-CRACK! It was loud and right next to my face. I felt tiny particles on my cheek and lips, almost as if I was looking into a breeze that carried fine sand. There was an intensely bright, concentrated flash of light, about the size of a softball, in the corner of my eye though I felt as if I could have touched it. Everything went silent for the briefest of instants. I knew.
No doubt about it, we are jam-packed full of quality individuals. Yet, we are not without flaws, it is the human condition, after all. Simply ask my wife. She’ll be more than happy to tell you about mine. And while it’s easy to talk about our positive traits it’s far more productive to discuss the areas in which we can most improve. Today, the elephant in the room is excuse making.
As sure as we breathe, everyone has made an excuse in order to justify their failure to do something that they well know should have been done. In and of itself, giving in to an excuse or two every once in a while is not the end of the world. And that is the most dangerous part of doing it. In isolation, in very small doses, it is so harmless.
-Time most certainly did not stand still. There was no slow motion. The cinematic time lapse and dramatic assessment of the situation while blankly blinking in silence and orienting to the chaos unfolding most certainly was not happening. In the time it takes to blink I was engulfed in a deafening roar.
We have all done it, after all. Who among us has not hit the snooze button, turned on the boob tube, browsed FB a little too long, cracked open a cold one, or just melted into the couch for an hour or two? Did any harm come from doing so? It felt so good, didn’t it, to just relax for a change?
“Where is the danger in that?” one might ask. What is the harm in missing one workout? What is the harm in one nap? What is the harm in one bowl of ice cream, one beer, or one missed appointment? The cost won’t be paid for days or months, yet the reward is satisfying and immediate. Even when what was once a choice, a deliberate one-time decision, becomes a monthly ritual it still does so at such little immediate cost.
–I saw his face. As clear as day I could see the face of the man that was trying to kill me – that bastard that initiated the ambush with the gun shot aimed at my head. “Its funny the things your brain conjures up when under stress”, I though to myself. I knew I couldn’t really see his face – the Taliban fighting positions were high atop a ridgeline 200m to our south. RPG’s were exploding around my HMMWV and I could hear the impacts of 7.62 on my vehicle. A sheer rock wall to my right, a 20 foot gorge to my left, within milliseconds my foot matted the gas peddle and I was pushing my HMMWV through the kill zone along a rocky mountain pass at breakneck speeds. The rush of wind in my face brought the realization that I had failed to button up my bullet proof window and along with it the same sickening feeling one got when one realized Barrack made it in for a second term.
“Add a little to a little and soon you have a great heap”
It sneaks up on people, the habit of making an excuse. Before long, it becomes one’s default setting. They live for excuses, literally. Self-sabotage and immediate satisfaction are their modus operandi while the discipline and toil required for long term gain becomes a thing of the past.
I was in Afghanistan operating out of Firebase Lwara, located in the Paktika province and about 2 km from the boarder of Pakistan, leading an Embedded Training Team (ETT) assigned to the 1st Company of the 1st Commando Battalion, Afghan National Army. My job was to train the Afghan Commando Company to operate effectively with the ODA Team (US Army SF) to which they had been partnered. It was 2004; it is important to note the date. All hell was breaking loose at this time in Ramadi, Iraq. The insurgency in Iraq was in full swing and the world’s attention was nowhere near Afghanistan, though the US had been on the ground and in the fight for over 3 years at this point.
No doubt, there were amazing advantages to, “being off the radar screen”, of the Marine Corps and the world at large. I was given my mission, and then allowed to prosecute the war they way I felt it should be prosecuted. No one interfered with what I was doing in Afghanistan because, at this point in time, no one cared; Iraq was a full-blown political shit-storm.
“The Up-Armored HMMWV” (High Mobility Multi Wheeled Vehicle)
There were, too, equally amazing disadvantages to, “being off the radar screen”. The disadvantages were felt most stingingly on the supply and equipment side. When the big boss doesn’t care about what a unit is doing, he cares equally little about how the unit is equipped and supplied. Remember I said it was 2004? US Forces in Iraq were getting a their first real taste of IED’s, well timed small-arms fire ambushes, and road side bombs. US production went into full swing to build incredible vehicles that were strong enough to withstand small arms fire and explosives. Understandably, the vast majority of the gear being produced went to Iraq because, officially, that is where all our ground combat forces were located. The dirty little secret on an ETT is this: their mission is to train and advise the indigenous force. They are not there in a combat role. Therefore, for the first several years of Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan), in the eyes of the government and DOD (Department of Defense), the US did not have ground forces engaged in combat. While that makes for great speeches and political campaigns it’s hell on the boys in the dirt hookin’ and jabbin’ with the dirt bags that want to see our great Nation burn.
–I heard myself bellowing to the Staff Sergeant to get the Sat Com up and get the antennae out the window, to the Gunner to get the 50 cal firing on the ridge line, and to my interpreter to tell the boys not in the kill zone to dismount and start assaulting the ridgeline. I was moving and thinking faster than I believed to be, up to that point, humanly possible. I felt as though my brain had become some kind of a super processor. I found myself above the fray, removed from it entirely yet still keenly aware that I was in a life and death struggle. I saw every rock and crevasse in the road that needed to be avoided. I felt, meter by meter, exactly where I was on my route. I sensed where the enemy was and how they were directing their fire. I could tell where I was in relation to the cover to which I was heading at breakneck speed. There was no thinking, no deliberate contemplation, there was just habit. Habit was my champion.
Throughout history Marines have had such incredible success training indigenous forces because they understood there was only ONE way to train those officers to lead and those men to fight – by their own example. It was no different for my Marines and me. There was only one way to advise and train – by fighting side by side with our Afghan counterparts. Nonetheless, not only were we merely, “trainers and advisors”, we were in a theater of operation that was not making headlines and thus, not effecting the careers of politicians. One can imagine what its like trying to convince a government bureaucrat that supplies and high priced, newly developed combat gear was needed for forces that were supposedly not involved in combat. It makes navigating through the NYS health care exchange a relaxing experience.
We had 2 HMMWV’s and a host of Toyota pick up trucks assigned to us for our vehicular patrols. One of the HMMWV’s was a new, “Up-Armored”, or ambush protected version. It didn’t run. Being 250km from the nearest US base and relying primarily on helicopter support for resupply, it wasn’t getting fixed anytime soon. The HMMWV that did run was, “thin-skinned”, with fiberglass and canvass doors and an open top. A Daisy Red Rider could have made that thing look like Swiss cheese. Nevertheless, it ran and got us to where we needed to go, and I just didn’t have the time to fix the Up-Armored one. We were supposed to leave, 5 days hence, on our first long range vehicle patrol.
–“I’M HIT”, and with that my gunner slumped down into the HMMWV. We weren’t anywhere close to being out of the kill zone. Without our 50 cal returning fire we were nothing more than low hanging fruit; toothless, slow, and ripe for picking. RPG’s were still exploding around us, and the staccato rhythm of PKMs increased in anger and hate. There was no choice but forward. Always forward. “Forward”, I heard myself saying, as if that was somehow going to help.
The 3 Marines who were on the ETT with me had flown back to Kabul. I had been by myself for the past few days and was expecting only one of them back in time to accompany me on the patrol. Frankly, I was enjoying a bit of solitude and down time. It felt great to have a few days where I did nothing. I slept more and studied the surrounding terrain less. I ate more and interacted with my Afghan soldiers less. I wrote more letters home and concerned myself with the mission less. I had been working hard, day in and day out since I had been in country. I asked myself, “What’s a day off going to harm?”
Upon my arrival at the firebase I had wanted to get that damn Up-Armored HMMWV up and running. I was no fan of the thin-skinned vehicle. It was a matter of time before we were going to regret driving it. Everyday I would curse at not having the time to work on it and get in working order. Yet, when I finally did have the time to do something about it, I found myself squandering the precious few days I did have. One, “day off”, turned into two, two turned into three.
I don’t know what it was that snapped me out of my malaise. It matters, not. Something woke me up to the fact I was turning into a full-blown shitbag. I needed to man-up and start performing to the caliber that was expected of a Marine. I set to it. In less than 24 hours I stole, I mean I borrowed, enough parts from the Army motor pool to get the Up-Armored HMMWV running reliably. There was still no communications equipment in the vehicle. Air Force Sam loaned me a PRC-117 (a man-portable, satellite capable radio) and I jerry-rigged it into my vehicle. I outfitted the HMMWV with everything needed to make it hell and back. I then spent hours memorizing my route, recognizable terrain features, check points and corresponding grids, communications nets, and call signs.
-The last few rounds of 7.62 bounced off the HMMWV as I finally made it out of the kill zone. I knew we were golden, but my gunner took a round. I was shouting to him. I had to find cover so that I could provide medical attention. Unbelievably he was already standing again behind the 50 cal, trying to get the weapon back up and into the fight. With reckless abandon I threw the HMMWV into a hard right around the backside of a small finger that would provide some cover and what I was hoping would be some defendable ground.
When I reflect back on that day I cant help but think about all the, “What if’s?” What if I hadn’t memorized the checkpoints? What if I hadn’t studied the map? I remember surveying the impact marks on my vehicle thinking how differently things may have turned out had I been in the thin-skinned HMMWV.
What if I had allowed an excuse to turn into a 4th day off?
Couches call to us. Snooze buttons get hit. Illness sets in. Cars breakdown. House repairs must be made. Employment places demands on ones schedule. Loved ones pass on. Holidays occur. Celebrations take place. All of us have been, or will soon be, faced with adversity. We can’t choose what happens to us in life. We can choose how we react to it. We can choose to make an excuse, or we can choose to move, “forward”. Don’t let your next hurdle leave you driving a thin-skinned HMMWV.