At the risk of sounding like LT Dan from Forrest Gump, I come from a long line of infantrymen going all the way back to WWI. I was born in Germany while my father was stationed there in the mid 80’s. I led the typical army brat life until my father was faced with an unaccompanied assignment to South Korea and decided at 17 years to resign his commission and settle in Columbia, MD.
I idolized my father in many ways. I was like most kids who thought their dad was superman, but my dad was more than that because he was a soldier. I grew up on old John Wayne movies and running around in the woods with sticks playing soldiers. My dad would tell me stories about airborne school, training exercises, and messing with the Russians by running his platoon near the Berlin Wall for PT. My dad was tough and didn’t take crap from anyone. I wanted to be just like him. So when I scraped my knee and it hurt really bad and he would say “rub some dirt on it boy,” I’d put on that tough face suck it up. Swallow that lump in my throat that begged me to cry. When the subject of things like depression came up, he told me it was a weakness. I started believing that people made up problems in their heads just to get attention. He told me stories about how my grandfather, on his death-bed, body riddled with cancer, told the doctor he was “full of shit” and would rub Bengay on the tumors protruding from his skin. If I ever got a participation trophy, he would ask me if I earned it. The answer was no, because we didn’t win. Hard work was the only way to succeed, and working harder than your competition is how you get ahead. If I was boastful or showing a lack of humility, I would get in trouble even though other kids did it all the time. I didn’t see any weakness in my father, so that’s what I tried to emulate. I wanted to be a hard man who worked hard because I was raised to be disciplined, humble, and hard-working.
To this day I down-play all my accomplishments and problems which I will try not to do when I write here. One of those things my father always told me still runs deep, “if you have to tell someone how good you are, your probably not that good.” Isn’t that the damn truth though. Actions speak at a volume your voice never will. However, if I am ever going to “find Valhalla,” I have to go nose to nose with the real me, both the good and the bad and be 100% honest with myself. There is no better place than a public forum like this to make me feel more accountable and hold myself to that goal. I will eventually get to some of the more influential lessons I learned from my father, and how they made me a better soldier. As well as how the stigma of not allowing yourself to show weakness is the single most destructive thing that someone can do to themselves in the military. This post, however, is about my beginning.
I grew up in an upper middle class family. I played club soccer and did very well in school for a time. My mother stayed at home with us while my dad worked as a consultant. We were pretty happy and normal except that my parents fought a lot. My dad would drive me an hour to Virginia 3-4 days a week so I could play with the best competition in the area. I actually had the opportunity to play soccer in Scotland and England with a club team. A lot of the time it was just my father and I, which made things hard when my parents’ marriage imploded.
My parents separated when I was 13 and it wasn’t pretty. My dad moved to PA and my mom, my little brother, and I, moved from that nice big house to another house in a different school district. Then we had to move to a friend of a friends basement apartment, and then a farmhouse that looked like it was going to fall over. I never took sides in the divorce, but I did know that my mother didn’t want us to sympathize with my father. That made it a bit of a struggle to keep a close relationship with my dad because of the hatred between them. My mother started working in the retail industry with a ton of hours to support three kids, so I did what any teenage man-child would do. I started fucking up. Drinking, chasing girls, and skipping school became my M.O. A far cry from the sports, school, and promising future that I started out with. I wanted to go to West Point when I was a kid, but in high school my goal became trying not to flunk out. So as you read these blogs and you notice my atrocious grammar, you see the result of my lack of discipline when learning the basics.
And then, of course, came 9/11. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news, and surprise surprise, I was skipping school when it happened. I watched it live all by myself. I was in high school, and over the next couple of days and weeks I was taken over by that patriotism we all felt at that time. I remembered back to all those war movies and days running around with sticks pretending to be a soldier, and I wanted to be a part of the next great conflict in this country. I wanted the all the romanticized glory that I saw in movies and shows like Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers. I was 17 and was prepared to die for my country not knowing what that really meant. I went to the recruiter and asked what I needed to do to enlist and go fight. What did I want to be? An Infantryman. There was never any question. I ended up enlisting early and turning myself around just enough to get my diploma. In June 2004, I left for Fort Benning in Columbus, GA, the one-stop spot to be in the Infantry. It was the best decision I ever made in my life, and it had the most life changing consequences.
In the past 11 years I have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been in the Honor Guard company of the Old Guard, met two presidents, and all kinds of celebrities right up to the Pope. I’ve been a Bradley gunner, RTO, sniper, team leader, squad leader, platoon sergeant, and drill sergeant. I’ve earned accolades and awards but none I’ve been more proud of than my expert and combat infantrymen badges. All that sounds pretty cool but at the end of the day, outside of the Army, it means nothing. One sleep study and the army has decided that I am no longer fit for service. A single sleep study raised a lot of questions and diagnoses started to rain from the damn sky. Traumatic brain injury, narcolepsy with cataplexy, PTSD and a myriad of other physical and mental problems associated with those three. All things I hid from for so long, not just from a medical retention standpoint, but also from myself. The ‘weaknesses’ that would lump me with the worthless and weak-hearted. I accomplished so much, but now it’s worth nothing, right? If I’m not a steely eyed killer and protector, then I must be nothing. No education or marketable skills. I thought it was all a waste of a decade of my life, but I am starting to realize that I’m dead wrong. There are tangible and intangible things I possess that others don’t because of what I have done. I just need to figure out how to apply those things to life outside the military. Hell, I’m going keep typing till I do.