Some people adjust their dreams as they get older. This wasn't the case for me. My desire to protect only grew stronger as I grew up. A lot of things contributed to this – my family, my upbringing – but in the end I believe it was my personal belief system that held me to the trajectory established by my nature. I was born to be a warrior, and the most direct way to that dream was through the armed forces.
School probably helped me along on my path. Unless you were one of the rare few who were kept home from school, you probably had your fair share of hard knocks growing up. Kids can be mean. That's just how it is. But some are luckier than others when it comes to dealing with it. I was one of those lucky ones. My size, combined with my tenacious attitude and strong sense of justice, made me an ideal candidate to take care of those who couldn't take care of themselves.
My family instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in me. Sure, like any kid, I could be a little punk at times. But in the end I knew that taking advantage of others was just bad news. It made you into a jerk, and made other people miserable. So when I saw someone getting picked on, I was the first in to put a stop to it. I guess some things never change...
My time spent running through the woods hunting – first with my .22, later with my deer rifle – and my love for football kept me in good shape. My strength, combined with my size, made me an ideal candidate for bully patrol. I'd like to think I made the lives of a few kids easier. I certainly made my sense of justice stronger. But I wasn't content with just protecting a few. I wanted more.
When I got close to graduation, there was only one thing on my mind. I was going to become a soldier – a Ranger, just like my mentor. I knew it was going to be hard. Of course, I had no idea how hard. But I knew from stories that it was going to be a grueling trial to reach my goal. I didn't really care. It was time for me to go beyond protecting schoolmates. I wanted to protect my country, to be a force of right on a much bigger scale.
At 18 I didn't have a real grasp of how complicated things would become. I was too young and inexperienced to understand that the idea of “right” was different depending on where you stood. I just wanted to help people. My naive young mind really thought that with enough heart, enough courage, and enough skill – the world could be made a better place, permanently. It seems to me now that man's capacity for cruelty to his fellow man is just as permanent as our need for justice. It is fight that never really ends. Of course, that makes it all the more important to persevere. My decision to enlist was no surprise to anyone. It was all I had been talking about for years. So my step-mom and my dad were prepared for it, at least as much as any parents can be. They had a better idea of how the world worked than I did – although I didn't grasp that at the time. That makes their support, in hindsight, that much more special to me now. Their encouragement and their embrace of my idealistic obsession made the initial hell that was the Army that much more bearable. It allowed me to stay the course, and to eventually master what few men ever do. I became that Ranger – something I attribute to the support of my family as much as I do to the men who trained me.
Let's get this straight right now – your first few months in the Army suck, no matter how bad-ass you think you are. I had thought that my years of trekking through the mountains of Northern California, my two-a-days in football, and my general size and strength would make me a shoe-in for top performance in the military. While they certainly benefited me overall, nothing could prepare me for the life of a soldier. It is just something you have to experience to understand.
For one thing, I had expected to arrive in the military and be suited up in the latest and greatest gear. I thought I was gonna be decked out real proper. Well, I wasn't. Running mile after mile in military issue boots is not like running in those insulated, high-quality boots my dad bought me. Coming back to camp to eat MREs was not like coming home to my step-mom's warm dinner. It was all worse, way worse. There were no hugs, either (at least not from authority figures). My delicate young mind had to do some adjusting.
It was not that the basic gear was bad – although some of it truly was – but it was not designed with comfort in mind. The M-16 fired when you pulled the trigger and the clothing kept you from dying from exposure. That was about it. It wasn't until I made it into the Rangers that I actually got to play with the real toys. But even then, what I had in 1991 was nothing like what is available today – especially from top-of-the-line manufacturers like Arc'teryx.
Even a basic GPS system used by the average hiker is better than what I was using when I entered the Rangers. Stuff like this just didn't exist, space-age stuff, gear that helped in being the ultimate fighter on the battlefield.
Don't get me wrong, without training and the right mentality, you will always be limited. But you add high-grade gear into the equation, and you have the ultimate combination. The more protected you are from the elements, the lighter your gear, the longer you can go. That's why I never head out of my house without the best gear I can find.