By Dan Loftus
I don’t consider myself a swimmer. I joined my high school swim team for only 2 reasons; To stay in shape, and to hang out with all of my friends who were lifelong swimmers (I admit they were all girls). I’ve always been an athlete, or as I like to call myself, a jack of all trades. One of those guys who can pick up just about any ball and know how to use it. Being an athlete made me a competent swimmer but like most jack of all trade guys, I wasn’t great at it. To me it was simply a healthy hobby that gave me something to do. Apparently the sport had some interest in me, and found a way to work into my life over and over. I can confidently say that swimming managed to guide me to become the person I am today, and has played a significant role in my journey. It all started with an oath of enlistment.
I woke up one morning unsatisfied. I didn’t know why, but I was compelled to do something different, something exciting, something I could be proud of. As long as I live I’ll remember that morning. After waking up with the intent to change my life, I got up and sat in front of my computer and googled military jobs. Two choices: Navy corpsmen, or Marine Corps infantry. As I sat in front of my computer wearing nothing by my underwear, I decided that I should do what I think I would be the best at. So I choose the life of being a ground pounder. The guys that are affectionately referred to as GRUNTS. Every branch of the military has its own specialty. The air force is for logistics, they’re the smart ones. The Navy are the facilitators, they pretty much help everyone else do they’re job. The army dabbles in a little bit of everything and is the poster child. The marines on the other hand, they’re the Spartans. When bad guys do bad things and America decides it’s time for them to stop, the marines kick the door in. That was what I wanted in my life: a crazy story.
I went to boot camp 9 months later. While I was in North Carolina completing infantry training, I was presented an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I volunteered for Reconnaissance training. Special Forces. Those are the super grunts. Not quite as bad ass as the SEALS, but they had a great jobdescription and it involved water, lots of it. The course itself was 3 months long and is considered one of, if not the hardest schools that the marines have to offer. There was even a program that you had to go into just to help get you in shape for the real thing. For 8 hours a day I ran, swam, and ate food. In a normal context this probably doesn’t sound so bad, but it was the most grueling thing I’ve done in my entire life and nothing else comes even comes close. I was in this training program for 6 months, the first time. Unfortunately, the intensity of the training makes it nearly impossible for anyone to do it forever. I developed stress fractures in both of my legs and had to spend 4 months in a rehab program. After, they gave me the opportunity to return; Of course I agreed and did another 3 months until coming to the realization that my body simply couldn’t keep up. It was a humbling experience to approach the gunnery Sergeant and tell him that I needed to quit after all of that time. I’ve never been as disappointed in myself as I was the day I quit. It was the opposite of what I was supposed to do. It was already ingrained into me that marines never quit at anything, ever. They regroup. But the condition of my body was something that I couldn’t argue with. The possibility of really damaging myself was very likely.
This isn’t a sad story though. It was still the best experience of my life because I had a moment of clarity while training in the pool one day. A moment that I have only shared with very few because I found it to be deeply personal. I’d like to share it with you because maybe it will inspire you the way it inspired me.
I’ve got to set the stage first. I’ll try to keep it simple, but just understand it is a very weird environment to be in. It’s even weirder to explain to someone with no background idea of what I mean. If you really want to see exactly what I’m talking about, go on YouTube and search Making the Cut: Marine recon.
So there I was, 5 hours into an 8 hour training session with a decorated combat veteranscreaming at the top of his lungs at me. I’m wearing full cammies (uniform). I’ve been in the pool treading water for what seems like an eternity (maybe an hour without respite). The Sergeant running the show is becoming angry with one of my fellow students and decides it’s time for a punishment. He goes into the equipment shed on the pool deck and starts throwing stuff into the pool (12ft deep). Helmets, flak jackets, and rubber rifles (they weigh the same as a real one). It all sinks to the bottom. One Item at a time, he tells us to do a bottom sample (feet first to the bottom) and come up wearing whatever item he says. Exhaustion was 2 hours ago. Each and every one of us is passively drowning. It became hard to simply keep the water out of my mouth and face. The only thing I really remember caring about was air. I just wanted to breathe. But I had to follow these instructions. If I refuse to do something he says, its refusal to train and I will be kicked out of the program on the spot. No questions asked. It’s a 100% volunteer program. If I decide I don’t want to do it anymore, all I have to do is say the word and I can go sit against the fence and wait for the training to finish, get on the bus, and never come back. It’s that easy.
My moment of clarity came as somebody started crying (I’m not kidding, it wasn’t that unusual). The Sgt lost it. He told him to just quit because we didn’t need the weak ones. He asked why he was crying, the kid responded by saying he couldn’t breathe. The response that the Sgt gave literally changed my life. He said if you can cry, than you can breathe, and if you can breathe, than what’s the problem? It wasn’t fancy or dramatic. The guy said it very matter of factly. Like everyone knew this. The sentence rolled around inside of my head for a minute before it went from being just an offhand comment, to being a mantra to live by.
That kid quit the program and got out of the pool about 30 seconds later. He tried to go back on his decision the next day but they didn’t let him. They said there were a dozen other guys going through that same hell with him and he was the only one who quit. How could he ever earn our trust back?
What I learned that day is that I am in control of myself. If I want to hold my breath until I black out, than I will because I’m the one who makes the choice. Making a choice is the only control that we have over our lives. That day in the pool, I decided that I would drown before I gave in to the temptation. Having the choice to quit is what gave me the strength to push beyond my own limits, and pretty much all reasonable expectations. If you can come to terms with the idea that pain, whether it’s physical or mental isn’t real, than you can accomplish whatever you CHOOSE to do.
I may have lost the opportunity to accomplish something that was incredibly important to me, but in the process of failing, I got something even better. I found myself.Written by Dan Loftus