As a little boy, the first thing you learn about life is that you will always be stronger when you are part of a team. After all, we are pack animals; it is how we have survived this long. People are not hard-wired with this sense of community because we enjoy it, but because it is necessary.
Popular sports mimic the hunt, the battle, the war, in one way or another. It represents execution of strategy; working together to outsmart, outplay, and out hustle the other guys in the different color uniforms. Finding the best use of your power and focusing it collectively where it can do the most damage to your opponent is the heart of team sports, and is the soul of war.
Years ago as I sat in a big house all alone, a house that was filled with the memories of a life long gone, I came to the conclusion I didn’t need to turn the lights on anymore.
The pitch black room was fitting for my state of mind. This was my reward for being meant for something greater than me; it was my prize for being good at a job many couldn’t do or even wanted to do. You find out after a while that filling every breath you have with this lifestyle, and giving all of yourself to it, will draw the ironic cruelty of life leaving you with seemingly nothing.
I had friends who tried to warn me, who had seen this coming, as I put this job above everything else. But it was simpler for me, I was the right size peg for this hole. Why else would God put this in my heart? He must have a plan for me. Whatever that plan may be, I wasn’t willing change myself. I had tried. They say the path of the warrior is a solitary one. You work so hard to climb the ladder, to accomplish impossible achievements, but in the end there is nobody to share it with.
When I returned home to the real world, I found myself standing on level ground with people who had taken a completely different path with their time on this Earth. I looked at the guy next door and wished my life was that easy, while he looked at me and wished his could’ve been this exciting. I envied him: he still had his wife, his kids, and he was able to enjoy them every day after he left his simple job. I, on the other hand, had an incredibly dangerous job. I went home alone, and I did not see my kids every day.
Back at home, I wondered about the future. In fifty years, laying on my death bed, I hoped someone would be there to hold my hand when I passed. My neighbor didn’t worry about things like that; he would always have a room full of people around to grieve and celebrate life with, those who could comfort him at the end. Who would be there to hold my hand? I had made choices my whole life thinking that they were good for the team, but the aftermath had proven quite different. Somehow the more I focused on the team, the more selfish I became from the perspective of my family.
The guy next door went to college, got married, and raised a family. He had seen his children being born, he had seen their first steps, and he had heard their first words. What had I heard from my dark, empty house?
Balance is never spoken of in our community because it isn’t relevant, at least not to the mission anyway. The mission is about today, feelings and bullshit are for later. The key is to focus on our training and live through today. Everything else is secondary. This is a necessary evil for Special Operations units.
This is true not only for SOF in the military, but also for Law Enforcement Officers as well. Wives don’t normally understand why it’s hard for us to say no to our unit. They aren’t haunted with the mission they missed because of an injury and stuck living with the idea that if they were there things could have gone differently. I struggled with coming home. I had spent every waking moment with these men, in that time you push away any emotional ties with your wife and kids and rebuild that safety net of emotion towards the Soldiers you are surrounded by.
To return home and have to revert back seemed impossible. My mind was still wired for the mission, do whatever you’re ordered; kill, capture, life and death, pure adrenalin. Where was that excitement at home; where was the adventure? You’re left with a wife who doesn’t know you and kids who knew you just enough to forget. It’s hard to say but it’s true. When you look back, the love you have for your team seems almost greater than that for your own family. Guilt exists, even though you know it was the only way.
When you are great at something, everything else seems to get the leftovers. Coming to terms with that as a fact of life instead of carrying it as baggage can be the most important phase of turning that switch to the ‘off’ position. For me, everything seemed to happen in phases. There was a warming up period and reconnection before I found my way back to the action. Now I am on my second marriage and I’m happy, and it’s not by mistake. My happiness is the result of finally committing to making the changes I needed to make. I have turned down some jobs. I made a conscious decision to be home more, and not just physically, but mentally home.
I force myself to be in uncomfortable situations like working behind a desk and not always being a grunt; changing the ratio from brawn to brains. I make the effort for romance, and have discovered the little things that build the connection with my wife that will last forever. I screw that up all the time, but she knows I’m trying. Sometimes I miss sleep altogether, just so I can have a moment alone to myself without sacrificing anybody else’s time. That sacrifice is the difference between my two marriages, and why this one works.
I haven’t always had a sense of balance. I realized how bad I needed it after losing my ex-wife and my kids several years ago. There were a few reasons for the divorce, but I know me being gone didn’t help. When I was gone before, it wasn’t an issue to me because I was doing what a father does for his family. I was the breadwinner and the sole provider. Typical man of the house stuff. I missed births and birthdays, ballet recitals, sports games and talent shows. I missed practically everything that is cherished by the average civilian parent, yet I was completely numb to it.
That’s not to say I didn’t care. I just felt such a profound purpose with my objective, whatever it was at the time, that I didn’t connect with the lost moments. Most wives won’t ever really understand it and if they did, they only have so much tolerance for it before they break. Everyone has a breaking point, no matter how sweet and gentle they might be. She has a point where being alone isn’t worth the person that comes home to them. I have seen great relationships fall apart, mainly because the wife felt her husband didn’t care. It’s an empty and lonely relationship.
The men in these relationships never feel fully engaged. Family is important, but the mission comes first. Without the mission, the family wouldn’t be. Now I finally see that to accomplish a successful family the focus isn’t on completing any particular objective. The victory happens the second you show up at home and give your family your full heart. Things have normalized for me. I’m a federal agent. It gives me the rush I need to feel fulfilled, and still gets me home most nights for dinner. My lady gives me a long leash. I see my four kids everyday and I get to spend the time with them that I missed while they were babies. I get to see them struggle with the lessons of life like I did. I see them developing into the men and women they will be; their personalities and talents evolving.
I watch my sons playing baseball, they work with their team as they refine the skill-set required to run with the pack. I wonder if they will follow in my footsteps. Reflecting back to a time when my dad watched me learning the same skills, I also wonder if he thought about his time in the Marine Corps and envisioned my future when he was watching me.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal on 30 June, 2015.