Together

During this past holiday season I was on North Fort Lewis (JLBM) and was picking up a few items from the PX. It was Christmas Eve, and I was heading over to spend some time with family while I was on leave. On the way out, I noticed a Soldier walking by himself back to the barracks carrying a few bottles of liquor, and some snack food. Now he could be heading back there to hang out with other members of their Unit who couldn’t go back home over the holidays, or he had extra duty, as sometimes happens.

However, another thought crossed my mind. What if they didn’t have a stable family to go home to, and are stuck here while everyone else is away? What if the Holidays are a particularly hard time, and they just want to wash them away in a drunken blur, or worse.

There are tens of thousands of people within the US with this dilemma, and I know it is not unique to members of the military. The difference is that the military is a brotherhood, where we live the mantra “no one is left behind”. As an Army we are rgood at following this philosophy in combat, but sometimes forget about it once we get back to garrison, as our own family becomes the focus of our attention.

The idea of emotional intelligence (EI) is sometimes scoffed at within the Army, but I think its key to really understanding your Soldiers. As a leader, you have to be able to take care of your people, but you cant do that if you do not understand who they are and what they are going through.

I remember once such instant, several years ago, with a Solider who was attached to my Unit over the summer. He worked hard when he was on site, but had trouble getting to work on time. As the summer progressed, he became more and more withdrawn and anti social. As his mood continued to darken, it was clear something was wrong. My NCO and I decide to stop by his place to make sure he was ok and found him sitting on the floor of an unfurnished apartment with very little food, and no transportation.

Turns out that he was going through a very complicated family issue back home, and most of his money was tied up in legal actions. It was clear that he was on the verge of giving up.

Now we could have ignored the signs, counciled him for not coming to work, and then send him back home (he was temporary ADOS orders). This would have been the easy thing to do. But its not only about accomplishing your assigned mission, its about the people under your command. You can be the best strategist in the world, but if your people do not believe in you or trust you, then you are no longer a leader.

The bottom line is, treat your Soldiers like family. Be there for them, develop them (let them develop you), and give them what they need to succeed. Because once you deploy, when it really matters, you will all stand together against the enemy before you.

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Our In-Between

Over the last week I have been thinking about my future, and what I will be doing 3 or 5 or 10 years from now. I always tell my Cadets to make sure they have a plan, that they understand what their goals are, and what they need to do in order to achieve them.

Throughout my life I have tried to make sure I was lined up for whats next, and that I was prepared to take another step on the ladder of success. Career wise, things have gone according to plan for the most part. Goals have been achieved, and items have been meticulously ticked of my to do list.

But what about the “in-between” times? What about all of the days spent waiting for that milestone to be complete? What happened to the minutes that ticked away as I looked forward to a special day or moment?

This thought came to me as I sat in a cafe the day after Christmas, analyzing my potential career paths after I retire from the military. As I scanned through jobs, and career sites, I slowly (and painfully) realized that many of my “in-betweens” have slipped away. Gone because I was so focused on planning for the future, that I often missed the now.

How many days did my daughter ask to go outside with me and I simply said “We’ll do it tomorrow.”?

How many opportunities to experience something new have slipped through my grasp because it was inconvenient, or it would disrupt my daily routine?

How many times have I wished that they day would go faster because there was a “special moment” somewhere down the road?

What I’m trying to say is that each of us should strive to be better each and every day, to help those around us, and move towards the realization of our dreams. But we mustn’t speed towards the end, without regard for the now.

For while achieving ones goals can make you successful, most of our lives are spent within the “in-between”.

Endless Cycle

I’ve been a bit introspective lately, and one thing I’ve noticed is that I am a fast starter, but then I lose my motivation rather quickly. Its an endless cycle of ideas to action, then procrastination followed by abandonment and regret. This series of events is evident even in my writings. In the beginning I was very consistent, and then began to slowly fade away, only to return a few months later with a “Im back!” story and a “This time it will be different!”

So why do we know exactly what we need (or want) to do, but never follow through with it?

I think it is a combination of complacency, distraction, and hopelessness. It is easy to become content with the status quo if your basic needs are being met, and it can be difficult to find a reason to upset this balance. If you do ever find the motivation to move forward, you have to content with the endless distractions provided by technology. Your entire day can be wasted (and I’ve done this many times) simply scrolling through social media, browsing familiar websites, and dreaming about what might be.

After this comes the most dangerous part, a loss of hope. A resignation that there is no better life, there is no better way, and that you should be content with the situation as it stands. This is amplified by distraction, as you can be whomever you wish online. You don’t have a degree? You can online, all you have to do is tell people. You never started that artistic venture? Tell people its done, and was purchased by someone overseas.

These actions may make you feel better in the now, but slowly that sense of hopelessness creeps back in to tear you down.

There is a host of self help, and motivational literature out there, but this is useless to one who has lost hope. If you cannot start down the path, then no self help book will make you take that step. So what do you do? What do I do?

For myself, I don’t think I can answer that right now. Doing so, simply puts me right back into that loop of idea – action – abandonment – regret. The best suggestion I can make is to simply put down your phone, look at the world around you, and do something. Take a walk, read a book, speak with a stranger, lend a compassionate hand, and whatever you do, don’t lose hope.

For Others

Each of us seem to be waiting for something in life. Waiting for something to happen that will fulfill out hopes and dreams, that will lift us up, that we can point to and say “This is what matters”.

Our souls ache, as each of us search for this thing. This thing elusive and intangible that we may never know what it truly is. Some spend their entire lives trying to find it, while others give up before the journey has begun.

No matter where you are in that journey, you must never stop moving forward. Never stop living. If you do, your ambition will fade, and your dreams will turn to dust. Stagnation soon follows, which leads to complacency, which leads to a mind filled with “What ifs” and “What could have been” as you slip from this world.

Life is hard, and many of us will never know peace. However, if we can each carve out just a little bit of happiness before the end, and help our fellow man along the way, then we can say that we have lived well.

Help those you meet travel their chosen path, and become part of their journey towards something greater than themselves. For in the end, you will not be remembered for what you did for yourself, you will be remembered for what you did for others.

Decisions

Each of us knew we may be asked to lay down our life for our brothers. But the cost to my soul is more than I can bear.”

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He sat, slumped against a wall of grey brick, the labored breath of his comrades cutting through the silence. The sounds of battle have faded off into the distance, replaced instead but the unnerving quiet of a dying city. There were ten of them when they left the front gate of Forward Operation Base that morning, just as they had nearly one hundred times before. Every day the same routine. Wake up, goto the bathroom, shave, check your gear, grab some chow from the Dinning Facility, then off to the intel brief at the Operations Center.

Everyday was the same. Everyday was one day closer to heading home. One day closer to waving goodbye to this shit hole for the last time. But not this day.

That morning after chow, the Brigade Battle Captain gave them their patrol route, one of ten they rotated through in an effort to deceive the enemy. But even this pattern became predicable once the tedium of war began to set in.

Complacency Kills….. I should have seen it

According to intel the route was green, as they had seen no movement along that road in several weeks. “Should be a cake walk”, said the Captain as he handed over the latest imagery to him. “See you tonight for your debrief.”

Thoughts of what happened next rushed through his mind as he tried not to quiver, clasping his hands tightly above his head and folding his elbow downward along his face in an effort to escape. As if drawing himself deeper into his own thoughts would make everything less real. Maybe, just maybe, it was all a bad dream.

He could still smell the the gun powder, taste the smoke and embers of the fire that followed the explosion, hear the screams of shock as steel ripped flesh and the first man fell. They call it the mad minute for a reason, for it is the single, most pure moment of chaos he had ever experienced. Once it began, every fiber of his being told him to run, but he was responsible for his men. They were expecting him to bring them all back alive. Something impossible to promise in a time of war.

With his mind still drifting, a blood covered hand touched his shoulder, “Sir, Draper’s bled out. Nothing more I can do.”

He looked up from the ground, glanced at the hand upon his shoulder, then surveyed the space before him. There were nine men huddled into this small room. Each of them pressed up against one of the walls, carful to avoid silhouetting themselves in front of the windows, or various spider holes which pockmarked the concrete walls. Crouched next to him was Sergeant Myer, his uniform coated in a dirt, soot, and blood. His eyes were sullen, yet steadfast. He did not seemed troubled by what had just happened, simply resigned to it.

In the rear of the room, near a barred door, lay Draper. Empty IV bags, and used first aid dressings were strewn about the floor. His clothes lay in tatters after SGT Myer cut them open to better treat his wounds. Beneath the clothes, his limbs had been ravaged by the blast, flesh torn from bone. SGT Mayer had done what he could to stem the tide, but there was just too much blood and no way to stop it all.

His eyes passed from Drapers, which had begun to glaze over white, to each man in his Platoon. It seemed to him that each was struggling to reconcile what had happened. Some faces were drawn in tightly, their brows furrowed in anger, lusting for revenge. Others sat wide eyed, staring off into the coming darkness. Still more sat peering out of the corner of the windows, pulling security and looking out for any enemy movements, as they were trained to do.

As they were trained to do…

Eventually his eyes came back to rest on SGT Myer, who looked at him with a sense of understanding. Wordlessly he nodded at SGT Myer and rose slowly to his feet. He knew that all were looking to him for a decision, looking to him for assurances that they were not going to die. Looking to him to suppress what had happened, and do what needed to be done.

Grasping his weapon from where it had been resting along the wall, he drew back his bolt to ensure a round was still chambered. As he did so, he took his feelings of regret, remorse, fear, and anger. Put each in its own box and hid them away deep inside his mind. In time, the seals would begin to crack, and the boxes would begin to leak unresolved emotions that would had to be dealt with. In time he would fall to his knees, screaming to the heavens for salvation, but there would be no answer.

But now was not that time. Now a leader must do what is expected. Do what he was trained to do.

Motioning towards the rear of the building, he cleared his throat and spoke in a clear, untrembling tone. “Allden, check the alleyway around the back of the house to make sure its clear. Falicaro, prep Draper for movement. Everyone else, cross level ammo, check your sensitive items and get ready to push out.“

Each man quickly snapped back to the task at hand and began moving with a renewed sense of purpose, as Allden unbarred the door to the rear of the building and peered cautiously down the darkening street. Lights flickered along the trash strewn alley, but betrayed no movement. Behind him, Falicaro and another Soldier began laying out a field liter on which to carry Drapers body, as the rest of the men passed half loaded magazines between each other, checked the remaining belts for the M240B, and prepared to move.

Taking a deep breath, he walked to the rear door and knelt beside Allden as they finished their preparations. SGT Myer fell in behind him along the wall, gripping his shoulder to let him know he was there, ready to follow.

As the last of his men gathered their gear he spoke once more in hushed tones, “Stack on me. Once we move into the alley we will bound by teams back towards the rally point. Stay sharp, and cover the rooftops. Questions?”

They all stood silent as each man’s pulse began to race. One by one they lined up, ready to move out. He looked from man to man, then turned back towards the door, peering over Allden’s shoulder. Night had come, and the lives of his remaining men were in his hands. There was no time to second guesses, no time to “what ifs”.

Ok, lets go.” He whispered as they began to file into the street.

Crossroads

I had a curious conversation with a Cadet of mine on Friday. He had just recently completed everything required to join the Army and progress towards becoming a Second Lieutenant. As he was preparing to sign, his mother said that she had reservations, but she didn’t want him to wonder what could have been later in life seeing as this is what he was choosing to do. The standard response from me should have been something along the lines of “There is no nobler cause than serving ones country and its people.” or “The training he will receive will better prepare him for life’s challenges.”

Iraq 2007Although I agree with both of those statements, cliche as they are, I found myself talking instead about the decision points which occur in each persons life. There may only be two or three of them in a lifetime, but they are so pivotal that they completely alter your life path and once you choose, there is no going back. This young man’s decision last Friday may have been one of those types of moments for him, and only time tell. But it got me thinking about what my decision points been up until this point? Did I make the right choices? What could I have been if I chose another road?

When trying to determine when I stood in the crossroads, I tried to focus on decisions that could only have been made at that particular place and time. An simplistic example may be if you stumbled into someone giving away a car, but only at that very moment. If you had bumped into them fives minuets earlier or later, they would not have given it to you. Based on this, one decision stood out to me, and it may not be what you think.

In early 2003 I deployed to Iraq with the 14the Engineer Battalion, attached to the 4th Infantry Division. The events of that year in Salah Ah Din Province were life changing as I was exposed for the first time to War. Although this was my chosen profession, you are never really prepared to experience it. Just prior to deploying, I had been gone for over a year in Korea and the stress these two back to back deployments placed on my marriage were extreme. As the tour wore on, it looked more and more likely that I would come home to an empty house. So I had to make a decision, my career in the Army or my wife and daughter. I drafted up the Release From Active Duty paperwork and stared at it for several weeks. Weighing my options, wondering if things were as bad as they seemed at home. All the while doing my duty as a deployed Soldier.

Finally I signed.

Several weeks later my packet came back approved, and in early 2004 I was released from Active Duty, and assigned to a Army Reserve Unit in Fort Lewis, WA. Before this point, I had a clear understanding of what my life would be. I knew roughly where I would live, when I would be promoted, and what types of jobs I would have for the next twenty years. But now I didn’t have a job, was unsure if I could provide for my family, and had lost a piece of my identity.

Was it worth it? Well, the series of events which have happened since is a mixed bag. I worked in a job which nearly broke me, I deployed to Iraq during the surge and lost my roommate and several other friends, and many of my relationships continued to degrade. However, in that same time I was able to help many people while deployed overseas, I happened to be at the right place and time to launch a successful eight year music career, and I was home for the majority of the past ten years and able to watch my daughter grow up before my eyes.

What could have been? A wise NCO once told me that “You can What If a situation to death, but it doesn’t change what happened.” Truer words have never been spoken, but I still think about what I might have become. Would I have been able to do more good in the world? Would I have been able to help my family more? In the end, I have come to peace with the decisions I have made. There are many things I wish I had done better, but I think I did the right thing when I reached my crossroads.

532792_3517880940168_616924896_nIn the moment, it is hard to identify when you have truly reached a crossroads in your life. At the time it may seem like the most important decision of your life, but in time it may become simply a bump in the road, and not a change of direction. The best any of us can hope to do is take responsibility for each of our choices, understand the consequences, and hope that we have done whats best for ourself, our family, and all of those around us.

Transitions

A person does not realize their own stagnation until change is thrust upon them. 

 

One year ago today I was living just south of Seattle. My days were filled with the tasks associated with developing and leading Soldiers. My nights were spent playing music and relaxing with friends. Weekends I spent either traveling to play shows, or at home rehearsing. In the summer I had the privilege of working as the Commander of Reserve Forces (USAR) during operations at Fort Lewis, WA.

 

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Things were good. I understood where I was at in life and what my future held (or so I thought). But soon a cascade of events unfolded, some within my control, some not, that have brought me to where I am now. And where am I? I am sitting in Buffalo trying to figure out how Ilife has brought me here and where will it eventually lead me. Was there anything I could have done better, anything I could have changed? Would I have changed it if I had the chance?

 

Its a humbling experience, walking the same paths that you tread in your youth. Its been over 20 years, and so much has changed. Reflecting on this reality, I know that there are moments in each of our lives that guide us down certain paths. Once we cross these thresholds we can never no back.

 

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For me, one such moment was when I chose to join the Army while taking classes at Erie Community College. Impulsive decisions seem to be my nature, and this was one of many that I have made over the years. Yesterday I visited the very place where I made that decision when I was 18 years old. I stood, silent, in the same small corner office where I spoke with my guidance councilor over two decades ago. Strangely, it still bore the same glass and metal facades worn with age. I could swear that even the chairs were the same. Just outside the office were the class rooms that I sat in, mulling over this decision while discussing trivialities with my friends. There names have faded over time, but I can still see their faces…

 

This one moment in time, set me along a irrevocable path. A path that has sent me throughout the United States, and to battlefields halfway around the world. Each experience defining me, shaping me, expanding what I thought was real. Was it the right choice?

 

A second moment, no less poignant than the first, set me upon a far different path. It was the summer of 2007 and I had just returned from Iraq. The desert had changed me, as war changes all things. My spirt was unsettled, and I felt the need to fill up every waking moment of my life to make sure none of it was wasted. I remember sitting in Robert’s living room. Most of the band was there, and I sat as an outsider, having just met each of them less than a week before. A some point during the evening, Kristina said that they were going to be looking for a new bass player. In an almost reflexive gesture I blurted out… “I play bass”. This was, in point of fact, not true. I had never played bass before professionally. In my defense, I had played guitar since I was six, and had kept up my skills over the years.

 

A short time later, after buying a bass and learning all of Death of Tragedy, I won out during the auditions. I then went on to play for over seven years at nearly one hundred shows on three continents, and recorded on eight albums. Again, an impulsive decision that shaped my life for almost a decade. Far from the rigor of a professional Army Officer, I lived the life of an artist and traveled the world in an effort to inspire others through music. But was this the right decision? Where would I be today if I had kept silent?

 

By now you may be asking what is the point of all this?

The point is that I have no idea where I would be if I hadn’t made those choices. They were snap decisions at random moments in time, each of which have drastically impacted the trajectory of my life. Each time I latched onto what seemed like a good idea, and stepped out of the familiar into something wholly alien. If I would have chosen to be complacent, or comfortable with the status quo, I would have never experienced the world as I have. The beauty of a sunset on the coast of Spain, the smell of rainforest after a storm, the pain… the pain of losing those close to you. For each decision comes experience, and in each experience is born hope, and regret, knowledge, and loss.

 

I sometimes long for things that have past, but I do not regret my decisions. What use would it be if I did? I cannot change what has already been decided. Fate has already snipped that thread, and began to weave another.

 

To each person I say, do not shy away from these moments of transition, embrace them. Within each and every one of us stirs a spirt yearning to know what is out there. A spirt that wants to experience life, and understand what it means to be human….To live.

 

Do not stand idly by and accept what is. Write your own story, great or small. It is your life to live, time will not wait for you. Take a chance, because you never know what could happen and tomorrow will be too late.