Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What I Learned From A Combat Veteran

I got a text message calling me a [expletive] ten different ways. That could only mean one thing--Mike was back from Iraq. I called him. We cursed each other out. Then we made plans to drink. “Freedom isn’t free, mother [expletive],” he said. “So buy me beer.” It was the least I could do. He’d just spent 18 months in the sandbox, and I was dying to hear about his experiences, particularly because I was getting ready to go to the sandbox.

I had the pleasure of meeting Mike at Basic Training. We, uh, enjoyed the rustic stay at Fort Benning. One of the many highlights was a deranged Drill Sergeant who liked to force us to wear full rain gear on top of our uniforms then PT (exercise) us to death. He would always say, “We gonna make it rain up in this [expletive].”It would rain too. As we lodged our ankles in the bunk bed frames and did decline push-ups and flutter kicks and crunches and side straddle hops, the sweat would drip off the rain hood that wagged over your head and pool on the floor beneath your face. And that was only a half hour into our day at 3:30am.

Mike and I bonded for two reasons. The first was that our last names started with the same letter which meant we were always standing in line somewhere near each other. You memorize the moles, birthmarks, and skull structure of the man who is directly ahead of you alphabetically because you stare at the back of his head at least an hour every day while you stand in line for something at the position of parade rest. That means all you can do is maintain your position, blink, breathe, and stare at the noggin directly in front of your nose.The second reason we bonded was because we always used to sigh at the same time, when some senseless eighteen-year old decided to be a tough guy at the wrong time and we all had to suffer the consequences. We later found out, after earning the privilege of human speech, that we had a similar history which led up to our enlistment in the United States Army. We also had a similar future: if we made it out of Basic Training then we’d be heading to Combat Medic School in Texas. We were both in our mid-20’s and wanted to get in on the fight against the Taliban after 9/11. When I got to the bar, Mike was sitting solo, halfway through his first beer with a reserve at the side. He looked lean. I’m sure everyone in the bar was both strangely comforting as well as filling him with disgust (undisciplined civilians). I sat down next to him without saying a word, took a slug off his reserve beer, and dropped a pair of twenty dollar bills on the bar. The bartender looked at me. I glared back at him, motioned at the beers and our general direction and said: “More.” He went to work.

“I get back from 18 months overseas and you help yourself to my beer.”

“When did you start wearing panties and whining? You’re evidently transitioning back into civilized society real well. You’ll get all the beer you want tonight, [expletive].”He grinned. I grinned. It was going to be a great night.

Years have gone by, and Mike is currently headed to what he designates as "Afcrapistan" with a Special Forces Group for the latest surge in the global war on terror. In a million quiet moments I have thought of Mike and what he has seen and will face, in addition to the myriad of young men and women who have volunteered to serve in the United States Armed Forces at this point in history. I reflect on the friendship that was forged at Fort Benning while we did thousands of push-ups and experienced the circus that is Basic Training. It is a unique and unparalleled friendship, made that way by one of the strangest and powerful environments that life has to offer, that is, the crucible where human beings learn the art, science, and mentality of how to take life while efforting to maintain one's own in the face of an enemy who is trying to take it.

I learned some important life lessons that night in the bar.

No one is an island. Our decisions and actions affect others. No one is more aware of this than a team or squad of soldiers in combat. If we ignore this, people begin to resent our choices. People who harm others with carelessness gamble on the forgiveness of others and delude themselves with a false concept of self-importance. A wise person realizes that if you harm people long enough, even unintentionally, sooner or later those people are going to begin to want to hurt you back. Instead, if you want to inspire a positive response, you must incorporate respect for your fellow human being in decision-making. It also means you might need to sacrifice your solitary rate of 100mph for a team rate of 60mph. When you make the curve you didn't see coming, you'll collectively enjoy the view from the top of cliff instead of breathlessly careening toward a brutal canyon floor, wondering "What was I thinking?" or "Who have I been listening to?" just before impact.

Anger Can Be An Excellent Motivator, If Used Correctly. It can be a powerful catalyst for change if time is taken to locate its source and to deal with it. Anger often stems from a time when we were harmed, hurt, or violated and didn't have the power or understanding to stop it. If we choose to bury the reasons for our anger and refuse to face it, we might as well strap on our Kevlar and listen to the ticking. Upon detonation we won't just lose our own limbs; we will also lose anyone who has made the decision to stand beside us (including our children). If that realization doesn't spur us toward healing, then maybe the following will: if we don't deal with our anger, then whoever initially hurt us is still violating us by the power of that original wound. When you can't stop the bleeding, there's no shame in calling the medic. The only way out is forgiveness, learning from the situation, and doing our best to stop it from ever happening again. This is a chance for the warrior in you to learn one of the most powerful lessons of all: strength is not large muscles wrapped around bones. The domain of true strength is the spirit.

It really is about the guy standing next to you. The first casualty must be the ego. People like to talk. Many people consist of mainly that: mere talk. Lt. Col. Randolph C. White said in his legendary speech to a group of Fort Benning Infantry graduates: "For my money, there are two kinds of men that walk the earth. Men of action and all others." Our current society, barraged with truckloads of information, is constantly stimulated and frequently overwhelmed into incapacitation. People get steamrolled into a complete inability to assert themselves in the face of such daunting amounts of information, especially those that believe in order to have value they must be the smartest, coolest, best-looking, or most unique. This is one of the downsides of the gospel of individuality. Those who are not duped into this insecurity-fostering idea that best = worth, nestle into the healthy waters of seeing each day as an opportunity, not a gauntlet of unending failure. They are not burdened by crippling self-loathing because they understand that safe and successful completion of the mission is more important than dominating others. That's why Army Special Forces soldiers are referred to as Quiet Professionals. They don't have to talk loud about their accomplishments. Secure and brimming with confidence, they have the internal wealth of high personal standards tied to a collective reverence for the team, infused by an intensity of focus on the mission, instead of the mirror. As the Spartan proverb reads: "Many words are poverty."

Soldiers often offend short-sighted misconceptions. The uniformed people that the civilian public sends to war often grasp the most fundamental realities of the human condition better than anyone who hasn't experienced such extremes. These young men and women and their families ought to be reverenced and provided for as they face these challenges. In the end, they just might be the strongest voice of reason when international or domestic conflict attempts to instill panic and fear. These combat veterans who have lived through the most brutal and inhumane circumstances have also felt heights of nearly inconceivable self-actualization, brotherhood, and an incomparable appreciation for peace. It is their reward for offering all.


article from Just a Guy Thing

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