General Martin Dempsey, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, keeps a special walnut box on his desk at home. It is full of photographs of soldiers who died under his command in Iraq. General Dempsey says the box is a tangible reminder of each life that was lost, and the pictures push him to always consider what’s really important.
A few years ago, I was honored to meet General Dempsey as part of my work as an Advisory Board member for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). I am grateful he agreed to share his thoughts with me about grief and resilience, especially now as so many of us are coping with loss and needing courage and strength.
General Dempsey’s new book, No Time for Spectators: The Lessons That Mattered Most from West Point to the West Wing, reveals his unique and wholly unexpected perspective on love, life, and loss. Every chapter is a gripping read and I really enjoyed learning about his behind the scenes relationship with President Barack Obama. I tore through his book in just a few days and truly could not put it down. I’m honored to bring you this special Q&A.
Allison: I’d love to learn about the special box on your desk. Can you tell me more?
General Dempsey: Many years ago, a mentor told me that I’d know the military profession was right for me if I “fell in love with my soldiers.” I did. Years later, as a Division Commander in Baghdad in 2003-2004, I had 32,000 soldiers assigned to me. They were a remarkably creative, courageous, and resilient group of young men and women. In the summer of 2003, we began to take casualties. In order to remember them and to honor their memories, I had a small laminated card made for each soldier who was killed. On every card is a photograph of the fallen hero, a description of the circumstances of the soldier’s death, and some information about the family each left behind. I rotate keeping three cards in my wallet at all times, and the remainder I keep in a small wooden box engraved with the words, “Make it Matter.”
Allison: How many cards do you have?
General Dempsey: There are 132 cards in total. At any one time, there are the three cards in my wallet. The other 129 cards are in the box.
Allison: How does having the box affect how you view the future?
General Dempsey: Every day, I try to live up to that phrase, “Make it Matter.” I remind myself that the souls represented by the cards in the box gave up their potential so that the rest of us could achieve ours. We can’t bring them back, but we can make their sacrifices matter in the way we live our lives. I try to “make it matter” for others every day, mostly in small ways but occasionally in big ways. In the aggregate, in any walk of life, we can make what we do matter.
Allison: Being proactive about remembering loved ones drives resilience and sparks happiness. Have you found this to be the case?
General Dempsey: I have. Time has a healing effect on grief, but time shouldn’t diminish our resolve to be better human beings and better leaders. I used to tell young military officers that if you find greater happiness in doing something good for someone else than in any personal accomplishment, then you are the kind of leader we need you to be.
Allison: What do you know now about keeping the memories of these soldiers alive that you didn’t know when the losses occurred?
General Dempsey: Initially, and not surprisingly, when we suffer a loss our first emotion is grief. What I didn’t know was how empowering the memory of the loss could be later . . . if we let it.
Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss?
General Dempsey: You are absolutely right that loss is a great teacher. What it should teach us is that we have a limited time on earth to make a difference. Therefore, we shouldn’t approach life as though it’s a spectator sport, especially now in these times of great complexity, ubiquitous information, and intense scrutiny. Think of it this way – for the good of all of us, each of us should realize that we have a contribution to make, and we should resolve to get off the sidelines and try to make it – in whatever walk of life and at whatever level of responsibility we find ourselves.