Happy Birthday Army!

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Korea c. 2003 – I’m in front of the back row a few people in from the left. This was one of my first field problems as a Team Leader.

Today, the US Army turns 243 years old; Happy Birthday Army!

To learn more about the formation and broad history of the Army, you can check out the history site of the US Army for more information. I would like to add that I was a part of the oldest branch of the Army (the Infantry). Just another bragging right the Infantry has over the rest of the Army 😉

However, this post isn’t just to say Happy Birthday to the Army or play the “my branch was better than yours” game; I am using this post to say “Thank you” to the US Army and highlight other means of doing your civic duty.

When I joined this aging organization I was a cocky, annoying, know-it-all teenager with no real direction in life. The Army set me on a path to success in life through hard work, discipline, self-sacrifice, and old-school grit. I truly believe if I hadn’t served the sometimes grueling, often times exhilarating, and always proud years in the Army, I wouldn’t be anywhere near the person I am today.

I do not believe military service is for everyone; some people simply aren’t built for the lifestyle (physically, emotionally, or mentally). That being said, it wouldn’t hurt for everyone to spend time in government service more suited to their interests and strengths. If you love nature, go work for a couple of years in the Forest Service; more about helping people in need find housing, HUD is for you; want to give back to veterans who sacrificed so much for so many, check out the Department of Veterans Affairs. Live and learn within these organizations so change can be affected by the masses instead of being afterthoughts in the minds of politicians during campaign season.

What do you get in return? A few things:

  • A better understanding how these organizations are actually run on a day-to-day basis. We as a citizenry assume we know what is going on, but, in reality, so much of our government runs on policy and process unknown by the general public.
  • A sense of civic pride and national identity. People will feel a sense of ownership in their government again because they gave a piece of themselves to keep it going and improve it.
  • Maybe, just maybe, a program could be organized that after a minimal amount of service is completed, participants will receive funds for further education (you know, college or a trade school of the participants choice). Much like the GI Bill for the military, these funds are not likely to cover 100% of the cost of the education, but it would go a long way. And, no, you couldn’t withdraw the money to spend it on whatever you want.

Not sure if this “Civic Pride” idea will catch any fire, but it doesn’t hurt to share.

Happy birthday Army! Thank you for all you have done for me and I wish you many more years of proud service!

What are your thoughts on civic duty? Share your thoughts in the comments and don’t forget to like and share http://www.averageluke.com!

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3 Reasons People Become Addicted to War

Company Mission - LUTAFIYAH - Hell (2)
Me during my third tour in Iraq (Iskandariyah ’07-’08) waiting on a company mission to kickoff.

Let’s be honest, any rational person reading the title of this blog post thinks it’s crazy for anyone to be addicted to such a horrible course of events classified as a war. However, these same rational people, when thrust into the dangerous profession of being a front line soldier are at risk of becoming addicted. It can happen gradually over an extended period of time or all at once. What cannot be disputed is that everyone is at risk.

So, why does this happen? What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war? How can a person be willing to do anything to get their next fix of something all civilized societies in the history of the world have classified as the worst part of human nature? Why are these addicts encouraged to pursue their addiction? What can be done to save these people before the inevitable results of constant exposure to high-stress, life-threatening events exacts the ultimate cost?

For answers to the questions above, you’ll have to keep checking in to this blog. This post will only attempt to shed light on the one of them: What reasons would a person use to justify an addiction to war?

Let’s get into it…

One: Belief in a cause…

This is the most obvious and the most prominent. When a person has such strong convictions in the reason for the war occurring in the first place it is easy for them to want to do everything possible to support it. This includes returning to the most dangerous places on Earth time and again to fight for that cause. Many service members want to be in combat because they feel like they are fulfilling their duty to protect their country from <insert enemy title> (think terrorists, communists, fascists, and other bad “ists”). A cause is a powerful thing and governments throughout history have created causes to lure their citizenry into voluntarily putting themselves in danger for the fulfillment of the cause.

Two: Adrenaline…

There is no feeling in the world like the pure adrenaline pumped into your body when another human being is actively attempting to end your life AND you have the capacity to stop them from accomplishing their mission. It’s the ultimate win. Athletes get a taste of this when they win a high-stakes competition; business leaders sample this feeling after closing a big financial deal; everyone savors it right after narrowly escaping a car wreck. No one but the front line combat troops (and law enforcement officers) truly understand this type of adrenaline pump. Addiction to adrenaline is in and of itself an addiction, but adrenaline from an engagement with the enemy is unique in my opinion.

Three: The simple life…

This one is likely to confuse some people, but I will attempt to clarify. For a young, single, no children at home combat troop, combat is the simplest existence on the planet. No utility bills to pay, housing (shelter is a more apt description) is provided, food is available…all the basic necessities of life are provided. Money isn’t worth much because there isn’t anything to spend it on (except cigarettes, dip, candy, gear, and hygiene products). The almighty dollar won’t save you in a firefight. Life is simpler with three objectives:

  1. Accomplish the mission
  2. Bring everyone else home
  3. Bring yourself home

Married combat troops – not sure how much this one applies to you, but I’m sure some of you would agree with this description.

This is just my take on the “problem” of addiction to war – feel free to shout me down in the comments!

Bataan 2018…The Day After – Part 4

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Eating green tea ice cream circa 2014 in Taiwan – I had already packed on 40 pounds of excess weight at this point.

Like so many veterans, I left the Army and immediately stopped doing any form of physical training (PT). I began ingesting far more calories than my newly lethargic lifestyle could ever process and, as happens, started to pack on the pounds. Over the years, my weight and fitness level have yo-yo’d from fat and cardiac-event risk to slim and fit. During the valleys of fast food and little activity, I constantly sell myself on the idea that I am as good as I was in my mid-20’s running mile after mile everyday, packing rucks with 50+ pounds and walking until my feet bled, and being “tactically cool” as I cleared houses in Iraq wearing 90 pounds worth of gear and ammo. Unfortunately, despite my success selling myself on these ideas, the truth is much more grounding:

I am overweight, out of shape, and not as good as I once was.

The truth hurts and putting it out to the world in this way is very embarrassing for me. I have always prided myself on being disciplined and ready for whatever the world throws at me. However, with my inability to complete the full course of the Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 comes the realization that I have bought into my own lie, hook, line, and sinker.

Fortunately, it is not too late to turn this all around. It is possible that I will never be as good as I was as a young sergeant in Iraq, but I can be a whole lot better than I am today. My 2018 goals are geared towards my own improvement including physical fitness – not just weight loss, but physical ability to accomplish tasks that I currently struggle with or outright fail at. In line with this physical improvement is preparation for the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March taking place on March 17, 2019.

Selfie - Bataan Memorial Death March 2018
A horrible selfie sometime around Mile 10 or 11

As I have written about my experiences at the Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 in Parts 1, 2, and 3 of “The Day After” series, my physical preparations were insufficient to complete the full route this year. I have two more physical challenges in 2018 as a part of my 2018 goals which do not include any “from the hip” entries I may have in other events that pop-up in the next 9 months. These events will help drive me to improve my physical capabilities and increase my chances of completing the 2019 Bataan memorial Death March 26.2 mile route.

My rough training plan for the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March:

  1. Albuquerque “Run for the Zoo” 10k – May 6, 2018
    • I have 5 weeks to train for this event and will be detailing that adventure in future blog posts.
  2. The “Duke City Marathon” – October 21, 2018
    • I plan on finding a 3 to 4 month training plan to up my distance from 10k range to a full marathon and will be detailing this journey in future blog posts.
  3. 20-week Bataan Memorial Death March provided training plan
    • After an appropriate rest period following the Duke City Marathon, The Husband and I will follow the 20-week training plan provided by event organizers. I will be recording our experiences on this blog.
  4. Weekly Ruck Marches
    • I plan on utilizing the wonderful terrain in and around Albuquerque to ruck short to long distances with light to heavy weight at least one day a week throughout the year until I start the official Bataan training plan.
  5. Strength Training
    • Incorporated into all of my training plans for the above events will be regular strength training. This is something I have never been fond of (pick up heavy things and then put them back where I found them), but I am weaker today than I have ever been in my entire life. This is not something I am okay with and I am willing to take whatever steps are necessary to correct this problem.

Since the above points are my rough plan, I am sure I will provide more refined and tested training plans for each event in the future. Keep in mind, I am not a nutritionist, certified trainer, or other certified sports exercise professional so don’t follow my plans without first checking with a healthcare professional. I am willing to use trial and error to improve myself until I am in a position to consult with professionals.

I know this is going to be a very difficult road over the next year, but I am committed to fixing the problems I have created. I am glad I chose to share my own embarrassment with everyone who happens upon this blog because it provides me a higher sense of accountability (much like I had in the Army). It’s time to prove through hard work that none of us are stuck with our present situation!

Are you a veteran or do you know a veteran who let themselves go after leaving the service? Have you (or they) come back from that bad place? How did you (or they) do it? Any advice for me or the readers of this blog? Share in the comments below! Also, remember to follow this blog and like us on social media!

Bataan 2018…The Day After – Part 3

Sunrise Over the Start Line - Bataan Memorial Death March 2018

Here is Part 3 of my “Bataan…The Day After” series. In Part 1 I recounted my experiences during the actual Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 while Part 2 shared some lessons learned from the event. In this installment, I am going to air some grievances about the event and its organization.

WARNING: This post should not be taken out of context. I greatly enjoyed my experience at the Bataan Memorial Death March 2018 and will be registering for the 2019 event as soon as registration opens up in October. This was my experience and my observations and in no way should be taken as an end all, be all of the event.

PURPOSE OF THIS POST: I am writing this post to vent, yes, but also to help set expectations for first time marchers in years to come. It is my hope that this post will help people better prepare for the event thus improving their experience and helping them through a very difficult event to feel the exhilaration of finishing.

I have covered a lot in Part 1 and Part 2 as to what annoyed and irritated me during the event, but I wanted to vent a bit in this post for my own sanity. Going into the march I understood there were going to be a lot of people, difficult terrain, and general discomfort/pain. However, I was hoping against hope for a bit more courtesy from my fellow marchers and timeliness of execution for the event itself.

VENTING AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS:

  1. SCHEDULE AND TIMELINESS – I spent time in Part 2 explaining the start times for civilian categories do not start at 7:00 AM as the literature implies (but does not specify) which results in a lot of standing around through a chilly desert morning. Here, I want to talk about the late start to the Opening Ceremony (only a few minutes, but that adds up quickly) and the long delay between each corral being released. Why the long delay? This is to allow each marcher the opportunity to shake the hand and say “hi” to all of the attending survivors (of the actual Bataan Death March). Obviously, it takes some time to get 8,400 marchers through the choke point where the survivors are posted up. All-in-all, it takes about 90 minutes to get the marchers through this process. When the first corral (runners) aren’t released until 7:15 AM, that’s a lot of standing around in the chilly air for the last corral (Civilian Heavy).
    • Possible Solution – Start earlier. Instead of a 6:35 AM start to the opening ceremony, go for 6:00 AM. I understand the later start time is likely for the F-15 flyover to be visible, but burning daylight for the Civilian Heavy division is quite unfair (Military Heavy ends up with about 12.5 hours to finish the full course while Civilian Heavy have about 11.5 hours).
    • Possible Solution – Break up the starting line into two lanes: Lane 1 meets the survivors and Lane 2 goes straight to the Starting Line and onto the course. Personally, I took the time to meet and greet the survivors at the Finish Line when I felt like I could truly understand some of their sacrifice and the pain they went through (some, not nearly all).
  2. MARCHER COURTESY – Just like on the highway, if you’re going slower than the people around you, move to the right and let people pass you on the left. The Husband and I got stuck behind several small groups in the first few miles that were more interested in talking about home renovations, workplace drama, and kids than taking in the experience they were actively participating in or being aware of their surroundings. In the narrower portions of the trail it takes a lot of self-control to not rudely bump people out of the way so we could continue at the pace comfortable for the both of us. I understand that everyone has their own motivation, purpose, and reasons for being on the course, but courtesy is universal and should not be dependent on whether it is a competitive event or not.
    • Possible Solution – Pretty simple and almost impossible to enforce, but slower marchers stay to the right while faster marchers can pass on the left. It’s common courtesy.
    • Possible Solution – Also impossible to enforce as an organizer, but maybe people should remove the earbuds/headphones, quiet down about their day-to-day life and pay attention to their surroundings. When someone is obviously moving faster than you are and attempting to get by you, move out of the way.
    • Disclaimer – Wounded Veterans, the disabled (their were blind marchers on the course), and the elderly — DO WHAT YOU WANT! In these cases, it is the responsibility of the masses to find other ways around these marchers. Double standard? You are damn right, get over it!
  3. MARCHER COURTESY (PART 2) – Okay, lot’s of courtesy going on here, but lack of it was the most irritating part of my experience. Water and Check Points. These are not “stop in the middle of the trail and have a conversation, throw my arms out, and take a break in the middle of the trail” points. The Husband and I stopped at several of these points but we did so only after getting off the main thoroughfare to allow those who weren’t stopping to continue on without us getting in their way. It gets back to paying attention to your surroundings. The mile markers were another area in which this bottlenecking occurred because marchers wanted to take pictures with the placard. I completely understand the novelty and recording the experience with a picture, but that doesn’t mean you should impede other marchers while doing so.
    • Possible Solution – Marchers should pay attention to their surroundings and, unless physically unable to do so, move off the trail before stopping.
    • Possible Solution – Marchers taking pictures with the mile markers should do so by getting off the trail or, if using a second person as a photographer, the person taking the picture should hug the edge of the trail to stay out of other people’s way.
  4. INFORMATION FROM THE ORGANIZER – I am a veteran of the Army Infantry and I can’t recall a single time when I found myself participating in a ceremony or at an event that I didn’t know the exact sequence of events to take place. In the case of this event, I knew how the opening ceremony would unfold (and it did, to the letter), but no information was shared as to how or when the march would actually kick-off. We were cordoned off into corrals, check. The opening ceremony occurred, check. Then…well, I don’t know what happened for about 60 minutes other than motivational music from the 80’s and 90’s blasted over the loud speaker. This resulted in a handful of false starts on my part based on observing the events around me (i.e. “I think their moving, let me ruck up…oh wait, false alarm”).
    • Possible Solution – Use the loud speaker to help release the corrals as well as inform the other corrals as to what’s going on. Simple: “Military Heavy, step-off; Military Light prepare to move in 15 minutes”.
    • Possible Solution – Set proper expectations in the literature that it will take approximately 15-20 minutes for each corral to move through the survivor meet and greet area, prepare accordingly.

In the end, despite some annoyances and irritation, I greatly enjoyed the event and will be participating in next year’s march (the 30th to take place). I hope that people returning next year will have more courtesy than they did this year and that first-time marchers will keep some of these points in mind when on the course. We are all out there and we are all suffering to some degree or another, don’t make it more difficult by purposefully getting in the way in order to facilitate your own experience at the expense of others.

Also, understand that for 99% of marchers this is not a competitive event; it is to honor those who were forced to march 65 miles in the Philippines with quarter rations, almost no water, and substandard equipment. Though the start is slowed by meeting and greeting the attending survivors I gladly accept this delay as a point of pride to shake the hand of men who survived events I will never have to live through. I salute each and every one of them though I chose to do so at the finish line.

Overall, this was a very well executed and supported event that I will always cherish as a great memory. Nothing is perfect and there are always things that could be improved. I have also sent my feedback to the organizers so don’t think I’m not trying to contribute to improving this event and am only looking to bitch to the world.

Did you participate as a runner, marcher, or volunteer? What improvements do you see for this event in the future? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! Also follow this blog and on social media!

 

The Day Before Bataan 2018

In preparation for tomorrow’s 2018 Bataan Memorial Death March, the husband and I are in serious preparation mode. We like to call it: relaxing. We are as prepared as we are going to be, our plans are finalized, and any changes now will be pointless if not damaging towards our successful completion of the Bataan Memorial Death March. Thus, we decided that today would be the day to relax, hydrate, and get some sleep.

We dropped by White Sands Missile Range so I could double check my pack’s weight which turned out to be a good idea since I was half a pound under the 35 pound minimum for the Heavy Division. Turns out I had some power/endurance gels in two small pockets on the outside of the pack which put me over the minimum weight requirement yesterday but would have disqualified me tomorrow since they could have been picked up somewhere on the course. A quick trip to the on-post commissary and a pound of rice later, my pack was back above the 35 pound mark. Unfortunately, that means with water and power gels, I will be at 40 pounds of marching weight.

Checking on the weather we will be walking in high 70’s to low 80’s heat with little cloud cover after 10:00 AM. It doesn’t sound hot and most people will assume this is actually a comfortable temperature; unfortunately, for me, this is already in the higher end of the heat spectrum. I have suffered from heat stroke and heat exhaustion several times over the past decade and a half which makes me more susceptible to falling prey to it again. With the wind blowing 15-20 MPH throughout the day, the human body’s natural evaporative cooler will be put to the test as my sweat dries too quickly to effectively cool.

With the weight of my pack and non-confidence inducing weather report, the best plan of action for the day was relaxation, hydration, and purposefully calming myself ahead of the walk tomorrow. The husband agreed with me very quickly. So, what does a person do at White Sands Missile Range and/or Alamogordo to pass the time on a Saturday? To be honest, there isn’t much to be done.

WSMR Museum
WSMR Museum Outdoor Displays

On post, a number of events and activities were taking place (meals, some entertainment, seminars, etc.), but none of them were overly appealing to either one of us. The most interesting thing to me was a historical presentation being put on by the NMSU ROTC at the base theater. However, we didn’t feel the desire to “hang around” post until this took place so we headed over to the White Sands Missile Range Museum to gawk at the impressive devices of testing and destruction. If you nerd out over military history, rocketry, and everything that goes into developing implements of destruction, you should find time to stop in at this museum. I’m the first to admit that it is probably a very boring experience for a majority of people, but the full-size inert munitions they have on the grounds should impress just about anyone.

NMMSH - Outdoor Displays
New Mexico Museum of Space History – Outdoor Displays

After an hour of touring the museum and its paraphernalia, we headed into Alamogordo to check out the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Again, this is a place to nerd out over rocketry (seeing a theme for the area yet?) and the amount of knowledge, work, and discovery that has gone into putting man in space. I visited this museum a handful of times as a kid (during two summers of Space Camp, yeah, I was that nerd) so this was just as much a walk down memory lane as it was a new experience. The husband enjoyed it about as much as possible when you’re looking at slightly dated (but still cool!) displays and large chunks of old-school technology. I still highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area. There is also a small, but fully equipped planetarium down the hill from the museum which is worth watching.

To wrap up the out-of-hotel relaxation tour, we stopped in at the Toy Train Depot to learn a little about the history of the railroad in this part of New Mexico and see some pretty extravagant toy train setups. There is a lot to see in this small building, the attendant was very friendly and chatty, and the running model train was very impressive. Also, you can take a small train ride around the park attached to the building.

Toy Train Depot - Alamogordo NM
Train Car outside of the Toy Train Depot in Alamogordo NM

Now, I fully understand that we are likely missing out on some sense of camaraderie associated with participating in the Bataan Memorial Death March by touring Alamogordo instead of hanging out at White Sands Missile Range. However, this is our first year doing the event and our first vacation in quite some time so the time together is as important as the event itself. Next year, I hope my best friend will be able to join me (or us) for the 2019 Bataan Memorial Death March. Maybe then we will take part in more of the community and bonding events.

What do you do the day before a big endurance event? Share your experiences in the comments and look for my post march post tomorrow (or the day after)!

Arrival at Bataan 2018…

Bataan Bibs - 2018 - EditedAt 3:00 o’clock this morning, the husband and I packed up the car with the large North Face duffel bag, my large Blackhawk Assault pack, and some miscellaneous hydration sized bags. By 3:30 we were off…well, I was off while the husband snoozed/listened to an audio book through his earbuds. After four hours of driving through a pitch black, no moon, overcast night we arrived at White Sands Missile Range for the Bataan Memorial Death March in-processing shenanigans. However, I was a little disappointed when we stood in line for ten minutes before the doors opened only to be out of the building (packets in hand and smiles on our faces) 5 minutes after we were let in. So sad.

There was positive energy among the eclectic gathering of people in line. A woman in her 50’s will be running the marathon; a pair of veterans with their wives laughed about old times in the Army; a veteran behind us met up with an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. For the most part, the husband and I stood quietly, taking it all in and enjoying the atmosphere.

Young ROTC cadets from NMSU standing by the door in slacks and button downs looked cautiously over the people, probably wondering if they would ever measure up to some of the veterans looking back at them. If I could share a morsel of wisdom with them it would be simple: don’t try to be those who came before you, push the limits and set new standards. I look forward to seeing some of these cadets on the route come Sunday.

The base is very clean (as almost all military installations are) with clean rock landscaping in lieu of grass in most places. Civilian contractors roamed in packs of 4 with wee-eaters and hoes making slight improvements to an already exceptional post. The personnel we encountered were polite and courteous, filled with a positive energy that helps up the motivation levels for Sunday.

Now, for the bad news (or at the very least, cautionary news). I registered for the heavy division (35 pound pack minus water or other consumables) with the expectation of a 4 month train-up to this event. However, I fell pray to stress at work, general laziness, and an overall lack of motivation. These are not new things and I believed I had appropriately taken them into account when planning this whole endeavor – unfortunately, I was unsuccessful.

Since the beginning, I have had no intentions of competing in my age group for 1st or 2nd place (the only two positions who receive a medal per age group); I merely wanted to complete the event without crippling myself. When I factor in the lack of training/preparation, I am merely cautiously optimistic that I will 1. finish and 2. not be injured in some way. My plan is to keep a reasonable, steady pace despite 1,100 feet of elevation gain from mile 8 to 15 and deep sand sections. Fortunately, I have the husband beside me in the Light (no pack) Division to help keep pace and feed me protein bars.

Alright, I am going to wrap up this post but intend on writing more about course conditions and weather tomorrow – come back and see! I will leave you with this beautiful picture of White Sands National Park (we stopped in on our way to the hotel after in-processing).

Bataan - Not the Course - White Sands NP
White Sands National Park – Not a part of the Bataan Course

Have you completed the Bataan Memorial Death March? What training tips do you have for the uninitiated? Were you Heavy or Light Division, Military or Civilian? Share your experience in the comments! 

 

 

PTSD Does Not Mean “Broken”

Post 8 - PTSD
Me in Iraq, circa 2008

As I was running on the treadmill yesterday morning, listening to the band Five Finger Death Punch, my mind wandered back to the days of old when I was in the Army. The picture accompanying this post is of me in Iraq circa 2008. I was a Staff Sergeant, infantry squad leader, and on my third tour of duty in that particular country. The quality of life during that visit to Iraq was much higher than my previous trips to other parts of the country. We had clean water, secure base, relatively clean living conditions, and only one enemy contact (an improvised explosive devise that didn’t hit my platoon or squad). It was a quiet time in our area of responsibility in Iskandariyah and its surrounding area.

With each trudging stride on the treadmill, I remembered the long, grueling runs up and down the “Schoolhouse” route in Korea. This was a favorite route of many Team Leaders (including myself once I earned the position) for its steep inclines and seemingly disproportionately shallow declines that culminated in a beautiful school tucked away from modern civilization. I recalled my brief runs on the small airbase outside of Camp Fallujah in 2004 at the beginning of my first tour in Iraq. Back then I had dreams of Ranger School, Special Forces, and a life of hardship directed by the U.S. Army. My mind flashed forward to Fort Campbell and the near leisurely squad runs I oversaw each morning. I would run the squad in formation between 1 and 3 miles out then turn them around and let them free run back to the company area – requiring each member of the squad to get there before I did. More recently, in Kosovo I reminisced about the midnight run I did, alone, that consisted of, well, running. I simply put on shorts and a t-shirt with my running shoes and started running (very Forrest Gump style). That run lasted about 15 miles and a couple of hours; running up and down the dirt roads that circled Camp Bondsteel thinking about all the things in my life.

Running has almost always been an activity of calm for me despite the fact that I am an “ugly runner”. I don’t talk while running, I don’t engage, I simply run. Nowadays, I am running to lose weight, focus my mind, and (hopefully) prevent pure embarrassment as I tackle actual races throughout the year. I have never been the fastest runner nor the slowest, always existing somewhere in the middle. This is okay with me – I don’t think I ever dreamed of being a world-class athlete, let alone a gold medal winning marathoner. Running is my center and every time I stop running for extended periods of time, I find myself off balance which negatively impacts my life.

What does all this talk about running have to do with the title of this blog post?

Post 9 - Promotion
Me getting my sergeant rank pinned on by two very helpful squad leaders…

Well, I also remembered the sprint I made from a courtyard in Ramadi, Iraq to the wall surrounding a mosque while under readily identifiable enemy fire. For those that don’t know what that means: bad guys were actively shooting bullets from AK-47 rifles in my, and my team’s direction, with the intent to kill one or all of us. The distance covered was about 100 meters and required a slight elbow-like turn halfway to the destination (the scariest part since it required the slightest decrease in forward momentum to avoid falling on our asses). We were completely exposed to the enemy and any step could have been followed by a bullet to a softer part of our bodies.

I recalled the building-to-building bounding (sprinting from one place to another) in a hostile marketplace in the rural outskirts of southwest Baghdad while a sniper and gunman took pot-shots at me and my soldiers. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle was falling down around us, everything appeared gray and downtrodden. At one point, in a surrealistic moment,  I took cover behind a vandalized mural of Saddam Hussein in the middle of the open courtyard at the heart of the marketplace. The rain fell around me as I peaked around the edge to better identify where the enemy was firing from. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, my radio seemed quieter, and an odd calm took over the world. I was strangely at peace in the middle of chaos.

My mind brought to bear the memories of jumping out of a helicopter as it hovered a foot or so off the ground over a potato field outside an abandoned, half-built Russian power plant south of Baghdad. Once the bird (helicopter) dropped its babies it quickly rose into the air and peeled away into the jet-black night sky. I led my platoon (as point-man, not designated leader) out of the potato field, onto an asphalt road, across a bridge, and through the front gates of this abandoned complex. My squad cleared the main administrative building while the other squads peeled off to their designated clearance zones. Calling the building that reminded me of most small American schools “clear” (no enemy presence), my men and I moved to clearing the shanty town of plywood buildings that had been used for storage and living spaces that surrounded the admin building. All appeared clear of enemy presence. During this clearance, someone (I don’t remember who), found a “bongo” (snub-nose, typically flat bed truck popular in the Middle East) truck with a solid coating of blood on its bed. It was presumed this was the blood of the American soldiers we had been sent to look for after their abduction by enemy forces at a checkpoint a few miles from the power plant.

Many more of these memories found their way to my mind’s eye during my short run on the treadmill yesterday morning. I started thinking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it seems that the American public expects every veteran to suffer from this problem. It can be seen in movies and television all the time: Agent Booth in Bones was traumatized by the loss of his spotter, Vietnam Veterans have been portrayed as “broken” since the war was actively in progress, and newer movies about Iraq (Hurt Locker (puke), American Soldiers, and others) always contain a large portion of its cast reliving their memories from “the shit”. I know, first-hand, that PTSD is a very real thing and different people have different thresholds for dealing with it.

But what about those of us who don’t actively suffer from PTSD? Are we the exception or are we broken in other ways?

I don’t have nightmares. I don’t feel survivor’s guilt. I am not easily triggered into an “over-the-top” reaction to explosions, gun fire, or falling plywood. I don’t drive in the center of the road fearing there might be a bomb buried on the side of the road. I don’t drink heavily, trying to drown my memories and tears. Most importantly, I don’t relive my memories, I simply remember them and an appropriate emotional response occurs.

When I first left the Army, I did have issues with hyper-vigilance and over-the-top emotional responses (typically anger) to minor slights. However, this is more attributable to why I left the Army and the speed at which that happened than anything else (that’s a whole other long blog post). To help with this, I had three appointments with a psychologist at the VA in Tucson, Arizona. I think she found my telling of the stories (lack of emotion, more of a report than a story) more interesting than my reaction to them at that time. I was diagnosed with PTSD, but I didn’t seek any further treatment since I was (and am) fully capable of thriving in day-to-day life without pharmaceutical, therapeutic, or self-medicating treatment.

Despite these facts, it seems that non-veterans and veterans alike assume that since I was an infantryman who was in Iraq for 33 months during some of the worst fighting the country experienced that I should be broken, crying, and constantly talking about the medications I am on to keep me from being a danger to myself or others around me. It is despicable that people assume soldiers are broken simply because they served.

I guess what this overly long post is driving at is: Don’t assume I am broken and should be acting like that guy in that movie who drinks too much, can’t stop crying, and ultimately just needs a hug.

For those people who do suffer from PTSD, veteran or not, find someone to talk to, whether it is a professional or a friend or a family member or a dog, don’t let your experiences and memories run your life. Let it out and seek help sooner than later

Any veterans out there with an opinion on this matter? Anyone know of some good resources for people to use if they suffer from PTSD? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!

Oh the History I’ve Seen

In pursuit of accomplishing my goals for the year, I took a little walk around downtown Albuquerque. I took a quick look at the building my dad worked in during the ’80s and ’90s, looked at the playground equipment they are installing on the Plaza, and a historic placard affixed to the Galleria building. It got me thinking about how things change in so few years while still triggering memories of otherwise forgotten times.

I, like everyone else, cannot foresee the future so the title of this post is a bit of an assumption. The optimist in me says I am still less than halfway through the total number of years I will be alive. However, as I have learned in the first 34 years, there is no guarantee this will end up being true. Morbid, right? I like to think of it as more practical than pessimistic.

Thinking in these terms reminds me to be thankful for the time I have had and to live each day with purpose. I don’t buy into the concept of “living each day as if it were my last” since this would inevitably lead to some bad decisions worth avoiding. Living with purpose means a majority of my actions are driving towards identified goals and objectives. My Goals for 2018 have been documented on this blog and I am working on a new page for my Bucket List (so check back often to see it). This is how I guide my actions in a purposeful manner, I recommend a similar approach for everyone!

Today is my 34th birthday (as mentioned in the post immediately prior to this one) and I want to take a moment to reflect on my life thus far. I have not followed a “normal” or “safe” path through life. Many people would look at the overview of my life and say, “wow, that sounds <insert exciting adjective>”. For me, it has merely been my life.

Here are some of the historic moments that influenced my life:

  1. September 11, 2001 –  This date has defined the part of my generation born in the 1980s. Many of us joined the military and served our country in response to the attacks that occurred on this day. It will likely be regarded by historians as the defining moment of the 21st century – at least, until the next high-profile, conflict initiating event in the world.
  2. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – In response to the attacks on 9/11/2001, the United States, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, declared war against Afghanistan (the home of the Taliban government that provided safe haven to Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks) and, later, Iraq.
  3. Revelations of the False Pretenses for Declaring War on Iraq – This was not a defining moment necessarily, but it opened the eyes of a patriotic generation. The guise of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and affiliation (or complacency) with Al Qaeda were burned down years into a war that I participated in.
  4. The Election of the First Black President – The election of President Barack Hussein Obama (and his subsequent reelection) shocked the world for all the wrong reasons. He was a freshman congressman with limited national experience, but a wealth of good judgement and a high intelligence in conjunction with a charming personality and great rhetoric led to his historic win over John McCain, a Vietnam Veteran, POW, and seasoned political figure.
  5. The Great Recession – Right about the time I was booted out of the Army (for being gay), the US economy crashed causing high unemployment and a lack of opportunities for the masses. It took years for this to be corrected (and some would say we are still working on pulling ourselves up) but shone a light on the house of cards that was the housing market – similar to the .com bubble that burst in 1999 and 2000.
  6. The Technology Revolution – Many will say this revolution started prior to my birth, but it sure culminated from the 1990s to present. Smart phones, augmented reality, virtual reality, genetic engineering, leaps and bounds of forward momentum on personal computing devices, wearable smart tech, social media platforms, online existence, etc. all came to fruition in the past 15 years. It has truly been an incredible time to be alive.
  7. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Put in Place and Subsequently Repealed (a little too late) – This is more of a personal historic moment for me given the impact on my life that DADT ended up playing. I was a part of the thousands of Army personnel discharged under this policy. It took away one of the lives I thought I was supposed to have – serving in an Army that I would have gladly given my life for many times over.

Obviously, I could go on and on listing the historic moments that happened in my life so far, but those are the ones that stand out to me while I write this post. I think it says a lot about me that these are the items that highlight themselves. Conflict and challenge, loss and love, evolution of the way we live.

My goals this year are my purpose through my 34th year of life. I will work everyday to accomplish or surpass these goals.

What historic events do you remember being influential in your life? Did these events guide you down an unexpected path? Do you think you have seen your last major historical event?

The Bataan Memorial Death March

2018-01-01 (2)With such an ominous name as “Death March” one could wonder why anyone would voluntarily participate in such an event. For me, it is a simple answer: Bucket List item.

For those who don’t know, I served a little over 6 years in the Army as an Infantryman. One of the primary tasks an Infantryman must be able to perform at any moment is walking from Point A to Point B within a designated amount of time. Something that you practice time and again until you can go all day or night without thinking twice about it.

Sounds simple, right? Well, add in the requirement to maintain X number of meters between you and the person in front of you while remaining cognizant of the person (or people) behind you. Don’t forget to keep your head on a swivel to ensure the enemy isn’t going to ambush you and kill you and your friends.

Still easy? Okay, put a bag on your back that contains everything you will need for Y amount of time – clothes, shovel, water, food, sleeping bag, poncho, ammunition, rain gear, cold gear, more ammunition, parachute cord, magazines (for aforementioned ammunition), your buddy’s ammunition, maybe a tripod – and try not to think about the fact that all of this stuff weighs 65 pounds or more (really try not to think about that 65 pounds being a third of your total body weight).

Anybody can do that, what’s the big deal? I gotcha, carrying around all that weight and remaining hyper-vigilant of your surroundings (for an enemy attack – you know, the kind that want to kill you) is easy. Now stop and go, never taking the weight off your shoulders, only being able to take a knee – no sitting for you hard ass – or hunch over for a moment’s relief for 12 hours through the night and over two mountains.

Maybe that’s got you thinking, “okay, maybe not for me”? But wait, that’s not all! After walking as far as you walked with all that weight on your back and ensuring nobody ambushed you or your friends along the way, you now get to drop that bag! Only to prep weapons and perform a furious, violence on the objective filled assault on a target. Sounds fun? Imagine walking a marathon carrying what amounts to the lower half of your body on your shoulders then sprinting 2 miles. All without sleep or any meaningful amount of food or water.

Not so easy, right? So why would I put a lighter version of all this on my bucket list? That answer is a bit more complicated.

My experiences in the Army showed me what I could do physically, mentally, and emotionally. However, as bad as it sometimes was, I never had to experience the sheer hell the men captured in Bataan had to endure. Those men were tougher than nails, harder than granite, and committed to preserving not only their lives but the lives of their fellow man. In the Army, we put ourselves through pain and undesirable physical conditions to pay tribute to those men who have done so much more than most will ever do. This is my tribute to those soldiers.

Another reason for voluntarily walking 26.2 miles with 35 pounds on my back through southeastern New Mexico desert in late March is: the challenge. Have you ever wondered, “how far can I go?” or “is that my limit or do I have more in me?”. These questions have always pushed me to take risks and pursue less traveled paths in life. I am by no means a pioneer or adrenaline junky who jumps off cliffs in a wing suit – I simply want to know how far this body and mind can go.

If you are interested in joining the thousands of people who participate in this event each year, you can register here for the 2018 Bataan Memorial Death March. The price of registration goes up in February!

What is the most challenging physical feat you have ever done? Why did you do it? Share your thoughts and comments below!