I shouldn’t even be here, but I am.
This month I turn 37. It’s been a long 37 years. I have learned much, the first of which is that I have much to learn, but the second (and possibly most challenging) thing I’ve had to embrace is how to be alive. How to live with me now. How to accept this gift of life when I feel an overwhelming sense of unworthiness every day. How to be a husband to a wife I married at the age of 22, how to be a father to my children I had at 23 and 25, and how to live with living to see 26 and beyond. Truth be told, no expectation of my military experience included living past 25.
As Service Members, a powerful and important lesson we learned was the conditioning of indifference. We learned that our team was more important to us than the preservation of our own lives. This is a powerful mindset to the professional war-fighter and the psychological output of extremely effective conditioning. Indifference to the importance of self and self-preservation is the internalization of love for your brothers (and sisters), and an unyielding commitment to mission success, regardless. If the objective is to conduct a raid on a hard target, it will be accomplished, regardless of the circumstances and challenges faced. They are merely obstacles to achieving success.
Indifference was critical to our ability to achieve unthinkable acts under terrifying circumstances. We used to have a saying on those long, terrible road marches, when the blood was oozing from the drain holes in your jungle boots and the oppressive humidity or bitter cold made death seem like a better option than one more step: “give it over to the road.”
It meant that the pain, the agony of the heavyweight, the inability to feel your fingertips, and the fire in your shins simply didn’t matter. When the skin was peeling off the bottom of your feet and your toes were ground beef, you had one of two choices: stop or keep going and give that foot over to the road. Time and again, the latter was the choice. This taught us indifference. Indifferent to the pain, the misery, to the unreasonable logic of walking 30 miles when we have helicopters and trucks (right)? Indifferent to our needs; indifferent to our fear.
It is wholly unnatural to willingly assault a building knowing that inside armed men are determined to kill you. But we did this. Time and again we breached and cleared rooms, stalked silently through the mountains, jumped out of “a perfectly good aircraft” or fast roped on target in the dead of night. Those activities are flat-out terrifying. Exhilarating, yes, but equally terrifying. Yet we did them. We were effectively conditioned to accept the indifference of the environment and wholly focused on mission success, on the team, and on the lives of our brothers.
“Fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession,” I mentally, emotionally, and physically forfeit my life. Moving on after emotionally accepting that my life was less important than the needs of the mission and the team is one of the hardest challenges I have faced upon separation. When I look up synonyms of “indifference” I find: apathy, negligence, disregard, insensitivity, isolationism, detachment, and cold-bloodedness. And I know that my children need not seek a thesaurus to have read these on their father’s face. I know that they are remnants of the man I was, but am no longer. Echoes of a life given over to the road.
When I look up antonyms to the word “indifference” I find: attention, caring, compassion, involvement, sympathy, regard, and feeling. And I know that feeling (again) is the hardest part, but I know that my family is worthy of a life of involvement and that this life, my life, is worthy of regard.
I thought I would die in Afghanistan. I didn’t.
I never saw that bird over the Shegal Valley pulling out of its spin. It did.
I have brothers I loved who died instead of me. I don’t know why; I know that it should have been me, but it wasn’t.
Today I am alive at 37 and while I’m not sure why (or certainly how), I am sure I will respond with regard. Today I will get up, I’ll thank God for another day that I do not deserve, and I will live a life worth living. Today I will learn to live with myself. At 37 years old, though the mask of apathy falls upon me from time to time, I have learned to feel again. It is damn hard, but it is damn worth it. And so are you.
Brandon Young is the Director of Development for Team Red, White, and Blue, www.teamrwb.org.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on March 21, 2016.