Trials of transition rooted in trust, responsibility and duty

 “SGM (Ret) Jason Beighley offers a relevant and poignant interpretation of the “book”, Message to Garcia in today’s Words on Wednesdays. It is a relatively short text,  written by its author in a single sitting, almost as a letter in response to emotion. 

A few links are provided for WoW readers to access the whole text. Our guest writer, Jason Beighley served 25 years in the US Army’s Mechanized Infantry, 2/75 Rangers, and Special Operations. His post introduces us to a classic read which is both a favorite known to many military service members and one referenced by leaders: Message to Garcia.

SGM (Ret.) Jason Beighley

SGM (Ret.) Jason Beighley


A classic tale of a mission from another time, in the jungles of Cuba, Beighley uses it as a vehicle to traverse the challenges of transition. In it he conveys the great treasure of service that he feels makes moving from the military, to essentially any other life role, such a challenge.

Beighley shared in a recent interview that he has explored and experienced several workplace environments since he separated in April 2009 as part of his transition journey. He now works for The Praevius Group, a technology integration company in Texas, where amongst other projects calling on his expertise, he is involved in teaching  the Master Army Profession and Ethic Trainer course. Beighley is the 2011 recipient of the NDIA Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock Award.

He expressed gratitude in being able to continue to grow and define himself in his new civilian life status with the support of his wife of 25 years and their three children. Together, they reside on a small farm in North Carolina with a Dr. Doolittle–‐like collection of animals. 

Now on to the little volume’s story and one man’s investment in the USA’s military… in his own words…

 “Slip-shod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, & half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook, or threat, he forces or bribes other men to assist him; or mayhap, God in His goodness performs a miracle, & sends him an     Angel of Light for an assistant.”                                                                Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia

Those are harsh words. I first read them more than 20 years ago, and they brought to mind a strict disciplinarian mindset, likely paired with stern punishment. Or so I thought.

Elbert Hubbard penned that phrase in 1899, in a fit of frustration after a long days’ work trying to motivate some new hires. I learned that he wasn’t talking about strict discipline and harsh punishment, or leadership by coercion and force. He wrote to celebrate the opposite: self-starting motivation grounded in freedom, in the form of a young Captain Rowan.

Hubbard published it as an essay, and having it off his chest, thought no more about it. His point was this: President McKinley needed to get a message to this Garcia fellow, who was fighting an insurgency in Cuba against the Spanish. Garcia was totally unreachable, so the president sent for Rowan on the suggestion of some Army Colonel. Captain Rowan obliged, and promptly stepped off to go accomplish his task. The details of Rowan’s story aren’t important right now, but Hubbard’s comments on it are: he was well-nigh amazed that a man could accept such a mission and steadfastly move out. You can find both Hubbard’s essay, and also Rowan’s version of the tale online. I recommend them both very highly.

I want to pause for a second and tell you that in a recent discussion, my editor (and of MilitarySuccessNetwork.com) asked me to talk about my transition out of the Army after 25 years: what pitfalls I’ve endured these past four years, and how things are different for me now that I’ve had to re-define myself. We’ll get to that, but first I want to talk about motivation, trust and freedom.                                 Yes, they relate to what I’m saying. I’ll explain.

Our republic was founded by people who were the definition of self-starters and who epitomized the word motivated. (I’m talking about the period during the early to mid 1700s, when our Founders were growing up and establishing themselves.) Their fellow citizens weren’t ‘followers’ in any sense of the word, and they almost literally hacked a country from savage wilderness. Their mindset and desire for freedom drove them from their homeland to this land, hungry for liberty and a better life.

For me, Rowan’s ability on the ground personifies self-motivated action. His trust of his leadership (and their trust in him) helped ensure his success. That culture of two-way trust nurtures the same attitude of bold action that permeates our Army today. All of you reading this who may have served understand this implicitly. Without this trust our Army would cease to function effectively.

Too many of us are indoctrinated to believe that military discipline is very strict and punitive: blind obedience to orders, or else. And while I agree to a point, I have a different take on it.

Garcia book cover 1The etymology of the word ‘discipline’ is not total obedience, but “the instruction given to a disciple” or, in terms that I understand better, the voluntary acceptance and willful indoctrination into a way of thinking and acting that enables order in a larger group. For me, what this means is that our entrance into the profession of the military, as volunteers, drives us over time to accept the responsibility of training for (and perhaps undertaking) the real act of projecting military force. Most of us don’t understand that point on our first day in the military, but we still manage to grow into our own acceptance of that fact over time as we assimilate into military culture.

We are not just mere soldiers when we enter into the service of our republic; we are active agents for the US citizenry, each and every single person. We are responsible to them for everything we do, and for what our troops do as well.   (If you think I’m being overly dramatic, just ask your parents how much trust they had in the institution of the military when you joined up and left home.) That discipline, which is the assimilation of each of us into a more comprehensive mindset of military service, must be built on trust, and that trust must go both ways. Our leaders must trust us to do what’s right, just as we trust them to make wise decisions.

I will go one point further and say that our republic stands alone on the world stage as having the only military force that can do what ours does, at the professional level of competence we do it. That combat power rests on the mindset and attitude that are uniquely American, woven into the very fabric of our national being, as a people. Those founders I mentioned before brought with them an attitude, a sort of cocky confidence that said yes, they could tame the wilderness, and yes, by God they could build a lasting republic, and they could throw off the yoke of a tyrannical power across the ocean. They did all these things and more.

Ours is an Army of free men, who were not conscripted or coerced into service. I submit to you that an Army of free men will have a better type of discipline, that is always more effective, than that of the Army who is coerced or threatened with punishment. Theirs will be a higher sense of motivation, for a higher purpose than any other.

The trust the American people have in our military drives our motivation, which is the driving force behind our freedom of action as soldiers and leaders: we are able to act decisively on the battlefield because we know we are fully trusted, because we do what is right.

Today there are thousands of Rowans in every branch of the military, quietly doing their jobs, leading their folks and earning that trust. Hubbard’s astonishment that a man called Rowan could disappear into the jungles of Cuba and find Garcia was certainly well founded, because Rowan’s task was a tough one, no doubt. But it pales in comparison to what many of you reading this have done daily over the last 10-12 years. Many of you carry your own version of a Message to Garcia every day, and my hat is off to you.

So what does all that mean, and where the hell am I taking this discussion? Here it is, in the simplest terms I can manage: This is relevant to my separation from the army, and I believe it’s important to others as well, because the hardest part of leaving the service is leaving behind that responsibility and relinquishing that trust. Most of us will never again have that kind of responsibility, nor again feel the chest-swelling pride of having that level of trust bestowed on us. Like many things in life, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily struggle and not realize until its gone how much it means to be a part of something like that.

I can tell you that for some of us, that transition is difficult. I learned that I didn’t have a clear understanding of who I was. I knew myself as a Sergeant Major, as a special ops guy, with all the requisite responsibilities and expectations that come with that. But I didn’t think of myself as the husband to my wife, or as the Dad to my three kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always known that I’m a husband and father, but my default mode was always job-related, not family. I never thought of myself that way until I had to look at it more closely. I had so much of my identity wrapped up in my job, that when I didn’t have that job anymore, I found myself struggling.

Nothing we do the rest of our lives will be as significant as our service. My suspicion is that the situation is similar for cops and firefighters after they retire. Family should be, but many times it’s not, unfortunately. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for many spouses, and I hesitate to write those words, but I know this to be true. Whether or not you are a leader when you leave the service, the effect it has on you is profound, and will forever change who you are. So, be proud of the fact that you volunteered to take at least one message to your particular ‘Garcia’, whatever it might have been, and know that your Republic thanks you.

Another complete  Message to Garcia version can be found here.

Two movies have been made of Message to Garcia… here is the full 1936 version with Barbara Stanwyck:


  1. Shaun Collins says:

    Great thoughts Jason, I loved your insights!

  2. Brandon Cates says:

    Awesome post Jason. Thanks for your thoughts and reflections.

  3. Robert Elliott says:

    Great post, your summation of the identity crisis that some may feel when leaving of life of responsibility is right on the mark.

    • Jason Beighley says:

      I appreciate your comment.
      I hope some folks can learn from my experiences.

  4. This is my favorite part of the article…

    “Today there are thousands of Rowans in every branch of the military, quietly doing their jobs, leading their folks and earning that trust. Hubbard’s astonishment that a man called Rowan could disappear into the jungles of Cuba and find Garcia was certainly well founded, because Rowan’s task was a tough one, no doubt. But it pales in comparison to what many of you reading this have done daily over the last 10-12 years. Many of you carry your own version of a Message to Garcia every day, and my hat is off to you.”

    I had many Commanders explain their “leadership philosophy” based on Message to Garcia…my gut instinct is to track them down and share the article… routinely, in my opinion, the message is lost about the character of Rowan and I think it was captured brilliantly in this work.

    • Jason Beighley says:

      Your comments are humbling to me, and I am thankful you took the time to post that.
      Best regards,

  5. Shaun Collins says:

    This did it for me … The etymology of the word ‘discipline’ is not total obedience, but “the instruction given to a disciple”

    In that a couple weeks after reading the draft article I was watching “The Last Samurai” – when the American CPT observed the focus and dedication each member of the Samurai community put into perfecting all that they did. He said, “I have never observed such discipline” – this article came rushing into my mind and I started thinking about how so many people think discipline is externally induced punitively; then I was touched by how quickly Jason’s words filled me with pride that he gets true discipline and now I can put my finger on his point!

    I found it to be a very powerful moment! The entire article was so well written and powerful, but this was a message I wanted all readers to take away from it.

    • Jason Beighley says:

      Great comments, and an excellent perspective.

      This isn’t something I had thought of. I even watched “The Last Samurai” recently, and your view of his comments somehow escaped me.
      So thanks a lot for sharing.


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