Servant Leadership: Honoring Those Who Have Served

By Jackie Paplaczyk

In 1999, Congress declared May as National Military Appreciation Month (NMAM) to encourage American citizens to publicly display their appreciation for our troops by honoring the current and former members of the United States Armed Forces. Through a month-long observation, we are brought together in unity and reminded of the important role the U.S. Armed Forces have played in the history and development of our country.

The month of May was chosen because it has many days marked to recognize our military’s achievements; in fact, more than any other month. The most well-known observance is Memorial Day, but there are several other days dedicated to spotlighting the contributions and sacrifices of those who have served our country, along with their loved ones. In addition to honoring those individuals who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, May holds several other military anniversaries and events including Loyalty Day, Victory in Europe (V-E) Day, Military Spouse Appreciation Day, Children of Fallen Patriots Day and Armed Forces Day.

Summus Group is fortunate to have military service members as a part of the team with representation across the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps. These individuals include Mike D’Ettore, Business Development Executive, Brett Brenkus, Director and Consulting Practice Leader, and Josh Babitz, Associate Consultant. Despite the differences in their military careers and the paths which ultimately led them to Summus Group, a common thread of their stories is their desire and commitment to lead by serving the greater good.

For Mike, there is a long-standing tradition of military service in his family, specifically in the Marine Corps, which is ultimately why he decided to join himself. “When I was a senior in high school, I was getting antsy and I told my mom I was going to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve if I didn’t hear back from any colleges I applied to for early action. That very day, I received my early action acceptance from James Madison University, so I put the idea on the shelf knowing it was something I still wanted to do.” When Mike got to campus, he sought out the Marine Corps Selection Officer and the rest is history. He has served for a total of 22 years, ten in active duty, and the last twelve in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Brett’s decision to join the military was similarly influenced by his family of military service members. When Brett went to college at North Carolina State University, he knew he was interested in exploring ROTC, especially after watching his older brother join the Army. “In 2000, I started ROTC training at the university and was offered a scholarship to enter into the ROTC program. At the exact time I had to make my decision if I was going to commit to the program, September 11th happened, which pushed me over the top. I knew I not only had the platform, but the opportunity to serve and I was hungry to do so. It was a no brainer.” Brett graduated from college, commissioned as an officer and went straight to active duty the day he graduated, serving in the Army for the next four years.

For Josh, he had a comparable influence from his family being in public service, becoming a firefighter and EMT himself. Josh did not have any immediate plans to go into the military but being a senior in high school when the 9/11 attacks occurred, he felt called to serve. “A couple weeks later, some buddies and I decided to chat with the local Marine Corps recruiter about signing up to do our part and to ‘go fight the bad guys’. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, we were far down on their list of candidates, so I ended up following the family path and going directly into the fire and emergency medical services.” Fast-forward a few years and Josh found he still had that itch knowing he had never fully abandoned the idea of serving in the military. After going back to the recruiter, six weeks later Josh found himself on the ‘yellow footprints’ of Parris Island, the Marine Corps recruit training site, which are said to help Marine recruits know where to stand in formation as they take their first steps off the bus.

No single military career is alike. Mike describes his military career, specifically his ten years of active duty, as eclectic. He began as an infantry officer with a first tour of duty as a platoon commander in infantry battalion where he oversaw 35 marines undergoing training while on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea. He then landed a staff role in the battalion doing more operational planning, which he refers to as his first taste of consulting and project management. Mike then worked with the Office of Legislative Affairs in Washington D.C., which he described as the Marine Corps’ internal lobbying arm focused on various legislative initiatives which are enterprise-wide for the Marine Corps. Mike then rounded out his ten years of service in active duty as a company commander where he was in charge of roughly 200 marines in combat operations in Ramadi, Iraq in 2007. After that, he decided to get out and transitioned to the Marine Corps Reserve, which he still serves in today, taking on roles such as Chief of Staff, Commanding Officer of a battalion and Executive Officer of a regiment.

Brett was an armor officer in the Army, which is responsible for tank and reconnaissance operations on the battlefield. Per the U.S. Army, the role of an armor officer is to be a leader in operations specific to the armor branch and to lead others in many areas of combat operations. “I was an armor platoon leader in charge of 16 people and four tanks within my company. As a young lieutenant, my job was to come in and make sure our soldiers were trained and ready to deploy whenever our time was called.” Brett’s unit was stationed in Germany, where he lived for three years, and served during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) 1 and 2. Brett then went into more of a corporate function as an officer where he was focused on constructing massive plans related to armor and logistical support. Brett served in this capacity until May of 2007 when he decided to get out of the Army.

Josh’s military service was in a logistics capacity. In the Marine Corps, his role was in transportation with a focus around landing operations which is the receiving point for logistics activity. On the civilian side, Josh continued his fire service and EMS career and after serving in the Marine Corps Reserve for five years, it was time to decide if he would re-enlist or move on. “I hadn’t deployed up to this point and I really wanted to. Living in Charleston, there is a huge Air Force Reserve wing, so I switched branches to be close to home and increase my chances of being deployed.” In the Air Force, Josh belonged to a rapid deployment construction unit, again on the transportation side, but this time, with a focus on maintenance and supply chain. He was deployed in 2017 before closing out his military career in 2019.

Despite their unique experiences in the military, Mike, Brett and Josh all agree their military service translates to their current careers in consulting. For Mike, what he did in the military as it relates to operational planning was very much program and project management. There is a huge historical relationship between program and project management and the military. As Mike says, “It just uses a different lexicon.” Josh added problem-solving, noting from a day-to-day perspective, almost everything done in the military is solving some sort of problem. Given the military is made up of large complex missions, there is an unlimited list of challenges from managing scarce resources and funding, to operating within hard and fast time constraints. For Brett, it was leadership, including the emotional intelligence required to lead people to buy in to the work that needs to get done. “I did not realize the invaluable opportunities we were afforded through the roles that required us to lead diverse and cross-functional teams at an early age. Leadership is the most important thing you can carry into any industry.”

Although these three are all successful in their civilian careers today, the transition was not easy. Anyone who has served in the Armed Forces can appreciate their experiences, but when you transition to the private sector, specifically on the commercial side, it is challenging to translate the experience. The hardest question those transitioning out of the military get asked is, “What do you want to do?” There are a lot of programs in place, but it can still be hard as a service member in transition to know what of their military experience is transferrable to the various civilian jobs available and more importantly, how it is transferrable. Over the past decade, veterans have seen a shift from general acceptance of their non-traditional background to acknowledgement of the value their diverse experiences can bring to the team and company. What is important is veterans understanding what they were a part of and the value they gained and therefore, can bring to an organization.

When asked what advice they would give to those looking to make a transition themselves, Brett said, “Lean on your network and understand people want to help. The veteran community is very strong and we want to take care of each other. There are more opportunities than ever with organizations wanting to fill open roles with our diverse backgrounds and skill sets.” Josh says take the time to sit down and think about how you can tell your military story in a way that matters to your civilian career. “Look at the specifics of a job description you are interested in and think of the skills you have gained that align to it. You will be surprised, a lot of the intangibles are relevant.” Even once a job has been secured, the transition is not over. For that reason, Mike suggests treating your first civilian role as your first six to twelve months in the operating forces. “Take everything in. Absorb the information around you as quickly as you can and use this time to bounce ideas off your peers to help you accelerate and excel.”

When asked what lessons learned from the military Mike, Brett and Josh have carried forward with them, even to this day, it is evident their time serving has influenced the person and professional they are today.

For Mike, it was ‘Be firm, but fair’ while letting everyone know you care about their well-being. Mike believes at the end of the day, this is what separates you from your peers when in a leadership role. In the same vein, one of the most impactful lessons Josh learned was the importance of investing yourself in those you are leading, noting that leadership involves just as much listening as doing, while being willing to go the extra mile. For Brett, the saying ‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable’ came to mind as everything he did in the military was foreign to him, but with each challenge came growth which now helps him view every new situation as an opportunity to become a better person, employee and leader.

For Summus Group, the value of each of these men’s unique military experience is evident through their consistent display of the company’s core values: Take Action, Lead by Example, Be Resilient and Drive to be Great. Although humble in sharing their story, the countless selfless acts and sacrifices made by these servicemen are an indication of the servant leaders they are. Summus Group thanks Mike, Brett and Josh for their service to our country and their contributions to the firm through their continued commitment to servant leadership.

Editor’s Note: For those considering or already undergoing a transition out of the military, Mike, Brett and Josh welcome you to connect with them on LinkedIn.