The Ides of March

Twenty years ago today – the Ides of March, 2002 – I enlisted in the Army National Guard. Unlike most of the young men and women going through in-processing that day in Boston, I was already a college graduate, I was already married, and I wasn't exactly young. I was twenty-eight years old. Had a full-time job as a software engineer, had a mortgage. What motivated me to join was a sense that I could be doing more to serve others. It was just after 9/11 and I felt like it was something I could do.

Later that year I shipped off to Ft. Knox, Kentucky for Basic Combat Training a.k.a “Boot Camp”. I could tell a lot of stories about my ten weeks in boot camp, but for the sake of the main point I want to make, I'll limit myself to just one piece of color commentary:

As part of boot camp, you get tear gassed. In groups of ten we went into a gas-filled bunker wearing gas masks, took them off, and then had to purge and re-wear the masks inside of the tear gas cloud. Tear gas is a respiratory irritant that attacks your mucous membranes. It was like eating hot peppers and then pouring the juice into your nose and eyes. It really reminded me of some of the spiciest foods I'd ever eaten, to the extent that when I was finally outside of the bunker, riding the adrenaline rush, I shouted “HOT SAUCE, BABY!” I have video evidence of that moment. The drill sergeants were grudgingly impressed.

But I think the biggest lesson of boot camp is that you get to find out what kind of person you are under tremendous stress. I'm talking about full physical and mental stress: complete exhaustion, calorie depletion, with people shouting in your face while you attempt to do attention-demanding tasks like disassembling and reassembling rifles, walking security patrols, throwing grenades. And I found out that I was more afraid of making a mistake in front of my drill sergeants than I was of anything else that I was doing there. So of course, several weeks in, my big moment of total physical and mental breakdown was right in front of one of my drill sergeants.

I don't remember too much about it. Mostly I just remember that I was a terrible athlete growing up and that I was therefore terrible at throwing things. This never mattered as a software engineer but when the task is to throw a live grenade, your ability to throw an object suddenly gets pretty important. And say what you will about the Army but they're not going to put a live grenade in the hands of someone who hasn't succesfully thrown a couple of dummy grenades first.

I'm not going to make excuses for myself here. I was doing a pretty bad job with this. The first failure was no big deal but the third... and then the fourth... And when my drill sergeant took me aside for a little pep talk, I just flipped out on him. I was in “fight or flight” mode but I had chosen option C: “bitter sarchasm” with a dash of “if you are going to hit me, then just f*ing do it”. In their defense, none of my drill sergeants had ever hit me. And this one wouldn't have needed to at that moment, anyway – because if there was some game of wits going on, I had already lost.

My drill sergeant was a fully frightening human being, but out there on the training grounds he just looked at me and told me to get my sht together. So, I got my sht together and went back through the training until I qualified. And later that day, I threw a live grenade over a bunker wall. And that was that. On to the next training module. I graduated boot camp some weeks later, and while I am fortunate to say that grenade throwing has never benefitted me in any part of my life, I think about that training day every once in a while.

On our best days, making good decisions and being super productive comes easily. On our worst days, nothing is easy. I think it is impossible to avoid bad days; they happen to everyone. But learning how to recognize bad days, understanding your own natural tendencies under those conditions, and giving yourself some grace in how you feel.. maybe these add up to a version of you that isn't perfect, but is still the kind of person you really want to be. I can thank boot camp for showing me what I am like at my worst, and twenty years later I'd like to believe that I've gotten better and better at recognizing those low moments before they spill out and make things worse for me and the people that depend on me.

Ever since boot camp, my go-to measure for how bad my day is going is pretty straightforward. No, I don't remind myself about my bad day with the grenades. It is much easier to size up the current situation and ask myself: “hey, is this better or worse than getting tear gassed?” A little healthy perspective goes a long way.