Where is your tribe?

It didn’t take long to realize how much I missed the Marine Corps. I got out in 2005 and found myself lacking. But what did I really miss? It wasn’t field day or uniform inspections.  Barracks life had its drawbacks, but everything that was undesirable about it, there was always someone to hang out with and go do something with. A couple years after being discharged, I seriously considered going back in.  But talking it over with a friend, I realized my decision was more about missing the guys than wanting to go back and live the Marine Corps infantry life.

 

Sebastian Junger's Tribe

 

 

Sebastian Junger recently published the book “Tribe.”  He’s a war journalist and author of the documentaries Restrepo and Korengal. In the book, he talked about how many veterans come back from war and fail to adapt to civilian life, fail to thrive, fail to find meaningful connections. He argues that many times this is diagnosed as PTSD, but in actuality is a crippling disconnection from others in their “tribe,” the brothers and sisters they forged tight bonds with during military service and deployments overseas. He states that what is missing is the tight social structures that were woven into the military lifestyle. Even people I didn’t like were important parts of my daily interactions because I relied on them to make our squad/platoon/company work. After a 7 month deployment aboard ship, I knew most of my platoon better than people in my biological family back stateside.

Posing with Todd Godwin during first deployment to Iraq.

Getting out, I struggled to find my footing in the social scene. Sure, I had friends from high school, but through no fault of their own, it was different somehow. How was it different? With my Marine Corps friends, we had seen each other at our best and very worst. We had lived in quarters so close and conditions so uncomfortable that I could tell people apart by their body odor- even at night.

And trust.

I knew many of these guys during Operation Phantom Fury, aka the second battle of Fallujah. We had seen each other through more than a few near death experiences and had literally put our lives at risk for each other. This requires a trust that my writing cannot do justice by attempting to describe. It goes beyond what the average American experiences. Tight bonds are formed when members of a group have a shared experience, and especially through life-or-death situations.

Mike and Cruz at the Haditha Dam

Haditha, Iraq in 2004

Maybe what veterans really need is a place to connect. We often find these places in community college and university level Veteran Clubs, VFWs, and in the VA clinics.

But while these organizations have their place, can we really say that vets are readjusting to civilian life if they are lacking meaningful connections within their own communities?

Historically, Vietnam Vets found themselves blamed, shunned, and harassed by the American public when they came home from war. Understandably, they formed groups with the only people they could trust: themselves. Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans are welcoming vets home, even if they disagree with the war.

Today, the pendulum of support has swung back. I remember taking a Peace and Conflict Studies class at UC Berkeley. My professor asked me to present on my experiences in Iraq. Despite the apprehension, I stood up and told my story.  I received a standing ovation from a room of students who were mostly against my war.

 

The communities here back home want to take us in, but how?

 

One thing many veterans bring to the table is leadership and the ability to maintain focus in difficult circumstances. Isn’t that exactly what boot camp was about? The ability to accomplish a mission and put aside personal discomfort is the defining skill that each service member learns in order for the military to function. The natural civilian counterpart to this is team sports. The stakes are not life and death, but the structure is the same: a group working together to accomplish what no one can do on their own.

After leaving the military, many vets transition to a community college. The top complaints I hear from student veterans are “they [classmates] just don’t get it” or “everyone is on their own program.” The team element is missing. So where do veterans find their new team?

Team RWB

Team RWB at Armed Forces Half

 

Team Red, White, and Blue strives to “enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.” By the number of chapters that spring up over the country each month, I’d say they have figured it out. But it’s not just for vets and active duty military. As I stated before, I believe true readjustment from military life means connecting with the community. That’s the beauty of Team RWB – they also include civilians who want to welcome their military brothers and sisters and throw down on a trail run, bike ride, triathlon, or yoga session. Many of the civilian members have military friends or family members. The majority just love to work out and join Team RWB “Eagles” carrying the flag on a Saturday run.

Membership is free. Eagles meet up through Facebook and email blasts, which often include discounts to local races. My previous experience of vets groups were usually barbecues and pub crawls. That was fun for a couple years, but it got old. I’ve been a part of the San Francisco and Solano chapters for a couple years now. I have joined my fellow Eagles for a handful of trails races, socials, and Crossfit sessions. There’s a highly contagious, positive vibe and plenty of encouragement  like- “you need to try this race” or “next weekend you’re coming with me on this awesome hike.”

After a couple of events, I knew I had found my tribe.

 

Athletes of Valor

Marines Jason Blydell and Alex Stone head up Athletes of Valor. Both of them recognize the importance of teamwork and structure for veterans. They also recognized that college athletes need effective leadership. Stone was an enlisted grunt. He left a lucrative career with Under Armor to launch Athletes of Valor because he saw the natural connection with vets and college sports. Blydell was an infantry officer and returned to the Boston area after his time on active duty. He saw Stone’s winning formula and joined him shortly thereafter.

Stone was an enlisted grunt. He left a lucrative career with Under Armor to launch Athletes of Valor because he saw the natural connection with vets and college sports. Blydell was an infantry officer and returned to the Boston area after his time on active duty. He saw Stone’s winning formula and joined him shortly thereafter.

As Blydell told me, Athletes of Valor’s mission is “to support transitioning servicemen and women from service to career by leveraging the power of collegiate sports.” It’s a win-win for college teams and veterans. For these vets, their tribe might not be an all-veteran community. It might be a college basketball team that hustling on the court together day in and day out.

Jason Blydell in Marines

Founder, Jason Blydell, during his active duty days.

Two of the things I like the most about Blydell and Stone’s approach with Athletes of Valor is that it brings value to both vets and the college teams. And doesn’t fall into the all-too-familiar trap of casting vets as a group of people needing pity. They recognized that by getting athletic veterans into college sports, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. This is the very definition of synergy.

Athletes of Valor is currently working with over 1,000 veteran and active duty athletes who plan to pursue collegiate sports after their time in service and hundreds of coaches who are seeking veteran-athletes for their teams. They are excited to have 15 veterans committed to play college football in the fall of 2017 and the list is still growing.

 

It’s in our DNA

We are hard-wired for complex social interaction in groups. It’s a big part of what makes us human. Junger talks about how for the majority our history, humans were part of tight-knit bands that hunted, gathered, made war, and cared for each other. Modern society has a lot to offer with the modern medicine and technology, but some of our progress has made us more isolated from each other despite the exponential increase in population. In essence, more online convenience with things like Amazon Prime and GrubHub means we don’t need to interact with other humans as much. (Ironically, I ordered his book on Amazon.)

 

We don’t need to spend the rest of our lives like Uncle Rico, talking about “the good old days” and snapping our minds shut to the possibility of finding those groups after our time in service.

Uncle Rico

“If coach had put me in we would have gone to state.”

Putting yourself out there and finding your tribe is worth it. No, that’s understatement. Finding your tribe is the difference between withering and flourishing in life. No exaggeration. Whether it’s swimming the frigid San Francisco Bay waters with the Nadadores Locos, throwing down on an epic knitting session with the yarn club, or playing a round of golf with friends, your tribe is out there. And if it’s not – start it! Others are waiting for you to step up and bring them together.

 

Who is in your tribe?

 

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Interview with Scotty Smiley

Many veterans describe the transition out of the military as a major change in life. That is compounded by a combat deployment where chaos and uncertainty can turn one’s worldview upside-down. But for some the switch is even more difficult. Some come back with PTSD, some with missing limbs, and some without the ability to see. Major Scotty Smiley is one of those individuals who lost his eyesight on the battlefield when a suicide bomber detonated himself near Scotty’s Stryker vehicle. Rather than let his disability define him, Scotty has made a career of redefining what is possible and defying the conventional wisdom regarding what blind people can and can’t do.

 

Scotty Smiley Mt. Rainier

Major Scotty Smiley summits Mt. Rainier.

 

I had the honor of talking with Major Smiley, or “Scotty,” as close friends and family call him. A few months back I came across his story on the Ironman website. A video showed a blind man talking about how he decided that he should run an Ironman triathlon as one of many arduous endeavors he has overtaken to share his story. I wound up ordering his book, Hope Unseenwhich chronicles his life story from childhood to combat and back home again.

 

Humble Beginnings

Scotty grew up in Pasco, Washington and enjoyed playing just about every sport available. He excelled in football and wrestling in high school and credits his training for instilling values in him like independence and dependence.

 

Scotty learned to be independent in wrestling, taking responsibility. “When it came down to it, I either beat the other guy or I didn’t and it was on me,” he noted. He knew that his coaches could get him so far with training and motivation, but it was up to him to deliver. Playing football taught him dependence on other teammates. In order to win, he remembers having to make sure everyone was operating on the same page and that the team was only as strong as its weakest link.

 

Besides  his involvement in sports, Scotty Smiley was raised a devout Christian. He recalled how his mother encouraged her children to read the Bible and practice the teaching of Jesus in their lives. Forgiveness would play a major role in how Scotty dealt with his homecoming and blindness.

 

Into the Army

After high school, Scotty was accepted to the Military Academy at West Point and began his training as an Army officer. He wrestled for a year, but decided to focus on his studies after his freshman year because of the rigorous academic load each cadet must shoulder to become a commissioned officer in the Army. Not too long after graduation he married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany. Scotty received further training in infantry tactics and completed Ranger School without having to be recycled or repeat any of the training in which many soldiers wash out.

 

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Kristy (Webb) Graham, Edward Graham, Scotty and Tiffany at Ranger School graduation, Ft. Benning, Georgia.

 

Iraq

In 2005, Scotty and his unit were deployed to Mosul where they patrolled the streets in Strykers. By this time in the war, suicide bombings had started to increase and were a common tactic against American forces. In his book, Hope Unseen, he recounts in detail the experience of leading soldiers in Iraq.

 

On April 6th, 2005, Scotty encountered the man who would detonate his own body and send Scotty into a world of darkness.

 

Waking Up

Major Smiley awoke in a bed in Walter Reed Medical Center, Tiffany and the rest of his family coming to visit him as soon as they could. Dazed and disoriented, Scotty had nightmares of being in Iraq and would yell out for his Oakley sunglasses. Painkillers and PTSD blurred the lines of dreams and reality as he endured surgeries  to remove shrapnel and unsuccessful attempts to repair his eyesight.

 

award

 

He didn’t believe in himself at this point and recalled feeling abandoned by God. Doubt, despair, confusion, and self-pity made his sightless world feel even darker. In addition to losing his eyesight, Scotty had to regain function in the right side of his body and deal with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by the explosion and shrapnel. In short, he was fortunate to have survived the blast at all.

 

“I felt guilty then and feel guilty now as I remember questioning God in such a way. It goes against everything I grew up believing. But what you believe can change when your world is blown apart. I couldn’t run from these feelings or thoughts.”           –Hope Unseen, pg. 103

 

First Steps

Despite this, friends and family were there to return the encouragement and strength that Scotty had shared with all of them before being wounded. He was visited by a young boy he had taught in Sunday School while at West Point. The visit was a pivotal moment in Scotty’s recovery. It helped him to realize how many people still looked up to and genuinely cared about him.  Soon after he decided that lack of sight would not stop him from getting out of bed and attempting to shower on his own.

 

Jeff Van Antwerp visits Scotty at Walter Reed.

Jeff Van Antwerp visits Scotty at Walter Reed.

 

After being transferred to the V.A. Hospital in Palo Alto, California. , the rehabilitation continued. Scotty began lifting weights again and learning to walk with a cane to guide him. He endured the humility of basic cognitive testing that included adding up change. His mind was filled with thoughts of how far he had fallen in less than a few months.

 

I’m Ranger and scuba qualified. I dodged flying bullets. I wanted to pick up the change and hurl it across the room.” –Hope Unseen pg. 144.

Anger towards the suicide bomber in Mosul still weighed on him. By blowing himself up, this man had taken not only Scotty’s eyesight, but his independence. Scotty remembered the teachings of Jesus and how forgiveness was a central theme. Holding onto anger and resentment was not going to help him move forward. By deciding to forgive this man and let go of the anger, Scotty recalls how much lighter he felt. He is convinced that this act of forgiveness was a crucial step in his recovery.

 

A Swell of Confidence

After returning to his duty station in Ft. Lewis, Scotty and Tiffany took a vacation to Hawaii to visit family friends and get away from the hospital life. It was there that he had an audacious thought. Scotty decided he was going to surf. His close friend and fellow Army officer, Jeff Van Antwerp, agreed to take him out and give it a go. Following Jeff’s voice and guidance, Scotty paddled out. After ignoring the doubts his mind sent him, urging him to quit, he felt the surge of the perfect wave and hoisted himself up on his board. He rode five waves that day and had an epiphany.

 

“…I was learning that if I believed in myself, asked God for help, and reached out to others, I could overcome my limitations. And I did it.” –Hope Unseen, pg. 158

Scotty Smiley surfing

 

Hitting his Stride

His journey did not stop with surfing. Scotty went on to summit Mt. Rainier, wakeboard, earn an MBA at Duke University and taught at West Point. He was the first blind active-duty soldier in the history of the Army. In his book, Hope Unseen, he recalls encountering many obstacles and doubt along the way, but each time he forged ahead and blazed his own trail. Scotty retired from the Army in 2015 after earning the rank of major.

 

Ironman

Many people would be tempted to pat themselves on the back after such an impressive list of accomplishments, but the phrase “slow down” does not appear in Major Smiley’s vocabulary. He decided to run an Ironman triathlon after being convinced by his brother-in-law, Andy Cooper. For those unfamiliar, and Ironman involves a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 (marathon) run. “I thought he was insane at first,” recalled Scotty.

 

Scotty Smiley Ironman 2

 

Scotty and Andy trained together until the time came for the Coeur D’alene Ironman. Just in case the course length was not difficult enough, the event saw a record high temperature of 105º that day. Despite wanting to quit multiple times, he found the strength to continue because the race wasn’t just about him. During the first half of the run, Scotty began to slow down and wanted to quit. It was then that his wife, Tiffany, reminded him of the motivation for going on:

 

“You’re not doing this for yourself! You’re doing it for those who didn’t make it back.”

 

Scotty Smiley Ironman 3

Scotty ran the second half of his marathon even faster because he found renewed purpose and thought of an Army value he had embodied his whole career as a soldier: selfless service. Scotty made a decision to continue despite the doubts or discomfort. Just like years ago in his bed in Walter Reed, a choice was before him. He could choose to sit in his PTSD and depression and let it control his life, but the world was not going to stop. He had to make a decision to move forward, no matter how small the steps were at first.

 

Scotty Smiley Ironman 4

Celebrating at the finish line with his wife, Tiffany.

 

In talking with Scotty Smiley it became very apparent that self-pity was not part of his identity. He focuses on the now and what is to come instead of dwelling in the past. Like many veterans, he doesn’t want or need pity. When encountering an obstacle he pauses only long enough to figure out how to climb over. Today he can be found taking care of his three boys, working as an investment banker, giving motivation talks, and training for his next endurance event. I hope to race with him one of these days, but either way his story has inspired me to continue pushing the limits of what I think is possible.

 

To read the full story, order Scotty’s book Hope Unseen.

 

Scotty Smiley family

 

 

Mike can be reached at mike@transitionsfromwar.com

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