Ten years ago, Jason Blydell read a book that would change the course of his career, and his life. The book was One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, a memoir by Nathaniel Fick, who had led U.S. Marines into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early years of the global war on terror.
“I was blown away,” says Blydell of the book. And he felt a connection with the author, a graduate of Dartmouth College, where Blydell was then a junior. “I was intrigued by everything about it. As soon as I finished the book, I called the Marines’ officer recruiter.” Following graduation, he entered the Marines’ Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia.
Learning to lead
During his first deployment as an infantry officer with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Blydell led a rifle platoon of more than 90 Marines, sailors, and Afghan National Security Forces in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. He was a second lieutenant in his early 20s; and he was receiving the first of many lessons in leadership he would absorb during his years of service.
“The deployment was the most impactful experience of my life to this point,” Blydell recalls. “I was put in a position to make decisions and operate at an incredibly high level, in charge of a lot of guys, at the age of 23. They really push you into a leadership position, and you have to just figure it out, what it takes to gain the respect of your guys and make the tough decisions, and learn the hard way a lot of times.”
Mentor and mentee
New assignments followed, along with new responsibilities and advances in rank. Blydell returned to Helmand in 2011 as a first lieutenant and executive officer of his battalion’s Company A.
“I was in a different role,” Blydell says. “The guy who coordinates across all platoons, makes sure they have what they need, mentors all the new lieutenants, and runs the company from an operational perspective. Everything I learned from my first deployment, I impressed on the younger guys to help them as they were leading their platoons in a lot of the same situations that I’d been in previously.”
Even as he took on these new levels of responsibility, Blydell realized the continuing importance of mentorship to his own development. “I was with the same company commander for both deployments, and he’s still a mentor to me to this day. It was incredibly valuable, all the leadership lessons and traits I was able to garner from that time.”
Jason Blydell, Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011
Over the ensuing years, Blydell’s role within the Marines continued to evolve. He was promoted to captain and by 2012 commanded Company A at its stateside home, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. His management duties evolved as well. “It’s easy when you have a deployment,” says Blydell. “Everyone’s prepared and focused. Now you’re dealing with a lot of issues that occur when you return from deployment, whether it’s post-traumatic stress or lack of focus. There’s a lot of moving parts regarding personnel. That was a challenge, and a good experience.”
A posting to a training facility at Camp Pendleton in San Diego followed. This was where Blydell realized that his advancement, combined with the slowing tempo of American combat operations in Afghanistan, had taken him to a place he wasn’t sure he wanted to be. “I joined the Marine Corps to lead men in combat, and that was becoming less and less likely,” he says. “Like any organization, the longer you stay in a hierarchy, you move further away from working hand-in-hand with the guys you joined to serve with and lead.”
Blydell decided to resign his commission in 2016 and, during the paid leave that followed, resolved to pursue an MBA. Moving back to his home state of Massachusetts, he enrolled at Suffolk’s Sawyer Business School, convenient to his new home in Charlestown, and will graduate in January 2018. He focuses his business studies in organizational behavior and leadership, with an eye towards a career in the health, fitness, and human performance sectors. And he is leveraging his years in the military to advance his understanding of the business world. “I want to use this MBA with my military experience to find a position in business where I have a leadership role and have the ability to manage a team,” says Blydell.
A bigger picture
Blydell is clear about what people in the working world or academia can learn from military veterans.
“I don’t think people realize the level of responsibility and leadership these young men and women often have coming right out of high school. What I saw an eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old kid do in Afghanistan, I think people who are forty years old and spent twenty years in business never did in their lives. A lot is put on their shoulders, and they find a way to really step up and become leaders at a very young age.”
When veterans transition into the working world of civilians “there’s a much bigger picture behind the guy or girl than the skillset they might have on paper.”