Saturday, January 19, 2013

Who Am I?

Allow me to share a little of my inner-self with you: I would love to go through boot camp.

Call it a boyish desire for guns, sweat and tears, but there's something about the physical and mental struggles that our armed forces members go through that I would like to experience.

The Discovery Channel has put together a series called Surviving the Cut. If you have Netflix, look it up. It's pretty interesting to watch. Each 40-45 minute episode covers the training or interview process for a different kind of specially trained troop in the various branches of our military.

So far I've watched episodes on Army Rangers, Air Force Para-rescue, Marine Recon, Special Forces Diver, Marine and Army Sniper, and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman. I also watched Two Weeks In Hell, a separate documentary on Green Baret training. Surprisingly, there's no episode on the popular Navy Seal. Each school or program has one thing in common. They. Kick. Your. Ass.

You get to watch soldier after soldier vomit from exhaustion, collapse trying to simply walk down the street. Thousands of push-ups. Leg-lifts. Running. Carrying. Log drills. More running. Snot, blood, sweat and, yes, lots of tears come out during so many of these trainings. And I find that I'm captivated it.

It's not that they assign a lot of PT (physical training). It's that they assign more than anyone could possibly do. Each of the programs seems to involve an element of bringing a man to the point of physical fatigue to then see what he does. All of the candidates interviewed state that its a battle of the mind - mental toughness (along with a dose of physical toughness I'm sure, too). The armed forces are looking for individuals who, when they've reached their breaking point, will keep pushing anyway or break trying.

And many do. Dozens of candidates are discharged from the tryouts because they've pushed their bodies too much and medics won't allow them to continue. I'll take a moment to say that the sniper schools were very clearly the least demanding physically and there was far less emphasis on PT and the will to go on. However, sniper school presents it's own challenges and still had a high attrition rate.

To me, the worst looking one to survive was probably Marine Recon. In addition to spending lots of time operating on no sleep and no energy, they finished their training with what's called the Zombie March. In a staged exercise to rescue several injured soldiers and carry them miles away to safety, the instructors started throwing cans of tear gas. Can after can. For an hour.

The gas made candidates vomit, tear up, ooze snot and saliva from everywhere, and made them feel as  if their lungs were on fire. But, apparently, tear gas doesn't kill you. Technically, you can breathe through it, suck it up, and keep going. And that's what the candidates for Marine Recon had to do. They marched and heaved for an hour, over several miles, through dozens of tear gas clouds. All the while they carried 200lb dummies, extra gear, and their own 70lb packs. After the hour of tear gas, they still marched and carried another two hours. At the end, they all looked like zombies, hence the name.

The most elite of the specialized schools seemed, to me, to be the Special Forces Combat Diver. The guys enrolled in this school had already passed one of the other special forces schools (e.g. Marine Recon, Green Baret, Army Rangers, Navy Seals). So they had already proven they were bad-ass. But underwater is a very dangerous environment to operate tactically.

The combat diver school pushed candidates to the point of panic, and then watched how they responded. There were specific drills, done in the water, to test whether a candidate could continue thinking clearly, even when his body and lungs began physical panic. This was very interesting to me as I spent lots of my childhood swimming in lakes and pools and I'm familiar with at least the first moments of panic due to lack of air. Not fun. These guys were being asked to continue functioning when panic set it. Yikes.

Also, the combat diver training involved much less of the traditional loud-in-you-face-drill-seargent-yelling than the other schools. Like I said, these guys had already proven themselves and didn't need that. It was much more laid back. "Let's learn how to become even more bad-ass." And you could tell.

The final mission of combat diver school included a mock military operation. They had to infiltrate undetected via the water. Then go on land, and take down their instructors with military grade paintball guns, recover a hostage, make it back to the water and boat away. Now, some of the other schools had mock missions simulating real combat. But the combat diver school included a bunch of bad ass veterans, most of whom had already seen real combat as a special force unit. And you could tell. They rocked the final mission! Even though the instructors (posing as bad guys) knew they were coming at some point, these candidates took them apart. They went in, took names, and got out of there.

But back to the reason for this post. Watching these guys find their breaking point and decide what to do next is inspiring. Some give up. Some press on. It makes me ask the question, What's my breaking point? There's a part of me that very much would like to find out. The problem is, it's a rough journey just to get to your breaking point, and then, I can't imagine the mental fortitude it takes to continue at something when your entire body says "no." But that's what I want to find out.

What kind of stuff am I made of? There's a way in which you can't know until you've pushed for something beyond what you thought possible. And that's why it's a fantasy of mine to go to boot camp.
If only the military offered a way for civilians to experience boot camp, I'd be in the first line.

I'm not saying boot camp is as hard as these special military schools. I also don't think it would be easy either. But I'm sure basic boot camp creates plenty of moments that cause soldiers to question who they are. And in a way we don't really know who we are until we're pushed. And that's why I want to go do boot camp. To continue answering this life-long question, Who am I?

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