A few weeks ago I had to make a trip back to the place of my origin as a Special Forces Soldier, a.k.a. Fort Bragg, North Carolina. While there I was able to chat with my younger brother Matthew, who is the last of the brothers still on active duty, although his time is winding down. He was in the Q-course for a while, but eventually decided that Special Forces was not his path, and dropped out. Now he is in the infantry, preparing to get out early next year.
We had the opportunity to hang out and eat dinner at a charmingly psychedelic little pizza joint called “The Mellow Mushroom,” and we talked a bit about his plans and about mine, and the point of Special Forces, or the Army in general. I was recommending he consider joining the National Guard, citing the reasons that I transferred to the NG rather than get out completely:
- Tuition assistance: I have the Post 9/11 GI bill, but financially it makes more sense to save that for the high cost university courses that I start next year. In the meantime, the Guard offers $4500/year towards a degree plan, which can cover a whole lot of community college, saving the Post 9/11 for the big ticket courses in Junior and Senior year, or in my case, the Masters program.
- Tricare Reserve Select: for a single guy you can get full coverage for <$100/month, and for a family full coverage is <$300/month. When we found out we were pregnant with Evie that suddenly became the deciding factor for going Guard. It cost us less than $200 total to have her at the hospital by C-section. In our current world of Obamacare, you cannot find a better deal.
- Keep the retirement going: I had invested 12 years already. By the time I am 39 I will be able to retire from the Guard and have a pension waiting for me when I hit 65 (or a little younger, based on combat deployments).
These were all practical and valid reasons for going National Guard, but in talking with my brother, and being in training with Active Duty guys again, I realized that these weren’t the whole stories.
The deeper issue was that I like it.
When asked why I went Special Forces in the first place, the closest I can come to a concise answer is, “To see if I could do it.” It is not being flippant. That was the major part of my motivation, just to see if I could gut through and be among the best. I never did, and still do not, consider myself one of the best. In terms of Special Forces guys I am pretty average in capabilities and way outside the norm in personality and priorities. In fact, my first year in group was a big, “What the hell have I gotten myself into!?” time.
But having gutted through and succeeded at some level; having pushed my limits beyond what I had expected, and in ways I never expected; having sacrificed a good deal of life, and some more worthwhile things to achieve a silly green hat; in short, having paid the price, I learned that I like it.
I don’t necessarily enjoy sucking at life, but I enjoy being the sort of person who can suck at life and not give up. I don’t like the hardship, and the constantly critical environment, the need to prove yourself everyday or risk letting your team down. But on the other hand, I like the kind of person that living and even thriving in that environment has made me.
But more than that I like being around the kind of guys that like that sort of thing. I may not like heights, but I like being in the gang of guys that does. I like that I can at least keep up with the group, and that it pushes me to be better than I ever could be on my own.
You see, in Group we lived life at such a high level of intensity. Constant self-improvement was not optional, it was a life-and-death serious business. It was what we did. I try to maintain that attitude in my daily life on the civilian side, with a program of constant study, daily prayer, and regular physical training, but on the civilian side you are always the odd man out. People look at you funny.
When I go back to the SF world for short stretches it is refreshing to be around the sort of folks who don’t find it weird when you tell them that you are trying to deadlift 500 pounds, or that you practice dry-fire from a concealed holster every day, or that you are trying to learn a foreign language, study the history of Western civilization from Ancient Rome to modern America, get a Masters degree, perfect the one-armed pullup, staff and manage a trip overseas, and keep your two mile time under 13:20, all while maintaining a family and home life. Guys who will nod and say, “That’s cool. Here’s what I did when I was trying to train up to one-armed pullups,”or “Have you checked out the S.I.R.T. laser trainer? That’s what I use for dry-fire.”
It is cool to be around people who also have no time for video games or even seeing most of the new movies that come out, because they are too busy trying to be more!
But the catch is that if you ask most of these guys why they do all this, and if you asked me, it is most often not for noble, altruistic reasons like, “To defend my country,” “To make the world a better place,” “To liberate the oppressed.” A few actually do want to do all those things, but most do it simply because they like it. We like getting high on getting paid to do badass things that most other people can only do on video games. Even those (like me) who do actually want to liberate the oppressed, have long since learned that De Opresso Liber is less a mission statement than a catchphrase.
That’s why when I stay on Active Duty for long periods of time I become gradually more depressed and less motivated. Sure, the job is fun, but what is it for?
It’s all very well to spend your life trying to be a warrior monk, but if it isn’t about something bigger than yourself it’s ultimately meaningless and unsatisfying. Like it or not, America’s global interests are not a sufficient why. Self-improvement for its own sake is a higher goal than serving America’s interests because the human person will last forever while America is nothing more than a temporary political construct, with at best a few hundred years of use left in it.
At home I have a purpose. I get up early so that I can pray and workout, but after that I have to get things ready for when Kathleen and Evie wake up (breakfast, clothes, pack for work or school, etc.) and once they do get up there is constant work to be done and play to be played. When I leave for work or school I am trying to perform the best I can at these tasks so that I will provide or care for these two people. When I get home there is the practical, hands on work of feeding and clothing to be done (in the form of dishes, cooking, laundry, etc.)
From the time they wake up until the time we all go to bed, my time is not my own. It belongs to my family and its sole purpose is to provide or care for them. This is ultimately more satisfying than shooting, training, martial arts, fitness, and even reading, study and doing medicine.
In the end, glorifying God and serving people are the only two things I have found that carry with them an abiding sense of meaning.