Last week in the wake of the suspected suicide of a very senior naval officer I once again found myself sitting in on a command sponsored Suicide Awareness brief. Although the presenter was actually one of the more engaging ones I've seen for this topic (and I've seen at least forty), the impact was predictably the same. Those in some level of distress probably left the briefing feeling more frightened and stressed, while those like the gentleman sitting next to me, left unmoved and untouched.
Not even five seconds after I sat down, the man next to me (a friend) said: "This is a waste of my time. I'd never consider suicide." As much as I'd like to say I'm happy that he has the type of life where he cannot envision a scenario in which he'd consider suicide, or that his level of self-awareness and self-confidence in his mental strength is so far beyond mine that he'd never succumb to suicidal thoughts, life has taught me to know better.
I certainly can't speak from a position of psychological study on what makes people think, or from personal experience struggling with chronic clinical depression, however what I can speak to is my experience on my intense mental foray into the psychological duress that makes people consider or even commit suicide. And while some things can be taught by people who have never actually performed the task being taught, suicide awareness, to be truly meaningful has to be given by someone who knows not only where the road to suicide can begin, but more importantly knows how to recognize that road and how to then navigate their way off it, even from the most remote corner of their mental map.
Like every other brief on suicide awareness that I have attended last week's brief included a slide listing the statistical reasons for suicide. And at the very top of that list was depression and anxiety. But those words are routinely given no air time. And they are given no air time because the briefer typically has no idea what true depression or anxiety feels like. If they did, they'd spend nearly every second of their brief talking about it.
After the Suicide Awareness brief I asked roughly ten people at work to just humor me and answer my question to them about what depression and anxiety feel like. To a person they used the word sad to describe depression, and nervousness to describe anxiety. I will tell you, if that's what you believe, you are woefully ill prepared to handle the worst life can throw at you.
Like my friend who sat next to me at the brief last week, until nine years ago I could have never envisioned a scenario where I'd consider suicide. By my fifties I thought my self-awareness was pretty darn high. Little did I know then just how supremely over-confident I was in my self-awareness, and how severely I had over-estimated not only the depth of my life's challenges to that point, but my strength in getting past them.
I now have to groan when I hear an athlete talking about his team over-coming adversity, especially when in most cases the adversity is an injury or perhaps a starter being dismissed for academic or personal conduct issues. Heck, I bet as soon as their sound-bite is over, they're thinking about the next party when they'll hoist a beer to the poor bastard no longer with the team. The adversity completely forgotten and without impact. But, that adversity isn't going to prepare anyone for life's true hard times. Life's adversity will hit you in ways even the Sci-Fi channel can't conjure up, and it'll knock you to your knees without breaking a sweat. That's when you'll start to understand true depression and anxiety. That's when you'll cry uncontrollably, as much out of fear of the unfamiliar emotion that has gripped you, than out of sadness in your loss or situation.
So here's my heartfelt advice for those of you who have never felt true anxiety. In its most sinister form it's almost completely debilitating. And because there's no cognate for it, you won't recognize it, making it virtually impossible to understand, let alone, fight. I think that's the aspect that gave me the most trouble. Just like treating an illness or injury, you have to know what the malady is before you can find the remedy. But anxiety and depression are completely foreign to those who have never felt them, they certainly were to me. And it's then, when you don't recognize the person in the mirror that you start getting scared because you have absolutely no idea where to start looking for the person you once were. It's truly you're very own mental corn maze.
Anxiety's unpredictable persistence wears you down. Each time surfacing with little or no warning to attack a bit more of your self-confidence and self-awareness until you have completely forgotten every single coping mechanism that worked for you in the past. The person you thought you were will become unrecognizable; so foreign and remote you'll doubt you ever were that person. Having lived through my battle with anxiety, trust me when I tell you, if anxiety ever comes your way, you have to fight to see deep into the person in the mirror in order to find any resemblance of your former self. But you have to believe that person is inside you still, and fight relentlessly to find him/her. It'll be hard, but take every step, or even one second on your feet as a victory against anxiety. Measure your healing in the smallest of ways, and trust that as long as you don't give up you can find your way past it.
Just as people prepare in advance for their death by having a Last Will and Testament, prepare yourself now with a mental survival kit for that time when the universe is going to get a vote and comes calling with something beyond your belief. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky souls who'll never have to break the glass to that survival guide, but if you aren't so lucky find that trick play now that's going to see you through. If it's a friend, it should be one who'll know from their own struggle what you're going through. Heck, maybe it's just the belief you can get through it that will keep you above water. But know now, it's not going to be easy.
I owe my survival to two things: first, my Mom (and Dad's memory), for forcing me to believe in the man I was before anxiety found me, and secondly, for never allowing myself to forget what surrendering to anxiety would do to my children.
Perhaps I'm back to being more naive than ever about anxiety, but getting through it makes me feel like I'm now forever immune to any future assault. I feel as if my struggle has built up my body's defenses, and because I believe the most menacing component of anxiety's strategy is its surprise, my survival has forever taken away that element of anxiety's arsenal. If ever the adage "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger" was true, it was in my struggle with anxiety.
I'm not sure this is going to help, but if you ever need a recce guide send me a note and I'll help you through it. (email@example.com)
In the fall of 1983 Bud Hart wrote a column for the Quarryville Sun ledger that began with the words; "Cancer claimed another of my childhood heroes..." Bud went on to write what he admired about the man whose death inspired his column that week. Also in that column Bud paid tribute to many other men from Quarryville and the Southern End who he looked up to as a child and young man. Bud knew then how special it was to grow up in that small town in the midst of the Amish. A place where everyone knew each other. Where people worked, played, hunted, trout fished, laughed, worshiped, and lived and died together. A place that I still call home and a place as idyllic and unchanged by time as Brigadoon (a mythical village in the Scottish Highlands that appears for only one day every 100 years).
Just this morning I phoned a childhood friend in Quarryville whose father is very surely in the final days of his life. That man, was and continues to be one of my childhood heroes. A man who always treated me like I was one of his children. A man who took me to the mountains with his family, a man who embraced me every time we saw each other on my visits back home. I have thought of this man many times every day these past few weeks, and each time Bud's column of 35 years ago echoes in my mind and tugs at my heart.
My tribute to you Jay, is to say now some of the things I have always thought but may have never said to you, even during one of our embraces. I love how virtually everything you have ever said to me has had a hint of loving sarcasm in it. How you included me in your jocular comments touting our athletic abilities, those physically impressive, almost super-human achievements that most men would never know or experience:-) How you always remembered my Dad with such loyalty. And how you never once complained about your own health challenges.
I regret deeply that until this morning through your son Gary, I never once said I loved you, even though that feeling filled my heart each time I saw you. In more than just a small way, you have been a living extension of my father, because you were one of his earliest childhood friends. You represented someone who truly knew my Dad, and being around you has made me feel as close to him as I could feel after his death. So thank you for your warmth, kindness, and even just those looks you used to give me when your sadness made talking impossible. In those times, your eyes said all I needed to hear.
As I have been thinking about one of my childhood heroes, I have been spending more and time each day reliving the times and people in my life who have made my life special. Those I grew up with, or those with whom I served at sea. Perhaps most especially my Mom, because it's surely her sensitivity to life and the things that make life special that has influenced me as much as anyone.
I wish there was a way to tell each of you individually how much I have appreciated your friendship, but I know I'd miss someone. At least know that I do think of you all, some more often than others, but each of you sometime. And know those thoughts make me smile.
To Bud Hart, if I never thanked you for your column about my dad, let me thank you now. It has stayed with me all these 35 years and brought me more comfort than you could imagine.
Jay Newswanger, Lou Weiler, and my Dad (back row, third, fourth & fifth from the left)
Over the past few years I have used my Post-9/11 GI bill to go back to school. Believe me, being in my late 50's when I started using those benefits, it was initially a struggle to find the motivation to drag myself out of the house for a night (or Saturday morning or afternoon) class that typically ran from 6:00 - 9:30 P.M. However, one of the unanticipated benefits came from my interactions with my classmates and professors. In fact, the experience resembled many of the navy schools I attended where often times the best learning came from the experiences of my classmates.
Now having completed sixteen master's classes (yes, there's a degree in there somewhere), I am in the final months of my education benefits. Along the way I have met some of the most interesting and enjoyable people of my life. In fact a few of my professors are easily the most inspiring I have ever had. And while just as I did in the military, I know where the line is between junior and senior, my interaction with those professors has approached the level of colleague.
With me these past few years have been members of every branch of our armed service (some still recovering from combat injuries), former shipmates (that's you Tom Dixon), local industry leaders, co-workers, naturalized U.S citizens from nearly all parts of the world, and countless others whose sacrifices were never revealed to me. It's crazy, but I now look forward to going to class even after a long day at work.
Recently I was asked by one of my MBA professors if I would write an abstract on my experience as an adult student, focusing on the challenges facing the professor of adult students. Below is that abstract........
"What motivates someone to follow the lead of another? Whether it is a parent, a friend, or a professor, just what is it that inspires someone to want more in their life? James Macgregor Burns, a military historian and author, witnessed that motivation on the frontlines of battle during World War II, and summarized his opinion of leadership as simply being followership. While his work goes far deeper, at its core is the belief that the collective we tend to exaggerate the leadership of those at the top, and minimize the role in leadership of those at the grassroots level ( Burns, 2010). In a way, that view should resonate with professors and their appreciation for what they can learn from their students, especially their adult students.
So what does a professor think as they look out at their adult students? Do they assume a level of sacrifice equal to their own? Do they appreciate those unknown sacrifices quietly in their thoughts even though they can't see them? And do they use the certainty of life's intervention on a person's daily endurance to dedicate themselves to be the inspiration for a better life?
Adults who come to a classroom do so for many reasons. They come with life experiences that have undoubtedly forged their perspective. They may know the harsh reality of war, the relentless challenge of caring for a handicapped child, or be burdened by the weight of unfulfilled aspirations and dreams. Most likely they are very hard to impress, and even harder to truly inspire. All this makes being the professor of adult students one of the greatest challenges and blessings I can imagine. It demands a person of exceptional integrity, humility, self-awareness, transparency, grace, competence, and courage.
Developing lifelong learners, scholars, and career professionals cannot be accomplished by living in the fringes of leadership. You have to be courageous and unapologetic as you engage in meaningful discussions about the things in life and leadership that matter. You must be an unbiased arbiter, yet have an opinion that is founded in decency and forged by your experience, while remaining consistent with the values of the institution you represent. You should take on social issues that devalue and objectify sectors of our society, as well as other personal challenges that undermine the success of organizations and derail lives. Issues such as: human suffering, and the consequences of trust. You must illuminate the connection between personal biases and the impact of those biases on another's suffering, and use that connection as a pathway to enlightenment.
Professors have a tacit obligation to create an environment that fosters an open and honest exchange of ideas that inspires adult learners to lead better lives, be better parents, and be better team members. They should use their position as educators to offer new perspectives on topics that stimulate debate without hostility, and that lead to a more inclusive and cooperative understanding of life's opportunities."
If you have a means and the time to continue your education, either from an employer provided plan or the GI bill, don't let your belief that you are too old, or that the effort won't be worth it to keep you from doing it. I will very likely never use the degree I earned by going back to school. But I have met some truly great people. We've had civil exchanges of views on every issue that divides or unites our country, and those exchanges have enlightened me and reinforced that things aren't nearly as bad as you might think. Even if it's not more time in class that "floods your well deck", find something else that might allow you to meet some incredible people. They're out there in the most unlikely places.
Me and Tom Dixon at Saint Leo (2017). We served together on USS ARLEIGH BURKE.
By the time the summer nears its end I start looking forward to the changing of the seasons and the time of the year when my family comes together. I love having the kids (all five of them) along with their friends and significant others home. With them living in Nashville, Washington, DC, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville, and Broomfield, Colorado those occasions are rare. Within our small, albeit geographically dispersed circle everyone fits nicely when we are together. Each is individually happy and secure in their professional endeavors, and at the same time genuinely interested in the others' lives.
If that were the extent of my family interactions and I didn't have to travel, the holidays would be perfect, but like most families mine has that one person whose personality disrupts my nirvana. That one person who by blood alone is reluctantly invited into the family celebrations. Every year their behavior is not only anticipated, it is once again excused - never confronted and therefore destined to live on until death.
And so this year I asked myself: "Why have I accepted a behavior I find so toxic?" My natural inclination (at least this is how I see things) is to be kind and to make every attempt to get along. Most times I try for such a long time to just get along that by the time the toxicity overwhelms me my reaction becomes nuclear, and I find myself becoming Johnny Rambo figuratively burning the town to the ground.
Knowing how pointed I can be when I reach the nuclear option, I try my best to avoid it by confronting people long before I even approach that point. In essence I try to save myself from becoming that person, because when that happens the recipient of my years of failed tolerance never fully recovers from it. Even if every word I finally say is true and well-deserved, its sting hangs on in perpetuity. And to make things even worse, I'm even angrier at them because I blame them for making me get so ugly. Then there's the collateral damage with the rest of my family who for years has just looked the other way, and now can't un-see or un-hear what I did and now in their eyes I'm the bad guy.
During the holiday season at my daughter's request I went along with her to buy a car. After we had settled on a sales price with the car salesman we were turned over to another person to begin the long process of hearing the presentations of other options ranging from paint protection to extended warranties. Although my daughter politely told the gentleman explaining the benefits of the extended warranty that she wasn't interested he very condescendingly criticized her decision. Rather than letting his rude behavior go, I instantly told him his comment was offensive. That was it. And we moved on. It was then that I had my epiphany.
The quick confrontation came with virtually zero angst or baggage. I said what needed to be said, kept my cool, and moved on. Even though the salesman didn't apologize, or acknowledge my reaction, he knew our decision had been made and so he wrapped up his pitch without delay. It was wonderful. I didn't stew on it or lose sleep over it. I just let it go.
However with family, my approach has been to just join the rest and fake a laugh as we all say "that's just Cousin Eddie being Cousin Eddie." And while most everyone else seems to be able to shake it off year after year, I can't. I grind on it like a dog on a bone. Every new slight or insult builds on the rest until I can't even look at the person; greatly reducing my pleasure in being around those that mean the most to me because it deflects my attention from that positive aspect of having my family together.
Perhaps I find it harder to confront family because there's the risk of alienating them forever, whereas confronting an ill-behaved stranger poses little risk because who cares if you turn someone off you'll rarely, if ever, see again. But maybe I'd be better served to do just the opposite; tolerate more from someone I'll likely never see again, and tolerate less from someone I have to see if I care at all about family harmony.
So from now on, I'm going to ease my angst as I anticipate the holiday gatherings with family by confronting repugnant behavior head-on, without undue emotion and hostility. Besides, Cousin Eddie (or Edith) will never change if they aren't confronted. And although confronting rude or offensive behavior doesn't guarantee the change I want, at least it should minimize the likelihood of the nuclear option ever being reached. Because once that happens, not everyone comes back from that unchanged.
This morning’s Virginian Pilot ran a story regarding a movement started by actress Alyssa Milano regarding sexual assaults. Given its placement in the paper (front page above the fold) it was clearly the day’s top story. However, as I read the story I couldn’t help but think as I have for decades, that we really don’t get it. While the facts regarding sexual assaults are reprehensible, we tend to cherry pick what and when we truly care about this epidemic.
I don’t care how you dress it up or rationalize it away, our consumption of and enjoyment of activities that devalue women is rampant. Heck, Hugh Hefner made a business out of objectifying women, yet Late Night Talk Show hosts dedicated a significant part of their opening monologues to making light of his lifelong commitment to devaluing women. In fact, I’d wager to bet that many of the same Hollywood "royalty" that are publicly crucifying Harvey Weinstein were regulars at the playboy mansion, without one thought of what their presence alone represented. And while I’ll admit that Hefner’s death was not headline news on the major network nightly news broadcast I watched, it was nonetheless reported without one negative observation of his life’s work. Where was the disgust and outrage?
Whether we want to admit it or not, sexual assaults (men against women) come in part from the clear double standard in how we (Americans) view men and women. Catcalls and jocular, lewd comments about women are seen as normal male behavior, even a form of male bonding, and women are often expected to tolerate them as such (“That’s just men being men.”). The implicit message is that, sexually speaking, men are the consumers, and women are there to be consumed, whether they like it or not.
I’m tired of the random outrage to not only sexual assaults but the longstanding acceptance of the pervasive male attitude regarding women. For me, it looks and smells like every other bias, whether it’s racial, ethnic, or against anyone who’s "different". Watch almost any sports talk show on ESPN and male analysts routinely make references to strip clubs or other accepted male pastimes that serve to objectify women without the slightest hesitation or hint of personal shame or embarrassment; often while sitting mere feet away from a female co-host who always seems to take it without so much as a roll of her eyes. All this and now we’re suddenly aghast at the rate of sexual assault; that’s because activities that devalue women are seen as normal male behavior, if not a path to real manhood, and rationalized away ad-nauseam.
I spent more than twenty-five years in the military and never one time outside of a sexual awareness month did I ever have even one leader remind anyone that their participation in activities that objectified women were incongruent with the Navy’s expressed goal of equality amongst all who serve.
Even more recently I reached out to a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Advocate with my thoughts on how to go about attacking the issue of sexual assaults in the Navy and was shocked at her reaction. I was told the program was about education not prevention! This same leader of the program there to support and, at least I thought, prevent sexual assaults went on to relate a story how she would send her husband adult magazines with her face pasted on top of the women in the magazines, telling her husband that if he were going to look at other women, she wanted him to at least be thinking about her while he did it. I say again, people truly don’t get it!
As the Commanding Officer of two warships I approached the subject of sexual assaults and the general treatment of women by relating my Sailors’ (officers and enlisted) frequenting of strip clubs and brothels to the world’s demand signal for sexual exploitation of women and then asking them if they wanted their actions to add to that demand signal.
I went on to explain that the act of exploitation almost always leads to suffering. Yet the world’s sex industry—the roots of which lie in exploitation—is reported to be in excess of $98 billion annually and growing. Sex traffickers, brothel owners, participants in the insidious world of child pornography—we righteously condemn such players. But even the passive enjoyment of adult pornography fuels demand in an inherently exploitative industry, no matter our attempts to rationalize and justify our consumption. As a leader in a predominantly male culture that historically permits and even glamorizes the sexual appetites of sailors as they extend to the consumption of adult magazines, pornography, and live adult entertainment, I could not ignore the ramifications of this mindset. Its effects on the supply chain and on the ship’s atmosphere, especially with regard to respect toward female Sailors, disturbed me deeply.
I think it’s a cop-out when people, especially leaders, hide behind the line that they won’t legislate morals. As a service, the Navy mandates what tattoos are acceptable, both in content and body location. They enforce a zero tolerance for drugs, even while marijuana is legal in some states. They limit the number of earrings someone can wear, the length of one’s hair, and even its style. Uniform standards are applied right down to the style of undershirts sailors can wear. Yet they shy away from setting a standard for human conduct and decency, even though they acknowledge that people’s conduct and behavior is expected to represent only the highest standards. Even though there is a policy and process for dealing with sexual harassment and misconduct, no one ever tells Sailors to stay out of strip clubs or other establishments that overtly condone subjugating others, unless those establishments just happen to be a location on the “off-limits” list. Think about it; if an organization that spends so much of its time speaking to its commitment to eliminating sexual assault won’t take meaningful steps to stop it, how can we ever expect a civilian organization with much less influence on their employees’ behavior to lead the way?
I acknowledge changing the pervasive attitude of men is not the cure-all for a problem with so many insidious layers. However, it is perhaps the most important first step in stemming the tsunami of sexual exploitation. We should be appalled at the number of women who are sexually assaulted, but until we acknowledge and change society’s acceptance of male behavior the problem will never be truly addressed. Trust me, I know my perspective is not widely supported by men, but give your attitude towards women the “mirror” test and then tell me I’m wrong.
As all the opinions and speculation pile up regarding what factors caused the recent mishaps at sea I feel compelled to once again offer my thoughts. But not of the John S. Mc Cain or Fitzgerald specifically, because I still believe we may find that at least one, if not both, of these accidents were nearly unavoidable, but rather my thoughts on one aspect that needs to be acknowledged.
I hesitate here also because I can imagine the absolute sickness and torment these Captains are feeling, and my skin crawls with virtually each word I type. I was close enough to my own disaster to feel their pain. And let me say that pain they're feeling is for those they had a obligation and a duty to protect. It's not pain for their professional loss; that time is so far off it may never surface. I commend their courage to assume command of a warship, knowing full-well the risk of the job, and the inescapable fact they'll be standing alone in the darkest of times, all-the-while wanting no more than to safeguard their ship and crew.
If not for the skills of my Executive Officer, then LCDR John Dorey, and my helmsman, Seaman David Luckey, our Navy would still be shaking its figurative head over how I could have lost USS Arleigh Burke to a rusty, 285 foot oiler smuggler in the North Arabian Gulf. Even with that close call I felt I had let my crew down, and for a period of time it weighed on me like an anchor.
Sure I have my own opinion of things, but for now I spend my time thinking about the families of the lost sailors, and the families of the Captains. I just ask that everyone for at least a few minutes try to imagine those now suffering.
Like each one of us, I've lost family and friends instantly to tragedy. But I've been able to stand at those services thankful for the time I had with each of them. Memories of our friendships, although still sad, bring no anguish or guilt for what might have been. For them, I am free of those chains.
But for the one night I didn't designate drive for a roommate, I lost both him and his girlfriend. That was forty years ago and I still can picture him asking me to go along with him that night. The Captains of John S. McCain and Fitzgerald will struggle with "only if" for the rest of their lives. If they can never find a way to their own forgiveness it will cheat their families of a husband and father. It's a burden that they may never rise above.
I know that just as change passes through phases, so too does grief and forgiveness. For now I'm going to think about the loss of those involved and their grief, and allow Navy's leadership to figure out what's happening with our readiness.
My roommate, Mike Pohlkamp and me. Mike was lost in a mid-air collision. He was one-of-a-kind!
During my military career, one of the things I always resented was when someone from another command, or another world criticized or second-guessed either my actions or the actions of a shipmate without firsthand knowledge of either. I’d typically tolerate the uninformed opinions until the next morning when I could confront the person by saying I had spent the previous night pouring through my cruise books desperately looking for their name or photo, ultimately unable to find either. My point was that unless they had served with me on that ship at the time of the event, they couldn’t possibly know for sure all the details that led to the accident, and would be wise to just be quiet. At least until the facts were known and made public.
I will not pretend to have a clue regarding the circumstances that led to the collisions of USS John S. McCain or USS Fitzgerald so I won’t comment on what might or might not have happened. Nor am I the guy to critique the navy’s process for training and selecting officers for command-at-sea. But what I will say is that sometimes avoiding a collision is much more difficult than you’d think. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
In a career that included seven ships, six of them came mere feet away from catastrophes similar to what happened on McCain and Fitzgerald. While roughly half of those near misses were the direct result of ownship negligence or poor watch-standing, the others were caused by either severe weather, low visibility, shipping density, engineering casualties, inherently risky missions in restricted waters, or some combination of those factors. Ironically, it was my tour as Executive Officer aboard John S. McCain that was the only ship on which I had no close calls.
One of my former Commanding Officers, who had previously served as President George H. W. Bush’s naval aide, had an expression he’d say in the wake of an accident; and that was, “It’s a short walk from the White House to the Outhouse.” He said that not to ridicule those involved in the accident, rather it was meant to illuminate the line, the very small line, between success and failure.
Every (and I do mean “every”) post-accident investigation will identify mistakes, either in training and/or execution, that led to the incident. Something has to be identified because no one learns anything from saying that sometimes things just happen, especially when lives are lost. And I'll grant you that most times we did miss something that would have prevented the accident. But sometimes, where multiple and diverse factors beyond our control come in to play at the same time, during an already inherently risky endeavor - tragic accidents happen.
I have no idea what happened on John S. McCain or Fitzgerald. But what I do know, is that the need to know what caused the accident, although vital to moving forward, is not mine. And quite honestly, thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach for everyone involved, especially those families that do have a need to know what happened to their loved ones.
One of the downsides to being married to someone whose default demeanor is one of kindness is that I seldom hear things I probably should. And while what I wear really shouldn't make anyone else's radar screen of importance, I have been known to be somewhat oblivious to fashion. Now, I won't wear spandex, or a halter top, and for sure I'll leave those even more oblivious to fashion to rock the romper (If you don’t know what that is, check the image). However, I have gone out in things that, had I passed a mirror before heading out of the house, I may have tightened up a bit.
Recently I sat with a friend (that would be you Kevin) reminiscing mostly about our time at sea, and he recounted how he would stand in front of a mirror and yell at himself, rather than taking it out on one of his shipmates when things didn’t go as planned. His point was that many times he had no one but himself to blame for something gone awry. He also knew how damaging his temper could be, so he elected to direct his anger at himself. Doing this served multiple purposes. It spared his officers his wrath, it certainly injected humor into an otherwise very uncomfortable experience, but most importantly, he could see how ridiculous he looked and sounded. Call it a sound check of sorts.
So all this got me thinking about the power of the mirror. Now I know that without self-awareness the mirror might only fuel a warped perspective, rather than calibrate a mind gone wild. But think about the things you might not have said or done had you had access to a mirror. Remember Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (I’m referring to his actions when he saw his attire in his rearview mirror).
Like many people in America, I love the fall and the whole football experience, with one exception: I hate the antics of the coaches. Watching them lose all self-control as they tear into a player, an official, or even another coach is reprehensible. So before this upcoming season begins, I'd like to propose that at least one, maybe two, full-length mirrors be placed behind the bench on each sideline. Heck, maybe we should have three: one for the coaching staff, one for the players, and even one for the officials. Rather than going ballistic on a referee or a player, the coach could go to the mirror and yell at themselves for calling the play that led to the poor result. I’m assuming the coaches for the Seattle Seahawks are great guys, and I’ve certainly never walked in their shoes, but before sending in “Shotgun, fake 31, quick slant right” (or whatever that play is called), the responsible coach should have looked in the mirror while calling the play so that the guy looking back at him could have said: What, are you nuts! Give the ball to Marshawn.
I am certainly not suggesting that every decision we make be cleared through the person in the mirror. Being bold, sometimes reckless, and even wrong has led to some positive, life-changing experiences or discoveries. I mean, had I looked in the mirror before asking out my wife, it’s a safe bet we wouldn’t be married now. Or if the referee who famously determined Dez’ catch wasn’t a catch had tried that call out in the mirror before heading back on to the field, the NFL wouldn’t have re-evaluated the “football move” definition. (I’m not certain that’s even resolved now.)
Photo credit to ACED Designs, from Vogue.com
My Dad was someone I never argued with. Mom, on the other hand, seemed to love a good debate. She was never loud or nasty during our verbal jousting; never ending an argument with a “just because I said so.” She’d hear me out; sometimes even seeing my point of view. However, Dad never endured more than a few seconds of my whining. Instead he’d simply shake his head and say: “You can’t put an old man’s head, on a young man’s shoulders.” Once those words left his mouth the discussion was over. If you’ve ever seen a Pug cock its head trying to understand your words, then for sure you can picture my expression when Dad would utter those words.
However, by my mid-twenties those words began to have an impact on my thinking. Things that once seemed obscure became obvious, and although it wasn’t like having a light come on all at once in my head, I found more and more things reminding me of my father's words.
As I approached my tour aboard Arleigh Burke the enlightenment with respect to alcohol was full and bright. So much so, that it was tough for me to not look back at my life as a leader and parent without feeling like a complete hypocrite. By that time I had lost a roommate to drugged driving, had another close friend paralyzed as a result of his drunk driving, lost two shipmates to alcohol facilitated events, been arrested myself for drunk driving (I pleaded guilty because there was absolutely no question about that), and knew of multiple other “six degree” alcohol fueled accidents to friends of friends.
My hypocrisy came in the sense that over the course of my life and career prior to Arleigh Burke I had only recently seen the connection between my duty to my people (and family), and my sobriety. That if I truly cared about my people, I should be able to respond to a phone call from them at any time. I realized that all those times going out as a junior officer my only guideline from my chain of command regarding my conduct was; don’t do anything stupid. And even with that broad range of acceptable behavior, I still violated that one, simple standard. In short, my willingness to drink to the point of impairment undermined my commitment to my sailors.
Once I made the connection between responsible drinking and my duty as an officer and a parent it was effortless to not drink at all. In fact, I employed a strategy I first adopted in college where on days we ran intervals (I ran collegiate track and cross country) I would mentally prepare myself prior to practice for the grind of that practice. It made those workouts so much easier. So later in my career applying that same approach to activities that included alcohol made it painless to not drink. It was amazing how uncomplicated it was to transition from a drinker to a non-drinker, and for the first time I truly felt like I understood what it meant to care about my shipmates and family.
I only asked my officers to be responsible with their drinking. It was up to them decide what that meant. I elected not to extend the same expectation to my crew because I knew that due to their age and inexperience, many would fall short, and I didn’t want alcohol to be the ship’s main focus. However, I did make them aware of my views on the subject of alcohol and duty.
It’s way too late for me to know if my young shoulders could have handled such a perspective at a greener age, but I do wish someone, somewhere along the way would have tried to put that old man’s head on my young shoulders. Knowing how I always listened to my father, I’d like to think that concept would have impacted my life and the lives of some friends in positive ways. At least now though, I’m sharing the thoughts in my head in the hope that, if not today, perhaps someday they’ll feel good on your shoulders.
Me, Dad and my brother (1972)
I’d like to believe that everyone will one day in their life realize the truth of their own thoughts and have the confidence to trust them. That time when we no longer need affirmation of our every word. I’m certainly not suggesting that even when we reach that time that we close our minds to debate, only that we should all reach that time when we don’t feel like we have to be apologetic or overly guarded regarding expressing our thoughts.
Although I had been working on that confidence for years, that time truly arrived for me as I progressed through my training pipeline enroute to assume command of USS Arleigh Burke. But it wasn’t from a Navy instructor or even a formal class; rather it was in a private conversation with a new friend; a Special Forces (Green Beret) Colonel who took me aside for the sole reason that he understood the magnitude of the responsibilities inherent in military command and he felt obligated to share with me the single most important aspect of my development. But it wasn’t that I be courageous, or selfless, (things this man had in abundance) it was that I needed to embrace the fact that I had reached the point in my life where I didn’t have to apologize or be overly humble about those things I just knew to be true. As he had been many times in his career, he knew I’d be in situations that required split second clarity and he knew that without the self-confidence in myself to trust those things I’d learned throughout the previous years of my life, people would die or my ship could be knocked out of action.
This man, this Green Beret, knew that one thing every leader; no, every person, should realize sometime in their life; that things are as they are without needing to show or cite a reference. Knowing now the extensive training Army Special Forces undergo to wear the Green Beret (my son is in the throes of that training now), I have no doubt he took one look at me and knew I didn’t yet have that confidence. But rather than doing nothing, he pulled me aside and with only a few words convinced me to at last grab hold of that one thing because he knew without it, I'd likely fail those I was privileged to serve.
Realizing that one thing was the best thing that's ever happened in my life, because it allowed me to subjugate the instinctively humble side of my psyche to the side of it that knew what was right but sometimes lacked the confidence to say or do something about it.
The day I posted my first blog, my friend, Colonel Bill Davis, called me. I hadn't talked with Bill in months due to his battle with injuries incurred in combat decades ago. But he just knew I needed to hear his voice.
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