-profile entrepreneurs and public figures. His latest book "Heroes Of The Opioid Crisis" is available on Amazon.

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