Thomas Brenton is an active-duty Army officer and Kathleen Atanasoff is an active-duty Air Force officer. They are both working at Coca-Cola fulltime for about a year as part of the U.S. Army Training With Industry and U.S. Air Force Education With Industry programs. These programs enable service members to work in a section of the company commensurate with their military skill sets or career fields to learn industry perspectives and best practices. Similarly, these officers help refresh and strengthen Coca-Cola's workforce and business practices with their unique military experience and backgrounds.
The following is a conversation between Tom and Kathleen about Veterans Day and their time with the military and at Coca-Cola. The opinions shared here are those of the individuals and not of the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense, nor of The Coca-Cola Company.
Why do you think people should celebrate Veterans Day?
Photo: Amy Sparks
Kathleen: As more time comes between us and the many conflicts our country has engaged in, I think we will lose sight of those struggles if we don’t recognize the people who fought in them. By remembering the faces – the men and women who lived it every day – we also remember the lessons. No one remembers the Vietnam War fondly, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Veterans Day helps us celebrate people’s service, as well as reflect on our successes and failures.
Speaking of service, you’ve been in the Army for 15 years. What misconceptions do you think people have about active-duty military members or Veterans?
Photo: Amy Sparks
I think a lot of the misconceptions are due to Veterans not being more vocal in sharing their stories and experiences, but also a willingness of people to even ask a veteran or active-duty member what they’ve experienced. Most veterans will happily share with you an experience that they’ve had, but sometimes, it can feel as if people are afraid they will trigger a bad memory or experience and just don’t even want to go there. Obviously, there are topics that are better left unsaid, but having a veteran tell their story can provide meaningful discourse to anyone wanting to know what worked and what doesn’t from their perspective.
Kathleen: Great point. I think people want to share their stories, so it’s just a matter of showing interest and asking them to open up about their experiences. There has been a lot of emphasis lately on helping military members and their families successfully transition to the civilian world after their time in the military. I think we are so fortunate to have the chance to dip a toe into the corporate world and get a taste of what that transition will ultimately be like, once we do leave the military. From what you’ve seen so far, what are some of the things you think you struggle with or that your family struggles with in this transition?
Tom: I struggle daily with the differences in language Coca-Cola uses compared to the Army, as well as the differences in planning and collaboration for this kind of organization. Having been in for 15 years, I find myself needing structure that civilian life doesn’t have compared to military life. But don’t get me wrong, this has been an eye-opening experience, and I truly think I can leave Coca-Cola with so many new perspectives to bring back to the Army. My family and I still find it difficult in just learning about our new community and making connections. Being around military bases, you knew where you needed to go to get things done. All the kids had at least a few friends whose parents were military, and the neighborhoods all have military members who can help with any transition question. So just finding the right folks to go to has been the challenging part.
What about you? Has this experience made you homesick for the Air Force at all?
Kathleen: I miss the camaraderie. People here are incredibly kind and have welcomed me into their network, which I truly appreciate. But there is a special bond formed between service members in the military that I don’t think can be replicated. It’s not that we all necessarily shared the same foxhole, rather that we share the same calling regardless of service branch, rank or any demographical difference. So when I am in the airport and meet a young sailor, I feel connected to him just because we are both in the service. Or when an older Veteran tells me a war story he hasn’t shared with his own kids because I’m the one in uniform, I know he told me because he knows I get it. I think that camaraderie is part of the military tradition. Related to that, Coca-Cola is a 129-year-old company with a rich history. Funny enough, it is much younger than the Army and a lot older than the Air Force.
What have you learned so far at Coca-Cola that you know you will take back to the military?
Tom: I will definitely take back some communications industry best practices that the military is just not up to speed on. I think we have a ways to go, but I know there are a lot of great leaders I’ve worked with who are only a phone call away should I have a question.
What sticks out in your mind so far from your experience?
Kathleen: The ways Coca-Cola seeks and invests in innovation are impressive. While I think the Air Force is leaning in that direction by empowering our motivated, young Airmen to share their innovative ideas with their leadership, we can and should go further. Oftentimes, we implement the "latest" technology just in time for it to change. We need to be more cutting-edge, and I think Coca-Cola has many examples of ways to do that. For instance, Coca-Cola partners with startup entrepreneurs to help solve larger challenges the company faces.
What do you think Coca-Cola can learn from the military?
Tom: Well I hope I have shown the value in working out alternatives in planning and also looking at strategy differently. I think goal-setting is extremely important in any organization, and it is one thing to make a goal and get the team moving that way. Great leaders see the “roadmap” and show where progress is being made, but also show metrics for how effective they are and where they need to make adjustments. Being adaptive and flexible are the best traits leaders can show, because as the old saying goes, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
Kathleen: Said like a true soldier.