Hero’s Journey Home Step 3: The Call to Adventure

By Peter Sessum

Week three of the Hero’s Journey Home project. The process remains more of dipping a toe into the process rather than jumping into the deep end. Last week, we talked about what was our call to adventure. For me, it was subtle, but for many that joined after me, the attacks on 9/11 were their call.

This week, we reflect on crossing the threshold from civilian to military life. Of course, this part of the journey applies to everyone, not just those in the military. Especially if the transition requires a cultural shift. This can be entering the police academy, taking a corporate job after working in a small business, moving from a big corporation to a non-profit or moving away to take a job. Even a high school grad making the transition to college crosses a threshold. So, while civilians can’t relate to crossing the military threshold, they can relate to making transitions of their own.

Alright, let’s get after it. And yes, number seven isn’t a question, but I didn’t write it, I’m just doing it.

Reflection questions for Step 3:

  1. How did you imaging joining the service would change you?
  2. What did you gain from your service?
  3. What did you lose?
  4. When did you realize you had crossed the threshold into another, unknown world?
  5. What stands out as your most important initiation rite (or its negative, hazing)?
  6. If you received a new name, what do you think its significance was/is?
  7. Write one-page on your call to adventure using some of the questions above.

How I imagined the Army changing me and what I gained from service

I think Command Sergeant Major Kline said it best when he said that the Army won’t make you anything you aren’t already. He resisted the idea that the military would make a young guy into a man.

“If you are a punk, it will just make you a punk that knows how to shoot,” he would say.

I didn’t have any illusions of a great transformation. In fact, I didn’t have any real expectations. I saw it as an option to get out of the rut I was in. So, I don’t think the military changed me, but joining the Army put me in a different environment which let me express myself differently.

Growing up, I had a great imagination and loved to read about ancient cultures. As stated in Step 2, I was kind of invisible in my family. Being mixed race in an all-white town with my black family on the other side of the country forced me to find my own identity. I dove into books and comics and loved reading about ancient or tribal cultures.

That actually made my transition into the Army pretty easy. I already had a belief system based on a system of honor. So, I thought I had found my people in the military. Unfortunately, that was not the majority position in the Army. They will talk about honor, loyalty and integrity, but only as a system of control, too often, the leaders didn’t possess those qualities themselves.

That doesn’t mane it was all negative, I did gain a good sense of self. Finding something I was good at that others wouldn’t do gave me a sense of pride. I enjoyed pushing myself. Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it and I think how we suffer shows who we really are. Despite being messed with, I didn’t become a bully when I became strong. It made me want to protect the weak more. Too many leaders treated me poorly, so when I gained rank, I tried to be the leader I needed instead of following in SSG Thibodaux or SGT Berklund’s footsteps and treating my troops like shit.

What I lost from my service

What I lost was the connection to the people of my country. I love my country, and despite its history and flaws, I think it is pretty great. But I don’t feel connected to the people I thought I was protecting. It isn’t the major stuff; it is little things. Like when I see someone undercut a colleague it makes me not trust them. I know, intellectually, that “throwing someone under the bus” is not a big thing in the civilian world. It is a way to get ahead. But in the military, we call them a Blue Falcon and that is lowest form of life.

I believe that if you can’t be trusted with the little things, you can’t be trusted with the big things. The piece of shit soldier won’t suddenly rise to the challenge when bullets are flying. Anyone that says, “I’ll do the right thing when it matters” is either fooling themselves or lying to you. I know I the business world that lives are rarely on the line, but I have difficulty working with the kind of person that would get us all killed.

It is also difficult to relate to some civilians. Especially when it comes to stress or suffering. The military is long periods of boredom broken up with very short periods of chaos. So seeing people stressing out over something they have no control over it funny. But the problem is that civilians don’t think I’m taking things seriously. I had a boss that would get mad that I wasn’t stressing over a project. Or I wasn’t working on a bigger project with a looming deadline. My reasons were simple.

  • I wanted to get project X off my desk so I could focus on project Y.
  • Project Y will only take four hours to do.
  • Project Y is due Tuesday
  • Today is Friday
  • The Tuesday deadline is an arbitrary one we made up, the client doesn’t expect it anytime soon
  • Under no circumstances will anyone die or be injured regardless of the outcome.

That boss always hated me for stuff like that. He would also constantly move back the deadlines showing that they truly didn’t matter. He would say we needed more time work on it even after I would clarify that it was only a couple hours of work and I had two days to do it. That whole office was wound too tight as a reflection of his management.

Initiation rites

Moving on, my most important initiation, to me, rite was getting my Airborne Wings presented to me by a man who jumped into Normandy. He punched my wings into my chest and it was a proud moment for me. I was welcomed into the Airborne Corps by one of the founding members.  I didn’t have much in the way of hazing. Only one incident stands out.

So there I was, at Fort Knox… no shit. We were in the motor pool doing command maintenance. Just like 90 percent of the vehicles in the military that week, none of our tracks had moved sine the last maintenance day. Per usual, when soldiers get bored, shenanigans ensue.

I never went through any Army driver training , my squad leader just pencil whipped our licenses so I didn’t really know how to do a proper Prevent Maintenance Checks and Services (PMCS). So, when Sal offered me tips to better checks I went along with it. He crawled on the ground and tapped a spot in the armor and then another and marked the second.

Yes, he helped me find “soft spots” in the armor.

“Here, you try,” he said handing me the hammer.

I tapped one spot, sounded like his first tap. When I tapped another spot, my critical thinking kicked in. Something didn’t feel right. When I looked over to the rest of the section they started laughing. I wasn’t embarrassed, Sal got me good and I can laugh at myself. I don’t think I would have fallen for it if his delivery wasn’t so good. I’m glad I wasn’t the trooped that marked up an entire vehicle without every figuring it out.

That was the good-natured stuff you do to welcome a kid into the platoon. Everyone gets fooled at some point, that was just my turn. What I never understood is intentionally segregating members of your unit. Unfortunately, it is a commo theme in my life. I was never one of the “cool kids.” It doesn’t bother me that some people feel the need to feel “cool” or better than other people. That is usually more about their own insecurities than the quality of the excluded. What does bother me is when it is done to the detriment to the unit.

Infantry training in one of the few trainings in the Army that is all done at the same location. We do basic training and our Infantry AIT in the same barracks, the same drill sergeants, everything. So there I was, at Fort Benning…no shit; a few trainees started calling themselves the Motivated Privates. It was like their own little gang inside a basic training bay. What they missed is that we were supposed to all be part of one unit and not be separated.

This cub was a popularity contest based on who they thought were “cool” and had nothing to do with ability. Like many that judge who is cool and who is not, they favored those they thought were worthy and undercut those that they determined were not. They were literally Blue Falcons to their fellow soldiers.

I was 22-years-old in basic. While today I think of the maturity difference between 18 and 22 to be negligible, at that time, in that environment it seemed to be a great divide. I just wanted to do my job and get to my unit, but they insisted on messing with me. These BFs told the drill sergeants I cheated on the final PT run. Not because they thought I had or had any evidence, but because I got the fastest time and how could an unmotivated private beat a motivated one? I think one of the MPs, as thy called themselves, was booted out for being lackluster and another was recycled because he couldn’t qualify with his rifle. They might have been motivated, but they sucked as soldiers. That is what happens with you put popularity over ability.

Receiving a new name

Being called Sessum was a good way to help the enculturation process. It separated me from the civilian me in the known world and helped establish me in the new, unknown world. But it didn’t hold any particular significance that I can think of. It most likely had an effect that I didn’t notice.

I nth military, your rank becomes part of your name and identity. So being Sergeant Sessum had a significant impact. I loved the responsibility of leadership, not the power. I felt it was an opportunity to improve my little corner of the Army rather than react to it. I tried to mentor young soldiers and it felt good to me that soldiers form other teams would often come to me for guidance. It meant I had eared their respect, but it also meant that they had lost confidence in their own leaders. Something I never wanted to do. The respect of my subordinates was paramount to me. This doesn’t mean I was the “fun” sergeant. I was kind of a hard case, one of the “hard but fair” knuckleheads. Looking back, I did okay, but I could have used better mentors and a little more maturity to reach my full potential as a leader.

The renaming that most stuck with me was being renamed “Tim.” There was a medic in Germany that didn’t like to use last names but never knew what my first name was so he just started calling me Tim. I knew he was referring to me, so I went along with it. After a couple weeks I asked him why Tim, he said it was because I looked like a Tim to him. I said he looked like a “Joey” so for the rest of my time there we were Tim and Joey.

Beard lunch

“Tim” on a village visit in “somewhere” Afghanistan.

That would have been the end of it, but when I deployed as PSYOP they said we had to wear sterilized uniforms and go by first names or nicknames for OPSEC. I told my team that I would answer to Tim so that is who I became. Psychologically, it made it easier to be overseas as Tim than as my true self. When I was later hired to work on a counter narcotics program in Kandahar, I went back to using Tim. Again, for the sake of security, but also because my contacts there knew me only as Tim.

Crossing the threshold into the military was an interesting process. I knew I was in a different world as soon as I signed my final contract at MEPS. We were sworn in and waiting to be taken to the hotels to fly out to basic training the next day. I had been on “official” soldier for all of two minutes when a solider at the recruiting station yelled at me to take my cover off. It seemed a little extreme to me to yell at someone over something so small. Also, it is good to inform a person of a standard before you chastise them for failing to follow that standard.

The joining the military hero’s journey was not the one that made things the most difficult. I think I ultimately rejoined the civilian, or known world easily. I feel like I was able to rejoin the civilian world easily. That is because my first discharge was prior to 9/11. I think starting another journey of going overseas was the return that was much more difficult.

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Hero’s Journey Home Step 2: The Beginning


The progression of the hero’s journey in movies and myths. Hopefully, for the vet it ends at home.

By: Peter Sessum

There is a feeling of déjà vu as I write this because I initially started the Hero’s Journey program two years ago. Unfortunately, at the time, life got in the way. I was able to complete all 12 weeks, but I didn’t keep up on the chronicling the journey. Unfortunately, now, I am not working and have the time to do another cycle of it. Which, when you think about it, is in line with what Joseph Campbell said about the hero’s journey.

I am in a different place in my life, in just about every way, now versus the last time I did this. Like any form of therapy, I believe it is good to revisit to see if you can glean something new or apply a lesson in your life that didn’t apply the last time. So, let’s get right to it.

Each week there is a reading and some reflection questions. This week’s questions are:

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Where did you enlist?
  3. Why did you join the service?
  4. What was your dream for your life after the service?
  5. What was most surprising to you about your service?
  6. From your perspective now, what would you say to your younger you about to join the service?
  7. Write a one-page story about your joining the service using some of the questions above.

Okay, so the last one isn’t a question, but here goes.

I grew up in a small town just north of Seattle, Wash. I was the youngest of four, and instead of being treated like the baby of the family, and all the benefits that come from it, I was kind of invisible. My oldest siblings were so challenging for my mother and step-father that the third child was a dream. They put all their eggs in her basket and I was left to fend for myself. This was also the time before ADD was a thing so you were just considered a bad student. I dropped out and kind of drifted. When I turned 18, my mother kicked me out.

One night, a couple years later, I was awake in bed thinking of what I was going to do with my life. I was a high school dropout, working minimum wage jobs and no better prospects in sight. Like many others, I had bought into the myth of college being challenging so I didn’t even consider it. I knew I wanted more, but didn’t know how to get it. The next day, a recruiter handed me his card.

I think, to this day, that had he handed it to me weeks earlier I would have ignored it. But based on my contemplation the night before, I thought I would give it a try. Needless to say, my feminist mother and hippy step father were not impressed when I arrived at their house with a man in uniform to pick up my birth certificate. As a kid I wasn’t even allowed to play with toy guns and had to smuggle GI Joes I bought with my allowance money into my bedroom. I’m sure they thought of military service as a form of rebellion, but really it was an opportunity to shake things up in my life. In the post Cold War – pre GWOT window the military seemed like a thing you could do to figure yourself out.

I think what was most surprising, and most disappointing, was how hypocritical the Army was. The people that most talked about honor and integrity had none of their own, but would hold you to the standard they pretended to adhere to. I arrived at basic training with a strong honor belief system. We were mixed race kids in my family and since my mother and step father were both white, we each had to find our own identity. I dove into books and reading about ancient cultures and their systems of honor really spoke to me. So I found a home in the military, or so I thought. As much as they talk about it, the Army really doesn’t care about honor and loyalty. As long as you don’t do anything to get your fellow troops killed, your moral character doesn’t matter.

If I could talk to my younger self, I would advise him to not tell that asshole Marine recruiter to fuck off. Or maybe still tell him to fuck off, but find another recruiter and join the Marines. I think their adherence to traditions would have been a better fit for me at the time. Looking back, I would have been that moto Marine dumbass, but I might have been happier. Or I would have told that little fucker to volunteer for Ranger Indoctrination Program right after Airborne School instead of going home on leave.

Overall, joining the Army was a good choice for me. In the Campbell narrative, receiving the recruiter’s card was my “call to adventure” and the start of my hero’s journey.

And since I know this needs clarification, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t necessarily mean someone that does heroic deeds, it is using the definition of hero to mean the protagonist. You are the protagonist in your own story, even if you don’t feel heroic. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on myself, and while I do not feel heroic, I feel I have a pretty good grasp of who I am. If life was the movie Die Hard, I am Sgt Al Powell, not John McClane and I’m okay with that.

Up Next: Step Three: Crossing the Threshold, The Call to Adventure

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Three Guiding Principles of Enlisted Leadership

By: Peter Sessum

Photo: three soldiers on top of a mechanized mortar vehicles.

My first squad, mechanized mortars. SGT Brennamen (right) was one of my top 3 worst squad leaders.

I’ll bet if you put the authors of books on military leadership in one room you would get a bunch of former field grade officers jacking each other off about how great they are. Every book on military leadership I have read was some officer patting himself on the back when really all most ever did was get out of the way of their NCOs. Honestly, military leadership, as well as in the civilian world, isn’t that difficult, just follow a few simple guiding principles.

Inept leaders always say they have inept soldiers

Have you ever noticed that the worst leaders always seem to have the worst soldiers? Whenever you hear someone in a leadership position say their have crappy soldiers, know that it is the leader’s fault. There are so few “lost causes” in life, especially in the military. Anyone that can’t get the most out of a subordinate, or thinks their subordinates are substandard is lacking in good leadership.

If you were to ask my former team/squad leaders you would find a mix of reviews. Some, the ones that were recognized as good leaders, would say I was a great troop. The ones that everyone hated and thought were pieces of shit would say I was a poor soldier. There is a direct relationship between the leadership soldiers receive and what kind of soldier they are.

SGT. Brennamen was my first squad leader. He was one of those NCOs that constantly contradicted themselves. If you ever say, “I thought…” he would interrupt and tell you not to think. Then later, he would yell at you for not thinking. It was like the movie Office Space, you would work just hard enough to not get yelled at. His squad would never take initiative and would wait for orders even when they knew what needed to be done.

Compare that to (then) CPL Tieman. Everything got done without him having to say a word. His squad was always one step ahead of him. On a Hohenfels field rotation it became a game for him to try and actually give us an order. He would come back from a briefing and give us a list of tasks and we would respond, “done, done, working on that now.” In the end, we had to leave one easy thing undone for him to notice and tell us to do it. For us, it really wasn’t a competition, it was just having fun among the team. This was his first field exercise as a mortar squad leader, and at the conclusion he was selected from the platoon to receive recognition from the battalion commander. He later told me that he didn’t deserve it because he didn’t do any work, that I made him look good. That was enough for me, as long as my supervisor recognizes my hard work, I’m good. I don’t need the big man to know my name.

If you ask the two, what kind of soldier I am, Brenamen would say I sucked, Tieman might say I was squared away. Tieman went on to a successful career, last I heard Brennamen was in jail for stealing military computers and got caught by bringing them into a computer repair store to be fixed.

Attitude reflects leadership, not the other way around

When I hear a solider has a bad attitude, I always look to their leadership. More importantly, when I hear a sergeant say his troop has a poor attitude, I always suspect the sergeant’s leadership style. Bad attitudes rarely come put of nowhere. Unless that soldier is short-timing, there is a reason they have an attitude. If you think your soldier has a poor attitude, and when they move to a different team that NCO loves them, you need to check yourself. The problem might be you. This guideline is also universal when it comes to morale. Whether in the military or civilian world, anytime there is low morale, it is always directly connected to leadership. Even in high performing teams, if they are not happy it is because the leadership is doing something wrong. Teams that perform well but have low morale are often afraid of their leadership. Unfortunately, far too many leaders equate positive results with good leadership.

This also means that when they see poor results, they think it is due to poor performers and not poor leadership. There is no one size fits all style of leadership. Even within the same team, different soldiers respond to different leadership styles. Some need more accountability and others need a free hand. Micromanage some, and you will only get exactly what you ask for. Give them top cover and a free hand and they might impress you.

The one thing most successful thing I did as a squad leader was to ask, “what do you think?” Privates, especially in that platoon, were not used to being asked what they thought. This was in direct conflict to what I was taught, but it yielded great results. They stopped coming to me with problems they could solve, they just fixed it.

I had a soldier that was considered a shitbag by the platoon. My platoon sergeant even said he wanted five minutes alone with that kid with a baseball bat. Six months later, that same platoon sergeant made me sit down and put that kid in for an award. My time in the Army up until then taught me to keep a shitbag constantly under your thumb. Instead, I put him in charge when I was away. He got to see it from the other side and it is better to give a PFC pride in a job well done rather than feeling like a shitbag every day. Unlike officers writing about military leadership, I understood the best way to help the kid was to get out of his way and let him turn himself around. He went on to a successful military career because he was given the opportunity to succeed.

The more rank and position you have, the more people you work for

Captain Kolb said those words in his change of command speech. Those words have stuck with me. If there is any justice in the world, he became a general. That view totally changes how many would view their subordinates.

photo: four soldiers by a mortar tube. One hold a mortar round.

81 mm mortar squad. My first leadership position. Smitty doing the thing he does in the back. There is always one.

In a mounted/mechanized team, the driver is responsible for the vehicle. That is it. If the vehicle is good to go, he is done. But it is the leader’s job to make sure that soldier is taken care of. Leave, pay, awards, punishments, promotions, etc. If the leader sees him/herself as working for their soldiers, they are more likely to take care of their soldiers. When you think of soldiers as working for you, they become resources for your own selfish needs and not careers to be cultivated. They also become interchangeable and disposable which makes the previous two guiding principles come into play.

This also doesn’t work if you only do this with a select few. Cultivating the careers of your favorite doesn’t make you a good leader. If you can’t get the best out of everyone, or at least put in your full effort, then you are still a shitty leader. Which brings us to another good point.

Just because it is working for you don’t mean it is working

Not necessarily a guiding principle of leadership, but something for everyone to keep in mind. There is usually one that is happy on an otherwise unhappy team. They are the favorite. Of course, they think things are going great. Just like rich kids, with old money, they think that everyone can succeed if they only applied themselves. They totally neglect to factor in the advantages they have. It is easier to think that you are getting ahead because of your own abilities than the favor of another.

There is nothing wrong with being a favorite. Someone has to be. It is just a blue falcon move to not recognize that fact and use your favor to help your fellow troop. Trust me, no one is mad that you are the favorite, they are mad that you being the favorite is screwing them. Giving un-earned rewards to the favorite and overlooking the hard work of others is a shitty leadership thing to do.

Unfortunately, they never write about that kind of thing in books on military leadership. Have you ever noticed that the books are really just long pats on the back? They never talk about the soldiers they failed, just how successful they are. Sometimes they mention a setback, but only as a plot device to demonstrate how awesomely they overcame the situation.

I wish I could do that. But I have to admit I failed a soldier. I was more old school and he was a young kid that I thought wanted to be coddled. If you smoked him for screwing up he would complain that he was a person and shouldn’t be treated that way. I don’t think the embraced how the Infantry worked. I wasn’t able to get the best out of him. That isn’t to say I didn’t try, but nothing I tried worked. I was only his squad leader for a few months but I guess someone got a hold of him that was able to speak his language because he went on to make rank and become a sergeant. Unlike the other writers of military leadership, I can’t claim to be perfect.

If you ever meet an author on military leadership, ask him about these guiding principles. If they don’t know anything about them, don’t buy the book. It is just going to be a couple hundred pages of a former officer stroking his own ego. I, for one, saw enough of that in the Army, I don’t need to pay for it now.


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Sometimes the Military Does Some Good: Healing Over Hurting

Sometimes the Military Does Some Good: Healing Over Hurting


Captain Geise, through an interpreter, sees an Afghan at the temporary aid clinic.

By Peter Sessum

Hollywood loves a good war movie. They focus on invasions or combat, but the reconstruction doesn’t make the box office, or headlines. Like many other vets, I can name a number of soldiers, units and commanders that set back the reconstruction efforts. But people like (then) Captain John Geise were doing a lot of good.

– Sometimes the Military Does Some Good –

So there I was, in Kandahar…no shit. For a few months of my tour I was part of a group trying out the “Team Village” concept. The idea was to would send out Civil Affairs (CA), Psychological Operations (PSYOP) and Counter Intelligence (CI) to visit villages in the area and talk to the locals. In a meeting with village elders, the team would conduct an assessment of the village and its demographics.

CA would compare the number of villagers to the number of wells and decide how many they would have to dig to reach their target ratio. They would also want to know how many school age children and look at the schools to see if the buildings needed repair.

PSYOP would be finding out how the village got their information and distribute radios and PSYOP product. We would also have our loudspeakers blast messages to the village during our visit. One PSYOP soldier would stay out of the meeting to conduct PSYOP product analysis. In other words, making sure the leaflet or poster made sense to the locals. It is mildly embarrassing how ineffective our products were.

– When Hearts and Minds Fail: The Infamous Matchbooks –

We didn’t have CI on the team, but we did do passive intel gathering. If the number of people went up, then people were moving in. Depending on their tribal affiliation, it could mean that the Taliban was staging a force in the area or that members of a minority tribe felt safe to return. Our route took us to roughly 300 villages every 45 days.

We filled out daily reports, but once a week we would identify the village with the most need we had visited that week. That village would get a second visit, and this time we would bring the docs. The medical team trusted us to tell them where to go and they would do the rest.


Team Village with the medics. The Afghan National Army was just starting up and would go to the villages for recruitment.

There was a little coordination that went into it. We had to get out early, before the people were out in the fields or it got too hot. We had to line up our vehicles, go to the Romanian compound to pick up their nurse, then grab the interpreters. Geise was in charge of the mission and before we would roll out he would give the same speech.

“If you think someone is faking, it is because they are. Don’t get mad, just carefully explain how much medication to take for the symptoms they are claiming and give them what they need. I brought plenty of extra just for this reason, we won’t run out.”

Sometimes, in America, we take our access to resources for granted. If my child has an upset stomach, I can find something in a couple rooms in our home. If there isn’t any, a bottle of Pepto is minutes away at probably a dozen places less than a mile away. There are no drugstores in rural Afghanistan. Some villages had not seen a doctor in years and have no access to over the counter medications. So when we would tell the village elders that we were setting up an aid clinic for the day, everyone in the village showed up. Each person in a household had a different “ailment” looking for treatment.

For security purposes, Geise limited us to two hours on the ground. That line of medics had a sense of purpose I had never seen in a battalion aid station. Some villages were lucky enough to get an optometrist, veterinarian or dentist to tag along for the day. Getting your first set of glasses at 50 years old would be a life changing experience. The eye doc would do an examination and we would deliver the glasses on our next time through the village.

It wasn’t without challenges. The Romanian nurse didn’t speak English and our interpreters didn’t speak Romanian. She was also part of the female treatment team and all our interpreters were male. So Sweet, who was a doctor in Afghanistan before taking the more lucrative job of interpreter, would sit outside the door and listen to the Afghan woman. He would translate that into English for a female Romanian officer, who would translate that into Romanian for the nurse. Questions and answers would go back and forth like that. Until each woman was treated.

Soldier gives an Afghan child his first stuffed animal.

Introducing an Afghan kid to Beanie Babies. Team Village was a collection point for donations from the U.S. I did the math and figured I passed out about 1,000 stuffed animals to Afghan children.

Kids would get vaccinated and families would have medicine for the next time someone got sick. Occasionally, a person even got treated for an actual ailment. Before rolling out we would drop off humanitarian assistance and pass out stuffed animals and school supplies that were donated from the states.

In the six months I was with those medical missions we never took a fire. We did it without ever getting into contact. Those days also did more to combat the Taliban’s message than just about else the Team Village was doing. Who would you trust? The person holding a gun to your head or the one that would show up with docs and help your village and ask for nothing in return?

I don’t know how much official recognition Geise received, but those missions made a difference. This is one of those times when you leave a legacy, the people will remember your actions but never know your name.

That time later gave me some comfort in college. Anyone on campus critical of President Bush or the war would transfer their hatred to us veterans. I would ignore them knowing I did more for my fellow human than those entitled brats. It still feels good to have done some good.

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Intro: The Hero’s Journey Home

The progression of the hero’s journey in movies and myths. Hopefully, for the vet it ends at home.

By: Peter Sessum

I am participating in a project with the Seattle Veteran’s Administration (VA) called the Hero’s Journey Home. While I will keep some of it private, I thought since I have this forum I could share some insights that some fellow vets might glean something useful from.

The theory is based on Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey. The reader’s digest version is that all stories from Homer’s Odyssey to Star Wars and the Matrix all share a similar path. The hero starts out in the known world, feels the call to adventure, enters the unknown, meets mentors, is tested, faces darkness, receives some form of reward and starts the return journey home.

The working theory that we have been working with is that this is a cycle that normal people repeat in their lives. Home is familiar then you go to school which is unknown. Teachers are mentors, get the diploma and return to life after high school. College or the job world is another move from the known to the unknown. These cycles in a sense repeat. For the purpose of the group, we are saying that a military career is a more dramatic cycle than the ones civilians experience and that makes the return to the known, or the journey home, more difficult than the average civilian job change.

There are some hiccups in translation. Hero is a loaded word to veterans. Many have heard the saying “I’m not a hero but I have served with some.” I think most I know feel this way. In this context it doesn’t mean someone that committed heroic acts but the hero of the story. I think a more accurate term might be the path of the protagonist but it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.

We are all supposed to be the hero of our own story right? But this got me thinking, there is a division between protagonist and hero. In the movie Taken; Brian, played by Liam Neeson, is the protagonist. The guy we are supposed to root for. But if you look at the story from the perspective of his daughter she becomes the protagonist but he is the hero. I am starting to think that making the distinction is important. We are the protagonist in our own story but someone else might be the hero. It might be worth discussing at the next meeting.

There is one little issue I have had with the theory is the lack of completion in the examples. Odysseus does indeed return home, only to leave shortly after. But in the other examples, Luke Skywalker and Neo don’t return home. It makes the incomplete examples to emulate. Neo doesn’t get plugged back into the Matrix, he stays in the “real world” which I think is something that veterans can relate to.

Some of us truly leave the civilian world behind in our time in the military. Travel around the world, see and do things that no one back home can relate to makes it difficult to “plug” back into life back home. Life in a small town isn’t the “real” world. It is a nice little pocket of life that changes little.

Trying to explain to someone back home about life overseas is like Neo trying to explain to someone in the matrix what Zion is like. Not just how they live but the dichotomy of thinking the “machines” are evil but using machines to combat the enemy that is itself a machine. If the Matrix is bad, why plug back into it? But how can it be bad if people don’t know any different? The discussions would be maddening. Just as they are with veterans and sheltered civilians. (I make the distinction because there are some who have been outside their safe little bubble that have a broader understanding of the world at large.)

These stories, while a good representation of the journey of the hero, none of them cover the hero’s journey home. However, for the first week, being able to step back and see how these patterns repeat and being able to put the military experience into a context that everyone can understand is a good starting point.

Unfortunately, they are just stories and there are some aspects that do not translate into real life. In the movie of our military service it would end with a soldier in dress uniform dropping a duffel bag on his mom’s porch, DD214 in hand, and walk through the door before the fade to black. If it was a movie about the deployment, the parting shot would be the trooper stepping of the plane. For those of us who have returned home we know it isn’t that easy.


Another look at the hero’s journey. I think this is more of where the conversations will be going.

He took a run down the trench of the Death Star, dropped two photon torpedoes down the exhaust shaft without a targeting computer. Somehow shooting womp rats in Beggars Canyon doesn’t hold the same appeal. But that is the most exciting things those other kids had done. Just looking at them he sees his own youth and how cocky he had been before the mission. His first mission fighting a real enemy. Sure, it worked out for him, but how many died trying to complete the mission? Whole squadrons were blown away in hopes that one ship would complete the mission. Hard to brag about your exploits under those circumstances.

What a return home for Luke Skywalker might look like

If Luke was in a bar near Tatoonie University you know there would be some undergrad that would love to tell Luke how what he did was wrong. After all he senselessly murdered 1.7 million people and 400,000 droids. He is not a military leader, in fact, Luke was just another farm boy from a dirt planet a week ago. What made him qualified to decide those people needed to die? The word of the crazy old hermit and an imperial prisoner that claimed to be a princess? It would not be long before Luke left that place and never returned.

How many vets have been in a bar and been held accountable for whatever decisions the government has made? Some vets keep a low profile when using their GI Bill to avoid the faux intellectuals on any given college campus. Troops don’t make policy, but we are the instruments of the government’s policy yet somehow we have to answer for it, even decisions made by two administrations ago.

Unlike Luke, many vets want to return home. If not the place they grew up, at least the country the defended. That journey home can be difficult. Hopefully, by chronicling my time with this project hopefully some vets will find something useful from it.

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Don’t Thank Vets on Memorial Day

It is not my day.

By Peter Sessum

This is one of those things that drives veterans crazy, admittedly some take it too far. Civilians don’t see why it matters and while they don’t intend to offend, some do not fully grasp why it bothers veterans so much. I tell people it is like wishing me happy birthday on my dead brother’s birthday. Even though I take time to respect the fallen, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the day off.

Not so happy birthday

Bob: Happy birthday!

Tom: It isn’t my birthday, it is my brother’s birthday. The brother that passed away years ago.

Bob: Doing anything cool for your birthday? I like to go party.

Tom: Some family and I are going to visit his grave.

Bob: Well that’s cool too. Happy birthday anyway.

Tom: It isn’t my birthday. It is my dead brother’s birthday.

Bob: Close enough.

That would be a horribly insensitive conversation, but that is how it feels when someone thanks me for my service on Memorial Day. Granted, part of that is because of what specifically Memorial Day means to me and other vets. It isn’t as insensitive to say “Thank you for your service” on Armed Forces Day, the weekend before Memorial Day. It is incorrect, but not insulting. At worst, it might sting for the person who wishes they could still serve.

*I should probably stress that this is just my opinion and not that of every vet. I know a guy that thinks he should be thanked on Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day and Memorial Day as an entitlement. I very much disagree with that thinking and so does every other vet I know.

In case you needed a visual of what day is for who.

Take time to respect the fallen…or don’t

I served on the post color guard for a while back in the day and performed a ceremony on Memorial Day. Now, as a vet, Memorial Day is my busiest weekend of the year. I place flags on the graves of vets at a local cemetery, I help pass out poppies with the VFW and attend multiple ceremonies, often being part of the rifle salute. It is what I do to respect those that gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country and those that are no longer with us.

That is what I do, but I don’t expect everyone else to do the same. I find it kind of annoying when vets get all up in arms and scream about how it isn’t national BBQ day. No, it isn’t but it also isn’t national be sad on your couch day. We served so our country could be free, not so that we would be revered. And people should have the freedom to do what they want on any given day. If we have to act a specific way, or if someone dictates how we should act that really isn’t freedom.

Memorial Day, for me, isn’t just for those that fell in combat it is for all of those that served that are no longer with us. I am one of the lucky ones, not just because I came home without any holes but because I don’t lose anyone really close to me. The only casualty during my tour was from the unit I was attached to for the deployment. While tragic, I didn’t know him. I served in the same mortar platoon as a man that was killed in Iraq about a decade after the last time I saw him. I didn’t even know he was KIA until a year or so ago when I saw his name on a list of the fallen.

I do, unfortunately, know an ever growing list of veterans that are no longer with us. I use my Memorial Day to pay my respects to them. Just because they survived their tour, or tours, doesn’t mean their passing is less of a loss.

Drinking and grilling while stationed in Germany. If we did it then why is it so bad that people do it now?

When it is my time, I have my own expectations

While I plan to live forever, and so far so good, there might be a time I am no longer around. In which case I don’t want the people I care about to spend three days sulking. If I am not around I want them to have fun for me. Drink some beers, cook some ribs, go watch the sunset on the beach, do the things I would do on a sunny day.

To be honest, if my body is not lit on fire and set out to sea with large men doing a haka on the shore while people gather around a keg telling stories about me while I burn then either my friends have failed me or I did not live the kind of life I have strived for.

Sitting around and being sad is not how I spent my time in the military. Yes, you should BBQ, it what we did in the military. Yes, you should drink. Once again, it is what we did in the military. If someone is having a sale, you should tactically exploit that and save a few bucks. It is sound military strategy. If you want to sit around and hate the military, it is a free country, you are free to do that and I won’t fault you. I defended your right to think what you want, even if it isn’t what I think. I won’t tell you how to celebrate, just please don’t thank a vet for his or her service. It isn’t our day, there is plenty of time to thank us November 11. Instead of thanking us for our service, join us in remembering our lost. I know I would appreciate that.

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You fight on your terms but you win on their terms

No matter how you fight, you only win if the enemy says you win.

By: Peter Sessum

Why did the U.S. win WWII? it wasn’t because we coordinated with the Soviets to overrun Berlin or we dropped a couple atom bombs over Japan. That is how we fought the war, we won because both Germany and Japan surrendered. That is how it works, no matter how you fight, you only win if the enemy says you win.

Unfortunately, not many American military minds understand this very simple concept. Too many people in charge think winning looks like what they think winning looks like. It is this narrow perspective that is costing the deaths of so many young Americans. What winning looks like to us and what it looks like to our enemies is vastly different.

Pajamas and Kalashnikovs, it is the uniform of those we fight for the past 50 years.

Pajamas and Kalashnikovs, it is the uniform of those we fight for the past 50 years.

American arrogance

This is one of the biggest hindrances to modern warfighting. How many times have you heard someone say that we are fighting a bunch of backward, tribal, goat fuckers? We are the most technically advanced warfighting machine in the world yet we have been basically been fighting guy in pajamas with AK-47s for the past 50 years.

So there I was, on FOB Salerno, no shit. Captain Brooks chuckled at a report that he heard that said the Taliban were going to occupy Khowst City for a few days. He thought it was funny because by his estimation it would take about 1,000 men with tanks and fortified positions to be able to hold the city for any amount of time and our helicopters would see that many people moving across the desert and we would blow them away before they got within five miles.

What he didn’t understand is that “occupy” might mean something different to the Taliban. I said that it would only be a handful of men arriving by white and yellow Toyota corollas. They would sit in the back of an Afghan’s business and watch convoy after convoy roll by. They would tell the owner that if he said anything that he would be killed and that they had friends in the crowd so that even if the one Taliban they knew about was captured, another would kill the man’s family.

In that moment, who is more powerful? The hundreds of Americans patrolling the area or the one guy in the back of the shop? If they just had 20 men do that they could claim they “occupied” the city and there was nothing the U.S. could do about it. The captain dismissed my idea because that isn’t what occupy meant to him. He only sees things from his perspective and discounts anything else.

Fight on your terms

The U.S. is good at this. We are big on the whole “the only fair fight is the one you lose” mentality. I have heard some troops think that fighting with IEDs and mines is cowardly, but we have drones piloted from half a world away and the C-130 Spector so who are we to judge?

We are pretty good at fighting on our terms but not winning on their terms. It was a four day road trip to get to Bagdad. We took the capitol pretty quickly. So we won right? Nope, we didn’t have Saddam. Then we pulled him out of a spider hole so now we won right? What about putting him on trial and executing him? Nope, at every stage there was some asshole still fighting. No matter who we kill there is always someone out in the desert saying, “You didn’t get me.”

Seriously, do they wear anything else? Maybe we should consider going to the next war in our pjs.

Mullah Omar was dead for two years before most of the world knew. Yet somehow he kept putting out massages. When it was found out he had been dead for a while his people just shrugged like it was worth a shot and went back to business as usual. There is no winning because there are no victory conditions. There is no central head of the Taliban that can surrender and stop all the fighting in Afghanistan. As long as there are two assholes with AK-47s that are pissed about something we will still be scouring the desert looking for them.

We fought on our terms in Vietnam and even the most conservative numbers say we killed about a half million enemy. The Tet Offensive was a massive tactical failure but in the aftermath Walter Cronkite called the war unwinnable. In that it was a complete success. Ho Chi Minh knew he couldn’t fight us on our terms so he fought on his. He knew that if he won in the media he would win the war. Make war so distasteful to Americans that they demand we leave and that is pretty much what happened.

Now, everyone tries the same thing. Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, they all understand to try the same tactic. No matter how many we kill, they just have to kill enough of us to make it seem not worth it to Americans. After all, it worked pretty well in Somalia.

The future of warfare

No one is ever going to face us on the field of battle and try to go toe to toe with us. They are going to blend in with the local populace and fight guerrilla style. Lately, people who should really know better are laughing at the fighting ability of North Korea. Basically, they are thinking of how they would fight a war against North Korea and know that since North Korea couldn’t fight them that way so they feel safe. We would take out their bombers long before they could get to U.S. shores. They seem to lack the long range missile ability to launch a nuclear attack so people laugh at them. No, they might not launch a missile into downtown Seattle, but they could hide a device in a container and have it detonate in the port. Or load it on a fishing trawler. Or smuggle one into Malaysia and load it on a private plane. Coming up with a half a dozen ways is not difficult. While we are focused on missiles, they could have a nuke on the way to our shores.

I was talking to another vet recently and he joked at the state of their military readiness. Some military blogs are laughing at them because they know that they are outmatched in training and technology. But remember the pajama guys with AK-47s? Putting this in terms everyone can understand, if zombies were real they still wouldn’t be that scary because they are slow and stupid. But fast zombies would be scary because they take away one advantage. Fast zombies with pistols would be the stuff of nightmares. An undead thing that never sleeps, could be anywhere, will fight on equal terms and never stop coming is a scary thought. That will basically be North Korea. Only North Korean troops might be packing chemical or biological weapons.

This is how North Korea is going to invade. Or at least their first wave.

North Korea isn’t going to line up on the DMZ in uniforms and attack. They are going to use tunnels to sneak into the country dressed as South Korean military and police. Think of the chaos they could cause with just 50 men. Now think what they could do with 100 or 1,000 or even 10,000. That is going to be the first wave. It will be Koreans, dressed as Koreans, in Korea and running around the Korean countryside. While someone from the south can recognize when someone is from the north, do you think PFC Snuffy can? They are going to attack the north facing DMZ defenses from the rear and while we are trying to figure out who is friend or foe the rest of their military will attack.

Oh, and thanks to the geniuses in the military who are always ready to fight the last war but not the next one, we got rid of a lot of our ground to air defense capabilities. So their air power will be able to do some initial damage unchallenged. Sure, our fighters will end them in short order, but I don’t think that is going to be much consolation to the bodies on the DMZ.

I know it goes against conventional thinking but we need to stop looking at war from our perspective and see what fighting, and victory, looks like to the enemy. If that seems like unconventional warfare thinking it is because unless China or Russia want to mix it up with us we have fought our last conventional war. We can still fight on our terms, but we have to do what it means to the enemy that we have won. Clearly what we are doing so far in the Middle East isn’t achieving that.

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Why the Marines United situation is so messed up

Some 30,000 people joined the Marines United Facebook group to share porn or images of women without their consent and to name and harass the women who appeared on their site. After it was successfully shut down, MU 2.0 formed up, giving a big FU to the “haters” and telling members not to be Blue Falcons and snitch on them.  (They are now on version 3.0+) There has been some press about this whole situation and talk about “boys will be boys” and sexual harassment but what the Marines United people don’t understand that it is they who are the blue falcons not the people reporting them.

Disclaimer: I don’t usually do this but this article isn’t the typical DTC post. While we do talk about issues from the veteran’s perspective, this might be a little too raw for some people. If you are easily offended by harsh language, you might not want to read this because I will be filling up the swear jar with this one.

If you choose to continue to read you can’t complain later since you had the chance to fuck off and didn’t take it.

I am going to let Task & Purpose or mainstream media cover the high points, this is going to be straight up grunt talk about how messed up this situation is. Let the rest of them have the adult discussions, I’m going to talk about how fucked up it is from one grunt’s perspective.

Credentials: Another thing I don’t usually do but when Task & Purpose posted a Facebook Live video, many comments were questioning their authority to talk on the subject calling them POGs and some other bullshit. So before you fuckers start that, I am true blue Infantry, forged at Fort Benning’s Sand Hill at Charlie Company 1/50th. I was a true believer thinking us grunts were all life takers and heart breakers that lived by a higher standard and our service was directly defending our country and way of life.

I joined before stress cards, cell phones and “zero week.” My dogtags are old enough to buy beer, my jump wings were pounded into my chest by a guy that jumped into Normandy, I have combat patches and boots with Afghan dust still on them, been in 11 countries in uniform and more than paid my dues so you know I am not going to be impressed by some slick sleeve leg still wet behind the ears or some chapter loser trolling my post with douchebag comments. Now let’s get to the nitty gritty.

Boys will be boys

This phrase has been floating around a lot in the news. In every arguments one side uses it to explain away male behavior and the other side uses it like a slur to lump men into a group of sexual predators. In truth, it is somewhere in the middle.

Saying “boys will be boys” is like saying “bless his heart” in the south. For those northern inclined it bascially means “boys are idiots.” Anyone that disagrees has never met, or been, a young boy. Seriously, as a gender we are lucky to have survived this long. But boys will be boys is not a blanket statement. There is a very obvious line. Boys will be boys is only applied when a guy is doing something for fun and while he may be hurt in the process, he isn’t out to hurt anyone else. It works like this.

Why do boys wear holes in their socks so fast? Boys will be boys.

Why did Tommy jump out of the tree holding a bunch of bungee cords tied to a branch? Boys will be boys.

Why did Brock Turner do what he did? Because he is a fucking rapist and should not be running loose in society. His family, his friends and the legal system failed him and our entire country.

Why do I have to tell Johnny every day to change out of his school clothes before playing outside? Boys will be boys.

See how that works? Just because a male is involved doing something he thinks is fun doesn’t mean it is covered under boys will be boys. One thing that does fall squarely into boys will be boys is why do guys like to look at boobs so much? Guys are visual, and boobs are awesome. Speaking in broad strokes (no pun intended) when guys are rubbing out, they like visual material. Not that women don’t, but it works for us.

So yes, a bunch of military guys would naturally want access to porn. Especially when overseas where many sites are blocked. While they might not have access to adult sites they would have access to Facebook. Sharing porn while overseas is a good thing. Deployments are stressful and being able to decompress is a positive.

I knew a spec-4 overseas that had a terabyte of porn back when a terabyte of anything was considered more memory than you would ever need. If you brought him any portable storage device he would fill it up. That young man was doing the Lord’s work. It was all stuff made by professionals, with their consent and a full understanding of what it was going to be used for. I am sure that Brazzers and Bang Bros and others did not intend for their paying customer to give their downloaded videos out to many service members but hey, boys will be boys.

Higher Standard

The idea of passing images and videos through social media that would get past the military censors overseas was brilliant. I thought that it was a good idea to get content on the sly. But that is where the good intentions ended and what Marines United members did past that is what violated who we are and what we stand for.

Posting images of an ex without her consent or knowledge. Finding the Instagram of a fellow Marine and posting her pictures. Posting identifying information about the women that were illegally loaded onto the website and sending them harassing messages. None of those things are what true warriors do. Considering women to be things that you can do what you want to against their will is what the Taliban and Boko Haram does. The Marines United people are closer to Mullah Omar than Chesty Puller.

Marines literally have a theme song about being the first to fight for right and freedom and keeping their honor clean. Anyone that supports Marines United does not have clean honor. You can’t talk about your Corps having a higher standard when you lack integrity yourself. Any NCO that engaged in any of the dishonorable behavior associated with the group should be ashamed of themselves. How can you expect troops to live by a code when you don’t have one yourself?

And who was the fucknut that sent a Marine a message asking where women like her were when he was in and how he would gladly fuck her? In the history of pickup lines, has shit like that ever worked? I would like to hear from any woman that will happily jump into bed with a guy that says crap like that. (Women paid to sleep with douchebags are excluded from that.)

I remember exactly one sexual harassment brief from my time in the Army. Despite having them every year both on Active duty and on the reserve side the only briefing I remember is the one delivered by Drill Sergeant Buress. He talked about sexual harassment and how even though we were Infantry, someday we might change our MOS and be in charge of women and how we won’t use our position to coerce a subordinate into performing sexual acts for favorable treatment, awards or promotions. I don’t remember the entire thing but one thing stuck with me.

“We are Infantry,” he said. “We don’t do that, POGs do that kind shit, we live by a higher standard.”

There was more but that is what stuck with me. I never needed another briefing after that. I live by a higher standard. There was nothing that has been said since that day to supersede those words. And that is what I think about the people from that group. They have no honor because people that lived by a higher standard wouldn’t do or support the things Marines United members do. Also, men of honor own up to it when they get caught, they don’t send death threats to the man who outed their behavior or threaten to do harm to his wife and young daughter.

And I know some of those people are moto fucks that post shit online like “I’m a veteran, my oath never expired.” First of all, yes it did. That oath of enlistment ended when you got you ETSed. Even if it didn’t, in that oath they swore to follow the orders of those appointed over them and follow the UCMJ. So they already broke the oath. Even mother fucking Mad Dog said to knock that shit off. I’m an Army grunt and even I believe that anyone that doesn’t do what Mattis says should turn in their cammies and stay home Nov. 10.

I reiterate because some people skim or forget a good point that was made earlier. I have no issue with having a little spank material. You want to rub one out, go for it. But that is where the line ends. There is so much free porn out there on the Internet that there is no reason to search Instagram for bikini shots of fellow service members and harass them.

I’ll even dumb it down for some of you knuckle draggers out there. Sharing porn of consenting adults to get through a deployment = good. Sharing porn without someone’s knowledge and/or contacting them and harassing or giving out information so they could be harassed = bad. Which brings me to my last point.

TLDR? Here is a picture for you. Which guy are you?

Marines United are a bunch of Blue Falcons

When they were busted out do you know what their defense was?

“She shouldn’t have taken those pictures in the first place.”

Jesus Herbert Walker Christ! WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? That is the biggest Blue Falcon move I have ever heard. Tits are awesome and I know you know that because you created an entire system to share pictures of them. You are bigger Blue Falcons than the assholes that took screen shots of snap chat pictures. Thanks assholes, you ruined another good thing.

The number one concern of women who are willing to show their boobs have is of the pictures ending up on the Internet. The second is a guy showing all his friends. Snapchat developed a system that took away those fears. A picture could be set to disappear after a couple of seconds so even if his buddies were nearby a guy would have to make the choice of appreciating the picture or showing his friends. But screen capture ended that.

And now we have a bunch of Blue Falcons that are sending the message that not only are the pictures you once sent free game, but now your personal information is too. So guys who see a woman naked feel like they can contact her and harass her. Seriously, what the fuck guys?

The message should be “your images are safe with me.” That is just the minimum standard, there should be a whole lot going on but obviously baby steps with some fuckers. You see, what we want to do is encourage women to show their breasts, not discourage it. That should be a thing, flashing boobs not sharing photos. I love boobs, legal age, consenting boobs are practically magical. We need more boobs not less.

You know how awesome it would be if women randomly flashed more often? I would love it if I was walking down the street and a woman said, “You look like you are having a bad day, how about a little pick me up?” I can guarantee that would make me smile. I would be less bothered about waiting for fries if the woman at the drive through showed me tits to make up for screwing up my order. I know that sounds crude, trust me I know, but it would be awesome and I am not alone thinking that.

Here is the caveat; guys can’t make it weird. There is a joke where a shop owner sees a kid and tells his customer that he plays a game with the kid every day and the kid is stupid. To prove it he offers the kid two $1 bills or one $5 bill. The kid takes the two bucks and walks away. “See, I told you the kid was stupid.” The customer catches up with the kid and asks him why he takes the $2 rather than the five. The kid says, “The day I do the game is over.”

To make it relevant, if a woman shows you her tits and you make it weird, she will stop. Just appreciate them like the work of art they are and move on. Now Marines United is telling women to cover up, that is Blue Falconry of the highest order. If they brought the ban hammer down on the guys posting personal information and displayed the slightest amount of respect for the female gender they might have had women willingly post pictures. There are many, many sites where people post their own stuff. Some even get past the deployment censors. It would not be difficult to encourage women and couples to post their stuff to grateful Marines.

Annnnnd, some of them are this guy.

Simply put, these guys had a good thing and took it to a bad place. What started out as boys being boys became something sinister. Once they stated breaking laws, harassing women and threatening people they crossed all kinds of lines. I am sure that somewhere a few enlisted guys are going to get busted, some officers will pat themselves on the back and the Marines United guys will keep going. I hope we get this right.

If you need images that bad, drop me a line, I’ll task the DTC network to hook you up. Just don’t go down the path where you compromise yourself or your integrity.

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ROE and why civilians scare me

While not official ROE, when it comes time to get into a gunfight, it s a good tip to follow.

While not official ROE, when it comes time to get into a gunfight, it s a good tip to follow.

By Peter Sessum

People tend to think that other people think like them. So when a civilian says he is worried about vets becoming violent I know it is not because he has an insight into the military mind. It is a reflection on him that he thinks that if he had our training and experience that he could kill a lot of people. But that is part of the problem, he doesn’t have our training and experience, especially our training with Rules of Engagement (ROE) and that is why civilians worry me.

ROE is the cornerstone of military action. While ROE can differ from theater to theater, and in some cases operation to operation, it is what determines when deadly force is authorized. It separates legal action from war crimes. That is why I am more worried about civilians, they don’t have ROE.

ROE is not something that is glossed over for military members. Before a soldier is allowed to pick up a rifle he or she has had a numbers of classes. One of those classes is the Law of land Warfare. What everyone knows as the Geneva Conventions. (And if you think that it isn’t plural you know less than you think.) So before a grunt has learned how to use his primary weapon he knows when not to use it.

In a movie when the troops are ordered “don’t fire unless fired upon” that is part of their ROE. It means even if a person has a gun you can’t shoot them unless the other person shoots first. I am going to be honest, from a grunt’s perspective that sucks. It means the bad guys get a free shot. If he is a good shot* it means you or one of your friends might die before you can do anything about it.

CENTCOME ROE card. In the military ROE is more specific than "shoot everyone that doesn't look like you."

CENTCOM ROE card. In the military ROE is more specific than “shoot everyone that doesn’t look like you.”

There are a number of different levels of ROE. The worst that I have heard is the United Nations (U.N.) where deadly force can only be requested through the headquarters by radio after taking hostile fire and is sometimes denied. Of course that is Peacekeeping. War is on the opposite end of the spectrum and ROE is much different. There is no radio calls to higher HQ, each individual can determine if conditions authorize deadly force. Authorize does not mean require. Just because deadly force is authorized does not mean it has to be used. Every vet I know has stories where deadly force was authorized but not exercised and restraint was the better decision.

So there I was, in downtown Kabul…no shit. We had just left the NATO compound and was at a checkpoint to drive through another secure area. It was just the one vehicle and I was in the back pulling security. This was one of the first checkpoints that one would take to either go to a military base or to the president’s compound so it was a target.

As the driver was talking to the guard a vehicle started coming up on us quickly. At the time, the ROE authorized deadly force for “hostile intent” so if a threat was perceived we could act on it. The intelligence had told us to look out for suicide bombers in cars. Specifically, a single person in a large vehicle or a vehicle made for multiple passengers. Our position was between two large military compounds and where traffic was usually pretty slow because it was funneled through hard corners. So a van with only a driver speeding towards us was a concern.

This was one of those time started to slow kind of moments. I quickly did the math and it added up to him being a possible threat. I tracked him through my rifle sights and he just kept coming. I picked a spot on the ground; my point of no return. If he did not slow down or turn before then I was going to fill the cab full of lead.

I had just flipped my selector lever to fire and took a sharp intake of breath, the kind you take right before you yell. I was going to shout for my driver to go and  then start firing. Just as I inhaled, the van turned right and sped out of sight. Truth be told he really should not have been speeding in that area. Security is high and people are on edge. I am glad I held until the last moment because I would not have liked to kill a guy who might have been on the way to the hospital because his wife was in labor.

What is the connection between civilians and ROE? Simple, civilians don’t have one. There is no training or schooling on when it is OK to use force and when it is not. Outside of their layman’s understanding of the law, the only thing they have to guide them on is their own morals and I am not willing to put a lot of faith in that. I don’t trust it that because there are too many examples of a civilian killing people over trivial things.

Last year, not far from my home,  19-year-old Allen Ivanov took rifle he bought a week prior, went to a party and killed three people, one of which was a girl that in his head wronged him. Somewhere, in the back of his mind that was an acceptable course of action. With all the random shootings I feel like we haven’t gotten a clear reason as to why they did it other than it seemed like the thing to do at the time. Even when a gun isn’t used, I feel like there is very little reasoning into why a civilian uses violence.

Even though I am no longer in the military I still have a set of rules that determine if force is necessary. When it is, the minimum amount of force should be used to resolve the situation. Those rules are:

  1. Is it a direct, physical threat to me, my family or those under my protection?
  2. Do I have the means and legal expectation to address the threat?
  3. What is the least amount of reasonable force needed to resolve the situation?

There are some important words in there. Direct is a big one. If I don’t think the person or persons in front of me are an immediate threat to me or mine then there is no real danger. Simply put, a direct threat is someone walking towards me saying they are going to kick my ass or taking a swing at me not walking away and saying that their big brother is going to come fight me.

Means and expectations also matter. I am not a law enforcement officer or someone with a hero complex. How often has a vet heard someone say they are happy the vet is there in case something happens? I know people have said that at places I have worked at. My response is usually “what do you think I am going to do?” Unarmed, without INTEL on who or what the threat is my plan is to lock my office, turn out the lights and take a nap out of the way until the cops arrive. If a gunman kicks in the door it’ll be on because I have nothing to lose, but I am not clearing a four story building with four entry points and multiple stairwells against an unknown threat with only a pen and my wits.

If it does come time to use force, the least amount of reasonable force should be used to deescalate the situation. The most important words is not “least” but “reasonable.” I have had a lot of silly conversations with untrained people about application of force. If a cop has a gun drawn they are not going to shoot a knife out of a suspect’s hands. Cops, and military, are trained to aim center mass. Aiming for the center of the torso gives you the most area to hit the target. Think of it like aiming for the bulls-eye when you only have to hit the dartboard. Aiming for the outer ring might mean you miss the board entirely. This is also why they don’t aim for the head, too small and moves a lot when running. If the suspect rushes the cop they are not going to holster the gun and then pull out a taser. Here is a video illustrating why.

ROE is not just specific on action but also on where it is applied. Anything outside the direct threat is collateral damage. As we all know collateral damage is bad, in the military we go to great pains to avoid it. Even though I am no longer in the military there are a certain set of conditions that must be met for force to be applied. Civilians don’t have that. How did Ivanov decide that his ex-girlfriend moving on with her life was a good reason to take a rifle to a party and start shooting? Aaron Ybarra was “mad at the world” and was upset that his friends didn’t respect the threat he and his shotgun posed so he went to Seattle Pacific University and started shooting. He has 112 years to figure out how that math doesn’t add up.

In the civilian world it is all collateral damage. Unfortunately, video games don’t often penalize for hurting innocent people and in fact some encourage it. When there is no criteria for differentiating threat from non-threat then everyone is a potential target. When the intent is to just hurt people, there is no difference between a person that should be attacked, like an armed terrorist, and someone that shouldn’t, like a child. That is why they can shoot people in a school or church so callously.

I also worry about people that haven’t really suffered because they have no coping mechanism for the when things go bad. I am sure for Ivanov being dumped was the worst thing he had ever experienced in his life. But the rational response is not to go and shoot people. Somehow, in his head that was the proper course of action. I sympathize, I have been dumped where it feels like your heart was ripped out of your chest. But the worst thing I ever contemplated was to sleep with all her friends. Not exactly an adult reaction, but it is far better than shooting up a party and it keeps me out of jail. Here is a video to lighten the mood.

That is why civilians worry me more than veterans and the civilians that worry me the most are the ones that claim to be afraid of vets. Because you know that if they had the means and the training that they would hurt people. As much as they don’t want to admit it to themselves, the reason they think someone is easily capable of violence is because in their heart they are. So if you think as a vet I am dangerous know that it is because of what you have going on inside your own head. Don’t put it on me.

* Good shot is relative. Your average, and I mean middle of the road average, rifleman should be able to consistently hit a one meter target at 200 meters. That is the distance of two football fields, including both end zones, away with iron sights or without magnification. For comparison, a sniper should be able to make a shot at five times that distance.

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No matter what you think you are made of, you are most likely wrong

How I would watch The Selection.

How I would watch The Selection.

By: Peter Sessum

The History Channel recently completed the first season of The Selection, their social experiment where they took 30 civilian through a mock special operations selection course. I know it wasn’t their intention, but my veteran friends and I found it hilarious. In the end, people got to know what they are really made of and I am sure that unless they are deluding themselves, most are not liking what they found out.

Unlike other reality shows there is no voting anyone off, no tribal councils, no alliances, there isn’t even a prize at the end. The intent is just to embrace the suck until you can’t take it anymore or your graduate. Everyone is assigned a number and at any time they can take it off their shirt, hand it to an instructor and say “I quit.” The instructors are all former Special Forces, Navy SEALs or Rangers so they have little sympathy for people whining in a watered down selection course. The show follows the basic five phases of military training.

Phase One: Weed out the quitters

Watching the show I was constantly reminded of a line from a Mighty Mighty Bosstones song. “I’m not a coward I’ve just never been tested. I like to think that if I was I would pass.” Some of the people on that show had never been tested, not really tested, and they all thought they were going to ace the course. I have often said that you don’t know what you are made of sitting on a beach sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it. It is only when you are cold, wet, tired, hungry and miserable do you learn something about yourself. Do you still drive on or give up?

Looking at the group you can spot the cross fitters and mud runners. The ones that Instagram at the gym and tweet #WOTD, #personal best and #crushedit. They are under the mistaken idea that just because something requires effort that it is challenging. Just because you work out doesn’t mean you aren’t a POG. Paying to run through 5k of obstacles or tossing around some kettle bells for a couple of hours takes some effort, but that is playtime compared to boot camp as these people quickly learned.

That is what Day 1 was. Basic training, and not Infantry basic training but how we all think of Air Force basic training. The instructors weren’t even really yelling at the candidates and I don’t remember any swearing. The people that quit the first day were not tested, that was like the aptitude test to see if you qualify for the course and those people didn’t qualify. Day 1 drops are quitters, pure and simple. They have no heart. I don’t care how much you can bench press, if you can’t handle one day of exercise for a show you volunteered for then you are a quitter. As a person that did that for real, I laughed with each patch turn in.

One of my favorite quits is when the instructors come in banging metal trash can lids at stupid thirty in the morning. One guy has the presence of mind to get vertical, get dressed and rip off his patch. It is good to know your breaking point, and if your breaking point is not enough beauty sleep then I think you know what kind of person you are. The cattle car out of 30th AG is full of people that think they can handle basic training and some of them are wrong. This guy must have talked himself into thinking he has more intestinal fortitude, but when it comes down to it he quit. It was humorous because I never had that option. Downrange you don’t get to decide you “just aren’t feeling it right now.” You do it because there isn’t an option not to.

maybe this is more your speed.

For the Day One quitters, maybe this is more your speed because you don’t have what it take to earn a Ranger Tab.

Phase Two: Weed out the ones that physically can’t do it

This one is less fun to watch because you are rooting for someone and they are just unable to do it. Watch the Discovery Chanel series Surviving the Cut where they film actual military members going through actual special operations schools. In the episode on Ranger School there is a guy that is trying to keep up. They are working them over with extreme physical training on little sleep. This guy is pulled aside by the medics because he is looking a little off.

The medic asks, “Do you know where you are?”


To this day it still makes me smile. That guy just physically couldn’t hang. Maybe he over trained before getting there, maybe he was just having a low energy day but he gave it his all. He was on his feet and wanted to stay there but his body broke down on him. That guy was not a quitter and I feel for him and people like him who are dropped because they physically can’t do the job. Being really, really tired and having your body shut down on you are two very different things. I also feel bad because for the rest of his life he will be known as Hashbrowns.

Phase Three: Weed out the people that mentally can’t do it

Mike Tyson said “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” Along that same vein, everyone is tough until they get zip tied and a black bag pulled over their head. One guy quit after being in a bag for two minutes in the back of a van. Other times, the Instructors would randomly pull people aside, zip tie them, throw a bag over their head and lead them into the interview room. A lot of tough guys had tears running down their cheeks when the bag was taken off. Two instructors would stare at them stone faced for a moment and ask them three questions. What is your name? What do you do? Why are you here?

This is the only time it is recognized that the candidates even have a name. Every other moment in the show they are called by their roster number. (Not going to lie that part felt familiar.) Everyone gives the same canned answer. Some version of wanting to see what they are made of or to test themselves. That was fine for the first few times, but the instructors started calling bullshit after a while and making the candidates look deeper into themselves. I doubt many were expecting the mental challenge. I guess gym rats are not ready for head games.

Day Two Roster Number 12 showed he had what it took to pass the mental games. After spending a long day in the surf and rolling around in the sand he and the other candidates were linked arms and shivering, the men were shirtless and the women in sports bras. I don’t know where he was, but it was another place. He was standing there telling everyone to feel the sun warming their bodies. He was a glass 1/10 full person at that moment but he had what it took to keep himself going and pulling along a few other people with him.

On the flip side Roster Number 11 was more of a loner the first couple of days. He is lucky none of the instructors were my drill sergeants. When he said that he has been good at everything he has ever tried they would have eaten his lunch right then and there. Every task that he did well would be a chance to remind the other candidates that they were not as good as him. It would be singling out by excellence. I wonder how he would have felt knowing that he was making things more difficult for the rest. Anytime anyone passed him 11 would be reminded that he is supposed to be the best. Had they wanted to they could have broken him in a day.

Not that the instructors needed to. Candidates were dropping on their own. The mentally strong had to face an abbreviated SERE training. When talking about the show with vets when we got to the SERE episode every one, as in every single one, asked how much the instructors hurt the candidates. After all, you can dislocate one joint and break a minor bone in SERE right? For the record, they didn’t and didn’t need to. Put a bunch of people in the stress position inside a wooden box with the sound of a baby crying coming over the speakers and some will quit.

Yes, it was a big bag of suck, but who could they complain to? They were fully clothed and only put in the box for a max of 75 minutes. That was a cakewalk compared to what their instructors went through at actual SERE school. Try 24 hours, naked in the box with harassing noise coming out the speakers. And that isn’t even the worst stories I have heard. It was actually a common theme among the candidates, this might have been the toughest experience of their lives but it is a normal Tuesday for some of the instructors.

I will say this, when roster number 3 was taken out of the box she seemed a little out of it. The instructors aren’t trying to kill anyone so they asked if she was OK. Her response had a little bit of edge on it when she said, “I’m not going to quit.” There was just a touch of “fuck you” in it. Good on you trooper.

Tweet a couple weeks out from the end.

Tweet a couple weeks out from the end.

Phase Four: Teach the survivors cool stuff

Everyone wants to fast forward to this point, but like everything else good in the military, you have to earn it. Before they teach someone how to blow stuff up and evade detection the military wants to make sure the person isn’t a psychopath or terrorist. The military also wants to make sure the investment in training is going to pay off. So they want someone that is going to actually finish the course and not teach valuable skills to a bunch of washouts.

So after a certain point it becomes less about PT to see who will quit and more PT with a purpose. The pool training isn’t to see who can physically do it, but to see who won’t panic. Water is an equalizer. I have seen hardcore Infantrymen get scared when it is time to do drown proofing. In Panama, at the Jungle Warfare School we had a guy hugging his life vest like it was going to fly away before he hit the water. For The Selection the standard is the standard. If you can’t pass, you gotta go.

The candidates were also taught some basic combatives. They were then turned on one another to see who the best was. Again, no prize, not trophy or money and not even a respite. Good job, you won, now put on this 50lb rucksack and move out.

This is another part which brought back too many memories. Of course, at this point in the season I had taken to drinking a beer for the candidates while watching the show. They had a moment I could relate to all too well.

So there I was, at Fort Benning…no shit. We were rucking some stupid amount of distance after spending a few days in the field. Once we hit familiar roads we knew we were close to the barracks. We could almost taste the hot chow. They marched us right up to the sidewalk, and right past our building. You could hear hearts break. They kept us moving another few miles and into a new bivouac site. To make it worse, it rained so hard that everyone’s gear was soaked and made the next day miserable.

The candidates had a similar experience, they were taken on a road march in formation. When they got back they were told to do it again at an individual pace. I honestly don’t know what any of them were thinking. Why were they heartbroken? The course wasn’t over, but you could see one of them break at that moment. As one of the instructors said, the candidate planted a seed of doubt, the instructors watered it and it grew into a nice little quit tree.

Phase Five: Put everything they have learned together

Special Forces has Robin Sage, Ranger School has an extended mission to take an objective, every school has a final push where everything they learned up until that moment has to be put together to be able to pass the final test.

Those, however, are qualification courses and this was a show about a selection course. The candidates may not have understood that at the start, but the show isn’t the hooah course that makes you high speed, it is the selection course that determines if you have what it takes to go to the hooah course. This isn’t the Olympics, it is the Olympic trials. It is kind of funny watching a candidate say that they want to see if they have what it takes to be a Navy SEAL but this isn’t the metric. It is just the placement test. And like many placement tests, many of the candidates are not going to like how they scored.

Want to be Special Forces? You have to endure three weeks of Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS). The Day One dropouts proved they don’t have what it takes to make it through SFAS, so they have no shot at the Q course. As much as they complained about physical exercise on little sleep, try Ranger School. Ranger School is two months of suck. Every day of the selection is like Ranger School only on the show they got more sleep, ate more chow and did less exercise.

tl;dr: Here are what I got out of it:

Thirty civilians volunteer to “see what they are made of” in a mock special operations selection course. Instructors are Rangers, SF and SEALs. Just like first formation at boot camp, everyone there thinks they are going to last to the end, most are wrong.

Just because you did stuff that wasn’t easy, like CrossFit, doesn’t mean you have ever been tested. CrossFit is jazzercise compared to the life of a grunt. When you pay for them, mud runs and Spartan trots are fun, when you are a grunt, dirt and exercise is a way of life.

Integrity checks matter. The candidates were told to run a circuit and do 50 repetitions of an exercise at every station without the instructors. One candidate only did 48 burpees. Why does two burpees matter? Because if you can’t be trusted with the small things you can’t be trusted with the big things. I have never seen a blue falcon suddenly step up when the time came. They always let the team down. No big deal if you work at BK, but kind of a big deal when overseas.

If you are thinking “this sucks” you are not miserable. It isn’t until you start to question why the entire history of human existence has led you to this exact moment and how can a loving God can exist if He would allow this level of suck to exist do you truly know what misery is. Roster Number 11 hit point and it was amusing to watch. I know it sucked bro, but you had to go there to truly grow.

It is not OK to quit while you still have strength left in your body. Watching the show I was thinking that if a person has the ability to rip off a 4×4 patch of but-did-you-dieVelcro they have strength to keep going. I didn’t see a single person puke or pass out and quit, they all did it on their feet. When I would see a quitter I would think, did you die? Then keep going. And this is coming from a guy that has puked on runs and kept going. I once stopped on a run because my entire torso seized up and an SF medic doing his own PT made me stop and ordered me to walk back to my unit.

It is OK to mentally quit as long as you don’t tell anyone. I touched on this in a post about Airborne School but this show reminded me of a personal story.

So there I was, at Fort Benning…no shit. Drill Sergeant Wadsworth decided to introduce the platoon to Fartleks. He took us to the quarter mile track where we would sprint the straightaways and Airborne shuffle the curves. Simple enough. I quickly learned that space, as well as time, is relative. After the first all-out sprint the curves seemed long and the shuffle too slow. But after the first mile the straightaways were super long, the curves very short and the shuffle too fast.

Six sprints into it I was smoked. By eight I knew I was done. I was barely hanging on. I was shuffling on the curves knowing that I couldn’t do another sprint. We had already lost half the platoon, one more wouldn’t matter. I had no idea how long it was going to go on. Eventually, everyone hits their limit and mine was on the last straightaway.

Each time a curve ended I promised myself that this would be the last one. One more and then I would quit. After all, this last sprint will take us to the starting point so that might be the finish line right? When we would shuffle past it and onto another curve my heart would sink a little. More privates fell out, their hearts just weren’t in it anymore. Hanging in was a matter of will. Because like the candidates in The Selection, there was no extra reward for staying in, just pride. However, when it feels like your legs are going to buckle at any moment and your lungs are going to burst out of your chest, pride is the farthest thing from your mind.

The cycle continued, I would promise myself that this would be the last one. Just what I needed to hear to give one last push. Then another sprint and curve and I would promise that this one would be the last one. My body was trying to quit and my mind was just trying to hang on and hoping to make it to the end. Like when you are driving in the middle of nowhere, your gas gauge needle is buried on empty and you are praying you make it to the next exit. My body was the car, and I was the driver hoping for a miracle.

Finally, we stopped. Drill Sergeant Wadsworth told us to look around. Dutifully we did, and he told us that we were the survivors. The platoon had dwindled down to less than a third. I have never heard a more motivated HOOAH than that moment. Suddenly I had all kinds of energy. In the end we had done 2 miles of that and I had been smoked after one. I did that last mile sure I was about to quit. So as I watched the candidates on The Selection quit when they still had juice or quit because it was too hard I had little sympathy. As did the instructors who had each been through far worse than those civilians ever had.

I am hoping there is another season. Please let there be another season. History Channel, don’t make me beg! If there is, I am going to do weekly viewing parties and invite every vet I know. Because even though it was the hardest thing these particular 30 people ever went through, it paled in comparison to what those of us who did it for real ever went through. I want to be an instructor. Not because I was special operations, but my decade as PSYOP makes me want to crank up the head games to another level. You know people watching the first season are going to be ready for what they have seen, the show needs to throw in something new.

I have already told an instructor that if he, or any other instructor, is ever in the area, the first pitcher or three is on me. Truth be told, I would also buy a drink for Roster Numbers 2, 3, 11, 20 and 30 because hard work should be rewarded and I would be interested in talking with them about the experience.

As for me, I have been tested, I know what I am made of. Some of it I am proud of, some of it needs work, but like a lucky few, I know and most importantly, I have no delusions. Watching The Selection I realize that many don’t know. Some people are better off not knowing. There are some that have looking deep inside themselves and don’t like what they saw because it doesn’t measure up to the vision they have of themselves.


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