By: Peter Sessum
This is from five weeks into the Hero’s Journey Home project, a therapy program at the Seattle VA. I’m starting to see some benefits of this long term look at my military service. When I think about my entire military service, certain big issues pop out, but when examining a narrow view at a time, more specific details are seen. It is the difference of looking at a collection of snapshots and watching a miniseries documentary.
Week five was about turning points. There are examples, The Greek story of Psyche, Apocalypse Now, The Truman show, and they look at turning points in the characters. When looking through the lens of this program, I had a number of turning points in my military career.
First, let’s look at the reflection questions.
- Can you identify a turning point in journey through the military?
- What did this turning point lead you to face in yourself?
- Were there ways you felt a part of you died? That you felt part of you was reborn?
- Psyche also contemplated suicide numerous times, despairing in her journey. What were times of your greatest despair in your own journey? Did you have any support to assistance the way Psyche did?
- Was there a clear moment you knew you were going to leave the service?
- When have you tried to avoid things in the civilian world? Did you have any temptations with the “blue pill” of drugs or alcohol? How have these effected your journey?
- Write a one-page about your turning point in your military service.
My interpretation of turning points was not just where, after being in the military for a while, I decided to leave the service. Turning points are decisions you make that alter the course of your life, career or the story narrative. In the movie Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, faces Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Willard is drinking himself to death in a Saigon hotel room when he is forced to sober up so he can be briefed on the mission. That isn’t a turning point, even though he is sober, it is just a continuation of his descent into darkness. His turning point is when he faces Kurtz and makes the decision to turn away from the path that will lead him into Kurtz’s footsteps. He kills the darkness in front of him to stop the darkness inside of him from growing. My turning points were not that extreme, but I had a few in my life.
I remember the exact moment when I cost myself my career. I had screwed up a few times as enlisted, but nothing I couldn’t recover from. I had worked my ass off to be a good soldier, better than I had been before. I was in charge of a mortar squad and loved the responsibility of leadership. I chose to do what I believed to be right, even though I knew it would it cost me. As a leader, I thought I had to set the example and live by my own words. Based on what I knew, I was doing the right thing, and it cost me.
To be specific, so there I was… at Fort Lewis, no shit. We were still in formation and the platoon sergeant asked the squad leaders who deserved to go to the Combat Lifesaver course. I led fourth squad so we were in the back of the platoon. Each squad leader called out a name of someone in their squad and I could see this train coming, but I couldn’t get out of the way.
I knew the perfect, safe, political choice was Private Willis. He was brand new to the Army and was pretty much a puppy. He didn’t know shit yet, but he was enthusiastic. It would have been simple, the platoon sergeant would have been happy, the other guys were not stellar soldiers or had reputations so no one would have blamed me. But the question was who deserved to go, not who would be safe to suggest. Words matter, and forgetting the platoon sergeant, how could I look my troops in the eye and tell them to do the right thing when I wasn’t willing to do it myself. There was a clear choice of who deserved to go so I gave his name. The platoon sergeant wasn’t pleased, he hated that soldier. Had we been in private, I am sure that he would have directed me to make a different choice, but I said it in formation and he couldn’t take it back without looking like an asshole. But I knew it would cost me. And it did.
Some turning points you choose; some are made for you. I was having fun being involved in the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) program at Fort Lewis. I was the rep for my brigade and would regularly report to the command sergeant major about programs and progress in his units. I was on a path to be the president of the post BOSS program, but Sergeant Major Gannon, the garrison sergeant major hated me. Even though I was voted by the soldiers in a overwhelming majority he gave the position to an unknown. I wonder what my time in the military would have been like had I been given that opportunity.
Getting back to the discussion questions, these turning points led me to face that I was prepared to do what I needed to do for what was right. My troops recognized that I was willing to sacrifice for them and that I had their back. That means a lot to me when you consider a lot of people in leadership positions do not have the trust of their subordinates.
I really believe that if you can’t be trusted with the little things, you can’t be trusted with the big things. If you aren’t willing to take a hit for your people, you aren’t going to step up when lives are on the line. Any one that says they will do the right thing when it counts it lying to themselves. They will still be a weasel; they will just find a way to justify it to themselves when the bullet start flying. When some leaders say to never leave a soldier behind, they really mean to not leave them behind. Because that Blue Falcon will leave you to die if it means risking himself.
Death and rebirth
I feel like there are times a part of me died in the military, but I never really felt reborn. I kind of felt that way when I got my Infantry blue cord or my Airborne Wings. Like I was now something different than before. Being Infantry was a part of my identity for a long time, but outside of “turning blue” I can’t think of a feeling of rebirth. I did feel like a part of me died a few times. It pains me when someone would hold me to a standard they didn’t hold themselves to. Or being betrayed by your command. Unit command are the biggest proponents of doing the right thing, but seeing them screw over a soldier or be shady was always disturbing.
I can only speak for myself, but there wasn’t one moment that made me want to leave the service. It was the death by a thousand tiny cuts approach. After a while, you get tired of trying to swim upstream. Overall, I was a decent soldier, not perfect by far, but I was tired of fighting the system. There isn’t any one thing to pin my decision to leave. I don’t blame the Army as a system, I think it is more accurate to say that the conditions I found myself were not right for me. I think it is like surfing, sometimes the conditions are not right. It doesn’t mean that isn’t a good surf spot or that you are a poor surfer. I am sure that I would have had a different experience had a been stationed elsewhere, or had a different MOS.
22 too many
The positive part of this reflection question is that it asks you to look at your deepest despair in the military, but also the support systems. I am fortunate to have a good support system. I learned, the hard way, that not everyone can handle hearing about the things that trouble us. For some people, our world is “too real” to hear. There are things in the world that people don’t want to know, or admit exist. When you have been removed from the military for long enough, people in your life might not know that side, so vets like me hide that darkness in their past. Knowing what I have been through would change how some people see me and I don’t want that to happen. Fortunately, I do have a couple people I can call when things are bad. I am also that friend that will drop everything if someone is hurting.
I wish more vets thought they had a friend that would be there for them, no matter what, and without judgement. A few lives might have been saved if they had. I know some must have had that support system, but didn’t know it. A few years before I joined the Army I had a veteran friend that took his own life. He was my best friend and roommate. He killed himself in our apartment while I was at work. We talked briefly, he called a mutual friend, everything seemed fine, and he was just gone. That was 27 years ago and it still bothers. Knowing the pain it would cause others has made me take that option off the table.
That didn’t stop me from being self-destructive after my deployments. It wasn’t a conscious decision to drink more, but it was more a part of my life then. There was no red pill/blue pill moment. But there is a moment of clarity that comes, usually through reflection or therapy, that you realize you are hurting yourself. Now, I know that using alcohol as an escape, only entraps you more. Most forms of escape are only temporary and the problem is still waiting for you. I am fortunate that I didn’t go to the extreme that it cost me everything. Compared to other people, it wasn’t that bad. I just didn’t know how wound up I was post deployment and took longer to “decompress” because I didn’t know what the issues were.
For the Hero’s Journey Home, this chapter was more of a reflection and less of an “A-Ha” moment. But you need the ebbs and flows to make waves so it was still progress. How would you answer the questions?