Sunday, September 25, 2011


Competition brings out the best in me. This was affirmed earlier this week while working out on the static bike in preparation for an Ironman that I have signed up for next May. As I began to peddle at my usual 90 rpm’s, I noticed a man doing the same next to me. We started peddling in sequence coincidentally. As our workout got more intense, I began to wonder how good of shape I was in and challenged myself to go faster. Every few minutes I would sneak a glimpse at the man’s screen until it was obvious what I was trying to do. I’d look at his heart rate, speed, rpm’s and distance in order to ensure that he wasn’t beating me in any of those categories. It didn’t bother me that he may have felt like “prey,” for I knew that deep down he probably enjoyed the pace and the added benefit of having a stranger pushing him. When he sprinted, I sprinted. There was no need to declare “fight’s on,” we knew what was happening. There we were, two in shape athletes, albeit strangers, competing for the satisfaction of being better than the other.

I am a big advocate of competition. When two equally able parties engage in it, more often than not it will bring the best out of them. There is a time a place for it though. Not everything in my world revolves around being stronger or better. There are some in this world who believe in the mantra “sink or swim.” They know only two columns “winning or losing.”
Life is not a competition. It is a journey that can be especially hard on those who do not enter it equipped with the right education, socioeconomic background or strong bonds of a family as support. In short, life is not fair. And so making various components such as school, jobs and diplomacy into a zero sum game, creates a class of haves and have-nots.

I’ve competed my entire life. I know when to turn it on and turn it off. I am thankful that I have an instinct about me that enables me to rise to the occasion and accept the challenge. I am equally thankful that I have been blessed to been able to compete in the arenas that I have. I make no illusions that I have done this on my own. I’ve had a lot of help along the way. If you were true to yourself, you’d realize that you probably have too.

In May I plan on completing an Ironman. That is a 2.5 miles swim, 112 mile bike followed by a 26.2 mile marathon. I’ll be competing against a field of some of the top athletes in the world. I don’t plan to place, all I want to do is hang my head up high and walk away with my dignity. I’m sure I’ll find myself peddling alongside another athlete on the course and kick it into overdrive. But I won’t do it for the thought of a medal, I’ll do it for myself. Because at the end of the day, that’s whose opinion will matter the most.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

All the Right Reasons

Growing up in a middle-class community and therefore a relatively stable economic environment, the pursuit of money was never on my mind. I had the luxury of not having to worry about money, not because my family had so much of it but because it was never a priority that I learned to value. More important to my family were individual goals set apart from monetary gain that would mean something beyond worldly possessions. Money was not something to be obtained for pleasure purposes but rather to be earned as a mandatory requirement to take care of ones family.

My ambitions eclipsed petty desires for fancy boats, mansions or extravagant gifts. My parents instilled in me a sense of self-pride but also an obligation to enable others and to share my talents with the world for the better. As I looked at colleges, never did the idea of "career salary" even come up in discussion. It was never a determining factor for my choice of a major nor did it register in my mind as to what vocation I would choose. Rather, my parents told me that they would allow me to go to any school in the country and study anything that made me happy. This set the foundation for why I joined the military. It wasn't for prestige or to fulfill a lifelong dream of some kind. It wasn't even to check some box off from my bucket list. The reasons were simple. I served because I wanted to represent my country in the noble profession of arms and defend my country with my God-give talent. The rest (so I hoped) would take care of itself.

Looking back nearly six years from when I started this journey of my life where I have given my country some of my "best years," I often wonder why I am still serving. Is it for the same reasons? Like most 19 year olds I was naive and wide-eyed. I believed that the world was at the palm of my hands and that my influence was a lot greater than I would find out down the road. I no longer see my reasons for staying matching my reasons for joining. It has become less about the mission, the sense of duty and patriotism than it has been about money. Now, I regularly check my mutual funds, Roth IRA, direct deposits and am more meticulous about what items I claim on my travel vouchers then I did when I was a 2nd Lieutenant and never even checked my banking account. Is my service more about collecting a pay check? I'm still where I am mostly because of the service commitment that I incurred upon graduation from graduate school which the AF helped fund. Aside from that, my list for staying has been getting increasingly smaller. I often think that the most selfless act I could make would be to step aside and allow the next generation carry on the mission. I'm also staying because unlike the infamous theatrical banner on the aircraft carrier which President Bush landed on, I don't believe the mission is accomplished. Instead, I know there is unfinished "business" and I would like to be part of ensuring our Nation gets closer to closing out our commitments abroad.

It doesn't take a sociologist to determine that humans surround themselves with like-minded people. Take a look at your friends and acquaintances and you will find that many of them hold similar values, beliefs and philosophies. My friends are much the same. Like me, many of my friends have chosen a profession of service because they feel the need to give back. Unlike me, many of them are some of the smartest and bravest individuals on the planet. Take for instance my friend Will Taylor who I had gone to Intel officer school with. Several years ago he cross-commissioned and is now an Army infantry officer in charge of a platoon. A few months ago he got back from a 15 month deployment to Iraq with his platoon where he was their commanding officer. He probably could have sat behind a desk like me and chair-flew his way through a prosperous AF career. Instead, he chose to get shot at, kick down doors and capture and kill our enemies. He did all of this while turning down a promotion which he rightfully earned. Will was up for a promotion to Captain but if he took the promotion, he would not have been able to lead a platoon (typically a Lieutenant's position). Rather than become a company commander farther removed from the mission, he decided to keep his LT bars so that he could serve out his deployment with the men he had trained with. To Will, the military is definitely NOT about the money. In Will's decision, he probably lost out on thousands of tax-free dollars. But rather then worry about what he could gain from the "government," he chose a path that would be better for the "country."

Next is my friend Luke Hansen who after a year deployment to Iraq under Gen Petreaus' team, decided to move on with his life and seek out civilian opportunities. Today, he is both a full-time defense contractor utilizing his top notch analytical skills and a graduate student at the University of Maryland studying sustainable energy engineering. When I asked him how he was paying for Graduate School he replied "out of pocket." I quickly informed him that he was "entitled" to the post 9/11 GI Bill, by which he retorted "I feel like I didn't really earn it after only serving 4 extra months after my obligation. Technically I did, but it just seems like an excessive benefit." 99% of ordinary Americans wouldn't allow a little thing like "principles" to stand in their way of government benefits as they are the first in line to take entitlement programs like "unemployment." For those who have seen REAL sacrifice and who know their role in it like Luke, they serve as a reminder by which all of us should aspire. For Luke, it's not about the immediate self-gratification of the government paying for his education. It's probably more about being able to look at the "MAN IN THE GLASS."

My father has made it a point never to refer to himself as a Veteran, although by today's standards, he certainly could. When his service in the Reserves is ever brought up in conjunction with that word, you can feel the uneasiness and sense of embarrassment that he has about it. In that regard, he is much like the thousands of humble war Veterans who quietly go on about their day without ever mentioning their service. My father has chosen instead to recognize those among him who have served overseas and have faced danger as the "real Vets."

I am sometimes surrounded by people in the military who exaggerate their service to this country. They would have you look at the rack of ribbons on their chest as a proclamation of what kind of war hero they were. To those outside of the military, these "smoke and mirrors" would make them indistinguishable from someone who really sacrificed. Many of the real heroes don't wear uniforms any more nor do I imagine would they care about such trivial matters as decorations.

I often tell the people who work for me that whatever reason they are in the AF, let it be "your reason, not someone else's." If it's to get an education and use the GI Bill, so be it. If it's to travel and see the world, then take as many assignments abroad as possible. For myself, I sometimes feel that I have overstayed my welcome. I owe a lot to the AF and this country. The longer I stay in, the more I feel like I owe them. If I do choose to continue down the military path, my only wish for myself is that the decision was made in order to get back to that 2nd Lieutenant's worldview who cared more about his country than his bank account. If I could remember that, then I'd be doing this for "all the right reasons."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Back to the Future

I ran 6 miles today after a long layoff from running. Mile 2 felt like mile 26.2. My cramps, heavy breathing, and aching knees constricted me in such a way that I wondered if I would truly get back into stride with my old form. Throughout the run I was keenly aware of the time I had been away from the road and the reality that while I'm only 28, perhaps my best running was behind me. Like my stride, I lost track of my pace and how long it took me to run a trail I had completed 30 times previously. The psychological effects of not knowing if I'd be able to finish started to drain my spirits. Just as I began with the long list of regrets I had about running, my stride came back. I had a bounce in my step to go along with a release of pain from my knees and a cramp in my side. I cruised around a bend on the way back that I dreaded on the initial push and began to feel the rush of endorphins going through my body. At last, the run was beginning to feel refreshing. I was outside enjoying the 70 degree weather with the knowledge that with enough repitition I could run the way I had always been able to.

Earlier in the day I started my SF-86 which for those not in the military is a security clearance reinvestigation form. For this renewal, I had to go back 10 years for all of my contacts who had known me back "then." As I looked at my previous SF-86 that I had filled out year prior, I began to wonder what happened to all of my old friends who I had felt worthy enough to put as contacts back then, but had no idea about their whereabouts now. Just like running, I suppose they will creep back into my life sooner or later. My 10 year high school reunion will be around Thanksgiving of this year. Although I'll be in Afghanistan, my thoughts will be in Laconia, NH. It's an odd feeling looking back and trying to reclaim the parts of oneself that were so poignant in one's memory. Yet, there is a satisfaction in knowing that those memories are always right there with us, even when we're huffing and puffing along a dirt filled road or huddled around a campfire telling stories with close friends. The next 10 years isn't that far away. Come to think of it, neither is the next 26.2.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Knowledge is Power

I'm often asked "how do you know so much?" My answer is simple; I read. Whether it's required reading for work or me just trying to keep up to speed and make sense of the latest in politics, economics or sports. For the most part, none of what I read is for "leisure." Rather, I'm always reading current events, and other non-fiction material which will allow me to formulate educated opinions and keep me in touch with reality.

I can't say that I always enjoy reading, because more than anything, what I enjoy most is simply knowing more than the person next to me. Truth be told, I have a peculiar sense of satisfaction in knowing about the world around me because I like to feel like I'm "in the know!" From my daily paper, my weekly magazine subscriptions, my kindle or library collection I am always learning (I've been out of school for a month now). In fact, even when I'm not reading, I'm listening. My radio is always tuned to NPR.

In my library I have a collection of books that I am truly proud of. And even though my fiance disapproves, I keep them in our house as a badge of honor, a reminder of the information that I have retained throughout the years and a sense of security that this information is within reach.

At the end of the college semester when my classmates were in line trying to get 30% returns on their books from the bookstore, I was holding onto mine because I never knew when I might need a textbook on Ancient Greece or Human Biology. It might sound vain that I brag about being well read, but in a world where I am surrounded by people who are not, I am extraordinary. I am constantly baffled at how millions of people can go through their lives being so ill informed when information is literally at our finger tips. Instead of reading, people speculate, spread a web of misinformation that is then acted upon by equally ignorant people who take what's told to them as truth.

As I mentioned, I shouldn't be unique. The fact that I read a lot actual has very little bearing on my intelligence. All of my subscriptions are even available online for free! This is why I am so appalled at policymakers like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin who go on air to talk about history and issues and it's abundantly clear that neither of them have a clue about what they're talking about. To someone who HAS read the Constitution and knows about our history, hearing these two clowns talk is insulting. I believe in the power of the 1st Amendment and the freedom of speech. But that doesn't mean that you need to be heard.

We all grew up with the notion that knowledge = power. Through my job I have found that no other maxim could hold more true. Each day I continue to read and learn more about my surroundings. I hope I'm wrong about everyone else. I hope I come to find out one day that they too care about what happens in their communities, country and world. For now, I'll settle for those who are just reading this blog. If you're reading this, then maybe I'm wrong afterall.