If you have been training for any length of time you know that some days are just lousy workout days. Some days you just can’t train like you usually do. Monday was one of those days. Part of it was my fault. We ate heavily in the early afternoon and then not again the rest of the day, so I was well into the fasted stated by 5:00 AM on Monday. Plus, I had too much simple carbs and alcohol (two drinks, I know, #lightweightheavyweight) on Sunday and was feeling heavy and sluggish.
Part of it was only slightly in my control. We let the girls listen to Celtic Women, and they had been obsessed with two of the songs “The Caelie” and “You’ll be in my heart.” So all my dreams had a Celtic Woman soundtrack in toddler voices. Needless to say my sleep was poor.
Part of it was completely out of my control. The YMCA was closed for some silly reason on Monday, so none of my regular equipment was available to me.
So the workout was weak and I couldn’t hit my regular moves. The video is long, I don’t expect anyone to watch the whole thing, so I’ll sum up:
I couldn’t keep a straight arm on the lever pullups, and could only do one rep instead of my usual three per side.
I couldn’t push out of the hole on the HSPU.
I couldn’t hit more than one weighted (24kg) pistol per side.
This is why it is important to master the basics of calisthenics and have a solid understanding of the progression of every move you are working on. Some days you will be feeling great and may want to hop up a level or two just for fun. Other days you will be feeling lousy and will need to take it back a level or two. Know your progressions, be able to transition up or down based on your body’s needs on the given day.
The one thing you must not do is nothing.
Moving into the stamina phase, my third round was rocky. My pullups were weak, partly because I was tired and partly because rings are just harder. I didn’t have a box to elevate my feet so I subbed out KB OH presses (32kg) for my regular pike pushups, and concentrated on form.
Drop back if you have to, just put in the work. Even if you have to right back to square one (aussie pullups and floor standing pike pushups) you still get in your reps and sets and rounds.
The secret to progress is really very simple. If you practice anything every day, 4 – 6 days per week, for a year or two, you will start to develop a certain proficiency at it. If you keep it up for 10 years, you will be quite good. If you keep it up for 30 years, you will master it.
Since no blog post would be complete without a reference to the spiritual life, let me point out my prayer time that day felt as sluggish and lousy as my workout. Or rather the other way round, since I did my prayers first, as per my custom.
Some days you will feel alive and alert and in tune with God and the Communion of Saints and all people of good will. The light of Eden will flow in your veins. When that happens, recognize it as a gift and take advantage of it. Give in to the call, say the extra prayers, read the extra chapter, spend the extra hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Do not worry about sustainability, just capitalize on the present gift.
More often, I think, you will find your thoughts wandering, your enjoyment sluggish, your insights shallow and halting, and your love pale and stunted. Some days you may not be able to collect yourself for one minute out of the whole hour.
Don’t worry about it. Just put in the work. Keep the discipline, say the prayers, leave the rest in the hand of God.
Calisthenics, when done properly, is a prayer of the body. It is a choice to glorify the God of the Incarnation by disciplining the body He designed and gave me to its maximum strength, beauty and usefulness. Like all relationships (which is what prayer really is) it has its up as downs, its highs and lows. The only thing that really matters is giving it your best, whatever that may be at any given moment, in every moment. If all you can do is one pushup, let it be a perfect pushup. If all you can say is one “Our Father,” let it be with your whole heart.
Even if we have to go all the way back to “Now I lay me down to sleep…” Let us never give up.
In the last three months I have formally rucked 50 miles. I say “formally” to distinguish these events from casual hikes with the family in which I have been carrying a rucksack, +/- a child. While those are fun, enjoyable and far more valuable (for reasons I will get into at the end of this), they are informal in that there is no set distance, and no attempt at speed, intensity, or any other specifically physical challenge.
These formal rucks were conducted on the #resolutionrun courses in Ft. Steilacoom. The first was a 5-miler on January 5th. Kathleen did the 5k option on that one (I can’t smile for selfies, it seems).
The second was the 10 miler on January 26th.
Then the 15 miler on February 23rd.
Then the 20 miler to cap it off on March 23rd.
You’ll notice my average pace got slower and slower with each race.
Let’s finish this blog up quickly since I have to get Ellie up from her nap in a few minutes. What did I learn from this race series?
I am not as young as I used to be.
I am older than I used to be.
I am not as good at rucking as I used to be (not necessarily related to #’s 1 & 2 above.) Simply put, I am out of practice. The 15-miler was by far the most painful of the lot. Breaking past ten miles was where I first ran into electrolyte issues. Turns out that when I burning >1000 calories per hour, right around two hours I start to go hyponatremic (that is, my sodium is low from sweating out electrolytes). I did not bring along enough water or snacks on the 15-miler, because I had got used to sprint events (comparatively) where I would just go for speed and be done before I had time to hurt. In the old days I would never start a ruck, regardless of the planned distance, with less than 6 liters of water, at least half of which would be filled with oral rehydration salts to replenish my electrolytes, and I would start replenishing early, right from the start so I would not get to the sodium crash. I did better on the 20-miler, with some pedialyte in my camelback and 5 snickers bars, but I still crashed hard and slowed to 20 minute miles, and I swelled up so bad that I retained 16 lbs of water (yes, I did weigh myself before and after). So, yeah, my technical skills aren’t what they used to be. Lesson (re-)learned.
A gut check is important. I’ve written before about the “man-maker” and what the rucksack means to me. I started the 20-miler in the right place, terrified to death of the suck that I knew was coming, but determined to see it through or get injured, but never to quit.
I have also written about the fight against the Dad-bod. I still take a theological view of the body, in that (in the ordinary scheme of things) the body is the symbol of the soul. At least it ought to be. As a husband and father I do not want a flabby body because I do not want a flabby soul. I do not want to give the impression of a flabby soul. I cultivate a warrior’s body as I cultivate a warrior’s soul, for my family. I protect them, I provide for them, I serve them as a man, and as a warrior. I have no patience with men who say, “but I am a lover, not a fighter.” Bull$—t! Forgive the expression, but in this world, if you are not a fighter then you are a $–+ lover. In this world we live in a war, a vast war against principalities and powers. Sometimes that spills over into the world of physical violence, or physical illness (my specialties) but it always exists in the world of mental, emotional and spiritual violence. If you are not willing to do violence to your own weakness for the sake of your family, you will never be willing to spend the time in prayer, sacrifice and worship it takes to protect them from the world, the flesh and the devil.
Finally, rucking is a great opportunity for prayer.
That’s my thoughts on the matter for now. I will probably come up with more later.
I have spent a good deal of my life at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It is the home of the Airborne and Special Forces, and I spent a little over two years there in my Q-course days. When I graduated I was fed up with that place. I had spent two years suffering there, what with the heat and the humidity and getting smoked and yelled at and the hardships of Special Forces training. Perhaps it was petty of my, but when I graduated my thought was, “Screw this place! I am done with it. I am never coming back here. Ever!”
I have since proceeded to return to Fort Bragg at least once per year nearly every year since. I do a medic refresher course every other year, of course. But it is also the home of the Special Forces. You want to go to a leadership school? You’re going to Fort Bragg. You want to deploy? You’re going through Fort Bragg. You want to do any cool shooting schools? You’re going to Fort Bragg.
Over time I have lost my hatred of Fort Bragg and eventually I have even come to regard it as a sort of messed up home-away-from-home. A huge part of that reason, both the reason that I stayed sane when I was in the Q-course, and why I don’t mind Bragg nowadays is the Catholic community there.
I have lived on half a dozen different military installations in my life, and I have never seen a Catholic community like St. Michaels in Bragg. The heart and soul of that community is the daily Mass, conducted every day at noon in Pope Chapel (so called because it is on Pope Army Airfield). There is a core crew of about a dozen retirees led by a retired General who attend every single day, but it isn’t only the old people. Every day there are at least a few young active duty folks. There are some single guys and gals who go, there are some married officers and senior enlisted, and often there are wives and children of soldiers there. And there is almost always at least one or two Q-course students.
Why that is the case, I do not know. It has been my experience that while Special Forces has its fair share of avowed atheists and functional atheists, it also has a higher number of truly committed, disciplined men of faith than other parts of the Army. Purely anecdotal, of course, but I can’t help wondering if the stress and danger of the life doesn’t call up a higher level of commitment in some of the men.
I also know that Fort Bragg has been very fortunate in having some extremely dynamic and charismatic Catholic chaplains in the last few years, and in having a couple of civilian priests on staff as well who can provide long term continuity.
Whatever the reason, it remains the thing I look forward to most whenever I am Braggward bound again. It is like coming home to break away at lunch time, make the five or ten minute drive to Pope Chapel and slip into my old pew near the back on the right. If I can get away early enough I can even take advantage of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and daily confessions. It does my heart good to see all the old soldiers and old soldiers’ wives slowly shuffling in. The General always recognizes me and asks how I am and how my family is doing. The Mass is reverent and celebrated with love and devotion. Afterwards they say the Chaplet of Divine Mercy Novena, or the Rosary. I usually can’t stay.
As I was leaving last time the General told me to stay safe and to do my best to keep the bad guys off their backs. I laughed and said I would, but I rather suspect that those old soldiers and their wives are doing more to keep the evil in this world at bay than any deployment ever will.
Recently a trailer for the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” came across my facebook feed. It was not a typical trailer. Typically a movie trailer shows clips from the movie with pulse-pounding soundtrack, and possibly a deep, gravelly, middle-aged male voice-over. This trailer had scenes from the movie, but it had explanatory subtitles explaining how the movie related to real-life drug wars. It explained that the movie demonstrated how cartels bring a complicated reality to south and central America, and that the violence that erupts between them is more like a guerrilla war, or even a conventional war, than it is like U.S. gang violence. When that violence spills over onto American spoil two of the movie’s characters (who I gather were adversaries in the first film) will join forces to “start a war.” My assumption is that they were trying to aggravate violence south of the border in hopes that it would either draw the violence away from U.S. soil, or provide a reason for U.S. forces to engage in the war outside the U.S.
I don’t have much taste for war movies, or even crime movies, anymore, so up until now the trailer was disquieting but not particularly memorable. But it was the last line that really got me thinking. The final scene of the trailer had the words, “Come experience the excitement in theaters.”
Seriously? That’s what this is about?
I mean, I knew that’s what this was about. It’s an action film, designed to be exciting and to convince people to spend money to experience that excitement, ultimately in order to make money for the directors, producers, actors, investors, etc. Money is the goal, sex and violence sell. Of course they want you to come and experience the excitement.
I just didn’t expect them to be so… bald about it. So obvious.
Essentially the movie makers are selling an experience of adrenaline. In that sense they are no different than the makers of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battleground, Halo, or any of a thousand combat related video games. They are trying to simulate the excitement of combat in a marketable package, i.e. a package that involves no risk of bodily injury or death, no heat, dust, sweat, boredom, no training, no discipline, no obedience, no separation from family…
see where I am going with this?
I will not deny that war is exciting. Having spent some time in war myself I acknowledge that some of the most exciting moments of my life have occurred in war, formed of the level of adrenaline, focus, clarity and just shear aliveness that, for most people not saints, only occurs when your life is in jeopardy. I will go further and say that a young man could do worse than make a career of pursuing that excitement. It is not excitement that I am against, it is cheap thrills.
Violence, like sex, excites because it is a matter of life and death. We were made for life and death, for real struggle, real investment, real risk and real growth. That is we were made to fight real bad guys to rescue real good guys (both physically and spiritually). We were also made to make real love that forms real relationships and real babies. There is a proper place for both sex and violence in art, namely to illustrate the truth of these realities and to inform our choices about them in the real world.
The problem with video games and action movies is not that they are realistic and exciting, but that they are not real. When you go to a movie theater to watch people get killed on the big screen you invest nothing of yourself. You feel the rush and rollercoaster, and you may even have a significant emotional event, but when that experience is over you have not changed. You are still the same person you were before the movie. You may have a new appreciation of some topical issue of the day, you may be emotionally moved, you may have had a spiritual epiphany, but unless that mental and emotional reaction is translated into decision, and from decision to action, and from action to habit, it has not changed you.
It is necessary to bear this in mind when watching war movies. If you want to experience the excitement of a firefight, or of fighting a fire, or of digging up IED’s, then pursue that. Join the military, or the police force, or the fire department. Suffer through basic training, put in thousands of hours at the gym, thousands of miles on your feet, thousands of rounds on the range. Obey the orders of those appointed over you, deny your own inclinations, place yourself at the service of your team. Learn to be faithful in little things. Make your bunk, sweep your floor, scrub the platoon’s toilets. Do maintenance on your vehicles and equipment, take pride in them. Endure the boredom of sitting in a firing position all night, or of driving down dusty roads 12 hours a day. Accept the banality of having to answer to idiots and power-trippers who are in charge of you only because they have been in a few months longer. Miss your chance for a “real” fight time and time again, and still keep showing up to work, putting in your time, taking pride in your performance. Volunteer for harder, more difficult assignments, accept greater responsibility.
Sooner or later you may get your chance to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Or maybe you won’t. But if you pay your dues for enough years you will gain something better. You will learn that excitement is not an end, but a byproduct. It is something that happens when you are engaged in meaningful work, because meaningful work in this world is always risky, but you will not pursue the excitement anymore, you will pursue the meaning.
This is something you will not get from action movies or video games. You can only get it from life.
Recently I have been reading and mulling over two excellent articles over at The Public Discourse. The first is a piece by Anthony Esolen.While I cannot agree with all of his thoughts (most notably his historical nostalgia and his one-sided view of the Middle Ages in some of his books) he is always an impressive scholar, an intriguing thinker, and an awe-inspiring writer. His article focuses on the inadequacy of the maternal approach alone to raising boys up to become men, maintaining that mothers cannot teach manhood, only men can do that. Part of the current crisis in our culture, he maintains, is a crisis of boys who are not growing into men because their fathers are not teaching them.
The second piece, linked in the first, is a piece by Glenn Stanton, whom I had not heard of before. It is even better than Esolen’s piece, focusing on the anthropological origins, or more precisely the ubiquity, of the understanding of the necessity of teaching manhood to the next generation. This is not simply because society cannot do without manhood (which may loosely be defined as “prosocial masculinity”) but because the alternative is either asocial maleness, or antisocial maleness.
Both pieces concur on two crucial points:
Manhood is a learned behavior that must be taught to boys by men. It is a social shaping of male drives into a form that is useful to society rather than a drain on society, or a threat to society, and as such is ultimately at the service of female aims and ends (i.e. ordered to the stability and security of family life and the wider social environment). Nevertheless, it cannot be taught by women. It can only be taught by men. This is because…
Manhood is also an identity that is conferred only by peers, i.e. by older men, or at least by other men. A boy will not accept a definition of manhood that does not carry with it the authority of a man that he respects.
It is the second point that I want to take a closer look at, and where I go beyond both Esolen and Stanton. Both posited that untrained maleness is profoundly asocial, and must be trained to be useful to society by other men, because a boy will only accept the lessons and the designation from another man. They did not get into the weeds about why a boy needs to hear this from a man.
I think the answer lies partially in an understanding of what teaching and learning manhood entails. At its core there is an element of competition. Competition is the heart and soul of the school of manhood. There are many explanations for this, ranging from the theological to the evolutionary, but the observed reality is that (most) boys will engage in competitive activity when left to themselves. This runs the gamut from cooperative competition (sports team vs. sports team) to competitive cooperation (competing for position within a team) to outright competition and warfare (bullying, gang violence, etc.). Regardless of the venue (farming, logging, fishing, hunting, sports, military, business, finance, politics) males will compete with each other. Healthy males will compete in healthy ways, while unhealthy males will compete in unhealthy ways. I define “healthy” competition as competition which leaves the team (family, company, platoon, etc.) stronger. That is, competition which is ordered to the strengthening of the individual members and the overall social body is what Michael Gurian calls, “Competitive nurturing.”
This calls for a re-evaluation of our original proposition, i.e. that untrained maleness is profoundly antisocial. I would argue that in the strict sense, that is not exactly true. Maleness is not oriented toward a stable, peaceful, family-oriented society ordered around the raising and protecting of children. In that sense (what we usually mean by “social”) it is antisocial. Nevertheless, maleness is social, in that it naturally tends towards the formation of what may be called the primordial male social model, the gang.
In reality, the true loner is a very rare bird. Most unattached males throughout human history tend to congregate in gangs, small groups of half a dozen to a few hundred, depending on circumstances. They establish hierarchies by competition or outright violence. They define themselves vis a vis outsiders, they adopt a gang culture which may be simple or elaborate. After that they operate toward the outside world, not as a conglomeration of male individuals, but as a unit, i.e. a gang.
It is here that trouble begins, because it is in aggregate that untrained maleness is most definitely antisocial. In fact, because of the “us vs. them” mentality, coupled with unattached male energy, the natural tendency of a gang, any gang, is towards protecting our own, and pillaging everyone else’s.All warfare, organized crime, genocide, social violence, and tyranny in human history have been perpetrated by gangs, or by gangs of gangs. Very, very little of it is done by women. Probably even less is done by lone males.
In pre-modern settings, the most stable male relationships are not male-female, but rather male-male. I believe (without having conducted an exhaustive study) that male-female friendship or comradeship were rather an exception than the rule in pre-modern society. Sexual relationships (for men) do not bring with them any intrinsic requirement for stability, fidelity or even longevity. We run into the fundamental biological sexual cross-purposes, namely that the woman is intrinsically invested in the act of procreation, while the male is not. What is to her a commitment of her entire life, and a risk of her entire life, is to him no more than a fleeting pleasure, over in moments and soon forgotten unless actively recalled.
I believe it is this fundamental biological fact that underlies the need of male-male relationship. In essence, evolution has engrained in men the default position that women come and women go, but the battle buddy, the blood brother, the comrade-in-arms, he stays forever.
This is frightening but important. The flip side to this is that there is one observable, hardwired social tendency in the unattached male, which is his need to achieve the respect of his peers, to be identified by them as “one of the gang.” The gang instinct is a real and powerful need in men, often understated, nearly always misunderstood. (For the record, this is not the only social tendency in men, it just happens to be one of the strongest, one of the most underrated by our society, and the one most relevant to this discussion).
That is why the teenage boy needs to know himself a man in the eyes of men for it to mean anything. It’s nice when a mother praises him, or a sister admires him, or a girlfriend flatters him, or a wife affirms him. It is nice, but not sufficient, because it does not come from a man, and does not come in a manly way.
Male approbation is always earned, never given. Another way of putting it is that I love you as I choose, but I respect you as you choose. It is usually based on four characteristics: courage, strength, technical know-how, and dependability. These are the virtues of struggle and combat, the virtues of a gang of men battling for their lives and their families against whatever odds, which is why they must be tested by competition with other men, or with some outside element (nature, wild animals, rock-climbing, etc.) under the judgment of other men for the verdict to be valid. When a woman admires a man’s courage, she might be making an informed decision, or an intuitive judgment, or she might just be being nice, or she might be flattering him for some ulterior motive. The one thing she is not doing is testing him against a worthy opponent because she is not a worthy opponent. She may be worthy, but she is not an opponent. Human males are almost universally hardwired to shun competition with women (violence against women is something else entirely).
These are the virtues that male brains are hardwired to admire, to look for in other men, and to demand of their peers. A healthy society of men will hold themselves accountable to these standards one way or another.
It is important to note that these are “amoral virtues” meaning they have no necessary connection to any higher moral code. They are as much the virtues required of a missionary or pioneer as they are the virtues required of a gestapo officer or cartel hitman.
To summarize, as this has been long and somewhat wandering:
Manhood is a learned behavior that must be grafted onto basic asocial maleness in order for society to survive and thrive.
Untrained maleness will spontaneously form into gangs because that is how males define themselves, vs. other men.
Manhood must be taught to boys by men because of the fundamental drive of men to define themselves vs. other men.
It is only by building masculinity onto this foundation, the gang instinct, that it will be brought into service of women, and thus the family, and then of society at large.
There is only one adventurer in the world, as can be seen very clearly in the modern world, the father of a family. Even the most desperate adventurers are nothing compared with him. Everything in the modern world, even and perhaps most of all contempt, is organized against that fool, that imprudent, daring fool – against the unruly, audacious man who is daring enough to have a wife and family. Everything is against him. Savagely organized against him. Everything turns and combines against him. Men, events, the events of society, the automatic play of economic laws. And, in short, everything else. Everything is against the father of a family, the pater familias; and consequently against the family. He alone is literally “engaged” in the world, in the age. He alone is an adventurer. The rest are at most engaged with their heads, which is nothing. He is engaged with all his limbs. The rest suffer for themselves. In the first degree. He alone suffers through others. — Charles Peguy, Clio 1.
Last Thursday on our anniversary, Ryan was trying out a new move on the rings. He had tried it once before a couple of days earlier and been unsuccessful. So this time he tried harder. Here is what Happened:
This resulted in our anniversary being spent mostly at the hospital.
Fortunately they were able to get Ryan in for surgery to repair the injury the very next day. So now he is walking around the house with a sling, And will likely be in the sling for the next two weeks. Overall recovery time will probably be about three months.
No word yet on whether this will nix the deployment or not. We probably won’t know that until his post surgery follow-up appointment at the end of the month.
Oh well, that’s the price you pay for trying to be a badass. Just means I’m going to need to take a little bit longer to nail that move. Certain people have suggested that this injury is a symptom of some strange condition known as “getting older.” However, I don’t think that’s accurate. As a matter of fact since we’ve been married, the average age in our household has been going down, not up. So I can’t be getting older! Because Math!
Recently I had the terrible duty of attending the funeral of a fellow Special Forces solder. He was an acquaintance of mine, we had gone to Thailand together once and done a few drills together, but other than that I didn’t know him very well.
This is the third time in the last two years I have attended a funeral for a Special Forces soldier. Each time it gets harder. It also seems like each time the soldier is a little bit closer to me.
This one was especially hard because of his family. When I went to pay my respects at the coffin, there he was lying there in his service uniform with all his tabs and ribbons, and amidst all the regalia was a folded piece of paper with childish scrawl on it that said, “I love you Daddy.”
I could barely keep it together the rest of the day.
When I was in the Q-course I naively looked forward to the day when I would graduate and life would be easier. No more forced marches, never-ending testing, constant scrutiny. I looked forward to the time when I would have, in some sense, “made it.” As C. S. Lewis would say, I had not yet learned that usually the reward for doing one good deed is to be given the opportunity to do another, even harder one.
I learned when I got to the team that I had not made it. I was still doing forced marches (this time on skis, not what I expected, but not that bad. In fact, it became kind of fun). The worse problem was that I was still under scrutiny, I was still being tested until I had earned my place on the team. Even that was not a permanent thing. As they say, “You’re only as good as your last f— up.” Whatever reputation I had was not a made thing, but something I had to live up to every day until, eventually, living it became part of my persona, and then my personality. Even then, the job wasn’t easier, it was harder, because more was riding on my performance than ever before. In the Q course if I failed it affected no one but myself. On the team my failure could cost the life of a teammate or an innocent civilian. This was why team life was so much harder than the Q course.
I left active duty because I did not want to be gone nine months out of every year any more. I stayed in the guard because we were starting a family and needed the insurance. These days I live at home with my family and go to school, most of the time. I workout and train continuously because I still need to maintain some readiness, but it is not my full time job anymore, until I get called up. Then it all becomes real again.
The physical hardship is no harder to deal with than it has ever been, even if I don’t recover from injuries as quickly as I used to. Even so, the job is costlier now. I never worried too much about getting killed in combat because that was the job I had set out to do and there was no one who depended on me. Therefore, I never prayed for physical protection for myself in combat or training. I never prayed that my life would be spared, because there was no one relying on me to live. Now there is. I don’t want my daughters to grow up without me, and I don’t want Kathleen to have to try to fill my place and do the job I promised her I would do.
This means that continuing to be Special Forces now calls for real courage and trust. It takes no courage to face IEDs when you don’t particularly care whether you live or die. It takes very little trust to continue doing a job when the consequences for failure only affect yourself.
Now my family rides on my success or failure, my life or death.
There is no way to face that except by trusting in God. I must fix firmly in my mind that He loves Kathleen and Evie and Ellie far more than I ever could. I do not rely on Him to help me take care of them. I accept that I am one part of His providential care for them that spans eternity. I will live to care for them as long as He chooses to use me for that purpose, but even when I am no longer the instrument He wishes to use, that purpose will still hold. He will never abandon them or forsake them.
Again to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, “Whether He means us to live or to die, Jesus will be our good Lord.”
I pray that this upcoming deployment remains peaceful and that diplomatic solutions can be found for our differences. If there is war, however, I am even willing to pray that I make it out alive, for my family’s sake.
I have spent a good portion of my life in the space between an ALICE pack and a pair of combat boots. I first put on a rucksack at the age of 17, at basic training, when we had to train up for a culminating event which consisted of rucking 12 miles in 3 hours with 35 pounds. I did not realize at the time just how integral a part of my life that piece of equipment would one day become.
I began to take it a bit more seriously when I started training up for Selection in 2003-2005 (completed but did not pass), then again training for Sapper School in 2006 (completed but did not pass), and then again when I got back from Afghanistan in 2008, training up for Selection again, (passed, September 2008). I spent the next two-years of my life in Fort Bragg, slowly and painfully crawling across the wilds of North Carolina with an unhealthy amount of weight on my back.
During that time I averaged between 20 and 30 miles per week on my feet, either rucking, running or both. I remember hearing other guys say, “I cannot wait until I graduate and go to a team, and then I don’t have to do this outdated, leftover Vietnam BS! I’m just going to lift and get freaking huge and never ruck again.” They were saying it, and I was thinking it. I just wanted to get to that place where I could concentrate on getting jacked and tan, without having to spend 5 to 8 hours under the ruck every week.
Then I got to First Special Forces Group and spent the next three years on a mountain team. If you think military mountaineering is about scaling sheer cliffs in shorts, climbing shoes and muscle shirts, think again. It is mostly about… you guessed it. Rucking.
That’s really what it is. It’s all about carrying heavy things some more, just in steeper and more dangerous terrain; and sometimes over snow.
What is strange is that over time I have come full circle. I started out a starry-eyed young dreamer longing for fortune and glory and excited about doing real Army things! Rucking was fun because I saw myself sneaking into enemy held territory to wreak havoc on bad guys and rescue good guys. Then it became a chore that I had to do, but I didn’t mind because I was good at it. Then it morphed into a demon. At Selection they talk about the “fear monkey” which is an unfocused sense of panic that jumps on your back and sinks its dirty fingernails into your flesh. If you let it, it will sink its teeth in your neck. We also refer to the rucksack as “the tick” because it settles onto you and sucks the life out of you. It gets to be so painful and miserable that just the sight of the tick brings on the fear monkey. You literally panic at the sight of the rucksack.
That is when men either quit, or don’t. And that makes all the difference. If you don’t quit you will find yourself swallowing the fear and at the bottom of the cup you will find enjoyment. It’s the same thing with rock climbing (I am afraid of heights). I don’t think I have ever been on a rock face without promising myself that if I only get off this one alive, I will never climb again. It works every time. And I came to enjoy climbing.
You have to push through the fear to find the joy.
I was talking with a younger guy a while ago, a younger guy who is kind of drifting right now, contemplating his options without acting on any of them. I recommended he start rucking.
Right now my brother Adam and I are engaged in a men’s group doing a program called “Exodus 90.” I brought up the what-if, “What if we lived in a society where every boy had to pass selection as a teenager before he was allowed to hold a job or date a girl.” I may write a novel about that someday, if I get the time.
In Special Forces training the rucksack is a tool. It’s purpose is to force each man to that choice: quit or don’t quit. They don’t particularly care whether any individual quits or not. They are in the business of weeding people out who can’t hack it, and selecting people who can. They use the rucksack, partly because it’s tradition, partly because it is a highly useful skill in combat, but also partly because it is not sexy. If they used weightlifting, or crossfit, or something like that, there would be the unfortunate sexy component. You could look in the mirror in the middle of the suck and think, “Dang, I look good!” But they want a challenge that isn’t fun, isn’t interesting, doesn’t look sexy, and you just have to dig deep and do it anyway. If you can’t do something when no one is looking, and when it isn’t sexy, then they don’t want you. The rucksack will weed you out.
In this sense I use the ruck differently than they did at Selection.
I call the ruck “The Man Maker.” I truly believe that for boys having a hard time transitioning to manhood, the ruck is as good a way as any to learn what you need to learn. Its purpose is not to weed out those who can’t hack it, but to teach those who don’t know they can hack it that indeed they can. And to teach those who think they can that in fact they still have a lot to learn. I encourage rucking as a vehicle for bringing people to that place where they either have to quit or keep going, and then teach them that they can keep going.
Of course some will learn, and some will not.
And of course, the rucksack is not the only man maker out there. A herd of cows, a plot of ground, medical school, a fishing boat, a coal mine, a deployment, the seminary, a small business, a farm, a marriage, children; all of these can bring a boy to that same choice. In other words, life will make a man out of you if you accept its challenge.
That is how God designed it. That is the purpose of this world, to bring you to the moment of choice, which is alive and throbbing underneath every moment of our lives. The rucksack is a model for this, and video games are its antithesis.
Just be aware. Rucking will make a man (or a woman) out of you. But it will not make you a Saint.
Life is simpler with a sword in hand
Because the sword is simple
And when I drive it home
Wielding legion molecules of steel
Forged and forced into ordered
Patterns of interwoven strength
By the heat and the hammer and the heart
Of the burly smith (broad with bulging arms
And a poet’s eye
A technician’s eye
A boy’s eye
Young enough to believe in heroes)
Fiercely leap and drive like fire behind
Which my sluggish soul pursues.Hate has no place in a warrior
For only love can forge a worthy sword.
At such moments my flowing body
Takes on the nature of the blade.
And I imagine my mind too is
At peace.I always come home from the mission,
Or the war;
Or the dojo.
I eat an apple and shower
And sit beside the crib
To watch my bright-haired baby breathe
And all of me reaches out to seek her cheek
And touch tenderly with just one fingertip
Lighter than a butterfly
Softened with a kiss.I get into bed next to my wife
And slide close and stretch to take her hand
And all my body and soul
And loves with the same totality.
All of me.
“Chivalry is only a word for that general spirit or state of mind which inspires a man to heroic and generous actions and keeps him conversant with all that is pure and beautiful in the intellectual worlds.
— Kenelm Henry Digby, “Maxims of Christian Chivalry”