In roughly an hour and a half, at the stroke of midnight separating January 19th and 20th, I will no longer be in the military. In colloquial military terms, this is known as as my "Final Out."
Tomorrow I will be a civilian for the first time since June 6th, 2001. On that date I boarded a late night bus for Fort Benning, Georgia, to inauspiciously begin my Army career.
Doing so wasn't a matter of casual choice or a chance encounter with a recruiter. For reasons still largely unknown to me, my teenage psyche had long before latched onto the dreamlike notion of serving in special operations. I had been mentored by a Vietnam-era Navy SEAL, meticulously researched the elite units of all branches of service, and come to the steadfast conclusion that my dream was to become a Green Beret team commander. This required me to first be an officer, so I shrewdly applied to exactly one college: West Point.
They kindly declined my offer.
My backup plan was an infantry enlistment contract that guaranteed a slot at trying out for the Rangers.
I wasn't a likely candidate. As I boarded the bus that night I had just turned 18, graduated high school in the bottom half of my class a week prior, and weighed perhaps 135 pounds soaking wet with all the athletic abilities one would expect from a very mediocre cross country runner.
In that state I reported to the "Fort Benning School for Boys," a 14-week course combining Basic Training with qualification as an infantryman. Then it was on to Airborne School to earn jump wings before those of us with Ranger contracts left graduation to wait outside with our duffel bags for the arrival of our next cadre.
And when they showed up—massive men in tan berets, some with combat patches from the Battle of Mogadishu—I have never wanted to quit anything so badly at any point in my life, before or since.
But I didn't, having resolved to depart the Ranger selection course only by being issued a beret or a body bag. It was a grim determination I'd need, I soon learned, as the cadre spent the next three weeks culling out anyone and everyone who could be made to fail or quit through an imaginative range of skills testing, physical exertion, and sleep deprivation. At the end, when a Ranger sergeant handed me my first beret, it was with the words, "Remember, it's harder to keep than it is to earn."
He was right, of course.
I crossed the threshold into a world where fit young men casually discussed jumping from planes with 90-pound rucksacks to seize airfields the way frat boys of the same age reminisce about college parties. We conducted brutally difficult training for months, then deployed to Afghanistan, and invaded Iraq after that. None of it was easy, especially for me, and through it all I never felt worthy of the Rangers I served with.
Looking back now, I still don't.
But my dream remained to become a Green Beret team commander, a key component of which was becoming an officer in the first place. So when my second application to West Point was accepted with the condition that I attend a year at the Preparatory School first, I took off my tan beret and accepted.
That began a five-year journey with an institution I remained largely at odds with, though I met pockets of resistance within the rigid bureaucracy much like career criminals meet and exchange support in prison. Chief among these was the Combat Weapons Team, a hard-drinking, hard-shooting assemblage of which a disproportionately high number went on to notable service in combat units. Their camaraderie, as well as that of the Parachute Team, played an instrumental part in keeping me relatively sane during my darkest hours, both personal and professional. And while most of my true education was gleaned in opposition to, rather than in accordance with, the Academy, I gained exposure to some legendary figures.
One who stands out even today was a special operations helicopter pilot of incomparable experience, who out of necessity for time with his family accepted a tour flying a Huey in circles for cadets on the Parachute Team to jump out of. Among many other life lessons passed down over beers in the Firstie Club, the only bar on campus, he had given me the following career advice:
"Go as hard as you can, for as long as you can, and then quit."
It was the first time in my career that I'd heard anyone sanction the notion of quitting. His point was simple—better to not do something than to do it half-ass—but his words resonated with me in a way that few ever have.
Finally I graduated, becoming an infantry lieutenant seven years after joining the military. But to make the rank of captain—required to become a Green Beret officer—would take another three.
I spent them at the best place I could think to prepare: the 82nd Airborne Division. There I joined a platoon shortly before deploying to Afghanistan for a year. It was a new experience for me: my first real leadership position in the military. While I was used to being a private, I was now charged with leading nearly 40 Paratroopers in combat. It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime, an immense responsibility gratefully shouldered with the constant guidance, advice, and collaboration of the phenomenal sergeants and team leaders in our ranks.
So well did the sergeants I worked with during my time at the 82nd Airborne develop and coach me into the type of leader they deserved that in 2011, when I was promoted to captain and attended the Green Beret selection course, I thought it would be easy.
I was, of course, terribly wrong.
And while I managed to pass the selection course, I wasn't the fastest, the strongest, or the best at any single event, much less a combination of them.
But as before, I didn't quit.
After being selected, it would take over two years of training before I earned the last beret I would ever wear, pinned with captain rank and representing a decidedly unlikely goal I had been chasing for over 12 years by that time, ever since I stepped off the bus at Fort Benning after midnight to the congregation of drill sergeants that waited.
There has been much said and said well about the dangers of hanging all your hopes on a single dream, be it getting a job or meeting your heroes. I had all this in mind when I reported to my new unit, trying to temper my expectations to the reality that so often waits in contradiction.
As it turned out, I didn't need to. Being a Green Beret team commander was, to put it lightly, nirvana.
We've all had that friend that would do anything for us, that one you could lose touch with for a decade, find yourself in a dire situation, and then call them out of the blue to come save your life and knowing they'd show. Being on a team of Green Berets was like meeting 10 of them at once, and then globetrotting from training ground to combat zone and back again for over two years, operating with more autonomy and impunity than you knew possible in the Army.
After 15 years of service I still get emotional thinking about the team and the men on it, at once immensely grateful that I got to work with them and mournful that our professional paths shall never cross again. Nonetheless they have my loyalty for life, as I hope my actions during our short time together demonstrated, no matter the context or continent.
And while I have deliberately avoided citing specific names up to this point, let me do so now. Accounting for personnel changeover during my time on the team, there are 14 men that I must thank for making a very long and undeserved journey more than worthwhile: "Cadillac Taaa" JB, "Deployment" Bones, "LAW Man" Carl, "Donkey" Zach, "Sandman" Will, "Provolone/Black/Dirty/Hurricane" Rob, "Mad Dog" Steve, "Dirt Nasty" Casey, "Wesley Pipes" Wes, "Cookie" Anthony, "Latasha" Corey, "Anarchy/Pickax" Josh, "Dr. Richard Addison from New South Wales" Eric, and "Vicenza" Vince. DTOM, 36 Mafia!
I had always envisioned being a detachment commander as the greatest single job in the entirety of the military and, thanks to these men, I still do.
A captain's time on a Green Beret team is remarkably short before mandated career progression takes him to a string of staff and command positions at higher levels of responsibility. And while ample opportunities are available at that unit and elsewhere, I came to realize that anything else I did in the military would result in me trying to reclaim the glory of the best job I'd ever had, and falling short.
Once my replacement arrived, I began transitioning out of the Army without a second thought, without a single regret. By then my writing habit had developed from a hobby on the side into a full-time passion of being, and one that could be suppressed by no force on earth outside the team of men I grudgingly left last August.
So here I am, for better or worse.
To the few named and many more unnamed men and women who contributed immeasurably to my progression along the military journey: thank you, thank you, thank you.
A wise mentor once told me, "Go as hard as you can for as long as you can, and then quit."
And tomorrow, for the first time since 2001 and faced with an entirely new and uncertain career, I shall.