Coca-Cola’s Chief People Officer Ceree Eberly stood at the edge of a 34-ft. tower used for paratrooper training at Fort Bragg, N.C. She looked down at the 34-ft. drop, checked her harness, and jumped.

She was the only woman in the civilian group to jump. 

“I was scared to death!” Ceree laughed, “but I didn’t want to look back and regret I didn’t try it.”

She was in the temporary role of would-be Army paratrooper as part of a special Pentagon leadership program. The weeklong initiative brings together 22 leaders from all areas of business every year – and gives them a taste of military life across all five branches of the military.

Established in 1948, the Secretary of Defense Senior Engagement Program is the oldest public outreach program in the Department of Defense and the only one sponsored by the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter. Its mission is to increase public understanding of national defense by enabling top business and community leaders to observe and engage with the U.S. military.

“It was an honor to represent The Coca-Cola Company in this program and to learn about the incredible men and women who serve our country. This program allowed each of us to meet so many highly trained and capable professionals who are employed by the military, an all-volunteer force trained to protect and serve our country.

The week started at the Pentagon with briefings from three and four star generals, as well as time with the Secretary of Defense. The leaders participated in immersive, hands-on experiences at several military installations across the U.S., starting each day headed for a new destination aboard a large military aircraft (C-17) with an adventure ahead.

The leaders spend time flying with U.S. Air Forces in simulated special operations training; experienced the protocols of new Marine recruit induction on Parris Island, South Carolina; spent time with Navy Seals in water-to-landing training in Norfolk, Virginia; trained with Army Special Operations, including Army Rangers and Green Berets, at Fort Bragg, N.C.; and traveled out to sea on the largest Coast Guard Cutter in a simulated water rescue mission out of Miami, Fla.

“What was so incredible was the very open and direct acknowledgment of the work Coca-Cola has done with our Veteran’s Hiring program,” Ceree explained, “as well as our many partnerships and outreach with servicemen and women transitioning out of the military into civilian life. Every time a general walked into the room, they’d ask for the “Coke Lady”. They’d proudly hold up their favorite Coca-Cola beverage and tell a story.”

Invest in People

Experiential learning, the process of learning by doing, is common in the military—and it allows the military to invest in their people that yield results quickly. 

As well, the military spends tremendous time learning through ‘after action’ reviews—every branch had a robust after action learning process to debrief what worked, what didn’t, and how they could improve for the next time.

Many military innovations came out of learnings from air and land rescue missions. One also quickly learns that success of the mission—flawless execution, is critical as lives depend on it, and the military is laser focused to deliver against that high standard.

“The military’s clear commitment is to take care of their people and invest in them through extensive training, on the job learning, job rotation and enhanced education. It is a clear winning strategy for results but also loyalty and retention,” Ceree said.

“Many of the servicemen and women who flew us were no more than mid to late 20s operating multi-million dollar aircraft, machinery and equipment. A company like ours would be lucky to hire professionals from the military and they make great, loyal, engaged employees.”

Coca-Cola has a goal to hire 5,000 veterans over five years and is well on its way to completion of this goal. There’s a very active Veteran’s Business Resource Group of over 1,000 veterans who are working tirelessly to transition veterans who come into our workplace, provide mentoring, as well as provide outreach to active servicemen and women around the globe through programs such as “Adopt a Troop”. Coca-Cola has many partnerships with the U.S. military and some span over 70 years, including USO, Wounded Warrior, Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP), as well as a host of others.

The company has a deep and special relationship with the U.S. military and proud of that heritage.

When asked if she would jump again, Ceree replied, “Absolutely, yes. But don’t ask me to rappel off a six-story tower backwards.”