U.S. Army Rangers of the 75th Ranger Regiment conduct field training for a unit TFT (Task Force Training) operation on Joint Base Lewis – McChord, Wa., Aug. 20, 2019. Rangers use this type of training to maintain a high level of mission readiness. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Garrett Shreffler)
War. It’s an experience that I craved from the first time I had memories.
As a Gen-X, latchkey kid I was raised by Rambo, Commando, The Punisher, and Rocky. I was also fed a trickle of lies from a stolen valor dad while he was around. This created a perfect storm of fight and fury inside my young mind. That mind was shaped by the images I saw on TV and the conflict I sought in school, in the streets, and in the kickboxing ring. But that conflict was never enough.
I craved more. I had to see war. I wanted the ultimate test.
I wanted to be a soldier since I can remember — and more than that, I wanted to go out knee-deep in grenade pins and a pile of spent brass. Surrounded by enemy dead — a warrior’s death. That was my combat dream.
When the towers fell on 9/11, I was a squad leader in the 2nd Ranger Battalion. I had been training for four years, honing my skills for the ultimate test: combat, or, as we called it, “The Show.”
We’d come close to it in 1999, but that mission was ultimately kanked (canceled) and we were relegated back into our “in case of war, break glass” posture of readiness. We actively waited for the moment our country would call upon us to take the fight to the enemy.
After two decades of warfare, this concept is foreign to most soldiers and most of America, but training every day for war and never going felt a lot like four years of soccer scrimmages without a single game. The big game was out there, and we knew that we were prepared for it. We were confident.
What we found in Afghanistan was, frankly, anticlimactic most of the time. It was often weeks of boredom, highlighted by moments of excitement and sadness. Most of all, war just wasn’t what I thought it would be.
I wanted to be a soldier since I can remember — and more than that, I wanted to go out knee-deep in grenade pins and a pile of spent brass.
Planning and preparation are critical; we were ready. But when something is a big deal, and we’ve built it up in our minds, our preparation has a way of pushing us over the line into prediction. We become convinced of what lies in the future.
As a young Ranger, I was certain how the war would look and feel, but my dreams of “The Show” turned out to be no dream at all — something I realized after a couple of deployments and a few friends lost.
I was also certain of what my ultimate fate would look like. Thank God I was wrong.
Not only do I feel blessed every day to be here, but I also know that though I had made peace with my own mortality, my family and friends had not. That’s something I think we have to consider at times, especially those who are still in the fight.
Going to “The Show” — and coming back — taught me that preparing for the future is a far better approach than trying to predict it.
Planning prepares us, not to predict the outcome, but to handle the unknown and increase our probability of success. Prediction sets us up for unmet expectations and false finish lines. Life is not a math problem where we can insert known variables to generate known outcomes.
Obviously, neither is war.
In war, things rarely go as planned. We can do all the right things, everything that our planning told us to do, and bad things will still happen, because “the enemy gets a vote.” Preparation allows us to have the final vote.
Prediction, on the other hand, invites fragility. And an unforeseen event can shake us to our core.
It’s in moments like these that we truly realize how little control we have in life. Like listening to the radio report that 20 kilometers away a bomb has gone off, and your friend is dead, despite being among the most lethal and agile men on the face of the planet.
I also know that though I had made peace with my own mortality, my family and friends had not.
And it happens to us all, not just warfighters. When we say all the right things, read all the right books, and do all the right moves in a marriage or a business and it still falls apart, we are shattered.
Fact is, those of us who do the most predicting usually show up the least prepared.
Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP) or Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) are great laboratories for this reality.
It’s the guys in the barracks talking about what they heard Cole Range is like, or how many points to expect on the land navigation course, who quit the moment their predictions are dispelled before them — when they find themselves 10 kilometers into the Star Course, stuck in a draw, or still doing pushups at 3 a.m.
They discover that it isn’t what they expected it would be, or that it is harder than they thought it would be. And that’s the moment all of their predictions fall apart.
There are no life epiphanies in the draw or in the front leaning rest — only exit doors.
And when you find yourself in a position that you cannot escape, like forward deployed to a firebase on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, stuck in a loveless marriage, or failing in college when you aced your way through high school, running for the exit door is not the right choice.
These are the moments to pause before we make the next decision.
When your predictions are all shattered by reality, and you cannot find hope for the future amid your struggle, you will feel the pull to make permanent decisions in the face of temporary problems. Don’t take that bait.
Don’t give in on something that matters, don’t give up on someone who matters.
When we say all the right things, read all the right books, and do all the right moves in a marriage or a business and it still falls apart, we are shattered.
Even when you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even when what you expected doesn’t pan out in what you experience.
Even when war deals you a hand you were not ready for, and you wake up realizing that it is no show at all, you still have choices.
Shrink the world down to what you can control. You cannot control life, you can control your actions. Take a moment to breathe, examine the situation, get some help, and make the next good decision you can at the time.
You will walk your way out of your predicament one good decision at a time and have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and grow.
I predicted what my war would be like, and I was wrong. I predicted what marriage would be like, and I was wrong about that too. And having kids … that’s a whole other ball of wax. Perhaps others can relate?
But I haven’t given up. And I’ve learned so much from each experience along the way and gathered wisdom from the losses, and from the wins.
Remembering what it was like to predict the war and then experiencing Afghanistan in real time reminds me that though I made the mistake of predicting some aspects of it, I also prepared for the experience by training, reviewing, learning, and retraining.
Over and over again.
And I am reminded that preparation, application, and learning lead to a sense of earned confidence that will help us persevere through the hard times when we face all the shit that wasn’t in the brochure.
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Brandon Young is a former US Army Ranger and co-founder/principal at Applied Leadership Partners, helping leaders create tightly knit, high-performing teams through executive coaching, speaking, and workshops. He has spent more than 20 years building and leading teams in the military, corporate healthcare, and nonprofit sectors. He’s been published in various peer-reviewed academic journals for his work as a co-developer of the Enriched Life Scale and is currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity in Leadership at Denver Seminary (2023). His passion is faith, family, community, people, and family adventures!
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