There’s a space between what I once was and what I am now. When I ask others to travel it with me, they can’t. It’s not their fault. It’s just too far.
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to present one of the products I work on at a technology expo in Manhattan. It was a good day for me. The presentation went well and I walked out of the swank warehouse style studio, past the mural that was painted live while the presentations were delivered, feeling like I belonged. In a sense, a bit like I’d made it. Six years after my last deployment to Iraq, working now for a major Silicon Valley tech firm, you could barely tell any more, that I had started in a different place.
That night I joined some of my colleagues for a drink at the post event reception. We congratulated each other and had a few glasses of wine. The discussion shifted to some tech talk on ID verification. We talked a bit about some of the great advances in things like facial recognition or retinal scanning. Relaxed, amongst colleagues I consider friends, the words I do my best to sit on bubbled up.
When I was in Iraq…
Even when it’s entirely relevant, what comes next, usually isn’t good.
…we were still mostly using fingerprint technology. One of the things that happens when a suicide bomber “clacks off” is that most of his head is usually left intact. Sometimes his hands are still there because he holds them up so the frag isn’t blocked and casualties are maximized. But a lot of times the hands are just blown to bits so you can’t get fingerprints.
You can usually figure out who the bomber is because his head is a few meters away all by itself. Everyone else is kind of mangled in the direction they were facing when the bomb went off. But the bomber’s head is always hanging around. That’s the trick. Find the head…
I paused to look up at a half-dozen pairs of eyes, staring back at me as wide as saucers. The conversation awkwardly moved on to something else. I shuffled off and went back to my room, reminded again, of the gap. I’d let it slip. And asked them to travel it with me. It wasn’t their fault. It was just too wide.
The world I work in today is everything I could have ever asked for in a career. I work with the smartest, most effective professionals in the world working on bleeding edge technology. I work with machine learning and big data and the behavioral economics of experience design. It’s exactly what I want to do for the next thirty years…longer if they let me. It’s challenging and important. And every bit as elite as the world of Special Operations that I came from.
The fact that I have to tell myself that constantly, is telling though. And how easily I make the leap back to where I was, when few I work with can stomach more than a vague conversation about it, is a phenomenon worth taking some time on.
Last week I took the familiar drive up the Silver Strand to the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado to attend the memorial of an old friend. We were classmates at Annapolis and worked in the same community for years. He was one of the most decorated combat veterans in the storied history of the SEAL Teams and a member of the now legendary Task Unit Bruiser in the 2006 Battle of Ramadi. I hadn’t seen him in years.
As I drove through the gate and back in time, I felt like I was coming home. The memorial was held on the training surface they call the “Grinder” at Basic Underwater Demolition School, where they make SEALs. Though I worked in the Naval Special Warfare Community for most of my ten years on active duty, I wasn’t a SEAL. The Grinder was something I never lived through. It made the men I served with though so I had my own distant appreciation for it. It’s hallowed ground.
As the people piled in slowly after me, all the familiar faces came back. Men I hadn’t seen in years. Men whose names I had forgotten but whose faces were etched into my head. It was like shaking hands with a war movie. Each person was a moment in time and a dot on a map. We’d been somewhere together. We’d seen something together. As they called the detail to attention, to pay homage to the arrival of the honored family, I was back. I could feel it in my gut. I couldn’t stay long. Or I’d never leave.
But there was work to do first.
When Jocko Willink stands on the Grinder at BUDS, in front of a 50 foot American flag and delivers his thoughts on the life of a warrior over a memorial picture of one of the men who served under him in Task Unit Bruiser, it’s ground zero for the warrior ethos amongst our species. So, I listened. And I let the words wash through me.
I can’t say what he said they way he said it. It wouldn’t sound right coming from me the way it sounded thundering off the walls of the BUDs complex. So, I’ll do my best to use my own instead.
His words are hard. His message is clear:
A warrior’s life is the sacrifice of service. A warrior’s life is war.
It’s not at odds with the message of love and grace that our Christian faith teaches us. War is love for the men you serve with and for. War is love and grace and charity for those you protect from evil. For those you swore to give all you have and ever will have.
A warrior’s freedom comes from discipline.
His only peace comes in death.
Once believed, those are words a man doesn’t stop believing.
The bell rang to honor the absence of my fallen friend and the ceremony concluded. I shook a few hands on the way out and wandered back to my car in a daze. I drove in silence back to my office a dozen miles away in distance, a million in my mind. Then I wandered into a conference room a few minutes late for a meeting to talk through some risks associated with an upcoming product release.
Once more over the gap. Alone. In silence.
It’s not easy. The gap is wide.
Inside that gap is more than the struggle of a transition. It’s more than issues like PTSD or the 22-a-day suicide rate that have been publicized so much that they’re nearly synonymous with veterans. The gap is the identity of America. The gap is a people who ask others to fight their wars, respond to their emergencies, innovate their technology, manufacture their goods or deliver their sustenance. The gap is a people stuck perpetually between two ideals with no on-ramp to participate in either.
Less than 1% of Americans are service members or first responders. About the same amount work in Silicon Valley or Hollywood or academia. The rest of America is screaming at each other about which one of those groups is ruining the world. Because most of America is scared to death that they’ve lost their purpose. Scared to death that they just don’t matter anymore or never really did to begin with. That they have no voice. That they have no product. That they have no power. Who they resent about that is a personal choice. It’s an unfortunate foundational plank in our American political discourse that’s widening the gap of our internal divide every day.
That gap is wide too. And it’s hard to cross.
I don’t know how to solve that problem. It’s a damn hard, big, important one though. But I’m lost on it. What I do know though, is that I wake up every day scared to death that the gap between the two lives I’ve lived is going to swallow me up. The failure that my fear points to is that I’ve attached my own identity to one or the other. But the reality is, it could all evaporate tomorrow for me.
One day, it certainly will.
The only way I ever put that fear down is by taking a look around me and focusing on where I am instead of where I’m not. And focusing on what I’ve got, instead of what I’m afraid I’ll never have. And getting to work on making wherever that is better by serving the people around me.
There’s magic in the purpose of service. And endless opportunities to give it. Every time I do, that gap gets smaller for me. And it matters less. I can’t help but think that solution travels well.
A warriors life is service after all.