Each Veterans Day, we pause to salute and pay tribute to those who have risked everything to serve our nation. We are honored to have many veterans play a critical role at FEMA by bringing their expertise and knowledge to emergency management.
FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination Director Sherman Gillums is one of the many veterans at FEMA. He served in the United States Marine Corps for 12 years before suffering a career-ending injury. He continues to embody the values he learned in the Marine Corps in his work at FEMA.
In honor of Veterans Day, Gillums shared some thoughts about his military experience and how it influences his work at FEMA.
Can you share more about your military experience?
I joined the Marine Corps at age 17 because I wanted to serve my country, like my granddad did during the Korean War and my Uncle Bill did in the Vietnam War. I spent several years overseas and on deployment as a crash photographer for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Army Criminal Investigation Division, where I documented mishaps, autopsies and crime scenes.
After doing a stint overseas, I returned to the U.S. on orders to be a Drill Instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, where I was once a recruit myself. During my tour, I served in the highly coveted role of “Senior Drill Instructor” as a sergeant and received a meritorious promotion to staff sergeant, after which I was selected Battalion Drill Instructor of the Year in 1999. I also earned the title of Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor-Trainer after completing the program at the Center of Excellence located at Raider Hall in Quantico, Virginia.
However, my greatest achievement was successfully transforming over 400 civilians into Marines during my assignment, followed by a commission to the “Mustang” ranks in 2001 prior to suffering a career-ending injury in 2002.
How does your service in the military influence the work you do at FEMA?
My work at FEMA is informed by the core values I learned in the Marine Corps: honor, courage and commitment. How I lead, engage my staff, work with partners and serve my country in my current role may be different from the time I served in uniform, but I am the same person who sought to hold myself to a higher standard in everything that I do.
Teamwork is a major part of what I did in the Marines and what I do now. No matter who I am tasked to lead, I still see myself as the person who needs to best exemplify what it means to put the team ahead of oneself when necessary to accomplish a common objective. Marines do this very well, but it translates outside the military, in corporations, nonprofit organizations and other workspaces where team harmony is important.
I am proud to serve in my current role because I get to impact the lives of people in crisis. Heroism comes in many forms, and most Marines I know envision someday being that hero. Well, I find myself surrounded by heroes whenever I deploy to disasters, whether it is someone from the community who selflessly stepped up to help or protect others or my colleagues in the agency who serve as the quiet professionals, pulling people out of harm’s way as a matter of routine. Next to being in uniform, I can think of no other profession I would rather do than helping people at some of the worst moments of their lives.
“Leaving no fellow Marine behind” was more than just a mantra. That was how we lived and oriented our minds 24/7. I continue to apply that mindset in the work we do to ensure no one is or feels abandoned whenever we are called to respond to an emergency. This includes my colleagues across the agency who give up a lot, in terms of family time and even safety for many just to ensure we save and assist as many survivors as possible during disasters.
My work as FEMA’s Disability Coordinator and Office of Disability Integration and Coordination director is about working with the FEMA workforce, our interagency partners and stakeholders in our communities to ensure people with disabilities are not left behind in planning and preparing for disasters; during disasters as they evacuate, seek shelter or shelter at home; after disaster when they are applying for assistance and trying to return to their lives and work and rebuilding with resilience through universal design during recovery.
What does Veterans Day mean to you?
I always saw Veterans Day as a time for every person in America to reflect on what it means to serve and the irretrievable costs many have paid to ensure freedom for all. Most of us reflect on this nonstop, but setting aside a day to connect with others and focus on what it means to be a military veteran is the best recruiting tool for our military that we have in our country. A nation will be judged by how it treats its veterans, especially when they hang up the uniform for good and try to find a place in a society that does not always understand veterans. Veterans Day is an opportunity to cultivate a greater understanding.
Why is the emergency management field a good place for veterans to continue their service?
Emergency management provides the perfect compromise between ending one’s military career and all that came with it while retaining what made serving in uniform so special for many. Every time I look down at the patch on my shirt that announces what I do for a living, it reminds me of the feeling I had each time I saw the marine eagle, globe and anchor over my heart. I would love to see many more military veterans get to enjoy the same feeling.
Veterans can continue their service at FEMA to help communities and individuals nationwide prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. To learn more, visit FEMA’s Recruitment Events and Webinars and Veterans and Military Spouses.