by Richard Farnum
“Move with a purpose, you!!” If you’re a veteran you’ve probably heard that phrase (or other more profane variations of it) far too many times to count. In the military, we were expected to be constantly engaged in some sort of productive venture, and if we literally had nothing to do, we were expected to act as we did. The truth of the matter is that at the time we all had a purpose, whether we knew it or not.
We were part of something much bigger than ourselves and that’s something we could take pride in. We were part of a coalition force that was fighting a war on two fronts in the name of liberty and freedom from terror. Then you get out, and all of a sudden the silence is deafening. Then come the questions. What am I doing? Where am I going? What the hell am I supposed to do now?! Unfortunately, it seems that far too many veterans have taken to looking for the answers to those questions in the most familiar of places: at the bottom of a bottle, and down the barrel of a gun. We have entered into a time where we are taking more casualties to suicide than combat.
By some estimates, we are currently losing 22 veterans to suicide every day. This is a disturbing trend that has recently received a great deal of attention, and rightly so. It is not the intention of this article to add to the redundancy of the many well-versed articles and calls to action that have already been published, but instead to shed light on another layer of complexity that may not, as of yet, been adequately addressed. This layer can be summed up in a single word: purpose. A sense of purpose is a powerful thing and it can be one of the most rewarding and humbling things that any single person can possess.
A strong sense of purpose can enable an individual to identify that he or she has found their proper path in this world. Take note that the word “path” is used deliberately instead of the word “place”. To have found one’s place in the world alludes to stagnation. To have found one’s path in the world, however, accepts that life is an ever-changing journey. I have found my path since leaving the military and I feel that it would be prudent to share a portion of my story and how I found that path in hopes that it will resonate with someone who may still be searching.
I went to MEPS and signed my contract when I was seventeen years old. At eighteen I left for Basic Training, two months after graduating high school, and at nineteen I was sitting behind a .50 cal machine gun in Afghanistan as part of the Army’s premier light infantry unit.
I signed on during a time of war knowing that I was going to be deployed to fight the enemies of my country and I would have had it no other way. The entire time I was in, I was a part of something so much bigger than myself. I was doing my part to actively defend freedom as my grandfather had done in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944.
One of the great things about being a Ranger was that we actually saw the fruits of our labor due to the nature of our work. I remember on two separate deployments our platoon was sent into what was, at the time, the hottest part of Iraq where we went on 2-4 missions every single night from the time we landed through at least the first half of that deployment. We raided countless houses and compounds and took down entire cells of IED makers and Al Qaeda gunrunners (the same scumbags who would test their innovations by blowing up a marketplace and killing dozens of innocent people).
By the end of our deployment, the very same area that had been deemed one of the most unstable regions in Iraq was quiet. We had made a difference. Once on a security detail, I had a Kurd, who had family members that had been gassed by Saddam, tell me in very broken English, “I love Bush! Ever since America come, I have never been hungry.” I was a part of something great, and I felt that I had actually made a difference in the world.
As time went on, however, the stresses of the job wore heavily on me. The constant deployment and training cycle took its toll on my body and on my marriage. In many ways, the training cycles were worse than the deployments and I allowed bitterness to set in that ended up distancing me from some of my best friends. Suffice it to say that in July of 2008, I separated from the Army and was happy to do it. I was so burned out that I was ready for what I thought of as an “ordinary, low-stress job”.
For the first year after I got out, I did very little. I did a little bit of work as a Personal Trainer, and I taught Ballroom and Latin dancing. Yes, you read that right. To my knowledge, I have the distinction of being the only Ranger to ever get out of the Army with the ambition of becoming a professional dancer, but I digress. During that time I also tried taking a couple of online college classes in Business Management. I absolutely hated it and decided that college just wasn’t for me. Other than that, I sat at home almost every day while my wife worked, and though not evident to me at the time, I was depressed. I had no direction and very little ambition.
My job as a personal trainer wasn’t going very far because although I was under the impression that being a former member of a Special Operations unit should carry some weight in the fitness world, it didn’t. I started noticing that all of the trainers who had a steady influx of clients all had college degrees. Even though I originally never wanted to step foot in a college classroom, it seemed like it might be something I needed to look into. Add onto that the prospect of getting paid American dollars to attend classes through the Post 9/11 GI Bill and I was in. I had a supervisor at the time who was a very successful personal trainer that told me I should look into going to school to be a physical therapist if I was planning on going to college. She made the argument that physical therapists are paid better and have a more stable career than personal trainers do.
Partly in accordance with her advice, I signed up for classes and planned on majoring in Rehabilitation Sciences. I figured that it would look better on a resume than Health Sciences and it would set me up to go into physical therapy later if I wanted to. It also sounded harder and at the time I was beginning to look for challenges again.
I started taking classes and quickly realized that college was ridiculously easy, and it wasn’t because I was smart. It boiled down to the fact that when a professor asked me to do something, I did it. In Ranger Battalion I was accustomed to finishing assigned tasks when given unfathomable time hacks. In college, you’re given days or even weeks to finish an assignment, not minutes. I realized that the work ethic that was instilled in me as a Ranger came in handy in college. I very quickly found myself at the top of my class purely because of the fact that I was blessed with an average level of intelligence and I applied a metric crapload of hard work.
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