Ever thought about enlisting in the army? It is a noble pursuit to serve your country, but not a lot of people consider the implications that joining the military would have on their personal lives. Steve Gonzales shares his experiences with his Iraq deployment, the career highs and lows, and how being away for months at a time impacted his marriage and family life. Steve has been on an absolute journey over the past 10 years and today he talks about his incredible story. Steve was born in the military family, graduated from West Point, went into the infantry, did a tour over in Iraq and has just recently started a new career outside the army. To top all that, he’s also been one of my best friends since high school – but life has a funny way of changing you in ways you least expect…
On this episode, we have one of my best friends, Steven Gonzalez. We have done our best to keep in touch, but it has been about ten years since I’ve actually sat down and had an in-depth conversation with him. Steve was born in the military family, graduated from West Point, went into the infantry, did a tour over in Iraq and started a new career outside the army. Steve has been on an absolute journey over the past ten years and he talks about his story and his years of experience of being in the military. Steve is one of the most stand up guys you’ll ever meet and I’m honored to call him a great friend. Please welcome Steve Gonzalez.
Listen To The Episode Here:
Mission Accomplished with Steve Gonzalez
Steve, how are you? You have had an absolute journey over the past ten years, would you say so?
It’s just been an absolute wild ride. It feels so good to be home. I am, for the first time since I was seventeen years old, Mr. Steve Gonzales. No more ranks, no more nothing.
Has it even hit you yet that you’re out?
It’s been a slow process because I took 60 days of my vacation. I got out and I moved away from Fort Carson in Colorado back home to Pennsylvania. It’s like waking up and looking around on my walls, ceilings, and photos of stuff I’ve done. Now I don’t wake up and put on a uniform anymore. I’m just a guy.
Are you around the same 20 to 50 dudes all day long? How does that work?
It depends. You have different jobs. In the six years that I was active duty, I spent about eight months in training with guys your same rank, then you go to your first unit, and you progress through certain jobs. It’s all based on time and what your rank is. You’re all over the place. I was at two posts. You have different jobs through the whole thing. We have different responsibilities. Generally, when you’re in one job, you’re around the same dudes all day. Every year, you’re around the same group of dudes. It was awesome.
To give the people a little chronological order of your life here, you were born into a military family?
My dad spent 28 years in the army as an officer. He got out in 2013 and I was already an officer so we spent a year a together where he was a full bird colonel and I was a little bitch second lieutenant, a nobody. That was pretty cool to have. He was around my rank now or what I used to have when he had me, when I was born in Hawaii. We moved around all the time. I moved probably nine or ten times before I got to Jersey for middle school and high school, essentially, every year and a year and a half before I got to Jersey.
You were the new kid every year. What was that like?
Remembering my perspective as a little kid, all you think about is your little group of friends you’ve got, I like my school, I like my little soccer team, or whatever. That’s all that matters in the world; you don’t see the rest of it. You’re just, “This is terrible. This is horrible.” My sister’s four years older than me. She was always ahead of me in maturity and having more friends. She was at a year in high school in Maryland before we moved up to Jersey. She was fourteen or fifteen. She had all her friends, had her sports teams, and then my dad’s like, “Sorry, we’re out.” That was tough. I see it as a benefit because I walk into a room, no matter what I’m doing, I’m always the new kid. It’s like I’m a professional new guy. I never know anybody. I never know what to say to people. I’m comfortable in that position, which is an advantage, because moving into the corporate world and what not, I’m always the new guy. I get settled for a couple of years which is certainly down the line a little bit.
You always handled that well. I remember the first time I met you. We were at Generals hockey practice or something.
I was trying to think about it too. Were you playing Titans or Eagles before I came to RBC?
I was Brick Hockey Club before the Generals.
I went to Monmouth Regional, the high school that was closest to Fort Monmouth where my dad was stationed in Jersey for my freshman year. I went to RBC my sophomore year. My dad, being the total bro that he is, recognized that I didn’t have anything that I was falling in love with at Monmouth because they didn’t have a hockey team. It’s a public school. Not everybody has that. He was like, “Let’s get you to this Catholic school even though we’re not Catholic.” It didn’t matter. It’s all about hockey. He was just like, “We’ll get you there because all your friends are on this team.” It was just an easy decision. It was nice going to RBC. I went into RBC less of a new kid than I was used to because I knew some people; but still, walking into the halls of something new has been my life.
You have a gift. You are one of the few people that I can count on one hand that have a special ability to make people laugh hard. Not many people have that. It might be because you moved around so much. Whatever that is, you have it and it’s impressive. We used to do those dry land and we used to combine the teams. You weren’t on my team but you were doing some hilarious shit. I was like, “Who is this kid?”
Just being a character. You have to project yourself a little bit. When you walk into a new room, you’ve got to make friends somehow. That was probably my coping mechanism.
Did you always know you wanted to go to West Point or is that something you put together like junior, senior year or what?
When I have young kids, whether it’s ROTC kids that are in college that are asking me advice for being in the army or high school kids saying, “Why do you want to be in the army?” I wish I could say I had some higher calling that I wanted to serve my country when I was sixteen years old, but who knows what they want to do when they’re sixteen? The way that I saw it even back then was I had three heroes in my life. My grandfather who was in 1960 Grad from West Point, served in Vietnam, served 25 years in the army, and retired as a colonel; my dad served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he did 28 years and retired as a colonel; and then, my sister actually married a West Point graduate. When I was sixteen, they might’ve been dating. They got married when I was seventeen. He became the guy that I looked up to as my modern hero. He wasn’t the guy that did it before; he’s the guy doing it right now. He went on to serve in the 75th Ranger Regiment, the baddest group of motherfuckers on this planet. It’s one of those special operations guys. He did that and I looked up to that my whole life.
Even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do, like you didn’t know you want to be a chiropractor when you’re sixteen, you have no idea. You don’t see that stuff. All I saw when I was sixteen was Mr. Ross’s English class and I was like, “I don’t want to do that so I got to figure something out.” Remember that guy? He’s creepy. I knew that I wanted to be like them in some way and I was like, “What do they have in common?” They’re all in the army. I figured my best way of doing it was to go to West Point. It follows the line that the army itself and the military at large is a family business. Everywhere you go, when you talk to somebody, it’s like, “My dad was in. My grandpa was in. My mom was in.” Everybody. It’s very rare that they have no ties in the military. It’s such a family business.
Especially when you go to West Point too.
West Point’s even more of like an old boy’s club. It’s like everybody’s dad, grandpa, everybody went there. I wasn’t forced into it by any means. My dad had a childhood that was forced into a couple of things so he made sure that he was very standoffish with things like that. He didn’t pressure me at all. I made the choice myself. I wanted to be like those three so I made that choice. The application process started pretty early as I remember in high school. You are a sophomore when you start applying to West Point.
It’s very impressive because me and you were doing the exact same things in high school. We were having fun playing hockey, going out, but you somehow managed to get into West Point. When you got in, I was like, “Me and Gonzo are doing the same things and he is crushing it.” Was your head always in the books in high school? That’s not how it seemed to me. It seems like you’re naturally gifted at that.
I’m going to be honest. It was a little bit easier for me just knowing the fact that I had family members that went to West Point that knew the process, and my dad was in the army so I had some backing. For example, any high school kid has to get a nomination that’s called from a congressman to try and apply to West Point. You go through this whole thing when you’re a sophomore, interviews and shit like that. Every state gets, how many congressmen they have? They have that times ten for people they can nominate to apply to West Point. You had to do it pretty early. My dad was already in the army so I had an automatic nomination. Things like that make it a little bit easier.
What will be easier?
To be honest with you, this screwed me over my first year at West Point. It was like high school wasn’t that hard. I essentially was on cruise control for three years at RBC. Good school, good people. I didn’t do anything. You saw what I did. I hung out with you and Sedecki all day. That’s all I did. I’m not the dude that was dug in the books. I certainly tried hard at things like I played three sports all through the year. I tried my best to do things that help you like being nominated as captain of a team. The only thing I remember trying really hard at was that you had to get your SATs to a certain point. I was just grinding my junior year. My parents sent me to one of those prep classes and stuff. I did try in that sense, but I was essentially on cruise control through RBC.
You got in and two other kids from our high school got in, which was pretty unheard of.
I’m talking about the brothers. Their dad was also a Lieutenant Colonel. It’s a family business. It’s not random kids. The only random kids that go to West Point are usually athletes where they get recruited because they are a smarter football player than your average moron that goes to like so and so state that is like huge and 300 pounds. If they’re pretty smart, they get recruited by army dudes. It’s like, “What is this? Yes, I’ll go.” Everybody else generally knew they wanted to go to West Point.
You got into West Point and you go. Was day one a rude awakening?
Funny story about that. I don’t know if you knew this, but when we graduated from RBC, three days later I moved to Alabama because my dad, yet again, got stationed in Huntsville, Alabama.
They were pretty generous with that too. They wanted to move but they knew you were on the hockey team.
My Dad was just lobbying left and right to keep me at least to graduate. The fact that he got me to that point was massive. I graduated high school three days later and moved into Alabama. The reason why that was hard was because I wanted to enjoy my life before I went to West Point because I maybe had three or four weeks. West Point for freshmen starts July 1st, somewhere around there every year, as opposed to August or September for normal college kids. I only had three days in Jersey then I moved down to Alabama of all places and knew no one and had nothing to do for a couple of weeks before I went to West Point.
Was it a shotgun blast to my face? Yes. The first day you show up, they give you a report time. It’s like show up on July 1st with these items at this place from 9 to 12, sometime in that window. I show up and I sat down with my parents. My mom and dad were with me. One of the upperclassmen walks out and he says, “Welcome to United States Military Academy, Class of 2012. I want to welcome you. You’re about to embark on this 48-month journey that’s going to turn you into a leader in United States Army.” He looked around for a second and he goes, “You have 30 seconds to say goodbye to your families.” I was like, “This is it?” My dad’s been in the army for 25 years at the time, he’s like, “This is it. You’re out. See you.” My mom was bawling and I’m just like, “Is this it?” I hugged mom, hugged dad, and started walking down the aisle.
By the time you realized you probably had five seconds left.
You remember me, I was a jackass when I was high school. I looked around, I was like, “Are you serious?” You walk to him, you go through the double doors, and that was it. There are dudes with fingers in your face. This is the thing that I love, people are like, “I couldn’t do that. If somebody had their hand in my face or they were yelling at me, I’ve got to punch him.” It’s like, “No, you wouldn’t. I promise you, you wouldn’t do that.”
This guy’s a trained killer. You wouldn’t.
Not even that. They’re just kids at West Point. Our basic training that starts in our first summer, right before your freshman year starts, it’s all cadets that run basic training. They have real soldiers from the army that are there to help you out with stuff, but the cadets are running it. It’s like a detail for them. They get graded on running all this crazy system they got going on. Either way, it’s 60 days of straight no phone, no computer, no nothing. You’re writing letters home, you’re waking up every single day at 4:30 AM and doing PT in the morning.
It’s all day?
It’s all day. Every day, you have a bedtime. As a freshman, you can’t talk to anyone outside of your room. I was a semi-grown up man. I will say looking back on it, if I went back and did that, it would be a joke to me because I’ve done it for ten years. It’s so easy. That army discipline thing just comes naturally, but when you’re coming from seventeen years old, fucking around with Kev and Sedecki, straight into you have 30 seconds to say goodbye, you’ve got to move fast. You’ve got to pick up quick.
Do they just weed out a ton of people in that 60 days? Most of the people have to know what they’re getting into or did you see a lot of people just rock?
It’s half and half. Some people understand better than others, but everyone is like, “I don’t know if something’s going on.” The fact of the matter is the system is not there to weed people out. They don’t want to. They want to take people and mold them into what they want as opposed to just slashing people out of the way. The classes go in 1,200, they come out between 950 and 1,000. You drop 250 or 200 people over the four years. It’s funny because the first day or first couple of days, there’s always someone that quits and they announce it over campus loudspeakers. Like, “Attention, all cadets. We have our first quitter.” Some kids get shotgun-blasted and they quit right away. I was always the new kid. I’m used to it. I was used to new shenanigans I had to deal with and I knew I wanted to do it so I stuck around for sure. Academics started and then life gets a little better. Every year it gets a little bit better until you finally graduate, you come back, and then you’re in the army.
I couldn’t even grasp what you were going through. I remember you had one break and we were back in Jersey and you were like, “How’s college?” I was telling you about it and you’re like, “I get a couple hours. Me and my buddies would run to the liquor store, drink as much as we can, and run right back.”
At West Point, no matter what age you go into your freshman year, a lot of hockey players, for example, dudes come out of juniors at 21, you can’t drink on your freshman and sophomore year no matter how old you are. There would be 21-year-old men as freshmen playing hockey and they want to have a beer. You can’t. You’ll be kicked out. I didn’t turn 21 until late junior year. We would do anything we could because we didn’t party. There was nothing.
I can remember vividly Halloween my first semester as a freshman. This is before Instagram, this is before all that. The only thing we had was Facebook. It’s during academics so I’m left alone to myself a little bit, but still, I can’t talk outside my room. I have to walk against the walls in the hallways. I can’t walk down the middle. It’s just stupid shit all day. It was Halloween, that’s when all you guys were out partying like crazy. The next day, everyone was uploading their photos from their Halloween parties. I remember me and my roommates looking at each other like, “What are we doing? There are so many slutty pumpkins and I’m here and I can’t talk to you outside my room. This is ridiculous.” I don’t know why that sits with me. I was so upset that I couldn’t do anything. At the end of the day, I’m starting to see it now.
You weren’t missing much, trust me.
That’s the other thing. I would not change anything because of how my life has turned out. Say I was super depressed and don’t have anybody, yes, maybe I wanted to change things, but my life is fantastic. I met the girl of my dreams because of West Point. Obviously because of her, we have our first kid. She’s awesome. My life’s good. I put up with that stuff. My dad used to say, and he still says to me once in a while, whenever I complain to him, he would just stop and be like, “It’s got to suck. It has to suck. That’s it. That’s the army way.”
Honestly, I feel like no matter what you go through in life and how bad a situation is, if you hang in there long enough, time will catch up with you and make it even better. Would you agree with that?
That’s one of those things that I take away. Now that I’m out of the army, it’s one of those cliché things that I list in my head that I’m going to remember forever. It could always be worse. It’s not one of those things you can just say to somebody. You can’t walk up to some kid in high school and go, “It could always be worse,” because they’ll look at you and go, “Whatever.” You have to experience it. I finally had those things where I can say, “It could always be worse,” because I can look at my daughter when she wakes up in the morning and it’s just like, “This is fantastic. It could always be worse. My life is awesome.” It’s moving forward.
What did you want to get into when you started going through West Point? Was there a certain path you wanted to take in the military?
Saying that you’re in the army is like saying you work for Ford. It’s like, “Are you the CEO? Are you a salesman? Are you a mechanic? What do you do?” We call them branches. There are sixteen branches for officers to go into. It’s infantry, armor which are tanks and stuff, aviation being helicopter pilots, field artillery being the dudes that shoots cannons and stuff. You can choose what you want to do, but it’s all based on your class rank. At West Point, your grades matter. Everything matters. Your overall GPA is made from your academics, your military grade, which is an arbitrary thing you get from doing certain jobs throughout the year; you have a position, and then also your physical grade. Your PT or physical tests and your physical classes that you take, all that’s factored in and you get a class rank. It’s down the line.
Are people just checking that every week? Does it fluctuate?
I remember they email out the list after every semester, so you knew where you were. For example, if there are 200 slots for one branch and numbers 1 through 200 choose those, number 201 is not getting that branch. You have to work, granted it’s not always 1 to 200. There are always kids that want different stuff. Going through West Point, me and my four best friends all wanted to be in the infantry. We never talked about it. We all knew we wanted to do that so we always worked at least hard enough to get up to that point. We’re all lucky and fortunate enough to get infantry.
All four of you made it?
One of us went to the engineers. We all got what we wanted because we worked hard. My buddies were pretty smart guys. You’ve got to work towards something and that’s what we chose to do then. That was our mindset through the whole thing.
What does that even mean, infantry? Can you branch out into that?
It’s like the grunts. It’s the dudes on the ground. Their motto through the infantry is, “Close with and destroy the enemy.” It’s your ground tactical units. It’s hard to explain in terms that people will understand, but it’s your guys on the ground. As bad as it sounds, have you seen Saving Private Ryan? Those dudes are in the infantry. That’s what they do. You fight on the ground, small unit tactics, and you’re pushing towards the last 100 yards of the fight, whatever it may be. You’re not flying, you’re not shooting cannons, you’re not doing anything like that. You are the front-line guys. That’s what we wanted to do. Granted, there are different jobs through the infantry that you get as you go through the ranks, you’re not necessarily that dude on the front shooting and pulling triggers but you’re still in that world. You’re a support element for those worlds.
What are you training you with because you have to be ready for everything? Are they training you in martial arts, shooting guns, hand-to-hand combat, and all that stuff? How do they prepare you for that?
The best way that I can say it is that West Point builds a foundation for you. You do a lot of very basic things and everyone does the same curriculum. The dudes that are going to go be weirdo logistics guys do the same thing that the guys are going to go the infantry do. You do the same base foundational stuff. Once you graduate, that’s when you go to officer basic courses. You go to your branch specific. The dudes who are going to go be helicopter pilots go to flight school. Dudes who are going to be the infantry go to infantry officer basic school. That’s when you start to get a little more detailed into what you’re going to exactly do in the army. That’s when we were shooting all the different weapons, learning how to maneuver as small units in a close fight, and getting more specific training towards the infantry.
You get into the infantry. Are you done with West Point at this time?
You’ll find out in between your first and second semester of senior year what you’re going to get, so you know what you’re going to get. You’re scheduled for your school after you graduate to go to your basic school for the infantry. That’s when we knew. We knew what we were going to go do and just waiting to go to the course. The course is five months long or something like that.
There’s another course after West Point?
Was this ranger school or this was different?
This is right before ranger school. We graduate West Point and we were able to take a leave and vacation for a little while. I took the full-time that we’re allotted, so 60 days. At that 60-day mark, I reported to Fort Benning, Georgia and we did our infantry officer basic school. It was where all the dudes from even ROTC, kids who didn’t go directly from college and came from the working force or whatever, but they had a college degree and they went to this other course, we all converge and we go to the infantry basic school for dudes that are infantry officers. It’s all second lieutenants, the lowest of the low in the officer world. You go learn your infantry’s specific stuff.
Does it mean shit that you went to West Point at this point?
No, everybody’s the same.
They throw everybody together again.
That was hard. There was a guy in my squad who went to ASU which back in 2012 or 2013 was the party school of the country. This dude, he’s the exact same that we are, he was like, “What was I doing? Why did I just waste that time?” That’s what you think of when you’re 21 or 22; now it’s like, “I get it.” That was certainly hard, but you pass on and just keep going and do your thing. After you go to RBC, that’s when basically test in to go into ranger school. You have to pass a bunch of prerequisites to get into school. Then when you go to ranger school, the first three days is your test whether or not you get in or not.
I hear ranger school completely strips you down to absolute nothing.
What it is a small unit tactics, so squad and platoon-size guys, from 10 to 40 people that you’re working with. You’re learning how to fight as a unit in the army. What they do is they make it so you’re fighting like it would be in the worst possible conditions. You have no food. You can’t sleep. The example I always tell people when they’re like, “How much does it suck?” I went into that school at 205 pounds and I came out at 165 two and a half months later. I lost 40 pounds in two and a half months. They feed you enough to let you survive. That’s what it is. On top of that, the sleep is even worse.
Where are you sleeping? Is it in tents?
There are a couple of days where you do training in, I won’t say an administrative area, but a place where they have buildings and a place where they have a cafeteria for you to go eat at. You do that a couple of days here and there. It gets less and less as you go on throughout the school. Basically, what you’re doing is the last thing you do is your ten days. It’s in the last phase of ranger school. Ten days in the field and you’re living with what’s on your back. On top of that, every single day is a different mission. They change whoever’s going to be all the leaders inside that mission and they get graded on it. Every single day it’s the same thing. You sleep between 45 to 30 minutes or some days you might get three hours.
How delirious were you?
All your missions end at night and you have to walk to your patrol base. It’s like a campsite base where you’re going to stay and pull security all night. I can remember being in my night vision goggles and I would say “Excuse me” to trees because they looked like people. You start seeing stuff, you’re like, “Excuse me,” but it’s a tree. Your mind is just completely gone. It’s like an alternate universe you live in for two and a half months.
You must have hit some pretty low points too then?
This must be the craziest anomaly in ranger school of all time. I got put into a squad. You go with the same group of ten dudes the whole way through as long as you keep passing at the same time and all that stuff. I had my wife’s cousin and his brother in my squad. It was like an administrative error and they screwed up. I had basically two of my cousins in my squad, which was bad ass especially when you need to lean on somebody, when you’re tired and when you’re hungry. I went in the winter too.
What state where you in?
It’s in Georgia and Florida. The worst part was the middle phase called mountains and it’s in the Appalachian Mountains in North Georgia.
Sounds like a Hunger Games level or something.
It’s insane. There will be times where you cuddle with the ground dude and you’d be like, “I’m freezing.” I still have nerve damage in my toes because your toes freeze. However, they let you survive and it’s a good school. That was one of those things I was thinking about like, “It can always be worse.”
What’s going to faze you after that?
There’s an old folklore story, who knows if it happened, but they always told us about it. There are two rangers in Vietnam sitting in a foxhole together and they’ve both been shot. They’re surrounded by Viet Cong and they know they’re going to die soon. One of the dudes looks at the other guy and he says, “At least we’re not in ranger school.” That’s how much that place sucks. No one wants to go back to that place. It can always be worse. That’s the lesson that I took from that. You can take all the day-to-day lessons of small unit tactics stuff. You remember that, that’s good. At the end of the day, it teaches you how to push through something that’s hard and challenging, learn how to set a goal for yourself, and then also know that it can always be worse.
You get out of ranger school, what’s next after that?
After five years since you started West Point, you went through OBC or the Officer Basic Course stuff for infantry. After ranger school, a couple of schools you have to go to. After that five years, you go into your first unit. You go out into the actual army.
That is an incredible amount of shit.
The funny thing is you roll up and you don’t know anything. It’s like you’re put in front of this group of 30 to 40 people and they’re like, “You’re in-charge.” My NCO or my noncommissioned officers like the sergeants, some of them had been in the army for ten to fifteen years, been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four, five, six times. I walk in, this beardless little joke of a second lieutenant, and I’m like, “I’m in-charge, boys.”
You’re winging it at that point. You’ve got to be there for them.
You don’t know your day-to-day stuff. I understood I had a little bit more of an intellectual background. I had done an academic background on army things as opposed to they had always been playing the game. You can bring some knowledge in there but they have the experience, and that’s the balance that you have between you and your sergeants.
Do you think that’s something they should have to change?
No, it’s the best thing for the army.
Was anybody visibly giving you shit?
Every single person, but that’s the good part. That’s what the lesson is when you’re a young officer. There are always three things. I always have ROTC kids or cadets or whoever’s going to be in the army that always asked me for advice. I hate to throw out clichés because no one wants to hear that stuff but some of them are true. I’ve held onto three of them. One of them is that you have to be self-aware. I learned this the hard way during my time as a platoon leader, as an executive officer for a company. You have to be self-aware. You have to learn who you are as a person before you can tap into leading other people.
Just a stupid example, I’m a procrastinator and I know it. It drives Maddie, my wife, crazy. I will put something off to the last moment. I know that about myself so I have to be forward on it. That’s the only way you learn. That leads into the second thing I always tell these kids that people skills make this world go round. It doesn’t matter if you’re a chiropractor that does podcasts with people, it doesn’t matter if you’re an infantry officer leading someone in combat, it doesn’t matter what you do, people skills rule everything. You have to be able to talk to people. That’s what I learned.
You learned that there, you think?
100%. You have to know how to leverage relationships between people. A good example of that was there were two kids in my platoon; they were both specialists. They were junior soldiers. They were just a little bit above private. Everyone knows what a private is. They’re the lowest of the low. They’re just a little bit above that. One of them had a master’s in Mechanical Engineering from ASU or U of A, one of those. One of them, I’m almost positive he couldn’t read. They had the same rank. They had the same job title. You could walk into that and you could see it as, “I wish I’d get rid of my dumb kid, get more smart kids.” Now that I look at it, what I would tell my lieutenants, my junior officers, as I progressed through the time, “You’ve got to figure out how to use people.” You’ve got to figure out what you can do with that kid to use his strengths. Don’t put him in something he’s going to fail at unless you want that to be some lesson. I got that part. You’ve got to figure out how to work with people. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to be a chiropractor or if you’re going to be in the army. It’s the same thing.
There are a lot of kids in my chiropractic school that were so book smart, the memorization and everything, they can regurgitate anything to you. Put an actual person in there, having to communicate, “This is what’s going,” and the book is not in front of them, they’re frozen and has no idea what to do. That’s what matters.
Especially somebody who pushes back on you or is an asshole, that’s when you learn what your people skills are.
My question for you is how did you gear that kid in the right direction or figure out what his strengths were to help serve the unit?
That just goes to time. He was so dominant that it’s almost funny, but he was a good kid and he was good with his hands. He might’ve had a mechanics background or something like that so I would always use him. I didn’t necessarily tell every single person exactly what they’re going to do for the day. I had 30 guys. I would tell the leaders that were my subordinates, I hate saying that word because NCOs are not your subordinates, what I want to do for the day. They used him as the guy that would go and do some of the manual labor stuff that we needed because he liked doing that stuff. Whereas, if I had this kid I knew was a genius and we had to prep a presentation for a class we are going to give to the whole company, I need him for computer skills. You just figure out what you can do. There were no favorites, nothing like that. You figure out the little things you can do with people. I’m taking that all the way into this corporate world job because I’ve got to try to evolve and not curse so much and say horrible things. It’s going to be hard.
That was two. Number three?
The third one is my favorite. The third one is you have to be adaptable. As much of a cliché as it is, that’s the one thing that the army unintentionally does the best. I don’t think it’s a program they have written somewhere like, “We have to make it this way.” They throw you into jobs where you have no idea how to do it. There’s this acronym one of my company commanders used to tell me. He’d be like, “Go FITFO.” It’s Figure It The Fuck Out. I’d go ask him some question and whether he didn’t know it or he didn’t know it or maybe that was part of his lesson, you just have to go figure it out. He’d be, “No, FITFO. Go figure it the fuck out.” Now I’m not afraid of going into work for my job because my whole life has been figure it the fuck out. You’ve got to figure out a way to do it. You can take that anywhere. That’s not army specific. That’s not anything specific. It’s a good lesson to experience where I’m now comfortable going into uncomfortable situations and figure it the fuck out.
A lot of people are afraid to fail when failure is definitely your friend. Just try not to make too many mistakes twice.
You don’t want to fail, but in hindsight, you always look at it and you’re like, “I’ve got that.” Honestly, my biggest failure to date was I went to ranger school twice. The first time, through my training before ranger school and all that stuff, I had some knee problems and I never went to go see anybody. I didn’t know what it was. It just hurt. I couldn’t run that well. I was always bitching about it. I wasn’t a stud at running because it hurts so bad. When I went to ranger school, the first three days are such grueling physical tests that 90% of dropouts from ranger school are in the first three days. Let me try to figure out these stats for you, so 30% or so of people that go to ranger school pass. One in every three guys. Out of that 70% that fail, most of that is the first three days because it’s just insane.
The last time we had to do this, we’re doing a twelve-mile road march where you have probably a 75-pound rucksack on your back and you’ve got to go twelve miles in a certain time period. I missed it by a minute and a half. The last miles, my knees hurt so bad. They were swollen. They were filled with gross shit. I went across the line a minute and a half late. I was three hours, one minute, 30 seconds. It’s everything you ever wanted. My dad was a ranger and my brother-in-law is a stud in the Ranger Regiment, and here I am, I fucking failed it. I’m done. I’m out. I’m never going to wear a Ranger tap. I sat there and they’re like, “What are you doing? Get out of here man. You’re done.” That was the first time that I truly failed something, like bottom of the barrel, you’re done. That’s it.
I think about that every time I’m going into something new. I’m never going to feel that again. I’m never going to sit on my ass and have somebody telling me, “Get out of here. You’re done.” It still makes me boil inside thinking about that because you have to bounce back somehow. I got into school three weeks later, I classed up for the next class, and I was like, “I’ve got to do this.” You’ve got to figure it out.
How much were you under the second time?
The first time I went, I only spent three days there and I failed to time it. I probably lost some water weight maybe.
No, I’m talking about did you have to do the same exact thing? That actual test where you came 1:30, what was the second time you did it?
I did it in 2 hours and 55 minutes. Everyone gets just below. No one’s crushing it. I passed and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you do it in an hour, it doesn’t matter if you do in two hours, or 2:59. It doesn’t matter. I passed it. That started my life of I’m never going to fail this stuff again. It felt good.
You passed ranger school and then is it time to do your tour?
The crazy thing is that our population has no idea who’s in Iraq, who’s in Afghanistan, who’s in Syria, who’s in Africa, nothing. There’s only several units at a time deployed somewhere. It’s on a rotational basis. I just happened to work into the system where my unit was at the end of their deployment cycle. When I went in there, I knew they were coming back. I spent all this time while we were training up for the next deployment. I deployed as a senior lieutenant to just on the south side of Baghdad in 2015. It was two and a half years that I spent training in the States before I went to Iraq.
What’s going through you at that point on the plane over to Iraq? Like pumped, nervous, just everything?
The funny thing about the army is you’ve seen the uniforms and everything. People have a bunch of patches on their arms you don’t really understand. The left side are your patches of the unit that you’re assigned to. When I was in the 10th Mountain Division, I wore a 10th Mountain patch on my left arm. On my right arm, because I had never deployed anywhere, it was empty. When you’re walking around work, people look at you and they’re like, “That dude hasn’t deployed.” It’s like you’ve been on the hockey team and you’ve only been to practice and you’ve never played a game. It was that validation like, “Finally, I get to go do this thing.” I’ve been waiting seven years. I deployed when I was 25 and I had been in the army for six and a half or seven years, including West Point time which is not the same. Still, I had been ready for this. I’ve been wanting to do this.
I went during the Obama administration, at the tail end of his time, so we had a pretty thick leash on. It certainly wasn’t a movie. I’ll tell you that right now. I went over there, I did my thing, we had a job to do, we did it. It’s not as crazy as you think. That’s why it’s still like I wasn’t validated. I feel so bad when people say stuff like, “Thank you for your service.” There are dudes walking around with no legs, there are guys that are hurt from this thing, and you’re thanking me? I went over there for nine months and I have fucking internet in my room. It’s not the same, but I did my time. It was a crazy existence and experience.
What was your mental state coming back?
I was excited because I’ve been married for a year when I deployed. My wife, Maddie, moved home with her parents for a year. That was hard being away for so long. That’s one of the toughest parts for me because you’re there and you’re with your buddies, and you’re there really for your buddies and for your family. That’s what it is. That’s why I went. That’s why I wanted to go. When you come back, you’re so excited but you have to get back into it. I can remember how awkward it was to see her for the first time. I love her and we’d been talking on the phone and stuff, but it’s weird when you come back. People have long distance relationships. That first time you haven’t seen somebody for a year, it’s crazy. You’re riding around and you see people, they’re mad at Starbucks and you’re, “It’s not that bad. Chill out.” That’s one thing that gets me. That’s why I can’t watch the news anymore. I don’t watch anymore because I would throw my TV out the window. You see people and they don’t understand how good we have it here. This country is fantastic.
You got back and was that your final tour?
Yes, I only did one. Just how the times rolled into each other. I came back and I went to a new post. Same thing, they had just come back. They were moving on. They just deployed three weeks before I got out of the army.
Yes, my unit out of Fort Carson, they deployed three weeks before I got out. That was just a life decision.
When did you make that decision and why did you make that decision?
There was a lot of personal and professional reasons. Those are the two things I break it up to. Some people are not made for the army life, including spouses. It didn’t come easy to Madeline and I to be apart from each other for so long. It sucks for everybody. It was not something that we wanted to do further. That was one. I don’t want to be away from my wife. The day I got to this new unit, it was my birthday and we found out that Maddie was pregnant. I knew they were going to Afghanistan. I’ve seen some of my friends deployed when they had three-month old babies, they came back to a year-old kid, and the kid was afraid of him or didn’t know who they were at least. I don’t want to miss those things. I want to be home for them. That was a decision for me. The final breaking point was when we found out that Charlotte was on the way. I was just, “I don’t want to do this. I want to be home. I want to see my kid grow up.” I think my family’s done plenty of time. I feel I, at least, did something for this country. I served my country so I don’t regret anything. I’m excited that now I get to hear her upstairs screaming or put her to bed every night. I would be in Afghanistan right now.
The personal stuff was easy; the professional stuff was harder to admit. It’s harder to swallow. I don’t want to rag on the army because it’s done so much variance. It’s full of such incredible people. This is the one thing that just drove me nuts. I call it incentivized mediocrity. I got a buddy. He’s a Green Beret and he’s an absolute stud. He’s 6’5”, 250 pounds of fucking steel. He’s been to every school you can possibly imagine. He had a 4.0 as a mechanical engineer from West Point. He makes a certain amount of money. Take on contrast to that the fattest and dumbest dude in the army that has the same rank, they make the same amount of money. No matter how well you do, you don’t progress unless it’s the time. You have to be in for a certain amount of time to go to this rank. You need a certain amount of time to go to this job.
You can’t jump that?
No. There’s very minimal jumps to do to make and it’s very rare. Working hard didn’t get you anywhere. It got you the personal satisfaction. I tried hard because it was my job and because I loved what I did, but at the end of the day, there was a dude that I was in a unit with that got fired from being in the same job as I was after two months. He read emails for somebody for the next year. Meanwhile, I went on to do a tougher job and we made the same amount of money. That just drove me nuts all day long. I’m ready to go, work hard, and progress based on my ability. I hate to say it, but it was one of those big things that forced me out.
After being in the army for seven years, what did you think you’d be interested in getting out? What were you gravitating towards?
I got really lucky because my dad got out in 2013 and he started moving into the corporate world. Granted, he went out as a 55-year-old man who had some pedigree and he got hired into a job like that because they want to use that all the time. I was a very different type of person. I got lucky in the sense also that my wife’s dad is a savage businessman. I had somebody from my dad who transitioned from the army to the corporate world, but I also had someone who was pure corporate private sector that worked for himself. I had these two competing extremes of guys I could go to for advice. My dad’s a consultant for the army. He consults guys that run projects for the army and my father-in-law pushed that in. I still don’t know what I want to do, but I do know that the best opportunity for me was to move into one of these big firms as a consultant because I’ll see a bunch of different projects. Let’s say, my first eighteen months that I’m on this job, I might be on six different projects that worked for all types of different industries and I get to see all types of business as opposed to being pigeonholed into something. I didn’t have an interest. I didn’t want to go be a space engineer or anything. I don’t have a specific thing that I love. This is a good way to get a broad look into the real world, into big boy jobs, and see what I love. If I like doing this after three years, I’ll keep doing it. If I want to go more specific, I can jump into that.
What do you say to kids that come up to you like, “I want to be in the army,” or, “I want to go to West Point,” or just be in the service? I know you’re not a cliché guy and you probably tell them straight up. What is it?
I try not to do that because people won’t remember the clichés you tell them. People have already probably forgotten the three things that I talked about that were the lessons I learned. The biggest thing that I say to them is I had these heroes and I wanted to be them and they were in the army so I joined the army. The other thing is the army was the greatest decision that I ever made to become who I am today. When you tell that to a kid, they think, “This guy liked what he did and it made him who he is today,” and then it maybe motivates him towards going. If a lot of them have more specific questions that I’ll answer, but I just try to push towards, “It felt so good to serve my country and to be a part of something that was bigger than you. If that’s what you want to do, then it’s a great way to go.”
That’s what I love about that advice. You’re not saying you need to join the army, you’re not saying you shouldn’t join the army, you’re just saying what your experience was and what it did for you.
Not everyone’s cut out for it. I remember some people being like, “Why do you want to do that? That sounds stupid.” You just don’t understand. Some people are cut for it, some people aren’t.
Out of all your takeaways from all the ranger school bullshit and all the West Point stuff you went through, if you were to leave a piece of advice that you’ve taken with you throughout your experience through life, what would you leave people with?
I’m going to go back to those three things that I talked about. It’s no matter what you want to do, whether you want to be in the army, whether you want to be a chiropractor, to move forward and to be successful in what you want in life, you have to be self-aware, able to work with other people, and adaptable. You take those things, you learn them from experience, you think about them as you’re going through those experiences, you come out on the other side a better person, and you’ll be successful in whatever you want to do. If you don’t do those things, you’re just going to bonk.
Very bright future ahead. I’m very excited to see what you get into.
Let’s hope so.
A lot of great things coming your way. Thanks again.
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