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“Family First, Army Always” requires deliberate planning

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

This post comes from CPT Kelvin Riddle, a current Eisenhower Leader Development Program student at Columbia University in route to his role as a Tactical Officer at the United States Military Academy. He’s the previous author of a post-command reflection piece from two years ago this month. Here he tackles the oft contentious issue of work-life balance from a new angle – work life INTEGRATION.

Family plays an integral part in every person’s life, and that is irrefutable. Family affords you a sense of belonging, a sense of value, and a purpose. You may indeed define family in various ways as we all have unique life circumstances. Think for a moment: Do you value family in deed as much as in word? How important, then, is your family to you? Moreover, in the day-to-day demands of your work-life, how do you show your family that they are important?

In this article, I will share my ideas on how to integrate family into your demanding career. I will explore my new aphorism, deliberate planning, and being present.

As you well know, being a Soldier comes with a host of demands that sometimes feel all-consuming. Over the years, you have missed countless birthdays, anniversaries, births, first moments, and family traditions. These are moments that you cannot experience again. In many of these situations, you never planned to miss these important moments; however, duty called and you deployed. Now, you creatively find ways to meet the demands of missions because your work performance is crucial to your survival and your career progression. Upon redeployment to garrison, you immediately begin to readjust to the demands of Soldiering and the demands of family. Often in good faith and intent, you over commit to your family, but the delivery is consistently short. Depending on your organization and your position, you are often away from your immediate family, being physically active and mentally engaged for copious hours. This often leaves you feeling depleted when you get home at the end of the day. Not to mention, the demand of tomorrow will be equally intense. Suddenly, birthdays, dinner with kids, anniversaries, and family traditions become a second or third priority, again. Before you know it, you are deploying again, and the recapitulation of this scenario occurs.

Over time, an important element of your values, your belonging, and your purpose is significantly diminished. However, you are so consumed by your work-life that you never noticed the resentment from those you love the most and those who love you the most. Now, your family is in a crisis.

Unfortunately, in the military, this scenario is not uncommon. I have experienced various parts of this scenario first-hand. I have seen various parts of this scenario from subordinates, colleagues, and field grade officers. Fortunately, though, the outcome of this crisis is contingent upon the Soldier’s recognition of the issues, efforts of reconciliation, and commitment to a strategy towards recovery. Here are three ideas that can help you to ensure you are being fair to your family and your career:

“Family First. Army Always.” I derived this aphorism from the well-known and cliched Army phrase, “People First, Mission Always.” Strikingly, I have discovered from conversations that this notion of family first is contentious. The misconception is that if a Soldier says family first, their commitment to the Army Profession will be questioned. I challenge that paradigm. I realized that this phrase means my family is entitled to my highest efforts and the earnest commitment to provision, my presence, and my priority. Moreover, the oath I took compels me to always give my highest efforts, my earnest commitment of service, and my priority to the Army Profession. Both of these commitments require quality time. The only two variables that I control are my perceptions of these commitments, and my ability to integrate family and career as much as possible. Considering this, I must always consider my family’s needs when making l career decisions.

Deliberate Planning: As Stephen Covey says in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “begin with the end in mind.” Deliberate planning often begins with having clear intentions on what you will accomplish for that particular day. When you have accomplished your main goals for that day, learn to be at ease with stopping. Plan for anticipated tasks ahead and build time to clear your mind as you prepare to see your family after your workday. This method works if you are serving in a job where you have a modest amount of predictability in your schedule. I recognize that this is not always practical, and some days you will start well, but murphy shows up and derails your plans. That’s okay. It is important to remember that plans do not always work and that a degree of flexibility is required. Deliberate planning does not mean rigid planning. Some positions and ranks will require more time and effort than others at work. Communicating this with your family members is an essential part of managing expectations.

If you have minimal predictability of your schedule, ensure you are doing things such as integrating your personal calendar with your work calendar. Granted you will not be able to attend every recital or ballgame, so choose those things most important and ensure it is on your work calendar. You are more likely to attend if you do so. Also, ensure you are communicating these important things with your supervisor, as well as your team. Often we are more likely to explain to our family why we cannot be present; however, we struggle to communicate these same ideas to our supervisors. Choose wisely.

Here is some of the best wisdom I have heard from a retired colonel:

“Do not miss the first and last of any season and do not miss once in a lifetime events. Examples of seasons include first and last basketball games, first and last basketball game of a high school career, first and last ballet performance of a season, or first and last ballet performance of a career. Once in a lifetime examples include marriages, funerals, graduations, and family reunions.”COL(R) Dwayne Wagner

The most important thing to realize here is that your focus is on what you can control—your efforts to integrate these two. Of course, this is all easier said than done. If you are reading this article, you are likely a driven individual who appreciates a challenge. Sometimes in the pursuit of excellence and achievement, you will often need a reminder to pull back and to give your family the time and attention it deserves. Whenever you set aside the time to be with family, aim to be present mentally as well as physically.

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