PUBLISH TO APPLE NEWS
“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
When you’re skipping across the desert approaching triple-digit speeds, you don’t get many thoughts of literature popping into your head- but this one pops into my head frequently while I’m trying to keep my bike rubber-side down. All three of these sports have only two similarities- they are difficult and can absolutely kill you.
In fact, most of the guys immortalized in these sports met their demise when a final attempt to cheat death went awry. Since I’ve got no experience with bullfighting, I will leave that out of my thoughts until I’ve formed a more educated opinion- which is unlikely in this lifetime.
On the topics of Mountaineering and Motorsport, I would say I’ve been a reckless amateur with enough experience to respect the craft’s potential to kill me. I’ve also done both enough to know that the finish isn’t the best part- it’s a bittersweet and often anticlimactic ending. When my team took 3rd place in our class at Vegas to Reno, I was handed a beer, had a picture snapped, and ushered away from the line.
The adventure of the unknown before and during the race captivates you. Now, adventure doesn’t necessarily need to bring you dancing with death. Still, a good one should give you at least one opportunity to meet your maker should you misstep. A shady backroad in parts unknown, an unknown river crossing in Africa, or, in this case- a sandy wash just west of what our team named “taco town” in Baja, Mexico.
Upon my return from Baja 500, I desperately wanted to tell the epic tale, to sum it all up in an epiphany that changed lives and perspectives as it had altered my own. The hope of this race was to conquer, inspire, and LIVE with friends, making it all happen. I couldn’t find a way to do it when the pen hit paper or fingers hit keys. I couldn’t write a damn thing that could capture the adventure, and that became the point entirely. The race was worth doing not for the ability to tell the story but for the ability to have lived it.
Brent Phillips is the founder and CEO of SOFlete. In a former life he was a Raider, and Reconnisance Marine.
Usually associated with rich pricks whose daddy could sue the shit out of you, the term exclusivity has earned a negative connotation. It's odd to me since I've pursued the exclusive all of my life despite being far from wealthy at any point in time. The exclusivity I'm speaking of is born from effort, not the ability to stroke a check and make things happen. Whether it was completing grueling tests of endurance and skill in the desert, becoming part of elite military units, or being able to hang my hat on a decade of successful entrepreneurial endeavor- the effort was always the deciding factor.
And with that, we've decided that Die Living would no longer be a club of inclusivity for all who walk in the door. For us, there must be a right of passage for membership. Your membership won't be paid with Visa or Mastercard, but rather Effort and Consequence. You must be able to answer yes to two questions at least once a year. 1. Is this physically and mentally challenging? 2. Can this kill me?
Both of these questions may be slightly subjective. We could all get killed driving to the grocery store, and some people exert great physical and mental effort just to get out of the business. We're looking for people pushing against the fringes of society, where the effort takes you to places unknown, and the consequences never come home. A hard workout and a drunken game of Russian roulette don't cut it.
Surfing double overhead waves on a desolate African beach after sweet-talking your way through unmarked checkpoints. Hiking for a few days through grizzly country to find your quarry and pack it back out. Racing your motorcycle across the Baja peninsula, dancing with triple-digit speeds and hidden rocks in their attempt to end your race. Traveling east Africa to hike, train, and advise a counter-poaching unit. Now we're getting there.
a monkey on (one's) back
- slang: A drug addiction. Did you hear? Pete checked himself into rehab to deal with the monkey on his back.
- A burden. This project is such a monkey on my back right now—I can't wait for it to be over.
It’s 3 AM. The East African bush is both quiet and loud at the same time. Those who have spent time there, know what that means. For those who have not been there, it is impossible to explain. I am in a single file column on a dirt trail wide enough for one person, with a half dozen uniformed police officers and about as many plain-clothes Criminal Investigation Directorate (CID) detectives from the host country. Light discipline is perfect, not because they think about it – most of them simply don’t have flashlights. Not counting mine, there might be two flashlights between all of them, both with batteries about to give out at any second. Noise discipline is also perfect, not because they are aware of it – but because they are scared.
We are on our way to raid a compound consisting of several buildings and several “shrines” – mud huts used by witch doctors to perform their ceremonies. We are after a witch doctor named Waswa, who sacrificed several children in the past. Most recently he killed a village safety officer and kept his head inside his shrine along with the skulls of the previous victims, hanging his genitalia on the walls of the shrine. This is not a unique case, and these are not one-off circumstances.
Welcome to Africa.
I make my way along the single file, squeezing between the people and the bush that surrounds the trail. I try to reach every uniformed cop because they are the only ones who are armed. As I pass each of them, I touch the safety on their AKs to make sure it is engaged. My plan is simple. The click of the AK safety being dropped is tattooed in my brain after decades of use. If I hear that click, I am finding the deepest hole available and will stay there until the shooting stops. Lack of light and noise discipline may be deadly eventually. Lack of weapon discipline is deadly immediately.
I am tired, hot, and uneasy.
I am feeding The Monkey.
After more than three decades, I still remember exactly when The Monkey climbed on my back. It was January of 1985. My friend and I were on winter break after our first semester in college. I spent my entire childhood and youth skiing. The snow was my everything. We were in a lovely town called Kirovsk, far above the Polar Circle on the Kolsky Peninsula in the Russian Arctic. Although an extremely inhospitable place, it is also one of the best, if not the best, places to ski in Russia.
We went to one of the hotels in town to eat. It was an older 1950s building with a big atrium in the main lobby. As we walked in, I saw a bearded man painting a mural in the atrium. To this day I don’t know why or how we ended up spending the next several hours talking and drinking with him. He was recently discharged from the army, where he spent his entire service time in Afghanistan, in one of the mobile air assault units that did the majority of the real work, along with SF units, during the Soviet presence there. By the time we left that hotel, I was a different person. That bearded man, whose name I actually don’t even remember, changed me and changed the direction of my life. The Monkey was born.
I did not like college. Looking back through the experience years past, I came to realize it was not college I did not like, I was just going to the wrong college. Because of my father’s and all of his friends’ sciences and technical backgrounds and education, the same was a given for my education. Liberal arts was not even on the table. Not because I would not have been permitted to attend a school like that – it simply never occurred to anybody, me included.
After the conversation with the bearded dude, I simply coasted through the second semester before walking into the dean’s office literally as he was going to call me there to tell me I was out. I beat him to it and told him I was leaving.
When I informed my parents that I quit college and that I was going into the army, it went ok with my mother but not so well with my father. The fact that I did not know what was happening to me in my head, let alone could not possibly articulate it, did not help the situation. I just knew I was looking for war. I knew I had to feed The Monkey.
Every Russian city, town and village is either split into districts, or is a part of a district, and each district has a military recruitment office. Before I got on the bus, I spent hours and hours at my recruitment office, trying to get an appointment with anybody who I thought had some kind of decision-making power. I begged for assignment to either airborne or border patrol troops. Airborne was doing most of the work in Afghanistan. Border patrol was my “safety school”. At that time, Soviet Border Patrol troops were under the command of the KGB (Komitet Gos. Bezopastnosti, the main Soviet Intelligence Agency), not the Defense Ministry, and as such, were a springboard to the KGB SF units.
I got assigned to Combat Engineers instead.
I went to a 6 months Combat Engineering school that combined boot camp, AIT, and NCO school all in one. The school is a Division size unit. Each class is a platoon. If you graduate as the best student in your platoon, you get to choose your permanent duty base at the Board hearing upon completion of the training. Only one person per platoon gets to choose and I made sure I was that person. I told the Board, headed by a 2-Star Division commander, that I was going to Afghanistan. He told me that he wanted me to stay at the school and instruct. I told him that I had earned the right to choose and that I was going to Afghanistan. I am pretty sure my heart rate jumped 50 beats above my max heart rate. I don’t know how I did not pass out before he agreed to send me to Afghanistan.
I got assigned to 40th Army, to a Special Purpose Combat Engineering Battalion. Except it was stationed in Uzbekistan, not Afghanistan. The Soviet Union (which is what it was at the time) was split into Military Districts. There was no separate Military District for Afghanistan operations. Those were conducted by the forces of the 40th Army under the command of Turkestan Military District and with no distinction between the units stationed on the Soviet side and those on the Afghan side.
I went to Afghanistan many times on what in the Russian military referred to as “business trips”. My Battalion supplied nearly all the engineering equipment to the Afghan operations. We ran convoys in an out of the country bringing the equipment in. But when something happened, we were reactive. We did not hunt, that was not our job. I wanted to hunt. The Monkey was still hungry.
I submitted requests to my Battalion Commander for a transfer to a unit inside Afghanistan every six months, as allowed by regulations but my requests were never acknowledged and I was ultimately discharged from the same Battalion in which I started my service.
After I got discharged from the army, I applied and was accepted as a member of the 35th Soviet Antarctic expedition. I was stationed at a base called Mirny. Mirny was the starting point of biannual supply convoy to Vostok Station, one of the only two intercontinental Antarctic stations. My parents got married right before my father went to Antarctica himself, and he was one of the scientists stationed on Vostok when I was born, 22 years prior to me going to Antarctica.
I crossed the continent as a part of that convoy twice. As of the time of this writing, thirty years later, I remain the youngest person who has ever taken part in an intercontinental convoy. At that time, there were more people in the cosmonaut training program than there were dudes who crossed Antarctica, because the guys who ran the convoys came back expedition after expedition with a mandatory one-year break in between. I did not realize that at the time, but I was getting better at feeding The Monkey…
My country ceased to exist on December 26, 1991. I had a wife and a little girl and three options – work for money that was almost worthless, work for organized crime, or move. I chose to move to the US.
In the end of the 90s and early 2000s, I spent six years hunting people for a living. It’s funny when I say this and see people cringe. Yes, I was a “bounty hunter”. Yes, I am fully aware of the negative connotations this normally generates. But you don’t have to let a job define you, it is your responsibility to define the job. I achieved something that is very rarely seen in this field – I became an in-house investigator for the third largest bail underwriter in the US. I worked with some of the best crews in the country, found and arrested people in 27 states, and worked with US Marshall Service to bring people back from Canada and with the Mexican Federal Police to bring them back from Mexico.
Bounty hunting fed The Monkey well. We raided meth compounds booby trapped by old Vietnam vets who were the best meth cooks in the business. We splayed ‘roided out neo-Nazis on the floors covered with their pit bulls’ shit and made them lay there while we ripped their stupid flags off of the walls. We raided cartels’ stash houses and made big, bad, One Percenter bikers snitch on each other. I learned one-man and two-man free flow CQB through the necessity of thousands of live repetitions. I had 8-inch screwdrivers miss my neck by an inch and people sitting on loaded guns waiting for me to turn my back. The Monkey got well fed.
But while The Monkey was happy, bounty hunting cost me my marriage, nearly killed my relationship with my daughter, and made me into a pretty bad human being. It takes an animal to hunt an animal and I stopped because I did not like who I became.
There is no free lunch when feeding The Monkey.
I had to find another way. The Iraq and Afghanistan surge was at its peak and the 18X program was in full swing. I figured that even though I was officially too old, I could get a waiver with my languages, more than a thousand jumps out of various aircraft, and some other aspects of my resume. Somebody got me an email for a recruiter from the 20th Group and I emailed him immediately. It was a rather brief exchange. “Too old, don’t need you, nothing can be done, next”. It was pretty crushing. What made it worse is that I knew I would be an asset and I knew I could do it.
The Monkey was getting hungry again and I had to feed it. If I don’t, it starts to eat me instead.
For the last decade, I have been serving as a reserve Deputy with my county’s Sheriff’s Office. I am privileged to work with great dudes and I hope that every day I strap on the gun belt and the armor, I have my brothers’ back and I make my community a little better.
I also co-founded and run a nonprofit organization fighting human trafficking and ritualistic murder (sacrifices, most of which are children) in Eastern Africa. Human trafficking is a massive, overwhelming problem. Human trafficking is now the second highest source of revenue for organized crime groups and individual traffickers, overshadowed only by drugs. It is an accepted opinion among experts that it will inevitably overcome dope. Our efforts started seven years ago in Western Africa, with a commercial project to take down a what was suspected to be a child sex trafficking compound. We are now focused in Eastern Africa, and work with host country police forces and other organizations, conducting investigations, raids, and help with training and anything else we can do to help with these issues.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that poor, less developed countries are by default more susceptible to trafficking. Poverty largely drives trafficking. It not only affects the citizens of a given country, it affects its law enforcement just as equally. And so, it becomes a stacked problem – more poor people are being trafficked and there is less law enforcement capacity to fight it.
I would be lying if I said that the situation is hopeful – it is not. All of the organizations that we see in the field (in a broader sense of the word), who do not work in the actual field, as in side by side with the cops who are dealing with it, like to throw out these catchy slogans such as “We can end human trafficking in our lifetime” and “All victims can be rescued”. Well, sorry, that is just absolute bullshit. We cannot end it in our lifetime. We cannot rescue all the victims.
Human trafficking is a massive, multifaceted, cross-generational problem deeply rooted in poverty, lack of education, ass backwards beliefs, and a host of other issues. An example is the Kafala system. Kafala is legalized slavery. If you read about it, it does not look that bad. It is that bad and worse. Physical and sexual assault, mental abuse, rape, murder – that is the real Kafala, the one with which we deal every day. You can only believe for so long that every African woman in the Middle East who tried to raise her voice against her “sponsor” family abusing her fell victim to an unfortunate car accident. Especially considering that these women can not drive and can not leave the house without permission.
The Monkey has been on my back for 35 years and in those years, I have learned a few things.
Having a monkey on your back is considered to be a negative thing, but it does not have to be if The Monkey works for you, you do not work for The Monkey. Find a way to feed it, because if you don’t – I promise you, it will feed on you. But find a productive way, a way that benefits not only you, but hopefully others as well.
I don’t know what your monkey’s favorite food is. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s service to others. Maybe it’s pounding dust in the faraway places until your number is up. I don’t know. I do know that dope, whiskey, or a bullet is not the right diet. That much I know.
It’s time to pack my shit and head to the airport.
Time to feed My Monkey.
I’ve been afraid my whole life.
I didn’t have a home as a child, I bounced between houses and family members. I slept on a couch here, a floor there; a bed if I was lucky. As soon as I got close to being settled, I’d get moved. One of my earliest fears was that I’d never have my own place to call home. I took to living in the woods as much as I could. We called it camping. It ended up being preparation for the many nights I spent under the stars later in life.
Looking back, I can’t even remember much of high school. It feels like a dream. The instability I experienced did not allow a settled feeling through those formative years. I think I had friends but the fears I had at home carried over to school in the form of not being close to a lot of people. I believe I was friendly, but I was not close to people outside my very close circle of guys who loved the thought of being a commando someday.
The desire to be a Soldier came early to me. I believe it was more of a way to climb above the fear of being unwanted than it was a way out of the whole mess. The Army offered somewhere I could belong; a home. As we got older, my small circle of friends and I stayed in the forests around our homes more and more often. We all expressed some level of interest in one day being “elite”. It was the eighties. My dad was a Vietnam Veteran. We learned the Ranger Creed and truly tried to understand what it meant; sitting underneath poncho hootches and discussing the meaning of it. This led to more fear for me. Could I live up to what I knew would be expected from a life like the one I wanted?
Even at that young age, I studied sacrifice. I read everything I could get my hands on at the local library about World War Two and Vietnam. I knew that glory and war didn’t necessarily belong together, but words like honor, sacrifice, and service to a cause bigger than myself really mattered. Late at night, I feared what that meant for me. Would I be someone, like the paratroopers I was reading about, who would step up when it mattered? I knew the only way to find out was to commit. I made that decision long before I ever raised my hand and recited the oath of enlistment.
It didn’t take long after I joined to the military to realize that all the fears I had been hiding could actually be useful. I could take the knot that came from not feeling good enough and use it to steer myself towards a purpose. The bureaucracy of the Army had its own plans during the early days of my career and I didn’t initially get to walk the exact path I intended years before. Regardless, I was beginning to use that new found drive to try and be better every single day. We didn’t have intelligent workout programs in the early nineties, we just had GO. Go fast, go hard, and don’t ever quit. I was fast, fit, and studied warfare almost every minute of the day. But there was always fear.
Fear crept in during quiet times to remind me that I was not as fast as some guys within the platoon. I was not as good a shot as another. I was afraid of heights. I ran more; the sound of my feet on roads and trails my attempt to drown doubt. The range became my church. Every single jump, I was afraid and ashamed inside. I didn’t think anyone else was really scared. What could I do? Jump, that’s what. Even when that meant standing on the ramp, seconds away from falling into the dark abyss from 20,000 feet. Jump! Never, ever quit. Always keep moving forward. Keep running, shooting, jumping. Whatever it took.
For me selection was three weeks of fear, though at the time I never would have admitted that to anyone. Even though I had spent ten years in some great Infantry units I was afraid I wouldn’t meet the standard. Would my good be good enough? In the dark hours alone in the woods, I had to take that fear and drive it down. I had to mold that fear into the belly fire I needed to rise above the pain and doubts I saw in the mirror.
They say selection never ends. My success there came with even more fear. Once I arrived on a team I quickly realized that I had to earn my place every single day. Fear of failing my teammates was a daily part of life and in many ways it still is. I got to 3rd Special Forces Group shortly after their first combat deployment. The day I showed up to my team, I was the only one without the coveted Combat Infantryman’s Badge. My entire career, I had looked at men with their CIB with an awe. Combat: they’d seen it. Grenada, Panama, Desert Strom, Somalia and now my team had all seen combat in the opening phase of Afghanistan.
Then it was my turn. I found myself in the back of a dark MH-47 en route to blow down some dude’s door to kill or capture him in some Afghan village. In the darkened helo, I reflected on a life of fear that brought me to that moment. Could I live up to a life’s study of what others had done? Yes. I could. Fear equals drive if you can recognize it and use it. That night was a major junction in my life. It was the beginning of many years of combat. Looking back, I cannot even count how many nights I’ve had just like that; controlling the chaos within myself while controlling the actual chaos all around me. It’s life.
Life is fear whether anyone wants to admit or not. What matters is what you choose to do with it. You can let it win and give up to its dark wish to own you and cause you to fail, or you can move forward in the knowledge that you are unstoppable. I know that I’m afraid. I recognize that I have fear. Hell, I just retired from almost three decades of military service and now I have to figure out the “next”. You think that’s not scary? It fills me with fear at times. But though fear is my constant companion, it will never win. I know that I will never be stopped. I may get hit. I may get knocked back, but I’ll always find a way. Oh, and my circle of childhood friends? Not a single one of them became a commando.
They must’ve been scared.
Jim Thompson was born in a small town in Mississippi. He recently retired after 29 years of military service; 26 of which was Active Duty Infantry and Special Forces.
I used to be able to crank out twenty pull-ups and a nineteen minute 3-mile run while legally drunk. But times change. Pull-ups are now excruciatingly hard, and I now run just a tad over desert-tortoise-speed. If I decide to go all in on a drinking session, I’m terminally ill for three days. But I’m still out there most days, putting one foot in front of the other, just like I did in the glory days. Running has become a form of active nostalgia for me; my own personal space where no one gets to bug me. Not my family, not my work, not the crushing responsibilities normally eating away at me. The dirt roads of Spangle, Washington are a place where the only company I keep are my past selves, and occasionally my Golden Doodle, Joan Didion.
The temperature was below freezing, the sun trying to get as far away from me as possible. Daylight fell into the Palouse horizon as I put on layers and checked batteries in preparation for a night run. I have a pre-run checklist that I’ve put in place over the years, another echo from my time as a knuckle dragger with the grunts of Second Battalion, Third Marines. My list includes function checks on comms (iPhone), PPE (A reflective vest because I’m worried I’m going to get hit by a teenage-girl-driven grain truck), weapon (I run with a small pistol because I’m worried I’m going to be either eaten by a mountain lion, abducted by aliens, or attacked by an Al Qaeda sleeper cell operating in Spangle), and the doggo. Check on all. The doggo comes with me unless she is particularly tired from a day filled with corralling goats and indiscriminately massacring the rodents that surround our country property. On this night, she was well rested, and I could tell she was excited to get out after dark, as if she was getting away with something.
I checked everything and stepped out on the road. The ground was frozen, the beam from my headlamp illuminated millions of ice crystals on the gravel road. Steam followed each breath as I kneeled to attach the leash to the dog collar, my reward a slobbery kiss that smelled like the painful death of a thousand rodents. But Joan’s excitement was contagious. I felt alive as the gravel and ice began to crunch under my feet. It felt good knowing people were sitting on their asses in their warm houses when Joan and I were out getting some.
I decided on no music or podcasts that night, instead focusing on my breath and the rhythmic thump of my feet hitting the gravel. Each night run connects me to my past, an unbreakable rod connecting my late teens and early thirties. Each run brings me to that first time I left friendly lines and stepped out on foot in a war zone. It was the first time in my short life that I actually felt alive.
My squad was the acting Quick Reaction Force for the Forward Operating Base. We were the baby-faced ground pounders tasked with throwing on our gear and running after the midnight grenade throwers that stalked our little corner of Iraq. I had only been on the FOB a couple of days, and all I had done was stand post, which basically meant stand there and sweat in a small wooden box and wait to get either shot or mortared. But for some reason the FOB felt safe, like it was already home. Our little America where the bad things couldn’t get us. It was an absurd notion. Marines would be killed and wounded on the FOB. It was barely safer than the open streets. But there was an electric allure to going outside the wire, and I wanted to feel the current transfer from my boots to my soul.
When we got the wake-up call that it was indeed time to hurry up and get our shit on, I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt like a little kid standing in line at an amusement park. Reality had yet to crush my romanticism, so to me this was all still fun and games, and that’s what it felt like when we left that last hooped strand of concertina wire for our first foot patrol.
We didn’t have enough rifles to arm the weapons platoon Marines now spread throughout the company. Nor were there enough machine guns to give a machine gunner like myself a belt fed beauty to call my own. I carried a borrowed rifle as I followed the point man around the twisting alleys that surrounded the FOB. We were forced to operate a kind of hot rifle, exchanging weapons with Marines who had just gotten back from patrol. It was absurd, but we were all abstracts in an absurdist’s world, and it wouldn’t be until years later that we would all realize how ridiculous our existence was out there on the frontier of the war on terror. So there I was. All dressed up like a GWOT Laura Ingalls, with my Kevlar bonnet fastened, my immaculate combat boots tied tightly, and my borrowed rifle.
We stepped off and abstract became reality. An electric current sparked through my body as we creeped around the base looking for creepers. I was forced to be truly present for the first time in my life. I felt alive. It all felt too natural, like this tension was where humans were supposed to exist, this razor’s edge of life or death. We moved with stealth and speed, at least as much stealth and speed as a clumsy teenager with a hundred pounds of gear and a borrowed rifle could muster. I remember feeling like the boy who had grown up playing G.I. Joe had come full circle.
Nothing happened that night, I’m sure we were too noisy and awkward to sneak up on anyone. Perhaps the boogie man that night was just a shadow moving around in a sleep deprived teenager’s mind when he frantically grabbed his post radio and initiated this little adventure of mine. But I remember the electricity, the surge of excitement as I racked a round into the chamber and things went from pretend with green plastic targets and range rules, to real life bad guys and the laws of combat.
Of course, it’s silly to compare my little night runs to combat patrols, but I can’t help but feel that little spark, that faint jolt of electricity that I used to feel. This is one of the many reasons I continue to put on my running shoes every day. There are the health benefits, but I normally erase most of those benefits with bourbon and BBQ. The hairy yeti that now runs with a designer poodle knock-off is a far cry from the raging 19-year-old machine gunner who survived on hate and cheap booze. But running is my way of introducing the two to each other; my way to get them together so they can make fun of each other. Both parties involved are ridiculous humans, but both have qualities I want to hold on to. One is young and fearless, the other old and riddled with the psychic bullet holes that come when truth collides with youth. Running is their shared medium, their way of speaking through the decade that separates the two.
Ice crystals of snot and moisture cling to my beard. I can see the reflective address on my mailbox. Five miles is coming to an end. I stop at my driveway and unhook Joan’s collar. She bolts away toward the house, tail wagging, barking at nonexistent threats to the homestead. I log my run into my watch and follow the dog, already looking forward to my next run, my next footfall conversation I can have with the young Marine. I smile as I walk, thankful I’m not still that young Marine I used to be, grateful that he ever existed.
Kacy Tellessen served as a machine-gunner with Second Battalion, Third Marines from 2005 to 2009. He lives in Spangle, Wash., with his wife and two children.
When I was in sixth grade, a free-spirited P.E. teacher decided to implement a segment on yoga. It was the early eighties, and our school administration was reluctant to rock the boat of the “all dodgeball—all the time” format, which had been in place since the invention of the red rubber ball. They gave a tentative ok but required that a notice be sent home informing parents of the planned change.
At the emergency PTA meeting that followed, nearly riotous mothers reminded the administration that ours was a good Christian town with solid morals who would not stand for any G.D. attempt to turn its children into Buddhists, or Hari Krishna’s or whatever one became after taking up “that yoga religion.”
I'm not clear on all of the details, but I believe the teacher was run out of town, and it wasn't long before the sweet music of vulcanized rubber on bare thighs and the cries of the wounded filled the gymnasium once more.
My next exposure to yoga wouldn’t come until after a twenty-plus year Marine Corps career spent jumping out of airplanes, diving under the weight of multiple atmospheres, carrying my house on my back, and sleeping on mountainsides, or desert sands with a rock for my pillow, all while ignoring the ankle, knee, hip, back, and shoulder aches and pains that come with the territory.
Yoga wasn't something that hard guys did. Sure, it was probably great for soccer moms and granola-eating mouth breathers, but warfighters need to run fast and lift heavy. A few obligatory deep knee bends before a run, or a couple of shoulder shrugs before jumping on the bench were good enough for the Marines I looked up to, so they were by-god good enough for me.
But after my retirement, I realized I needed to do something. I was too young to hurt the way I did, and I couldn't deal with the thought of living the rest of my life in constant pain. So, I bit the bullet and signed up for a yoga class.
I had no idea what to expect, what to bring, or what to wear. I showed up, found a spot in the back corner, and spent the next hour afraid that I looked as stupid as I felt.
Now I think even the ‘hard guys’ know that yoga would benefit them, but it is ultimately the fear and lack of knowledge that holds back a lot of the guys I’ve talked to. Many are reluctant or simply don't know how to take the first step.
I recently had the chance to talk with Phil, an active-duty soldier who broke his back on a training mission. After weeks on the couch, his wife convinced him to try yoga to help with his debilitating pain. Phil’s experience was much the same as mine, a room full of super flexible ladies in lululemon. He felt awkward, out of place, but by the end of the class, he felt relief.
Phil got into yoga in a big way. He went from attending that first class to going several times a week. He credits his yoga practice with his recovery and ability to continue to serve his country.
Later, while attending a yoga festival, Phil realized that most of the products for sale catered to women. Shortly after, he and his brother started American Yogi with the goal of raising awareness in the veteran community, providing a vehicle for healing, and removing the stigma from men who practice yoga. Over the past several years, American Yogi has grown to the point that Phil now holds his own yoga festival, Om’erica, which has raised thousands for veterans' charities and helped fund yoga instructor training for veterans.
In our conversation, Phil and I talked about the factors that prevent guys from trying yoga, and I thought I'd try to summarize some of that for anyone who may be interested.
I don’t know how to get started.
Admittedly, there are quite a few types of yoga classes ranging from Vinyasa Yoga, which is dynamic flowing meditation, to Restorative Yoga, which holds postures for extended periods and relies on blocks and straps to help support positions, to Hatha Yoga which is somewhere in the middle. Personally, I practice Bikram Yoga at Bones2Skin Yoga in Jacksonville, NC. Bikram consists of a specific series of poses and breathing exercises over a 90-minute class held in a 105-degree room. It’s a workout, but I leave each class feeling better than when I went in. And, more importantly, the back and hip pain I was in physical therapy for, is gone.
The number of studios, classes, and types of yoga can be overwhelming, but fortunately, most studios have single class passes. This means you can try them out cheaply and see if that particular studio or type of class is for you. I would recommend giving a studio a couple of tries at different times with different instructors until you find one you really like.
Don’t eat a big meal before you go
I don’t know what to bring.
As far as gear goes, all you really need is a $20.00 mat to start, although most studios have mats that you can borrow or rent for a small fee. Bring a water bottle. If you are going to a hot yoga class, most people will use a yoga towel on top of their mat to soak up the sweat and improve traction. A beach towel will work. As you settle on a practice that suits you, you’ll get a better idea of what you need or want.
I don’t know what to wear.
Be comfortable – you will be fine in loose shorts and a t-shirt. Make sure your junk isn’t going to pop out. But, if you want to look cool, American Yogi can help with that. They carry a line of badass men’s and women’s yoga clothing and accessories.
I’m not flexible enough.
This is kind of like saying that you're too hungry to eat. Yoga, like any new skill, takes time to develop, and you can't improve without practice and patience. As my instructor, Jamey DeMyer, says, "It's a practice, and there is always another class and another opportunity." Just showing up is a step in the right direction. I have been amazed at how quickly my lower back strength and flexibility have improved and how much better my quality of life is because of it.
I don’t want to be the only guy in class.
I can’t guarantee that you won’t, but thanks to Phil and others who are working to remove the stigma around guys, and particularly military guys, from participating in yoga, there are more men than ever attending classes, and even in the classes where I have been the only guy I have always felt welcomed.
Something that should go without saying pertaining to being a guy in a yoga class:
While I can’t speak for them, I have it on pretty good authority that women go to a yoga class to practice yoga, not to be stared at by sweaty guys who don’t know their ass from their asana. As with all things in life, don’t be a dick. Be polite, be respectful, and you will be accepted and welcomed.
I don’t know if yoga is compatible with my training plan.
I have found the increased flexibility has not only addressed a lot of the nagging pains that I had been living with, but since I have been practicing regularly, I feel that my running has improved, I recover faster after strength training sessions, and I have strengthened areas that my gym workouts were not addressing, especially the lower back.
I’m afraid of looking like a jackass.
The pressure is all you. It isn’t a competition. Really. Take it from me, a guy for whom everything is a competition. When I go out for a run, I am racing everyone I meet whether they know it or not. I tried to do the same with yoga: Am I more flexible that the guy next to me? Can I hold a pose longer? But once I finally realized the futility in measuring myself using someone else’s yardstick, I learned to let that go. When I let go of competition I was also letting go of expectations and preconceptions. I suddenly found myself able to actually focus on my body and how it feels. With that comes a sense of peace that I had not previously experienced.
It’s good for more than the body
Ultimately yoga is about quieting the mind just as much as it is about strengthening the body. This is definitely an aspect of the practice I find beneficial and one that I think guys and especially military guys and veterans could use help with. Often, we are so busy with work, family, and training that we aren't able to take the time to slow down and process the things that bother us or keep us up at night. The goal of a yoga class is to be completely present in the class. Learning to do that builds the ability to deepen focus. That can be used after class to isolate one of the million things swimming around in your head and hold on to it long enough to evaluate it for what it is. Then you can make the choice to release it if possible or take action on it if required. Either way it has been addressed.
Although I wish I had started practicing a long time ago, I’ve learned to focus on the now and realize that as someone smarter than me said, “You don’t practice yoga to get better at yoga, you practice yoga to get better at life.”
SOFLETE Goon Doug gets schooled by Registered Dietician Nutritionist Brooke West on a great, easy, high performance recipe straight from the SOFLETE meal plan. You should cook it tonight. And next week. It's really good.
And so it begins.
It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last. You’re only halfway home and you’re deep into mid-deployment fatalism.
It’s important you do everything the same way. Preparing for combat or making coffee, the process is almost as important as the product. The process is one of the few things you can absolutely control. Control is important when you may be zipped into a bag within a few hours. Standard Operating Procedures keep you alive. They make the little things easier when the big things don’t go as you planned. Ignore that truth and people might die. Timelines keep you moving. They ensure everyone is in the right place to do the right thing at the right time. Ignore that truth and people might die.
There are a lot of ways to die here; mines, IEDs, snipers, rockets, ambushes, close-quarters fights. Ignore that truth and people will die.
Your Platoon Sergeant quietly wakes the Marines, according to the timeline you published. You put on a tan polypropylene shirt against the night chill and pull on your desert camouflage pants. Now boots, your name and blood type inked on their tops in case you get hit. Some guys tattoo that information on their ribs. They call it a “meat tag”. Extra precautions taken to ensure Doc will push the right blood to fill flattened veins or bag the correct foot with the correct torso if it comes to that. You tuck your shirt into your pants to keep the tail from obstructing something you might need. A gunbelt with a pistol tightens around your waist. Armored vest over your head, secured by zippers and heavy-duty velcro. Now check your magazines. Eight loaded with twenty-eight rounds apiece. Tighten loose gear. Check weapons. The click-clack of bolts cycling in carbines sounds like Dante’s typing class. Oil the slide of your pistol. Not too much or the desert dust will grab the oil and foul the weapon when you need it most. You pull the feeder springs out of the pistol magazines and stretch them. Fail to do this and the mags turn into something like PEZ dispensers from which rounds won’t feed forcefully enough and they will fail you. Practice dropping your carbine and drawing your pistol, the single point sling ensures the carbine falls to the center of your body; out of the way so you can bring the pistol up and fight till you get the carbine back in action. It feels like a lie you’re telling yourself.
The bullshitting is always heavy before you go because talking and laughing beats considering the options. If you’re scared, say you’re scared. I’m not scared, you’re scared. The music starts. The volume comes up on the same words as last time. Marines are getting hyped now; you’re warming to your work. Coheed and Cambria’s “A Favorhouse Atlantic” is followed by Type O Negative’s “Black No. 1”, it’s on the playlist in honor of a goth stripper in Jacksonville, N.C. Then Smile Empty Soul’s singer croons “This is War”. It’s a song whose lyrics speak a truth that distills your current existence too accurately, but you have to listen because when it comes on, you know it’s time to go. It’s all part of the process;
“I’m just a normal man, I wouldn’t hurt nothing at all, but here we are
Our leaders have a plan, I’d only kill if it’s for them, now here we are
I drove in a car, flew in a plane, to come to your house and kick your door in,
Now it’s down to this, it’s just you and me,
I’ll blow your fucking head off… for my country…”
Of course, you would hurt something. Here you are. It’s what you do. This is what you signed up for. Other people are here to put this place back together. You’re here to move to contact, to meet and engage the enemy, whoever that is. No one seems completely clear on that. You “kill or capture.” Or at least you did until that was considered impolitic and now you just “capture”. Unless that becomes impossible, in which case you just “kill.” It’s part of the process.
You stop by the operations center to report that you are ready to depart. It’s always jarring to walk in the tent. So well-lit, white walls glaring back as if demanding to know why you’re not already outside the wire. You pass the list of who’s leaving, you call it a kill sheet; “1/24/2 departing friendly lines.” That’s 1 Marine officer, 24 Marine enlisted, and 2 Sailors stepping out to do what you came for. There is no front out there, no demarcation between good and bad, safe or dangerous. It’s all bad guy land and all good guy land and none of it is your land.
The Platoon Sergeant has the trucks lined up, ready to go. Machine guns are hung and lubricated. Ammunition is staged and ready to cycle into chambers. Gas and water and plastic explosive are in each truck. You’re ready if this takes longer than anticipated. Everyone has seen Black Hawk Down and you won’t be caught out like that.
You walk the line of trucks. Stop and talk to the boys if there is time, move right to your truck if there isn’t. Heavy weapon up front. Your truck the lead; always the lead. Don’t think about it, just do it. Ignore the fact that you will be the first into the ambush, the minefield, the killzone. It’s armored anyway. You feel guilty about that. Two trucks back, nine of the boys are riding in what you call the “ladder truck.” It has little armor and an open back, like a pickup. You came to this war with what you had. Thank you, Mr. Rumsfeld.
You get in your truck. You check with the gunner, the driver, the radio operator in the back to see if everyone is ready. Tone of voice tells you a lot. Sometimes it’s chipper, like you’re all heading to a tailgate party. Sometimes the voices from the darkness just sound resigned. When you get the word that your crew is ready, you call the Platoon Sergeant on your radio, saying, “Dagger Eight Zero, this is Dagger Eight, Vehicle One is up.”
He calls the rest of the vehicles and they reply in sequential order. “Two’s Up…Three’s Up…Four’s up…Five’s Up.” You move to the clearing barrels and load weapons. Crew served machine guns, personal carbines, then pistols. You move back to the vehicles. Check your weapons one more time. You slide the bolt back a hair and check the chamber of your carbine, a nervous tic that ensures there’s a round in there, then you let the bolt ride home and tap the forward assist. Wait while someone takes a last nervous piss. Maybe it’s you. It’s all Ares’ version of watch, wallet, keys. It’s the process.
The Platoon Sergeant comes over the radio, “Dagger Eight, this is Eight Zero…I have five victors with 1/24/2.” You reply, “Roger, Eight Zero. I copy 1/24/2” and tell the radio operator to report the same to headquarters to let them know you’re headed out. The numbers matter. You repeat them like a mantra; carry them as totem against the chance you could lose one, leave a Marine behind in a moment of chaos. It’s the process.
The inside of the gate has “Good Luck” spray painted on it. You always laugh at that. It feels like a “Fuck You” said through a smile. The guards open the gate, you weave your way out of the blast barriers, and you’re all alone together, relying on the process to minimize the variables and maximize your chances in the most dangerous place on earth.
Jumping into some of the best drop zones on Earth. Dancing in mid-air in wind tunnels around the world while calling it “practice.” Getting paid to have an experience that people typically shell out hundreds of bucks for. It seems like a dream gig for many people. For the five members of Arizona Airspeed, the Casa Grande, Arizona-based competitive skydiving team, that dream is their reality.
And though the team itself has been around for nearly three decades, the current iteration of Arizona Airspeed (jumpers Niklas Hemlin, Mikhail Markine, Joey Marshall and Christopher Kuhlmann and cameraman David French) have only been jumping together for a few months. Still, that hasn’t stopped them from becoming of the most successful and talented teams in the world in the realm of competitive skydiving.
I recently spoke with Hemlin, Markine, and Marshall upon their return from a competition in Spain that found them finishing second only to a Belgian team that is considered by many to be the best on Earth.
Give me a bit of background behind the team, how everyone came together, your history in a few hundred words or less.
Niklas Hemlin - The team, Arizona Airspeed, dates back to 1993. So the team has had a lot of different lineups over the years. On average, the lineups stay together for about four years, and this new lineup just came together on December 3. So we have about two months together. We just went to Spain for our first competition together, and we took second, which is pretty good. The team that beat us was the current world champions, Belgium.
What does a “lineup” consist of? Three jumpers and a cameraperson?
N.H. - No. It’s four people doing formations; it’s called Four-Way. The fifth member is the cameraman who jumps with us to document the skydive during the outdoor season. He then hands the video over to the judges. But for the indoor season, the judges are there in the room with you.
And what exactly are these competitions scored on? Formations? Difficulty? Some amalgam of everything?
N.H. - It’s formations. So you have a sequence of five or six formations, and you do those over and over again. You perform as many as you can within thirty-five seconds in the wind tunnel. That timeline is about what you need jumping from 10,500 feet to be able to do the formations and then pull your parachute safely.
Every team competing is doing the same formations?
N.H. - Yeah. We do ten different rounds, and every round has a particular sequence.
When you say a “round,” you mean one jump?
N.H. - Yeah, exactly.
What is the process of your average competition?
N.H. - We have about six competitions this year, all but two are overseas. We travel out a week in advance, train when we arrive on the site, adjust to the new time zone, the new environment. We like to go about seven-to-ten days before the competition. Then a competition lasts anywhere from three to five days, depending on the format.
Right now, we’re in the indoor season, so all of this is happening in the wind tunnel.
So rather than a freefall, you just get in the wind tunnel and have thirty to forty-five seconds to do these formations?
N.H. - Yes. They model it after freefall. So you climb into the door frame, and then as soon as we jump in, the first foot that leaves the frame, the time starts, just like from an airplane. The wind tunnels have live-judging, with a lot of people around watching. It’s more of a spectacle than freefall. In freefall, the only witness is your cameraman.
And are the competitions cumulative? Or are these independent events?
Joey Marshall - Most of them are independent events. The only ones that are tied together are national championships in each particular country. Those qualify a certain number of teams to be eligible for the World Championships or World Cup. Otherwise, everything else is entirely independent of each other.
N.H. - And the seasons are kind of driven by the Northern Hemisphere. Europe and the U.S. determine which is the indoor season and which is the outdoor season.
How did each of you get into this sport?
N.H. - Born and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden. I immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, and I started skydiving when I was fifteen in 1994. I really wanted to make a career out of it just being a young kid skydiving. I’ve been skydiving full-time ever since 1996. I joined Arizona Airspeed in 2010.
Mikhail Markine - I was born in Moscow. I immigrated to Canada while growing up and then eventually to the U.S. I started off working as an engineer in Silicon Valley. As I worked my way up, I was skydiving recreationally. Eventually left my engineering to pursue skydiving full-time.
J.M. - I was born here in the States in San Diego. I was a Navy brat, moving around a lot. After graduating from college, I moved to New York to do software like Mikhail. I got into skydiving there, and that’s where I met Chris Kuhlmann. We grew up in the sport recreationally in New York, and we were being coached by Nik here for the last four years. We just joined the team two months ago. We decided to do this professionally, quit our jobs, sold our stuff, and moved from New York to Casa Grande, Arizona.
When you say you’re doing it professionally, what does that entail? I’m assuming there are competition winnings, but where is the bulk of your sustenance generated?
N.H. - Sponsorships and coaching. It’s not like we’re raking in the money, but sponsorships come from manufacturers, from drop zones. Our model is 100% sponsorship-based. We get free gear, free jumps, and some cash to make this thing happen. But most of our supplementary income comes from teaching within the sport.
MM - With a company like ERA3, we have a very new relationship with them. We got connected with them through George (Reuter) from Firebird, which is a parachute harness system.
J.M. - And Sterling Becklin from ERA3 is a jumper and an avid skydiving enthusiast. We met him personally here at Skydive Arizona.
So ERA3 is outfitting you?
N.H. - As of right now, we’re just forming that relationship. When we went to Spain, we had our helmets wrapped in their E3D design. I have a set of helmets that they’re going to dip. But we’re getting in a relationship with Firebird, who has a great relationship with ERA3, whom we had a relationship with before.
How did the process of putting the team together? Did Joey and Chris know the other guys before joining the team, or was it just like, “Here are these dudes you’re going to be jumping out of planes with for a living. Go figure out some chemistry.”
MM - Every generation, every lineup in a way, takes care of its succession. So over the twenty-something years, any time someone plans to leave, the team starts recruiting new people to fill the gaps. But the community at the top level of the sport is small, so we do kind of know everybody. We see who’s in the community, and we observe talent. In our case, Nik had firsthand experience working with Joey and Chris before they became candidates.
N.H. - We had maybe eight names on our list, reached out to all of them, did like a screening, see who would be interested in making the sacrifices we need to make. So from those eight, we had six. And from there, you see about the chemistry you have.
For practical purposes, I’m assuming you’re practicing more in wind tunnels than jumping out of planes?
MM - Yeah. If you think about how much time we have in freefall and we can only jump twelve or fourteen times a day. On a great day, we can get ten-to-fifteen minutes of freefall time as a team. In comparison, the wind tunnel can give us an hour, an hour-and-a-half of freefall time in a day. So as a training tool to get repetition in, the wind tunnel is a huge asset.
Because of that, do you prefer the indoor season? Or does each come with its own set of challenges?
J.M. - I think that as skydivers, our heart is first and foremost in the sky. When it comes to competition, the outdoor competition, especially at the world level, is more prestigious in a sense. We aspire to win an FAI Outdoor World meet. Yes, we do use the tunnel heavily. But at the end of the day, we’re doing this to win an outdoor competition.
How much time do you guys get to devote to just skydiving for yourselves? Is that something you’ve had to put on the back burner in pursuit of this competitive goal?
MM - It’s super hard to find free time to go around and goof off. We do have some from time to time. We have a demonstration day for an animal shelter here in Arizona. We just show up and goof off, make five jumps, show kids how to pack a parachute. But ultimately, we compete for a hundred to a hundred and twenty days a year and fill the rest of our time with our coaching work. The sponsors help financially, but to eat, we have to coach.
Tell me about the makeup of the world stage. Where are most teams coming out of? How many are coming out of the U.S.?
N.H. - The three most significant communities in the world are the United States, England, and France. Those are the three major players. But as for skydiving itself, there is no bigger community than in the U.S., And there is no bigger indoor community than Europe, as they have much more access to wind tunnels.
Why is that? Is it cultural? Geographical? Why is the jumping community more robust here?
J.M. - That’s a complicated question with a couple of factors. If you take the U.K. and France, you probably have better weather in all of the U.S. than in those places. Also, it comes down to where the biggest drop zones are, whether they’re privately owned or using public infrastructure. On the wind tunnel side, it has to do with the market. In the U.S., there’s only one company that does most of the tunnels here. Over in Europe, there is a lot more market competition as far as people who own the tunnels. So that drives the environment.
Are these tunnels available commercially, or are they privy only to the pros?
N.H. - All of the tunnels are available to anyone. You can take your kid and fly in there right now.
Which means you have to practice off-hours?
N.H. - So the tunnels make more money off first-time flyers. People and their kids are looking for an experience. That makes more money than when we block it off per hour. But we train during the week, during the workday when people are at work or school. But the tunnel sponsors us to train there, and in turn, we outsource a lot of tunnel time to other skydivers. That’s a lot of extra hours that we’re giving to the tunnels, so in the end, it makes sense to have our training there.
Do you know the formations you’re going to be asked to perform beforehand? Or do you find out when you’re on sight?
N.H. - So every two years, the IPC—International Parachute Commission or whatever they’re called—give you a dive pool of thirty-eight specific formations that don’t change over those two years. So they draw then each round out of that hat of thirty-eight. You know the formations, you just don’t know which order they’ll come out.
So when you’re practicing, you’re just running everything as much as possible.
N.H. - Exactly. But there can be over two million combinations of formations, so there’s always a bit of a surprise.
Is your cameraman practicing with you?
N.H. - Indoor, no. It’s just the four of us. But when we’re jumping out of planes, absolutely. The cameraman is the goalie of sorts when we’re jumping out of a plane. If he makes a mistake and we don’t have it on video, the whole team suffers.
What are your plans for the near and further future?
N.H. - Right now, we’re decompressing from the competition we just did in Spain. Still, we have to jump right back on the horse here in a week to get ready for the Indoor U.S. Nationals, which is going to be held at Paraclete XP in Fayetteville, North Carolina. That’s a significant hub for skydiving because it’s right next to Fort Bragg. After that, the next big competition is in Bedford, England, just north of London. That is the biggest tunnel competition by volume in the world. And then the fourth and final indoor competition is in Belgium in mid-April. That’ll crown the World Cup Champion. After that, we’ll have three outdoor competitions, which ends in November with the U.S. Nationals in Florida.
A few months ago, I found myself doing something I never anticipated: after six years of active duty, I left the Marine Corps infantry. Everyone I knew was shocked. Peers, friends, and leaders said, “I always thought you were a lifer!”. I would be lying if I said they were wrong. I even submitted a commissioning package before deciding to get out, but something just didn’t seem right about the timing.
I was on the yellow footprints at MCRD San Diego exactly 10 days after my high school graduation. I had spent my ENTIRE adult life in the Marine Corps. After six years, I checked nearly every box I set out to when I started. I liked the people I got to work with, and loved teaching Marines, from marksmanship to hand to hand combat. But something was eating at me. Did I really like the job, or was it simply all I had ever known? Somehow, I had almost as much gray hair as Doug at the age of 24, so I jumped ship.
Many people try to detach entirely from the military and relax after active service. That wasn’t for me. After 3 weeks enjoying terminal leave in Texas and reuniting with old friends, I was restless. I had spent the last six years having the speed of my life throttled up by the Marine Corps. The last thing I felt like doing was slowing down. If anything, now was the time to shift to fifth gear. But I did not know where should I jump next.
Law enforcement was not the answer. As the son of two state troopers, I have an incredible amount of respect for police officers. Their job becomes more difficult with each passing year and they are faced with decisions that burden them daily. But I’ve never been one to obey the rules, much less enforce them, and have been informed on more than one occasion by my leadership that I have an “attitude problem.”
I also considered a stint in the National Guard, but decided against that as well. Nothing against the organization, but I can’t quite bring myself to completely cut ties with my beloved Corps. I drank way too much Kool Aid and the Ghost of Chesty Puller would never look me in the eyes again if I switched branches.
I still wanted to be among men of action though, and I still wanted to serve my community. So the logical choice was firefighting. Yet a four month academy seemed like far too long to wait to start working. Were there other options?
Thus began my journey into the world of wildland firefighting. I wasn’t completely new to it. As a native of Arizona, I remember being a kid when the whole state had memorial services for the nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished in the Yarnell Hill tragedy. I didn’t hear about it again until seeing the movie “Only the Brave” on the plane ride home from Afghanistan. That film immediately lit a spark in me. If I was going to be a civilian, that was the job I wanted to do.
Unfortunately, I EASed in September, just as the fire season was winding down. I would have to wait at least 6 months before the next one. I had a job lined up for the next year, and was working one in Texas, but this was something I wanted to pursue now. How could I do that? A few quick job searches in my home state answered that question.
I discovered Conservation Legacy, an organization that did project work to preserve national parks and forests and historical sites across the country . After digging through their site for a bit, I discovered they had a veteran’s fire crew program, designed to get you the certifications required to give you a leg up in getting into the wildland fire world. Conservation Legacy also provides some experience doing some fire prevention projects and possibly some prescribed burns. More than that, you get to work on an all vet crew, admittedly for minimal pay but you get an education award if you complete any of their terms of service, a nice kicker for those looking to maximize their GI Bill and still get other certifications. It would almost be like I never left the military. How could I turn that down?
The job posting dates indicated that the season would start in three days, but I decided to apply anyway. What could it hurt? Two days later, I got a phone call saying that if I could get to the office in Tucson the following afternoon, I would have a spot on the crew. I could have said no and stuck with the work I already had lined up, but does that sound like the “Die Living” ethos to you? I threw everything I owned in my truck, and made the 13-hour overnight drive back to my home state.
After a week and a half of chainsaw training and fire classes, I was off to work, if you can call it work. Aside from your tent and field essentials (remember your baby wipes!), everything, from your food to the training, is covered through the organization.
I was having the time of my life; camping outside, enjoying the beauty of northern Arizona, chopping down trees like a lumberjack, putting all those workout programs to good use carrying logs and running a saw all day, all with an amazing group of people. On the crew, we had a National Guard combat engineer who quickly proved himself to be one of the toughest men I’ve ever met, an Army infantryman from upstate NY, and someone who had hiked the Appalachian Trail and intended to hike the Arizona trail upon completion of the season. As a bonus, one of the Forest Service permanent fire technicians also happened to be a former Marine grunt who had been at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in 29 Palms on 9/11.
While the characters that I ran into through this program were incredible individuals, the primary benefit was gaining the necessary certifications and work experience required to get onto a wildland fire crew with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or any of the other agencies that work to suppress and prevent wildfires in our country. Conservation Legacy is also an excellent opportunity to expand your network within them, as most of the projects are run by those agencies. Fast forward six weeks, and not only do I have all of those certifications, but a Hotshot crew was calling to offer me a spot for the following season.
An additional benefit is that you get to protect and preserve the outdoors that we all enjoy. Conservation Legacy has a policy of “leaving no trace” of their presence when out and about, and works to help prevent their share of hazards without being too invasive. Their mission to complete conservation and community projects for the public benefit seems to be a perfect fit for individuals in the SOFLETE family. And if you are not prior service, don’t worry. Civilians can get positions on chainsaw only crews, or as veteran crew leaders (so we don’t try to fight each other with the tools).
My experience with Conservation Legacy has definitely been a positive one. I wanted to share it because, astoundingly, many veterans have no idea that it exists, or about the ease of transition from the military to the Forest Service. This is a prime example of a program you can use to get to where you want to be in life. The work that we did was gratifying and the networking opportunities were definitely worth it. Veterans looking for purpose can use programs like this to get where they want to be. Don’t wait. Time is a finite thing and it should not be wasted waiting for opportunities to come to your door. There’s no dotted line to sign. You can try this term out, work a few fire seasons, or make a new career out of it. Don’t let opportunities that will give you valuable life experiences pass you by. Jump into them full speed, get out of your comfort zone, and die living.
Frank Gonzales is an avid practitioner of Jiu Jitsu, a mediocre endurance athlete, and a connoisseur of fast food. He has spent most of his life being told he "doesn't look Mexican", but knows exactly where the best street tacos are everywhere he goes. He has been a Marine infantryman, a conservation Corps fire crew member, and a ditch digger in Mexico. In his spare time, he rereads "Gates of Fire" and hikes through the wilderness of southern Arizona.
If you keep up with the ever changing diet trends, you’ve probably heard of the nutrition documentary The Game Changers. Through promoting vegan diets, particularly for active health-minded individuals, the filmmakers often refer to vegetarian and vegan diets or plant-based diets as if they are all interchangeable. But at the documentary's core, it’s vegan propaganda. The director of the film even admitted in an interview after the films release that they kept using the word ‘plant-based’ because it’s a more palatable way to say veganism and would not turn people off essentially. The film goes through claims ranging from you should love animals to animal farming is destroying the planet to animal products will kill you (most of which is based on bunk science or misrepresented scientific studies).
In fact, to refer to The Game Changers as a documentary is probably a bit generous. As a Registered Dietitian, it is always extremely frustrating to watch food and nutrition documentaries that present a whole lot of half truths, misleading generalizations, and sometimes flat out lies.
I’m not going to debunk peanut butter sandwich sizes versus steak portions or attack the gross amount of anecdotal evidence by handpicked vegan athletes. Honestly, anyone who is semi-familiar with the UFC or who possesses a basic level of common sense knows that Nate Diaz didn’t beat Conner McGregor because he passed on the steak entree. But here I am- trying to defend science, with well... science.
I want to start by acknowledging vegan and vegetarian diets can offer healthy, balanced and nutrient-dense eating patterns when appropriately planned, even for athletes with increased energy and macronutrient demands. I also want to point out that everyone should be eating a diet heavy in plants that should include a variety of raw and cooked fruits and vegetables. Is there a superior diet? I think so. But the majority of you may be surprised to hear that it doesn’t involved extreme eating patterns eliminating entire food or macronutrient groups.
Let’s dive into a few of the points discussed in the film and you can decide for yourself.
1: Gladiators ate a predominantly vegetarian diet.
The Game Changers start their argument against the consumption of animal products by stating that Roman gladiators ate mostly a vegetarian diet. So if it was good enough for gladiators, it should be good enough for you, too. The film references a 2008 article published by the Archaeological Institute of America. This article is not a scientific study but discusses research and findings that were being conducted and then later published in 2014 examining stable isotopes and trace elements in the bones of gladiators and locals from a gravesite in Ephesus. The study reported results from forty sets of bones, twenty of which were determined to be gladiators. By examining the different levels of carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, calcium and strontium in the bone, researchers were able to glean insight on what the eating patterns may have been for these individuals.
Historical texts indicate that the Roman diet was nutritionally diverse and related to hierarchical ranking in society. Gladiators were mostly slaves and prisoners (though there were also volunteer gladiators that went to a training school and would take their education into the arena with a much higher probability of success instead of sudden death). The results of the testing revealed that staple foods were wheat and/or barely. This is in line with the nickname found in ancient texts of barely eaters (hordearii), which was meant to be a derogatory term. What the bones also indicated, which wasn’t highlighted in the film, was that the nitrogen levels in the bone indicate some consumption of meat and dairy products. Some of the bones found at this gravesite had a higher sulphur content indicating that seafood was also a staple in the diet. It is believed that these individuals migrated to Ephesus from other geographical locations.
This study’s findings indicate that gladiators from this region ate a mixed diet that most likely including barely, legumes, vegetables, meat and dairy. There is also some evidence that plant ash (what we now call culinary spices) were consumed as teas or beverages and supplemented the diet with calcium. Other gravesites have since been uncovered in Thebes which show seafood played a larger role in their diet. It appears gladiators ate what was accessible and offered to them based on their social ranking. Their diet included lots of plant-based foods, along with some animal products. A balanced diet—such a novel idea.
2: When we sacrifice carbohydrate calories for protein calories in our diet, what ends up happening is we will develop really chronic carbohydrate or glycogen depletion.
Let’s clarify. An adequate or even high protein diet is not synonymous with a low carbohydrate diet. I want to start to dissect this point with a little breakdown in basic metabolic nutrition.
Glycogen, in the simplest terms, is stored carbohydrates. Adequate carbohydrate stores are important for physical activity ranging from high-intensity interval training to ultra-endurance racing. The body stores carbohydrates as muscle glycogen, liver glycogen and blood glucose. Each of these stores can hold additional energy for us to access as needed. Below are some rough estimates that will vary from person to person, but I just want to give you an idea about just how much energy your body can get from adequate stores.
Muscle glycogen 1,200- 1,600 calories
Liver glycogen 300-400 calories
Blood glucose 20 calories
TOTAL 1,520-2020 calories
That is a lot of energy stored in your body thanks to carbs that can be utilized for optimal performance. Low carbohydrate availability can lead to reduced muscle glycogen stores and may result in decreased athletic performance, compromised immune function and muscle protein breakdown. So one thing we can agree on here is carbohydrates and glycogen play an important role in achieving peak human performance. However (and this is a big however), the consumption of animal products for protein will not decrease your glycogen stores. In fact, consumption of protein in any form will not decrease your glycogen stores.
What will lower your glycogen stores are very low carbohydrate diets that are not appropriately planned for your needs and activity level.
3: Where did all the protein you get when you eat a steak or a hamburger come from? It came from the plants that the cow ate.
The film is trying to prove that you don’t need animal protein to be big and strong and they would be correct but with an extremely flawed argument. If you ate the grass a cow ate as your source of protein, you would be in serious trouble. Cows can extract nutrients from food that other animals and humans cannot digest thanks to their four-compartment stomachs. Cows can eat things like seed coats, shells and stems. Cows also have the bacteria in the rumen to assist with the digestion of food that make them capable of thriving on plant-by-products.
4: That every single plant contains all the essential amino acids in varying proportions.
This misleading statement cited a study from 1994. After reviewing the literature, I still don’t know how the producers of this documentary came to this conclusion.
The commonly highlighted (possible) problem with plant proteins is that most of them are considered “incomplete” proteins. This phrase, incomplete proteins, is referring to the fact that one or more of the nine essential amino acids are not present. The essential amino acids are the ones that cannot be made by the body so it is important that we get them from food.
However, this potential problem with plant proteins can be avoided by eating a variety of plant protein sources throughout your day. It was previously believed that you need to have complementary protein sources paired at each meal to make sure you get all essential amino acids. Thanks to newer research, we now know that as long as you are thinking big picture throughout your week and varying protein sources, you are good to go.
So yes, you can get all your essential amino acids from plant sources but you will need to vary those sources to make sure you get a complete adequate amount. The other issues with plant protein sources you may commonly hear about are the protein quality and digestibility.
It was previously believed that vegetarians needed to have a higher protein intake amount compared to omnivores due to the lower digestibility of plant proteins. However, with variety in your diet and plant protein sources you can avoid this potential problem as well. For example, if you are only eating legumes and cereal grains which have difficulty digesting plant proteins you may need to eat at the suggested 10% high protein recommendation compared to omnivores. But add some variety like soy protein which is more readily digestible and you will most likely be meeting your protein needs.
5: “Suddenly it all made sense. The reason an animal based diet isn’t good for us is because our bodies aren’t built for it. It’s simply the wrong type of fuel.”
Final Food for Thought
The Game Changers did an excellent job playing to emotions with arguments like plant-based burritos increase length and size of male erections but that doesn’t mean we should demonize animal products and disregard breadths of scientific evidence. There were so many silly false claims and misrepresented science, it was hard to stomach.
I want to highlight that you can be a vegetarian or vegan athlete and encourage you to check out this helpful article to plan a nutritionally balanced diet. My point in all this is- you have a choice in what you eat, BUT do not base your decision on lies or shame others who choose a different eating pattern. You can have a healthy diet with animal products or without. Each requires balance, and some thoughtfulness in how they are executed to be nutrient dense and adequate for your own individual needs.
Karpinski C, Rosenbloom C. Sports Nutrition: A Handbook For Professionals. 6th ed. Chicago: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2017.
http://pilarmartinescudero.es/Ene2018/Plan protein in relation to human protein .pdf
On September 19, 1991, German tourists Helmut and Erika Simon were hiking in the Öttzal Alps along the Italian-Austrian border when they came across a sight that would help define human history. Walking off-path, the pair came across a corpse they believed to be of a recently deceased mountaineer. Little did they know, they had stumbled upon the nearly five-thousand-year-old mummified body of what would soon become known as “Ötzi the Iceman” or, more simply, Ötzi.
Three days after the discovery, Ötzi was removed from his icy tomb and moved to nearby Innsbruck University, where his corpse would be extensively examined, x-rayed, and dated for years to come. Thanks to the location of his death and the ice in which the corpse was encased for thousands of years, Ötzi’s relative lack of decomposition made him an ideal subject for study.
Using modern technology and research methods, researchers have surmised that Ötzi was roughly five-foot-three and around one-hundred-and-ten pounds when he died, around age forty-five. After analyzing pollen, dust grains and the isotopic compound of his tooth enamel, it was theorized that Ötzi spent his childhood near the current village of Feldthurns in South Tyrol. Later in life, he may have lived upwards of fifty kilometers north of where he grew up.
Analysis of his stomach found traces of ibex meat, suggesting that he had a meal less than two hours before his death. Additionally, scientists discovered chamois and red deer meat, herb bread, roots and fruit in Ötzi’s stomach. Examination of his hair offered deeper insight into the regular diet of Ötzi and people of his era. The presence of wheat and legumes, both domesticated crops, and their state of degeneration led scientists to place the time of Ötzi’s death around spring or early summer.
Thanks to copper particles found in Ötzi’s hair, along with a copper axe blade found nearby, led scientists to believe that Ötzi was involved with copper smelting. However, this claim was disputed after an examination of his leg bones proved Ötzi was subject to long walks over hilly terrain, possibly proving that he was a shepherd of some kind.
Upon examining his skin, researchers discovered that Ötzi had sixty-one tattoos, which are believed to be related to some sort of pain treatment similar to acupuncture.
For a decade after his discovery, researchers were unsure of Ötzi’s cause of death. Initially believed to have died from exposure, scientists later speculated that it was more likely Ötzi was the subject of ritual sacrifice. In 2001, x-rays and a CT scan revealed an arrowhead lodged in Ötzi’s shoulder along with a matching tear in his coat. Further research found trauma, bruises and cuts on his hands, wrists, chest and head. Recent DNA analysis revealed blood from at least four other people on Ötzi’s gear.
Whatever the cause of death, contents of his stomach or genetic makeup of his hair, Ötzi has provided a window into human history like no other discovery before or since.
Growing up, anytime I prefaced a statement with, “I wish,” my mother always replied, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” I found it annoying. Later in life, after joining the Marine Corps, my Platoon Sergeant expressed the same sentiment differently, “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up first.”
This is what most people do each December when they lay out a laundry list of resolutions for the new year, make wishes. To turn those wishes into actions, a plan is needed. It's like wishing to go to the mountains without any thought about how to get there, or without a map or supplies.
The most often made resolutions are to "get into shape" or "lose weight," and not surprisingly, these are the same wishes that are made by the same people year after year. It reminds me of the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat when she asks, ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the cat.
‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the cat.
If we hope to achieve a different result than we have in the past, we can't continue to do the same things we have always done. The first step is to determine where you want to be. If instead of wishing to go to the mountains, I make the decision to go to Mt. Mitchell, I can locate it on the map. I can determine how far I am from Mt. Mitchell and develop a plan to get there, I can decide what I will need for the journey and how long it should take.
Arriving at the top of Mt. Mitchell is my ultimate goal. It is a concrete location. Instead of ‘running more,’ it is, ‘completing a marathon in under 4 hours during 2020. Instead of ‘losing weight,’ it is, ‘being able to comfortably wear size 34 waist pants without the button popping off. Instead of ‘start writing,’ it is complete a full-length manuscript, proofread, and ready to submit.
Once the ultimate goal is clarified and defined, it becomes easy to create checkpoints on a map between where you are and where you are headed. These checkpoints are intermediate goals. Intermediate goals allow us to break the journey down into manageable chunks. Without them, the idea of undertaking the trip can easily overwhelm. The most effective way to do this is to use the acronym S.M.A.R.T. and write the goals down on paper and post them where you will see them. Read them every day and recommit yourself to taking the actions necessary to achieve them.
Specific- What specifically do you want to do? Bench 300 lbs., play the guitar well enough to join a band, complete a 5k in under 30 minutes? Once you have decided what it is, not only can you plan, but you can begin to visualize yourself completing your goal, and visualization is an incredibly powerful tool. See yourself being successful.
Measurable- Benching 300 lbs. is pretty measurable. You can or you can't. Other goals, like learning a foreign language, can be a little harder to define. Maybe it is completing a language course, or learning a certain number of words, or being able to follow a news report in the language. You will need to determine your measuring stick in order to know when you’ve reached your destination.
Achievable- Goals should be a little scary. They need to push us farther than we are comfortable reaching. Otherwise, the payoff isn't worth it. But at the same time, we have to face facts. I can establish a goal to play in the NBA, but I'm five-foot-seven, fifty-years-old, and have the vertical leap of a toddler wearing ankle weights. It isn’t going to happen.
Achievable can also help identify other requirements that have to be met for us to begin pursuing the goal. If I want to start blacksmithing but don't have any of the necessary equipment, I may need to establish a money-saving goal to buy what I need and read all I can about blacksmithing in the meantime.
Relevant- Intermediate goals need to be aligned with the final goal, just like our checkpoints have to connect the dots from our location to our destination. This can also be an incredibly powerful tool in determining how we spend our time. You should be able to ask yourself at any moment, "Is what I'm doing now moving me closer to achieving my goal?" Not everything will, and that's ok. Burn out or overtraining are other reasons that people fail to reach goals. You need to have some kind of life outside of your goals. The trouble comes in when your life activities are moving you in the wrong direction. If you commit to working out every morning, but also like to stay out late with friends, you have to ask yourself, “Am I committed enough to do the things that will make me successful?”
Time-Bound- Establish a cutoff date. Mark it on the calendar. If your goal is fitness related, sign up for a race. Commit. If it is to read fifty books this year, determine to finish one each week by Sunday evening. Commit. If it is to speak French, plan a trip to Paris, or even to a French restaurant. Commit. Then begin. Take the first step.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is by William Hutchison Murray. “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy… Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too… Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”
Otherwise, we'll be back here next year with a hand full of shit and no horse.
As SOFLETE’s Moab retreat approached, I was prepping both mentally and physically for all the fun things that I wanted to do and all the amazing sights I wanted everyone attending to experience. In short, I was stoked about shredding the gnar and sharing the stoke. And though everyone’s specific roles and responsibilities were not set prior to the trip, I did have a loose understanding of what would be expected of me. Like any mission, specifics would change slightly once we had “boots on the ground,” so I wasn’t particularly stressed or letting my OCD get the best of me. Since I knew I would be charged with guiding the backcountry camping portion of the event, I focused on that. I picked a place that I had been before and was familiar enough with to provide options to participants. But in a move that I thought at the time was selfish, I picked a location that would ensure I would still be able to do all of my “fun stuff.”
What I wouldn’t realize until sitting down to actually write this piece is how I wasn’t being selfish in picking a place that suited me. In fact, sharing a place that was very special to me and activities that fill my soul with others was an act of selflessness.
While the location isn’t a secret per se, it is a nice little nook of land, off the beaten path where you can lose yourself and find yourself all at the same time. And I think, in at least a small way, we all did.
If you’ve seen any pictures or videos of the Moab area in the “Adventure” section of your local YouTube or Instagram library, you’ve probably beared witness to the wonder and grandeur of Southern Utah. The views and beauty are just like the possibilities: endless. And the best part about it is that you don’t have to go very far to get your own personal fill of this incredible region.
However, if you have the time and know where you’re going (or have a well-versed personal guide like myself), you can easily get to a place where the only other person you will see is your reflection of the Green or Colorado River and can camp on the edge of a five-hundred-foot cliff with fully unobstructed views of both sunrise and sunset. Welcome to your own little slice of heaven.
I chose to take the crew to an area about forty minutes north and west of Moab proper called Mineral Bottom. Located off of Utah Highway 313 and Mineral Bottom Road is a section of land that was carved out eons ago by what is now known as the Green River. It’s quiet, peaceful, incredibly picturesque, and gives you tons of area to explore and enjoy. While hiking out to the first camping location option, I was sure to caution everyone to look where they were going, as cliffs appear out of nowhere and can cause obvious problems if you’re not paying attention.
It was only about three minutes into the hike when I heard, “WHOAH, look at this!” and I glanced over to see someone had found exactly what I was talking about. Peering over a four-hundred-foot cliff at the Green River below, the rest of the group converged to admire the sight. I acknowledged the view with a short, “Yep, there ya go,” allowed everyone a moment to enjoy the view and prompted the crew to continue on with a promise that there was more where that came from.
The spot that I had chosen as the first campsite option was a slightly sunken depression of flat rock and sand mix surrounded on three sides by large swaths of red sandstone with one side open, looking north towards the Green River. As I walked around and pointed at prospective spots for tents and campfire, the excitement in the collected voices grew. It was almost like Christmas morning or the first look at the perfect dream home.
Exclamations of “Woah! Look at this!,”“Here’s my spot!”, and “DIBS!” were abundant. I was eager to get the site setup, as sunlight is limited this time of year and I had a time- and light-dependent photo project in mind that I had been working on for quite some time. Camp went up pretty quick as everyone was excited to explore the area as much as possible and claim their spot on the canyon rim to watch the sunset. I grabbed my gear and headed out to one of the more choice spots for sunset watching as well. It also happened to be a great spot to take a long walk off a short cliff.
As I began to don my gear, I was reminded how my sort of activities are not exactly commonplace and that being able to watch them live and up close can be quite visceral. As I walked towards the edge of the cliff, I could almost feel everyone’s hearts beating harder and their breath being held. Keeping things light, I gave them all a big smile and told them to be careful walking back to camp and off I stepped. The jump went well, obviously. It felt good to be back in the air and in such a special and familiar place.
I had another rig packed and ready to go. By this point, it was pitch black (with a little help from the now rising moon), so I decided to give it another go with a wearable LED setup that I would wear for the photo project (think stick figure man of LEDs). I’m sure there was a lot of head scratching and second guessing going around (hell, I even I was wondering what I was doing). At the exit point, the only light was from the glow of my “suit.” The darkness had fully consumed us by this point.
It was pretty bright when I was standing on the red rocks. But once I stepped off, the proverbial lights went out. I knew it would happen, my night vision would be wrecked by the lit up foreground of the lights I was wearing, consequently making everything else around me an abyss of anthracite air that I was accelerating through. While I had just jumped from the same cliff a half-hour before and dozens of times in the past, it was one of the most uncomfortable moments I had put myself in in quite some time. I pitched my pilot chute and in an instant, go-go-gadget parachute. The chaos of the previous moment was over and I was now calmly cruising through the air towards my landing destination (I had placed a few LED beacons on the ground to provide me with some depth perception for a better landing). I gathered up my gear as well as my wits and headed back to the campsite. There were a few high fives and even more inquiry as to “how it went” and “what I was feeling,” but honestly I don’t remember my answers. Probably because I didn’t really have any. I was still processing.
I eventually shifted the conversation to the rest of the group, who they were, what they did, and what they enjoy doing. This is when the storytelling, the commonalities, and the laughter starting happening. Relationships and community were forming before our eyes.
I asked about everyones’ experiences with SOFLETE and with the SOFLETE events, what they were enjoying thus far, and what they think they would like to see more of. Listening to their answers, the common theme seemed to revolve around the shared experiences with others in unforgettable locations. The adventurous and challenging activities is what attracted most people to the event but it was the connection to the people and the land that everyone seemed to enjoy the most.
The conversation made me reflect on my own experiences, adventures, and travels. Of all the places I’ve been and all the cool, fun things that I’ve done, it wasn’t the “thing” or activity that kept me daydreaming months later. It was the feeling, the emotion, and the connection to the place and the people that would fuel my intrinsic motivation to return or explore more.
I decided to wake up the next morning for a quick BASE jump before continuing with the day’s activities. As late as we stayed up the night before, I was pretty surprised that everyone was moving around so early and efficiently. I got breakfast sorted out for everyone and the stove was busy boiling water for morning coffee. I made the decision that I would leave camp set up for the day, as the rest of the crew would be coming out for another fireside night under the Southern Utah stars. Once all the bellies were full and energy levels were topped off by some bean- charged caffeine, we set out for the day. Some chose to mountain bike, some chose to do a bit of meditation, some tried their luck a bit on climbing, and others even opted to choose their own adventure.
That there is no shortage of options is one of the things I love most about this area. And whichever activity you choose, it’s nearly impossible for it to “suck.” I had a few event responsibilities to uphold throughout the day before meeting back up at the campsite. I cracked the whip a bit on everyone to make sure we got back with at least an hour of daylight left, as I had a little spice that I wanted to add to everyone’s canyon rim sunset views. So once they were settled, I drove the truck down to a small airstrip alongside the Green River, laid out my wing, primed my paramotor, grabbed the throttle, and pinned it to win it.
A paramotor is essentially a 2-stroke backpack motor/fan combo that you use to fly around under a paraglider wing. Some people call it a “butt-fan.” Regardless of what you call it, I’m a big fan of the butt-fan. I climbed up off the canyon floor and while everyone else was glued to the canyon rim watching the sun retire, I was enjoying a completely unobstructed, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the show that mother nature was putting on. I had the best seat in the house, albeit a bit noisy. As the sun set behind the horizon, I set my feet back on the ground and packed things up to get the fire and dinner started for what turned out to be some pretty happy campers. The conversation continued as it had the evening before as we learned a bit more about each other and continued to build the community of inherently different but still like-minded, like-hearted adventurers of life.
As the mountain biking, climbing, yoga, meditation, and cliff-jumping silliness continued throughout the rest of the weekend, I kept this notion in mind as I conversed with the rest of the crew. And as I sit here, weeks later finalizing my thoughts, it is the same things that have me looking forward to and planning my next adventure to Moab and several other places: the connection to the outdoors and the people we choose to share them with. It is this connection that takes an ordinary, superficial activity and transforms it into a visceral, lasting, cathartic experience.
While none of this is necessarily meant to get you fired up or interested in SOFLETE events, it is meant to share my awareness and acknowledgement of these happenings and experiences and to challenge you to do the same. Be in the moment and reflect often. Take these moments, thoughts, and feelings with you throughout your life and build upon them. And finally, share them with others and enjoy the compounded, positive effect they have on you and the experience itself.
Zach Carbo is a former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and a sponsored SOFLETE athlete, living life to the beat of his own drummer in the PNW. Follow him on Instagram: @zachcarbo
As a therapist, you become comfortable with the uncomfortable and not in the physical ways many of us are used to. To do what we do requires a stretching of emotional and psychological capacity, a push to be more open, present and understanding.
You quickly learn to lean into areas that might give some pause and explore topics that most people shy away from. Over time and after enough exposure, you no longer possess a barometer for the unusual, the taboo and the unexpected.
This is as it should be, as therapy should be the one place you can be carefree and selfish about what you say, believe and feel without fear of reprisal or rejection. It takes time and trust to establish but once it happens, being “in session” is more of a vibe than it is a place.
It was in one of those sessions when a former Special Operator with multiple deployments and all the badges quietly wondered if his lack of motivation for life, low sex drive, and brain fog he was experiencing might be a result of low testosterone.
We both sat in silence for a moment, him out of shame and me out of shock. To be frank, it was something I hadn’t considered.
That was four years and a lifetime ago. Back then, low testosterone and its relation to military service was barely a blip. While it still remains something most clinicians fail to inquire about during intake, it has received more attention in recent years.
Thankfully, the stigma of having low testosterone has begun to wane as better science emerges about its cause. In fact, it seems more people are willing to accept a low-t diagnosis than that of depression or PTSD.
In many ways, this makes sense because low-t is tangible in ways that most psychological disorders are not. Simply, there’s a blood test for it which makes it a physical problem rather than an “emotional one.”
Yet, their manifestations can be remarkably similar, as the overlap of symptoms for depression and low-t include decreased sex drive, a decline in physical energy and stamina, memory problems, and low mood. Moreover, the same professional hazards that make you at risk for low-t can also lead to emotional distress. The result can be a murky clinical picture.
Further complicating the matter is the wide range of what constitutes a normal t level for men usually considered to be between 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dL). What may be low for one person may not be for another. The issue is generally more about departure or significant decrease from an individual’s baseline than the number itself.
Though decreases in testosterone are to be expected (it peaks at around age eighteen or nineteen then declines throughout the rest of adulthood), the declination can be impacted or exacerbated by a number of things.
For starters, a recent study showed that men’s baseline testosterone levels are determined by environmental conditions experienced in childhood rather than genetics or race as previously thought. Accordingly, men who grew up in more challenging environments are more likely to have lower testosterone levels than men who grew up in emotionally and physically healthier environments.
This is worth noting because men who enlisted in the military over the last four decades are more than twice as likely as those in the general population to have been sexually abused as children and to have grown up around domestic violence and substance abuse.
Outside of environmental factors or occupational conditions can impact t-levels. A massive one is sleep. Yes, poor or fragmented sleep is associated with reduced testosterone levels. In a study of young men who experienced laboratory-induced restricted sleep, testosterone levels were lower after experiencing sleep restriction and lowered more over time. Read: one night of bad sleep will cause a temporary dip in t-levels, continuous poor sleep will make it worse and possibly permanent without intervention.
This is of particular importance for those in professions that prize themselves on the idea that “sleep is a crutch” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Sleep is the foundation of physical and psychological health and practicing good sleep hygiene is essential.
In addition, such professions typically require prolonged exposure to high-stress situations which can similarly result in decreased levels of testosterone. Unfortunately, there’s less you can do to mitigate those effects outside of prioritizing sleep, practicing mindfulness and investing in a solid exercise and nutrition plan. Additionally, lay off the alcohol as heavy drinking or regular drinking over long periods cause a decrease of testosterone in men.
Moreover, in the occupational hazard category, head or blast trauma can cause low-t. For those who’ve been banging around the GWOT block for a period of time, traumatic brain injury (TBI) is often cited as one of the hallmark injuries of these conflicts. Studies suggest that head trauma, even the mild ones, may be associated with low testosterone and sexual dysfunction.
Finally, no discussion of low-t would be complete without addressing performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) aka steroids. The bottom line is unregulated use without completing a proper post cycle therapy runs the risk of impacting t-levels. Full stop.
Low-t is more than the sum of its symptomatic parts, it has serious long-term side effects but so does testosterone therapy, the treatment for low-t. Both, in their own ways, lead to increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The bottom line is that too low or too high is bad but getting it just right can be tricky. The difficulty is interpreting the results. Levels do vary over the course of the day and one low test may be meaningless if there are no associated symptoms.
If you’re concerned about your t-levels, have an open and honest conversation with your primary health care provider which can either lead to a blood test or a referral to an endocrinologist. If you’re in therapy, it’s also worth having a discussion with your therapist who, at the very least, can assist with the crafting of a solid sleep hygiene plan and mindfulness. The most important thing you can do is advocate for yourself and arm yourself with information.