Hero’s Journey Home Step 4: Mentors, Challenges, Trials and Descent

By Peter Sessum

Week four of the Veterans Administration therapy program. So far in our Hero’s Journey we have answered the call to adventure, crossed the threshold and now found mentors. Using the Matrix example, as the book often does, Neo has answered the call to adventure, taken the red pill, crossed the threshold from the known world (the Matrix) into the unknown (the real world) and Morpheus is mentoring him. Some mentoring is helping them learn the hard way.

Reflection Questions for Step 4:

  1. What was your acculturation process like in the military?
  2. Can you identify the positive and negative mentors in your acculturation?
  3. Has your attitude toward your mentors changed over time?
  4. What kinds of external darkness did you encounter in the service?
  5. What kind of internal darkness did you encounter in the service?
  6. What did you learn from your journeys into darkness?
  7. Write a one-page about your mentors, challenges, trials and journeys into darkness.

Acculturation

I had a difficult time getting acculturated into the military. Part of that is situational, part of that is my fault. On paper, I was exactly the kind of solider the Army wanted. I arrived with the mindset that the warrior is a complex being. Ready to work hard and with foundation beliefs in honor and integrity. However, personally, I struggled to fit in.

I was a little geeky for most of the Infantry. There was a bar across the street from my first unit and I would go and drink cheap beers and write poetry. I wasted an entire weekend locked in my barracks room painting because I had some ideas I had to get out of my head. Not exactly the hard charger expected in most grunts.

If there is a “cool kids” clique, I am not going to be in it. I was a true believer in the “we are all one team” idea in the Infantry. So not being accepted as a member of the platoon was weird to me. I didn’t care where people were from or what their background was, if you are in my unit, you are part of the team. It was a little disillusioning to find out that was all B.S.

I also had bad timing. I arrived to Germany when my unit was in the field and not long after they returned from a deployment. Those shared experiences brought them together and the new arrivals were outsiders. Right after I deployed with them, I did a PCS move to Fort Lewis so I didn’t benefit from the relationships build over deployment.

Since I grew up an hour north of Fort Lewis, I would go home every weekend. That did not help me fit in with my new unit. I would take friends with me, but most of the single guys in the platoon were under 21 and I would go to clubs when visiting Seattle.

One day they carved “fag” in my door. No one would own up to it but it felt like a huge betrayal that my own platoon would treat me like that. I later heard from a soldier that the younger guys did it and their logic was that the never saw me with a woman. The guy who told me did not face that same scrutiny, even though he was a virgin. I didn’t feel like I had to explain to myself to those assholes that they never saw me with a woman because I was dating women in Seattle and the local women I did date I didn’t want to spend time with in the barracks.

Mentors

I had a number of mentors in my time in the Army. The best ones were the ones that were not my direct supervisors. Sergeant Armour is the first that comes to mind. I learned more from him about Fire Directional Command (FDC) as a mortar than I did from my own squad leader. I was envious of his team because I wanted to be on it instead of my own squad leader Thibodeaux, who was an arrogant POS. Armour demonstrated that he would look after his troops, Thibodeaux would sell you out in a heartbeat. Corporal Aldrich was another. He was one of the universally liked people in the platoon and was the epitome of cool to me as a young private. Over time, and after having a lot of negative leaders in the Army, I have appreciated what they have done for me and what I learned from them.

External Darkness

It isn’t difficult to find external darkness in the military. Depending on your definition of darkness, it is almost everywhere. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is, in my opinion, the greatest internal threat to the military. It takes a special kind of evil to target one of your own. That is someone that just wants to do evil and whatever their reasoning is to help them sleep at night is bullshit.

When I was in Afghanistan, I understood why the Taliban wanted to do me harm. I was the invading infidel, coming at me wasn’t personal, it was business. I get it. But every time you hear about a suicide bomb in a market, it isn’t about repelling invaders. It is just evil expressing itself. What is the benefit of killing Afghans who have nothing to do with the war effort?

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Are any of them bad guys? Unfortunately, the Taliban didn’t wear uniforms. And a sleepy Taliban looks exactly like  sleepy villager when you wake them up at stupid O’clock.

I have met evil. Sometimes it is subtle like the mullah that wouldn’t sit and drink tea with us one week, but when he had the female sit out the following week, he was happy to sit and talk with the men. Other times, it was easier. We lost one soldier in my deployment and I did not mind being part of the mission that captured the IED maker.

Internal Darkness

Everyone wants to think they are a good person, and I try to be one, but you need to embrace some darkness to be able to do what you might have to do in war. I don’t know what worked for other people, but I compartmentalized who I was when I was overseas. I thought that on a mission I can’t be the man that picked up his kid from school and when I was picking up my daughter from school, I couldn’t be the man that is going to drop the hammer on a bad guy. The problem is that it is that once you left he darkness in, it is difficult to remove it all.

It took me a while to be able to articulate, but I think I have it now. I envision it as walking into a control room. There are switches, dials and levers all around. Some switches you turn off, and some you turn on. You dial down the fear and turn up the alertness. When you come back, the light doesn’t work and all the labels are missing. There are a couple you remember, but which dial did you turn up and by how much? It feels like guessing and then leaving to go about your life.

You don’t know how much your hyper alertness is dialed up until you almost draw down in the middle of a mall over a balloon popping. I had my hand on my pistol, but hadn’t cleared leather, when I realized what I was doing and pulled my shirt back down. It happened so quick, no one around me noticed, but that was my sign to not carry for a while.

In Afghanistan, Captain Brooks with the 1/501st was the cause of a decent into darkness. You can’t walk into a Tactical Operations Center and swing a dead cat without hitting three captains that don’t have a job. He was the S39 air. He spent the first part of his deployment trying to arrange for a “combat jump” into Afghanistan. I used the quotes because the plan was to have trucks standing by to pick up the troops to drive the rest of the way on the mission. He was just trying to pad his OER and he found his chance with the PSYOP and Civil Affairs (CA) troops. He got the commander to assign us to him, even though that is not how it works. Of course, no one in our chain of command did anything about it. They loved to talk about how PSYOP is only attached to other units, but we report to our own higher, but when it comes down to it, they didn’t have the stones to take care of their troops. Our command was too busy trying to find a way to get their bronze stars for achievement than to look out for the boots on the ground.

Herbig's picts 014

This was the perfect scenario for Brooks, poor security and limited friendly folks made for an attractive target. He never got his firefight, but the entire battalion was given their CIB and he immediately stopped going on missions.

Brooks wanted to get his Combat Infantry Badge so he made us an easy target. He wanted us to stop and assault if we were shot at in an urban environment with only two unarmored vehicles. He fired a warning shot at a kid that had stolen a bag of school supplies that we were going to give to Afghan kids. But he didn’t fire it into the air, I think his intent was to fire near the kid, but from the local’s perspective, he was aiming at the child.

Going on those missions, I knew I was going to die in Afghanistan. Honestly, if had just been me I would have refused to go on the missions. They had no PSYOP value and I had no obligation to go. He wasn’t in my chain of command so he couldn’t order me to go on his ego missions. The problem is that it wasn’t just me. The rest of the team was going, and as prior Infantry, I had the training if things went bad. One guy on our team was able to see his baby be born and was back on a plane the next day to finish mobilizing with the rest of us.

When we say we go to war for the person to the left and right, we mean it. So, I went on these stupid, pointless missions. One day, I went to the chaplain to talk to him out it. I told him that I already knew I was going to die; I had accepted that. I had lived a full life and had been able to spend time with my daughter but my teammate just barely met his son and I was angry that some stupid captain was going to get us all killed. I asked him for help working through that so I wouldn’t be beating the shit out of an officer in the middle of a firefight. The chaplain had some great words of wisdom.

“I’ll pray for you.”

Honestly, I think I broke the chaplain. He was used to people saying they are scared, or they want to go home. I don’t think he was ready for my particular issue.  I still have a journal from that time and I couldn’t read it for years without going right back to those days in my head. There is a switch I turned off when I was in Khost and I don’t know where it is to turn it back on.

Lessons from the darkness

I learned the depth of human darkness and that the rest of us need to work harder to keep the external darkness at bay. I know that people don’t have reasons to do evil. They just are evil and find reasons to justify it. I love how people talk about Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Steve Irwin bring the trinity of goodness and we need more people like them in the world. But we also need some good guys that are willing to do bad things to bad people to protect that goodness. I just wish the goody goody people would help those of us that embraced evil transition back int the good world rather than treat us like the bad guys. I know that I am the most dangerous person some people in my town have ever met, but I am not the most dangerous person I have ever met and I don’t like that they look down on people like me for protecting them from meeting those dangerous people.

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Not exactly the face of evil. Terry sharing bubbles with local kids.

The thing that helped me most come out of my descent into darkness was my daughter. She was my light in the darkness and that helped me find my way back to who I needed to be for her.

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