Of Deserts, Training, Peter O’Toole, and Family Law
I just returned from the incredible experience of training at the National Training Center (NTC) in Ft. Irwin California. NTC is one of, if not the, US Army’s premier training center. Set in the Mojave Desert and Calico Mountains, “two-weeks-a-year-guards-camp” style training it is not. It’s something very different, mentally, physically, even spiritually.
Because, there’s something about the desert. Since the days of the Bible, the desert has been depicted as a place of self-discovery. It may be due to its (falsely) perceived bareness or just the physical and psychological it demands for survival, but either way, the desert is considered a good place to test one’s metal and learn about oneself.
I had not lived in the desert since my deployment to Iraq in 2005. So, I was a little rusty. All those years since spent answering emails, filling out paperwork, “PowerPoint Rangering” and only going to the field “on occasion” as a staff officer had made me a little soft.
Which came flying home on my third day there when the first sandstorm hit. Within minutes, I was covered in a nice layer of sand that basically encased me for the next three weeks or so. “Get comfortable being uncomfortable” was omething I heard quite a bit, and three days in I was definitely there. If it wasn’t the sand, it was lack of sleep, if wasn’t lack of sleep it was the pressure of running missions, enemy attacks, “friendly” observer/controller advice, heat, cold, uncertainty, personnel issues, tear gas and scorpions in the tent, etc.
Like the Bedouins in the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia, I felt pretty helpless with enemy aircraft strafing our position and no anti-aircraft systems available. It all added up to a painful and awesome experience. It sucked, but I loved it, if that makes sense.
Perhaps T.E. Lawrence said it best, ”By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.”
So what did I learn about myself? I’m still sorting it out, but here’s what I know so far:
Impatience. For starters, I learned how impatient I can be. Although I spend a lot of time advising and patiently guiding stressed people to their own conclusions in my civilian career, there is a part of me that has no patience for, well, other things. Like, when our mission is to get 25,000 gallons of fuel to the good guys and if we don’t get it done they will run out of fuel and people will get killed, I’m not going to have a long discussion with anybody about why it’s really important that they do their job. I’m going to find a way to motivate immediately and get it done. As gentlemanly as I like to believe I am, there is very much still a part of me that is a farm kid from Southern Iowa with no patience for bullshit.
Enduring Suffering. As almost a complete contrast with learning how and when to be impatient, I also learned to “embrace the suck.” Whether it was the stark environment, lack of sleep, operational tempo, pending enemy attacks at all hours, I embraced it. I set a new PR of 12 days with no shower and only two uniforms. Let me tell you, your hair can collect a lot of sand in about two weeks. Laying face down at night, in the cold, in the sand, and in a sand storm, or an hour and a half because I was killed when no one was guarding the entry control point of the command post was not pleasant. But, I endured it.
The Temporary Nature of Things. I noticed how temporal it all was. We lived at one base in the desert for 12 days, had tents and vehicles set up like a small city the size of 6 football fields, and made roads and tracks with some of the heaviest vehicles in the Army inventory. In the clay-mud of Southern Iowa, I would have expected those ruts to be there for months or years. However once we left, it was all gone. I returned to the same site just a few days later, and I could barely even find the spot in the desert where we had lived and struggled for almost 2 weeks. The wind and sand had blown almost all traces of us away, making our prior home indistinguishable from more desert. Fortunately for me we had left one giant box of military grade toilet paper near the entrance, otherwise I may never have found it.
Some things change, and some things don’t change. If you go back and watch Lawrence of Arabia now, and really just focus on Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence – the face, the eyes, the speech – over those three hours or so you’ll notice that the desert changes him. Sure, he’s an exceptional person, he performs heroically, but despite his efforts, the nature of the desert doesn’t change, he does. Radically. Nothing dramatically as transformative happened to me, but changes were perceptible in myself and in many of my fellow soldiers. I had the opportunity to watch some people rise to the challenge of operations in a harsh environment and excel. Others not as much . . . and it wasn’t always those I had expected.
How is any of this relevant to my clients? A fair question. I think like the desert, a long, unhappy marriage can be a challenge that causes a lot of suffering. Some people will learn to embrace the suck, stick it out, and the barren landscape becomes the new normal. If you can lay face down in a sandstorm for 15 minutes, then you can probably do it for another 15 minutes. Then an hour, then a day. Then … before you know it, it’s half a lifetime of hunkering down.
Other people become impatient. They see the temporary nature of life and understand that their time is limited. They will either do their part to attempt to change the situation – fix the marriage or take the first step toward moving forward in life separately. Ultimately, though, there are forces of nature at play which are larger than ourselves. T.E. Lawrence can’t change the desert. It’s was inevitable that the desert would change him. The same is true for a lot of my clients. The only remaining question is what will they make of the change.
And that’s where my firm comes in…where are you now…where do you want to be…and how can we help you get there from here. And as Omar Sharif’s character, Sherif Ali, eventually decides, “Truly, for some…nothing is written, unless THEY write it.”