WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 12, 2011) -- A group of about 230 high school students from around the country, and as far away as London, got a lesson in leadership from one of the Army’s top leaders at the Washington Navy Yard today.

Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli spoke to the young community leaders as one leader to another at the Bank of America Student Leader Conference immediately before the students stuffed backpacks full of school supplies and other goodies for military kids as a part of Operation Homefront.

“I really believe that leaders are recognized by their actions,” he said. “What you do, as well as what you do not do in life will relay to others what your priorities are, I think the most important thing that identifies truly great leaders is integrity. And if there’s anything that you do not want to lose, it’s honor and your integrity. That is absolutely essential. Integrity matters most in all you do.”

“I think leadership is something you learn more about every single day you live. (Leadership skills) come from such things as being part of a team, whether it’s a basketball team, baseball team, T-ball, whatever you do, and learning how to work with others,” he said. “The experiences I’ve had over 39 years have allowed me to become, I think, a better leader and learn something just about every single day. I think that it is also very, very important that no matter where you go you retain humility and understand that everybody has problems.”

“Be willing to listen to people. Listen to all ideas and realize that really the only time you’re learning anything is when you’re not speaking,” Chiarelli continued.

He pointed to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Arthur Petry, who was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in a White House Ceremony today, as an example of everything a leader should be. Petry, an Army Ranger, lost his hand after throwing a live enemy grenade away from his fellow Soldiers during an engagement in Afghanistan in 2008.

“Now there is a true American hero,” Chiarelli said, adding that attending the ceremony was one of the “wonderful” things about his job, which he described as being the chief operating officer of the Army. That means, he told the students, that he is responsible for about $240 billion, and training and equipping around 1.1 million men and women.

As overwhelming as that might sound, and as much as testifying before Congress is “never a lot of fun,” Chiarelli explained that his most daunting task has been reducing the stigma attached to post-traumatic stress -- he refuses to use the term disorder -- and traumatic brain injury. Together they make up approximately 66 percent of all serious battlefield injuries, while amputations only comprise around 10 percent.

“Post-traumatic stress is real and it has been part of warfare since the beginning of time,” he explained. “These are in fact the real wounds of this war, which we as a country are going to have with us for a long period of time. I could go to Walter Reed, and I do often, and see Soldiers who have lost an arm or a leg and I can look them in the eye and I can promise them that their lives are going to look a lot better six months from now.”

“I cannot do that when I see someone who has post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury because we just don’t know enough about the brain,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Medical advancements, he explained, are one of the few truly good things to come from war. Prostheses have already changed forever, and Chiarelli believes that in 20 years, the most important lessons of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will involve understanding the brain.

“There’s a tendency in this country, and I would say not only the military, but civilians too, to shun those who have some kind of behavioral health issue,” he explained after one young girl mentioned that her grandfather was finally getting help for PTSD after 60 years. “That’s probably been the biggest leadership challenge that I’ve had in my current job: Changing a culture to accept that the hidden wounds of war are just as serious as the ones people see.”

It also wasn’t easy for Chiarelli to learn how to speak to doctors and question their research, but it was something he had to do, something he said all good leaders must do. They must push themselves.

“I had to read,” he said. “I had to study, I had to get into areas that I was not necessarily comfortable with and I really believe that that is what great leaders do. And don’t just rely on the staff. Sometimes it takes no-kidding hard work to learn yourself so that you can make the right decisions.”

“You have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone. It was not comfortable for me to be worried about building sewers in Baghdad, but I had to, and I had to teach myself, and after a year in Baghdad, I knew more about sewers than most engineers. I knew all the different ways to take sewage out of a neighborhood. There’s a whole bunch of different ways,” he joked to laughter from the audience.

He was a big hit, said Britney Williams, 17, and Crysta Gonzalez, 16, two military children at the conference. They presented Chiarelli with one of the backpacks as a thank-you.

“It was such an honor and such a privilege to shake hands with someone who gets respect from so many different people. It was just a really cool experience. I will never forget it,” said Crysta, whose father is a chief master sergeant in the Air Force.

“It was just an honor to be up there with him of all people,” agreed Britney, the daughter of an Army lieutenant colonel and granddaughter of another vet. “He’s just top-notch. I have a lot of respect for him. My dad is going to be excited.”

Unlike many Americans, they know the military well. Chiarelli noting that because less than one percent of Americans serve in the armed forces, he worries there is a disconnect between the American people and its military. He urged the young leaders at the conference to consider careers in not just the military, but in any form of public service.