The Transition from Military to Civilian Life – Conclusion
Oliver Stone once said something about being in war that was one of the few things about being in war that made sense to me. He said something like, “War is endless boredom broken up by intense violence.” He was right.
I was in my first real gunfight in Mogadishu, Somalia as a grunt with the 10th Mountain Division out of Ft Drum N.Y. My unit had been shot at on almost a daily basis indirectly for months. That’s to say, the Somali’s shot up our compound at night, never really seeing us directly, but they knew we were there. That all changed one night during a raid on a Somali weapons compound. This would be a one on one fight in close proximity to the death. We got the word that my platoon would be involved in the raid. We staged ourselves with all of our gear and weapons on the back of flat bed diesel trucks. (The smell of diesel exhaust still brings me right back there to this day. I can smell it in the air walking out of a pizza place at noon and for a second I’m in The Mog’.) Night vision goggles, anti-armor shoulder fired weapons, grenades, seven full magazines with a tracer round every third round were all checked and rechecked. Canteens were filled. We were ready to go. There were six trucks with about a ten guys on it each. We sat on the back of the trucks and watched our cobra helicopters “prep” the compound from about a mile away and waited for the trucks to start up and get us in there quick.
The Cobras shot hellfire rockets and 20mm guns as they flew low over the compound. The helo’s hit a weapons cache and it exploded. The weapons cache was in a giant steel freight car in the middle of the compound. The compound was about the size of a football field with a few two story stone buildings in it. The box was filled to the brim with every type of fire arm and weapon imaginable; rocket propelled grenades, bullets, mines, everything. Now, everything was exploding out of it and since Somalia doesn’t have electricity, the fire from the burning munitions lit up what looked like the entire countryside through the night vision goggles. The helo’s pulled out and the trucks we were on started up. Now it was our turn to get in there and clean up and secure the compound. The trucks drove us as fast as they could go. We headed towards the fire. At first I heard it. It’s a sound that I’ll never forget, and to this day it’s still the single loudest sound I’ve ever heard in my life. AK-47’s, not just firing, but firing at us from close range. When I say close range I mean they were 30 yards away of us on both sides of the street shooting out of the windows and cracks in the walls of the buildings they were in.
I looked up in front of the trucks in the direction we were heading. The Somali’s were firing into the sides of the moving trucks as we drove through them. The bullets lit up in the goggles like laser beams being shot across the road and my truck was headed into it. Truck after truck passed through the kill zone. It was like watching boats in front of you go over a waterfall. I knew I was going into it. I turned back to look off the side of the truck at the gunfire I was now about to go through myself. I got as low as possible, clicked my safety off of my rifle. I could see the flashes of light from the muzzles of the AK’s like one hundred people trying to each light a cigarette with lighters that would only spark. I pulled the trigger and unloaded. I was fortunate enough to have the platoons M-60 gunner to my left, right next to me. I could feel his expended machine gun shells rattling off my helmet as we both tried to kill what was trying to kill us in the glow of the flames, somewhere in the eastern most part of Africa. It was June 6th, 1993. I was 20 years old.
My trainer Big Tom use to be a professional football player. He’s the size of a heavy bag and can move one without gloves with minimal effort with his bare fists. The bag actually beds when he hits it. His technique and philosophy for fighting is to wear me down with exercise then have me fight. If you’re in the gym you’ll hear him yell, “You gotta fight when you’re tired.” He’s right, and that’s good enough for me to train by. That’s the building block I need to carve myself out of as a boxer.
Boxing is like building a boat. You have to know a lot about the water before you get in the actual boat you’re building. And with boxing, you’re building your own boat with what you bring to the table and what you’re taught. Now you have to retain the information and do something with it. When you step into the ring, you push off the land. Then it’s a whole new ballgame. It’s a new atmosphere. You’re no longer throwing punches at something without a response. Now you’re fighting someone you’ve never met, never seen, who wants to hit you as much as you want to hit them.
You have to learn how to breathe all over again. You have to think about breathing. Most people don’t do that at all. I mean when’s the last time you thought to yourself, “I’m breathing correctly right now?” When you get good, you’ll almost forget about breathing. Being a good boxer means you don’t have to think about breathing anymore. I’m not there yet but I’m working on it. I start with that.
Most guys just want to knock someone out. They think too much about the guy in front of them and less about themselves. You fight first with yourself. If you don’t, the other guy will kill you. I fight myself a lot. Today I fought myself and the other guy in the ring. It was two against one. I like that. It makes me better. I get real pleasure from getting better with anything. I walked out bleeding and exhausted and I haven’t felt that good since I left Paris Island Marine Corps boot camp as honor graduate. That’s the truth and the truth goes a long way with me and truth is, there’s nothing fake about getting punched in the face.
Boxing isn’t some guy hitting a tennis ball back in your direction; it’s another guy looking to take your head off. I walked up the stairs and said to my wife, “I got hit in the face today.” She told me to look in the mirror. I told her I had been. Earlier I saw my contact lens fly across the ring after I got clocked with a left hook. I could see the leather of my opponents glove an inch in front of my face, then crack. I stood there and took it and I felt good about being able to take it. I dished it out, too. I made real contact and it felt good. Sometimes feeling good is good enough.
I bled from the nose and lip. It was an honest bleed. I’ll take that any day of the week. Tuesday, I’ll be back in there lifting a medicine ball over my head. I’ll lift it one hundred times to build the strength I need to keep my arms up during a fight so I don’t get hit once. One hit can knock you down. I’m trying to avoid that. It’s impossible to not get hit once in boxing. That’s what they tell me anyway. I’d like to be the first guy who fights 3 rounds and does it.
There’s a few rooms in a house that I’ve never been to that need to be painted. I’ve painted rooms before but not in this house and not this room. I’ll have to talk to the home owner and get an idea of who they are and what they want. I don’t mean the stuff on paper that they want done, but an overall feel of who they are as people.
I try to categorize them in a familiar group. I’ll say to myself, “Ok this person is like my brother, my mom, my dad…the cashier at the 7-11.” Maybe he or she is like someone I knew in the Army or Marines. I also give them some leeway to give me more or less of who they are, what they want to show me and why. I only hope they do the same with me.
I think I’m good with judging character. Most people can tell me what they’re all about without saying a word. My instinct is my best trait. I’ve had to keep myself alive with it for years. It’s something I never doubt.
I’ll meet the home owner and see what they’ll want done in their house. For the most part it’s 100% overwhelming the way a huge body of water is at first, the way a foreign battlefield use to be, the way a guy in a ring who’s fighting me first looks. I never ignore the fear. I just move with it the best I can. Life is scary. There are a lot of moving parts and I’m just one guy. When I’m in their house I see nothing but obstacles and possible solutions. I see the hazards and the gifts of the trade.
Maybe they have a dog and maybe that fence door lock doesn’t work too well. I imagine the dog getting out and getting lost. I imagine my dog getting out and getting lost. I make a mental note before I even get off the sidewalk to at least ask about the situation. When I get in the home I see they’ve moved furniture already. That’s always a bonus. I appreciate it and can breathe a little easier. I keep going. I keep rowing, and shooting, and bobbing and weaving. It’s all I can do.
I couldn’t tell you how I’ve transitioned from the military to civilian life in any normal way. The truth is, I haven’t transitioned. I just wear different clothes. All I do know is that I can’t walk around the streets of a burning city with a semi automatic machine gun anymore. I’m too old and that game has been played.
I’ve done it and in ways nobody will ever know, I’ve won.
It took me a long time to be alright with that. It took me a long time. I like to think of myself like a Stanley Cup champion, I’ve raised that cup two different times for two different teams, once in the Army in Mogadishu, Somalia and once in the Marine Corps in Baghdad, Iraq. I have that forever. I need to find other things to do like fishing and boxing. As far as working goes, well, I suppose I could do anything. I’ve resorted to what I enjoyed as a kid, painting.
Before I was old enough to talk my parents would fill a bucket of water and give me a brush and I would paint the wooden bulkhead in the backyard. I would brush the water on and I remember the water evaporate right before my eyes. It would just disappear. I found it amazing. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. The water would just vanish. Then I would repeat the process over and over and over again.
I wish someone would pay me to do that all day. I’m the guy who doesn’t mind watching the paint dry. I consider that type of entertainment my break in a work day. It’s a few 20 second breaks to watch the paint lay down and get smooth. There are 1 billion imperfections in it and I see everyone. My next stroke will be a little better.
There’s my second pay check; job satisfaction. It’s what I pay myself with. It’s the mastery of what needs to be fixed. I treat every imperfection I need to fix in a strangers house like the homeowners life depends on it, because in all actuality, it does. I can go home now, it’s getting late and my dog needs to go out. Although I can’t see it, I know a truck just drove down this street. I look up at the sky for a second and think about when my nose is going to stop hurting.