In the Groove of Duty
Keith R Parker
Those who serve in the military grow stronger in body, mind, and spirit regardless of service, rank, or military occupation. From a Remington Raider stationed in Hawaii to a Special Operations trooper returning fire in some bug-infested and perilous corner of the world, we all experience personal growth. But, what are the mechanics that render growth from performing military service? I answer this question in three parts. In the first, I present the intellectual understanding of achieving growth through duty. Fear not. This is short. To counterbalance theory, in the second part I relate my own experiences with service and growth. It’s a war story, but a self-deprecating one. In the third part I discuss knowledge, owning the groove through understanding and experience. When we own the groove the ride is smoother, and life is rich and rewarding.
UNDERSTANDING THE GROOVE
“The best way to find your self is in the service of others” – Mahatma Gandhi
Keep your cool. Military service requires a balanced mind. A balanced mind remains content, calm and resourceful through the demanding, and often chancy and dangerous activities needed to achieve outcomes. A balanced mind is relaxed about following orders, even though the outcome may be critical and of weighty responsibility. For the balanced mind, actions are natural, strong and effective, and outcomes are easily achieved. Beavering away with a balanced mind is fun and you’re a joy to serve with. When our minds are balanced, we get things done. We’ve all been there, albeit perhaps fleetingly. We’re in the groove.
Lose your cool. However, when an outcome becomes personal, desire binds the mind to the actions needed to achieve it. We get all wrapped around the axle. Rather than feeling relaxed about the outcome and our ability to achieve it, we feel anxious. The ups and downs and challenges weigh heavily. We hold the reins too tightly: in forcing the evolution of events to achieve an outcome, we push away all that is natural and flowing. Balance of mind is lost. As a result of imbalance, the mind becomes inflexible, actions are weak, and outcomes are less than desired. We’re a bear to work with. We tend to miss the mark. When outcomes become personal, we lose our cool.
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business,” Michael Corleone, Godfather I. Service is never personal. Servicemen and -women fulfill the desires of others—not theirs—and so remain free from the binding influence of desire to actions. We don't get all wrapped around the axle. Indeed, it's not personal. The motivation for carrying out an order is not based on the outcome’s importance, how it fits into the fabric of other actions...or political ramifications. That responsibility and justification belongs to someone higher up the feeding chain. The motivation is simple: do your duty. As long as we’re comfortable with the actions needed to fulfill our duty, the mind is balanced and we’re free to act effectively. We’re in the groove.
EXPERIENCING THE GROOVE
“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” – Paulo Coelho
In 1966 I wanted to be on a Special Forces A Team in Vietnam more than anything in the world. I had thrown myself into nearly two years of training with that singular thought in mind. But when I arrived in country I was assigned to a C Team. I wanted none of it and bugged my 1st SGT daily, “When are you going to send me out to an A Team?”
Of course, there were good reasons for starting out on the C Team, especially for a Commo guy. There I’d learn the ropes. We communicated with the Marines, Air Force and Navy, Air America, activities in Laos, CIA, and a dozen or so A Teams. There were codes, encryptions, frequencies, personalities on the other end of the airwaves, and of course, coming up to speed on all of it. There was a lot to learn. But I wouldn’t admit it. Being young and gung-ho, my eagerness outpaced my common sense, as we’ll soon see. My 1st SGT was looking out for me. Of course, being a good Top Kick he figured I had too much time on my hands, so he assigned extra duties. Like me, he had a wry sense of humor and in a way, my constant requests became a joke between us. He’d see me coming and just shake his head. I persisted.
Early one morning while I lay sleeping the 1st SGT burst into my hooch, advised me of the situation, threw some spanking new tiger fatigues at me, and ordered me to be on the chopper ASAP. I could hear the Huey winding up. I pulled on the fatigues. They were at least two sizes too short. Looking back on it, I think this was the 1st SGT’s way of getting in the last laugh. Nonetheless, I grabbed my M-16, web-gear, and a di-di pack with extra ammo, basic first aid, some rations…and ran out to catch the Huey, now spinning at full tilt. The first thing I noticed was that the running lights were off. This is one of those distinct memories that to this day remains as clear as a bell: a dark Huey and the soft, ghostly glow of instrument lights reflecting off the helmeted pilots. Collision avoidance was taking backseat to remaining unseen. We would be dropping into a dark place.
No matter. I jumped onto the Huey and off we went into a black night of off-again/on-again crappy weather. It was hot and muggy and the doors were slid back. I was the only passenger. We bounced around for a long hour. It was dark outside and I couldn’t tell if we were climbing or descending. Despite the tension of flying into the perilous unknown, I dozed off in the monotony of noise and darkness, and the warm blanket of humidity.
Rousted out of my slumber, life came at me all too quickly. The Huey tipped up on its side and twisted into a tight turn. I had been holding my M-16 between my knees. The pilot’s unanticipated maneuver jolted me from low gear into overdrive and I jerked both hands up to the webbing behind my head to steady myself. Laws of physics being what they are, centrifugal force threw my M-16 out the Huey’s open door and into the dark, tropical night. ‘Shit.’ In the next moment, the pilot drug the Huey across the camp’s outer perimeter. A M-60 was blasting out red fire so close I could have reached out and touched the gunner. The left seat pilot looked back at me and yelled something unintelligible under the din of slapping blades and howling turbines. I saw a helmeted face with moving lips. My grasp of the situation was at least three seconds behind where it should have been. I immediately stepped onto the skid and jumped, thinking the Huey was making a low pass to drop me off and then get to hell out of there lickety-split before the real fireworks started. I landed on both feet in the muck only to see the Huey settling down onto the landing pad mere yards ahead, resupply being thrown off, body bags being thrown on.
No one walked over to greet me. As it turns out, no one saw me hop off the Huey. No one knew. Life is strange like that.
So here I am, having lost my weapon—an unpardonable sin—and having exited a perfectly good, soon-to-land aircraft. My jungle hat is somewhere down in the muck. My tiger fatigues are halfway up my forearms and shins. Had I been wearing white socks I would have looked like a nerd. I should have run up to the Huey, climbed back on board, and got myself out of a situation I was apparently too poorly prepared to be in.
Let’s stop this narrative and ask a question. What went wrong? I’d been in the Army for two years, most of it in very disciplined training. I had sacrificed time, promotion, and personal needs. I had worked hard. I had made the Special Forces cut. So, indeed, what went wrong?
To answer to this question we need to understand what service requires of us and what it gives in return. Service requires three personal capacities: trust, commitment, and action. (1) Trust is imperative. Most importantly, superiors must be trusted for their experience, knowing the capabilities of those they command, and placing success of the mission over personal gain. Without trust you’re whistling Dixie. (2) Commitment requires depriving oneself of personal needs and opinions, and opening up to fulfilling needs of others. Without trust and commitment you’re whistling Dixie in a hurricane. (3) Training defines the nature of actions, and the thinking and physical skills needed to follow orders. But, the initiative to act must be taken. Through action and action alone, we achieve outcomes.
Too, through action, and action alone, we reap the rewards of service. In following orders, servicemen and –women transcend their own desires. The heart and mind set aside their own modes of feeling and thinking, and naturally rise above limitations of individuality. Freed from responsibility and justification, they maintain balance in action and naturally rise to higher levels of confidence and performance, ie, higher levels of self-awareness, i.e., we feel more comfortable with our feelings, thoughts, and actions. In balance, resourcefulness, flexibility, resilience, and action exercise their full potential. Some of this balance sticks or rubs off, if you will, and integrates into all activities.
Back to my narrative: There I was, having made rookie mistakes and for all the world, looking like a fool. What went wrong? Actually, nothing. Shit happens. Move on. Don’t look back. Getting out of the shit happened as easily as getting into it.
I got with the program. When my boots hit the ground all the training paid off, not in specifically what to do, but rather, I felt comfortable with whatever needed doing. My recent screwups fell away. Was there fear? Sure, but only enough to fit into the present and keep me smart and on my tippy toes. If anything, I felt guided by the groove of duty, its course fixed. I didn’t think about what to do and how to do it. The right thing to do was the only thing to do.
On cue, a flare arced high overhead and sputtered white light as it dangled and swayed down through the rain on its tiny parachute. I quickly looked around, saw a bunker topped with antennae, and scrambled over debris to get to it.
The commo bunker was a mess. The concrete floor was inches deep in water. The scent of mildew hung heavy. As I sloshed through the water, little rafts of messages and encryption pads bobbed around my boots. Rain fell through the shattered roof. Someone had thought to cover the radio with a poncho. Having no options but the obvious felt liberating, rather than threatening. I gathered up soaked messages, separated them into incoming and outgoing, prioritized, and started encrypting soggy outgoing I thought were important. I threw a poncho over my head to shield the messages from more rain damage. The poncho sealed in my body heat. Sweat oozed out of my every pour. Each inhale stunk with the hot, stale, sweat-saturated air. Sweat coursed over my eyes. Yet, there I was…. Rather than confuse me, entropy and difficulty spurred me on. I wasn’t exactly whistling while I worked, but I felt needed, even though I hadn’t even made contact with the team.
In through the low doorway stoops the XO. He probably thought I had hopped off the Huey unnoticed during the hubbub of loading and unloading. No “Hey there Fucking New Guy, welcome to the team.” He looked over my shoulder, saw that I was reprioritizing messages, and commenced to chew my ass.
My response, “I figured resupply was our highest priority.”
He looked at me. Then stared long at the wad of soaked messages. He turned around and left, “Carry on,” shaking his head in a manner that said something akin to, ‘What the hell, you know as much about what’s going on around here as anyone else.’ I took it as a compliment and a good sign.
I fit seamlessly into the team. The Team SGT found a pair of tiger fatigues for me. Team houses were stacked (“littered” is more accurate) with weapons of various makes, countries of origin, and calibers. I just grabbed one. When out on operations I must have done okay because the Team SGT recommended me for one of the Blackjack Teams. I just pinched off my nostrils and jumped in. My activities were governed by needs greater than my own. I was busy 24/7 watching my brother’s backs, as they were watching mine. We were often in deep shit. But it didn’t feel that way, with my eye on the ball and living in the moment. Service on steroids was stripping away my camouflage. My core began to emerge.
You take it with you. Towards the end of my tour I had become comfortable with my own feelings, thoughts, and actions. I wanted more. But more of what? In a single moment I stepped into my future. Three point-of-no-return realizations hit me straight-on between the eyeballs. (1) My 1st SGT pointed his finger into my chest, “You’re NOT pulling anymore recon!” I didn’t disagree. The sun peeked over the horizon: I realized I wasn’t disagreeing. Going. (2) It dawned on me that I had started, ever so subtly, betting on luck. I hadn’t gotten cocky, but I had come to think I would walk away unscathed. ‘Go ahead, volunteer for whatever the greatest risk. Screw perils to life and limb.’ If you repeatedly stick your head into the teethy maw of the tiger, you have to believe in something extraordinary—and temporary. Meeting my 1st SGT eyeball to eyeball, I felt a tingle along my spine. I realized the kind of fool I risked becoming, one shipped home in a pine overcoat. Whatever it was I was doing no longer seemed worth it. Going. (3) Trust in senior officers, though not all, had eroded. Some had seen too many John Wayne movies and lacked experience to command effectively; they overrated the abilities of those who served under them, eg, me. They were in the game to get their tickets punched, at the serious risk to my ass. Standing there with my 1st SGT in the full light of day I saw that trust was gone. Gone. Losing trust was like losing my soul. But realizing trust’s loss, I got it back for living a larger life. As the great Yogi said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” It was over. Time to move on. I did.
KNOWLEDGE – OWNING THE GROOVE
“Seek and you will find.” – Mathew 7:7
Why are experience and intellectual understanding insufficient in themselves to live higher states of self-awareness, to own the groove? Experience is ephemeral. We can neither capture nor prolong the experience of a balanced mind. And on the other hand…intellectual understanding is not enough to bring about the experience. Understanding the effectiveness of a balanced mind to achieving outcomes fails to render the balance we seek. So, neither experience nor understanding incorporates the full measure of balance into our nature.
It takes both. Experience is preeminent. The appreciation of chocolate starts with a taste. We need to experience calmness and resourcefulness during dynamic activity. We need to delight in being in the groove. We need to feel balance becoming part of our nature. Still, experience is not enough for balance to reach its full measure. Intellectual understanding makes experience real. Understanding how military service achieves a balanced mind verifies the experience and makes it repeatable. Through verification we begin to own the experience. Too, understanding increases our level of comfort with the experience. As balance begets comfort, comfort begets balance and further deepens the experience.
Q: So, what does it take to rise to higher levels of self-awareness, and fuller and more meaningful lives? A: Do your allotted duty. Do what you were trained to do. As long as you’re comfortable in your military occupation, the specific actions performed in following orders are irrelevant. Truck driver, Ranger, pill pusher, SEAL, grunt, jarhead…it doesn’t matter. Orders are orders. Duty is duty. In performing duty and following orders, we transcend our own desires to fulfill the desires of others—and so remain free to act effectively. Transcendence requires a strong measure of comfort in our actions. A shoe clerk would feel very uncomfortable in a Ranger platoon; he’d get all wrapped around the axle. Likewise, a Ranger, at least the ones I know, would feel very uncomfortable with a shoe clerk’s duties—they’d screw it up royally.
You get out of it what you put into it. It helps to put your heart into it. Comfortable and freed from the binding influence of action, we operate from subtler and stronger levels of awareness. With a solid foundation of trust and commitment, performing duty is easy and a natural part of military life. We quickly experience growth in self-awareness: we become increasingly comfortable with our feelings, thoughts, and actions. Intellectual understanding verifies the experience and the mechanics needed to achieve it. Through repeated service and expanded understanding, balance becomes fixed. We own the groove. The groove of duty, it’s the Universe’s free lunch.
Those who serve in the military grow stronger in body, mind, and spirit regardless of service, rank, or military occupation. But, what are the mechanics that render growth from performing military service? I answer this question in three parts. In the first, I present the intellectual understanding of achieving growth through duty. Fear not. This is short. To counterbalance theory, in the second part I relate my own experiences with service and growth. It's a war story, but a self-deprecating one. In the third part I discuss knowledge, owning the groove through understanding and experience.