Veterans

The Gap

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.

14 replies »

  1. My first thought on reading this was, “Why can’t thoughtful people like this be governing us?” Then I realized tat there are a few doing that. Did those who have seemingly lost sight of this value have it to begin? What caused it to be submerged? Always “why”?

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  2. Spot on brother. My thoughts about the gap between my fellow americans and me aucks at times. I bridge the gap with copius amunts of golf with complete strangers whose clubs cost more than mine and I beat in 9 or 18 holes by a few strokes!

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  3. Absolutely, beautifully put! I think your two disparate experiences point to an important concept; that each man(human) walks his own path, and unless you walk in his shoes, you will never completely understand his path, his heart and his soul. That leaves many feeling very alone. That is where empathy becomes so important on our society. I haven’t lived your path, or experienced either of your experiences; but on a human level, I can relate to the intensity of emotions your experiences have left you with. I can recognize how difficult the transition is that you made. I can listen when you share your stories and I can share your emotions. As humans, empathy is the tool that bridges the divide.

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  4. I have never served in combat. I do work in tech which has been a lively and engaging experience – one that has made me feel very alive. Your post evokes a memory of one of the last episodes of “China Beach” (late 80’s/early 90’s tv show) when at the end of the Vietnam War one of the female leads mourns the loss of the comradeship and shared purpose she experienced while serving in a hospital for wounded soldiers. Despite the clear suffering and death. That struck me. It has stayed with me ever since.

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  5. You’ve put your finger on it, the gap. I had never considered the actual numbers, but yes 1% is just about right (3M first responders; 320M U.S. population). And 99% screaming at each other for what they don’t have.

    I cross that gap every day, a refugee from silicon valley and high tech (but still working remotely) and serving as a first responder in rural North Carolina. Roughly 60% of the men (and they’re all men) in my fire department not only have never flown on a plane, but they don’t want to. That’s a very wide gap. Empathy can be a challenge.

    I deeply appreciate your insight and forthright assessment. Thank you.

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  6. Eloquent, thoughtful, and thought provoking, as you often are. Thinking about the angry middle in the gap, I wonder how we have so completely lost our sense of common cause. Yes people have experienced great losses and automation promises more. But still we are in this together. We have so many problems to address but we spend too much time vilifying each other rather than experimenting with solutions or giving energy to fixing anything.

    Yours is a rare voice and perspective. While your background is unusual, I think it’s possible (but difficult) for more of us to look at things with heart, empathy, and a fresh eye as you do. But we have to step away from the media noise which tends to amplify the clash and frame things for us into a couple partisan boxes. And build/fix stuff rather than yell. I’m 66 and never expected to see America in this condition.

    Thanks for taking time to write your essays – I look forward to them.

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    • PS. Chastened by reading your other commenters and note I wandered from your vivid portrayal of the service/other folks gap.

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  7. The Gap is different for everyone and can be made larger by the communities in which you’ve served. The NSW community, even if you are not a SEAL, is a very rewarding place and has lasting affects on your career. It empowers you to take charge, make decisions and true impactful changes. It has some of the best leaders I have ever experienced in my Naval career. This community has shaped me more in the last seven of my 20 years in the Navy than the preceding 13. I too remember the power of Jocko Willink. The raw emotion on Jocko’s face at the memorial for Marc Lee in Ramadi 2006 and the words he spoke are unforgettable. To this day, over 11 years later, in my mind’s eye I can see him recount the TU Bruiser workup shenanigans with the tears streaming down his face. He is a leader who is completely devoted to his people and that makes him unique by todays common definition of leadership. This is only one of hundreds of experiences that are deeply embedded in my psyche and the transition to civilian life has been rough, more than I expected. My family has been supportive but it’s just has hard on them as it is on me. People like Sean give me hope, he’s a voice for those of us who have a hard time speaking.

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  8. I’ve had the honor and opportunity to do oral history with war veterans. I take to heart the words of Jonathan Shay when I do: “LIsten! Just listen.” It’s the first step. It’s the hardest step. You don’t always want to hear what they have to say. But you must be willing to listen, with your heart and mind as much as your ears.

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  9. Sean, I never knew you were such a great writer. I hope it gives you some sense of pride, pleasure or peace to do so as you do it well. While I wasn’t part of your conversation in NY or part of any conversation about your experiences in combat, I would say I would find it all very fascinating. However, I would likely act as your colleagues and friends did as well. It wouldn’t be because the gap was too far for me to travel. It would be out of fear of disrespecting you in some way by eagerly eating it up as if I was watching CSI instead of talking to a real human being who lived through it. So, I would encourage you to continue telling your stories. You are right that only 1% (or less) can relate. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to try. I remember in my Intuit days that I was always impressed that you were such a hero in your previous life yet you totally fit in with the rest of us “yahoos” doing far less heroic work in Silicon Valley. In summary, I think you have closed that gap further than you’d realize.

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  10. I have been watching Ken Burn’s Viet Nam series on TV. Slowly because it is so powerful, full of detail and emotionally wrenching. I experienced the Gap you speak of with the soldiers who returned. I can now see my dad lived with this Gap as a WWII navy veteran.
    I also feel the Gap with members of my family that feel their culture (white middle class) is being deeply threatened by immigrants. Their fear and bitterness is palpable but I feel so differently, I cannot believe we are from the same family. I feel a distance that has been there for awhile but is solidifying because now they are talking about their beliefs and fears and it is fundamentally different from my beliefs. I can only imagine the conversation when I am not there. I cannot see this Gap closing for my generation, but hope our children, grandkids and great grandkids will find common ground.

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  11. Great write-up, Sean. I’m glad to have read this. Having listened to Jocko for hours upon hours on his podcast and having met him at a Muster, I know what you mean about the words. I’d like to tell you that there are those that did not or could not serve that long to bridge that gap to you and others that have been through what you’ve been through. We can’t obviously, but we want to try. Some of us have as much fire and passion about the technology we are developing and how to apply it as you did in your former role. I’m sure if you are sitting in a room, you can identify us. Involve us, give us the first-hand accounts, use your experience to get us out to where that technology is used or was used. Some of us want to know those details so we can think of better ways to apply what we design so we can also serve and help people. We are out here and while we can’t fully bridge that gap, we want to get as far as possible.

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  12. I have never served in the military. Until very recently, I had never before experienced the machinery of the warrior, and even that was so limited as to not be worthy of the grandiose phrase I chose to describe it. So, I say all of that to say that I do not attempt here to compare your content and context with my own. But, you struck a cord.

    I read Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership while working on a doctorate. It remains with me still. Those who would effectively lead, must effectively serve those who choose to follow. Whether that lead is corporate administration, military rank, or manager at the corner store, the leader must serve. And service is a lonely, isolating state of being.

    Is this the true gap you describe? Service demands everything that we are. I am coming to feel that few contemporary Americans understand either the joy or the pain of that fact. Still, servant leadership has taken a hold of me and is relentless in maintaining that hold. Perhaps you are describing here how that relentlessness manifests in your life.

    As always, thanks for stimulating reflection. It is much appreciated.

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