On Service

Early one morning in June of 2005 I received a panicked phone call from the wife of a friend of mine. She asked me if I had any information on the rumors of casualties that were starting to circulate within the families of deployed members of the Naval Special Warfare community.

Her husband was deployed. It her first experience as the wife of a deployed Navy SEAL. And she was worried.

I gave her the line I was trained to give her. That I had no information that I could share. That if anything had happened to her husband, she’d be informed, in person, by a representative of the command. And that if rumors were already out there and no one had contacted her formally, it’s safe to assume he’s fine until she hears otherwise. She was skeptical but satisfied.

I hung up the phone and went into the bathroom and got sick.

I wasn’t ill. I wasn’t lying either. I simply had no information on her husband. I had no information on anything. I didn’t hear the rumors. I didn’t even know that there was an operation or casualties. I knew less than her; less than anyone. And I was about to spiral headlong into a reckoning of all that it meant to not be a part of anything anymore.

I was not prepared.

Seven months earlier I had returned from a deployment attached to SEAL Team ONE and separated from the Navy six weeks later. It was a quick departure, but it was all part of the plan. I’d done my five years after Annapolis; five years that started before 9/11 and ended after two wartime deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Six months later, I was working for a marine engineering company in San Diego. I was applying to business schools. My wife was pregnant with our first son.

Everything was going according to plan.

The plan, however, hadn’t accounted for something — the reaction I had to that phone call.

In the days and weeks that followed, news of Operation Redwings circulated in the media. 19 Special Operations personnel had been killed in Afghanistan, including eleven SEALs. At the time, it was the deadliest single day in the history of the SEAL community. Following along in the headlines, I sank deeper and deeper into a funk; a funk I wouldn’t come out of until I was recalled back to active duty two years later.

What surprised me most about my reaction to the first time I separated from active duty, clearly illustrated by my reaction to that phone call, was that I’d done the work to avoid exactly what was happening to me. At least I thought I had. I knew I wasn’t a lifer. I never pretended I would be. I was sure to take the endless appreciation for service one receives these days in stride. I didn’t buy into the narrative that I had endured heroic suffering and selfless sacrifice. I had gotten a free college education. And the job of Naval Officer paid well. By 28 I had a home, no college debt and a hell of a resume.

I focused on the reality of all that serving in the military had done for me. Less what burden I bore for the greater good of America. And so I viewed the transition in minimalist terms. It was, after all, just a job. I had little problem leaving a life of honor and public prestige, as I didn’t really think of it as such. What I didn’t account for was the overwhelming diminishment in purpose, a gap made acutely clear to me when I took that phone call as I was getting dressed to go into the office to sell marine engineering service contracts that morning in June of 2005.

For years, in fact, for my entire adult life, I existed as a small part of something that was much bigger than myself. It was more than being a small cog in the machine with the worthy mission of defending America. Rationally, that was easy to reconcile and walk away from.

What’s one less lieutenant in the grand scheme of things?

What went on in the background of my time in the navy though, was harder to leave behind. It was the role of a teammate. It was the role of a servant leader. It the role of a husband who had come to expect that he would go months without sleeping in the same bed with his wife. A brother who would miss weddings. A son who wouldn’t be there for a cancer diagnosis. And it was, no matter how hard I tried to downplay it, a life of risk and danger.

I’d risked myself and my teams with enough regularity to need to believe that what I did was worth it; that it mattered. And I learned to put myself behind the needs of nearly everything the life of service put in front of me. In turn, I devalued my own needs so exhaustively, that I didn’t know any other way to be. It wasn’t conscious. And didn’t feel like much of a burden. Yet it was clearly heaped upon me. And though I never could bring myself to manufacture the persona of a tortured hero, when my life of service was over, I tried to put whatever came next in the same spot.

It didn’t work.

Marine engineering service contracts, as decent and honest as that work was, wasn’t going to fill the void. Neither was being a stock broker. Neither was pursuing an MBA. Or even coaching my kid’s T-Ball team. Once one commits to the life of service, that service becomes the purpose. And when that service is important enough to shrink everything else about you to an irreversible minimum, it’s tough to pull the nose back up.

Purpose is everything.

Above all, we are beings who crave purpose. We can live healthy, adjusted lives without success, recognition or resources beyond our basic needs. But without purpose, we wander into the dangerous territory of feeding the lesser angels of our nature.

My class from Annapolis will hit twenty years this May. And so many of my classmates are about to embark on the same journey I did, twice; now as forty somethings who have left much of their best years and best efforts in far off places doing important things soon to be lost to the distant reaches of their memory.

My advice to them?

Find a way to continue to serve. Most understand that a departure from the life is a shift in purpose. Few understand what living a life where that purpose was service actually does to those living it, until they stop.

Next week I’ll be participating in a panel at the Brookings Institute with other vets who have found a way to continue on in a life of service of a different kind. From non-profits, to government to political office, there’s ways to stay engaged.  I’m looking forward to the discussion.

For info, click here.