I was about 6 months into becoming a platoon commander when I sat in for a brief on the upcoming Battalion Physical Training event. We would run 13 miles from the battalion headquarters to the beach. We would do some type of workout in the surf, and at the end, there would be a family barbeque and celebration. The exercise would be conducted so that platoons would move together and compete with each other. The icing on top was that each 12 man squad (3 to a platoon) would be carrying a man on a stretcher. There were 6 or 7 checkpoints along the route where we would be tested on some skill required of an infantry Marine in combat. How we performed in that test meant either a penalty or reward before being allowed to move forward.
I was talking to a friend from home who had been training for the New York City Marathon and I told him about the event we had coming up the next day. After listing all of the information above, I mentioned the fact that we would be making the movement in combat boots and utilities (camouflage uniforms). My friend was very familiar with my fitness experience and even though I was a big runner, prior to that day I had never run more than 7 miles consecutively. My friend asked me, “John how the hell are you going to run 13 miles tomorrow in combat boots, having never trained for it before?”
I quickly responded, “That’s not even a question.” What he didn’t know was that the first thought that had flashed into my head was that of my platoon running behind me the following day. I hadn’t given the distance of the run a second thought when it was mentioned in our opening brief. I knew a couple of things. Number one, the body is far more capable of anything than the brain allows it to believe. Number two, there is no greater motivator on earth than the understanding that there is a single individual looking up to you and depending upon you to lead them.
I personally believe there are few things on this earth that give us a greater sense of purpose than being an Infantry Platoon Commander, Platoon Sergeant, Squad or Section Leader. The drive, motivation, and passion the position gives you is indescribable. It’s like being on some super drug that gives you the ability to operate on extremely limited sleep, move at 1 million miles an hour, all at your maximum mental and physical potential. It’s as though that drug has a hardline directly to a vein in your arm and every time you step up in front of your platoon your IV bag is topped off.
When you leave your platoon, that bag slowly fades, and the effects of the drug wear off. You start to fall back into the old habits of your past. The ones that accepted laziness, procrastination, and over-indulgence in vices. These traits allow you to flirt with increased feelings of melancholy. My willingness to stay out late, to press the snooze button, and to fall into bad habits increased due to a lack of sense of purpose in life. I began wondering if I would ever again find something in my life that drove me to move at the same pace I carried on at when I was a platoon commander. Was there anything out there that could match the same drive I gained from knowing I had a platoon of warfighters looking onto my every move?
I looked at my wife about three months after our son was born and I almost had tears in my eyes. I brought up the fact that after I left the Infantry, I wondered for a long time about where I could find a similar sense of purpose in life. I had finally found that same level of purpose and belonging after my son was born. I’m still new to the parenting game. I hear a lot of people talk about how hard it is. How it completely changes your life. I agree it does completely change your life. It makes you realize that your life is no longer about you. A tough, but worthy lesson in today’s age of increasing narcissism. I have on more than one occasion left myself spent in support of a worthy cause. Those times have consistently been the happiest times in my life.
I don’t know why I’m always so happy in those times. It is possible that the sadist inside of me enjoys the punishment of such a cause. I believe the stoic inside of me enjoys the fact that these worthy causes require us to delay gratification. To veer away from indulgence out of fear of failure. The Infantry taught me to appreciate a warm bed, hot shower, A night of uninterrupted sleep, and a peaceful meal. Being a parent teaches you to appreciate a lot of similar comforts that you become deprived of. Things like time to yourself, a night without responsibility, uninterrupted sleep, remembering to shower and brush your teeth (only in the early days).
While having children radically changes everything in your life and alters your own existence, it is in fact a worthy cause. One that elevates your performance, and makes you push past limits to be a better person. Why? Because there is a tiny pair of eyes looking up at you and saying, I need you to be better than you are, because for the next 18 years (at least) I’m going to be watching your every move and it will make me the person I am going to be one day.