The night of Sept. 30, I drove home with the intent of taking medications the doctor from the Veterans Hospital had prescribed for my back pain brought about by a car accident I was involved in Monday morning.
I stood in my bathroom looking at the two bottles of medication and I could feel an anger I had not felt in some time boil up from the pit of my stomach. It quickly became a fire that demanded my attention. With a great bit of vehemence I threw the pill bottles in to a drawer and then dropped to the floor and began doing the pushups that my Army drill sergeants had so often demanded of me.
As I rose up from the floor, my own adrenaline rush had done the work that no amount of pharmaceuticals can replicate. My body had released the endorphins that I needed and my back began to feel better. Throughout the rest of the night, I continued doing core-strengthening exercise, often times pushing through bouts of pain.
I know what people say about men like me.
“Is he crazy? He’s going to hurt himself.”
There might be some truth to that. Go tell it to the Spartans.
All I can tell you is that for me, this started a long time ago.
In November 1986, I stood with my face pressed against a cold wet railroad tie. It was 1 o’clock in the morning and I had been awake for almost 24 hours. That railroad tie was a part of a wall made of railroad ties that stood well over six feet. I was 20 years old, stood 5-feet-6-inches tall and weighed 142 pounds.
I had endured inclement weather that had not warmed up to more than 20 degrees and the rain had been an unwelcome partner for the entirety of the day.
A few minutes later the sergeants would give the order and the unit would begin a full-scale assault of an entrenched enemy bunker system. The instructions we had been given were to make an assault across a barbed-wire strewn open field under enemy machine gun fire. The only way we would manage to keep our body count low was to make the assault by low crawl.
As a unit we had already been dealing with near hypothermic levels, and several times already during the day, we had had to resort to sharing body heat to avoid freezing to death or losing fingers and toes to frostbite.
As we waited for the order, we knew we were going to have to crawl across a field strewn with freezing pools of water while under enemy fire. The conditions themselves could have claimed some us before the dawn came.
While I stood there waiting that morning, my knees went weak, and I had to force myself to stay upright. We had not eaten in 10 hours, and to avoid freezing, we had not stopped moving. The need to stay warm had all but sapped the unit of its strength.
Despite wearing my issue poncho there was only about three inches below and above my waist that had remained dry. The rest of me had been soaking wet and had been that way for hours.
Suddenly the order came and I remember that I launched myself up and over the wall like a dog that had been held back on a leash too long. I recall crawling across the hard frozen ground and the feeling of splashing into the first pool of water. I gritted my teeth to avoid screaming in the night as the intensity of the freezing cold water hit my skin and went to the core of my bones. I remember thinking that it might be a little like being set on fire. I clearly remember deciding that I hoped I never got to find out if that were true.
My favorite drill sergeant’s voice burst into my head at that moment, “Private, it’s all mind over matter, God damn it! If you don’t mind it, then it don’t matter! Now get your ass moving!”
I pushed the pain to the back of my mind and kept crawling forward.
I soon found a good point to open fire from and soon the comforting sound of my M16 soothed my aching heart.
My old friend was there to remind me that I didn’t have to endure this alone. She had been as wet and dirty as I was and yet she never broke down or complained. She had lain with me in my sleeping bag countless nights with never a complaint. I thanked God for small wonders.
After 10 rounds, it had come time to move on before the enemy gunners decided it was time to end me.
Once again, I found myself crawling in the dark, splashing as quietly through mud and water as humanly possible on a night when even the animals were smart enough to find shelter.
There was a moment during all that madness, as I crawled under some barbed wire on my back, that I became mesmerized by machine gun tracer rounds passing directly above me.
These were not fireworks. They were deadly rounds that gave a fiery color so that the shooter could tell where their rounds were landing. For a moment, I wanted to stop and watch them, but then I remembered that I had a mission.
On and on it went until I got within hand grenade range. I threw my two grenades and then fired all my remaining rounds until those were all gone, too.
Shortly after I fired my last round, those machine guns went silent for the night.
The all clear was given and that was it for the final exercise of my basic training.
Yes, it was a training exercise.
It was now 2:30 in the morning and we still had a one-hour road march back to our base camp.
An hour later, wet, cold and half frozen, we arrived back at base camp, and we were released to our tents for the night.
My tent mate and I made our way to our two-man tent and we were soon changed and in our sleeping bags ready to sleep for the next four hours. Then we would be up again at 6:30 a.m.
I had just fallen asleep when the urge to urinate became overwhelming. I quickly unzipped my sleeping bag, slipped on my boots and stepped outside my tent. Before I could get more than two steps away from my tent, my bladder control failed me and urine began to run down my leg. I quickly kicked off my boots to avoid getting them soiled.
The drizzle had not let up and now I stood in my cold wet socks, my filthy long john pants warm and wet sticking to my thighs and legs.
I stood there humiliated and angry. I felt like screaming obscenities into the night. The anger grew so intense that my entire body shook.
Then the most unexpected thing happened. Some people would say that I must have snapped.
I felt the most unsettling peace come over me.
The drizzle now became a steady rain and I stripped down to nothing. I stood up straight and squared my shoulders back. I raised my face to the sky as if to howl and closed my eyes. I let the cold night rain wash down my nakedness past my loins and thighs. All the way down to the ground. With it went the shame of a few moments ago.
I stood there for several moments, shivering like some wild thing, my jaw clenched in defiance against the night. My tent mate slept just a few feet away completely unaware of what was unfolding before him.
I was suddenly fine with everything that had happened.
I realized in that moment: I had survived what men larger and physically stronger than me had been unable to endure. I had seen them in my unit. They had crumpled like little boys. While they had the physical gifts I lacked, I had been gifted with something far greater. Willpower.
I became acutely aware of the fact that I had become the true master of myself. Or should I say my self? I had taken fear, uncertainty, pain and suffering and turned them into finely honed weapons with which I would wreak havoc upon all the obstacles that life would place before me.
Don’t feel bad for me. I would do it again if I had to.
We were trained that way back in the eighties. They used the old Vietnam era boot camp training methods that made sure that boys went in and killers came out.
You don’t think about it. You just do what you were trained to do. You worry about how you feel about it later when you have more time to think about it. Then you find something positive to give what is left of yourself to.
So when I am gone — for one day I will be gone — do go and tell it to the Spartans. Tell them that you knew me and that I am no more.
If they care to ask at all, you may be asked how I weighed and measured.
If you find it in your heart to do a soldier a kindness, tell them that I acquitted myself well. Tell them that I came home with my shield, and when I died, I came home on it.