It came like clock work, predictable as sunrise, yet there were some guys who fell for it every time. We didn’t know it at the time, but they were the ones who wouldn’t make it.
The first time I saw the trick was on a run in phase one of the Special Forces Qualification Course. Our class went for a formation run. It went for three miles or so at a reasonable pace and came back to the start point. Every run I had been on in the Army had ended at the start point, but this was Special Forces.
We ran right past the start point without slowing. There were a few sighs. Two miles later, on a different route than the first three miles, we were back to the start point and past it again. More sighs, louder sighs. I was tired, but even more, I was intrigued. I figured that others would quit before me and I wondered how many more laps it would take to get to breakfast. We went 100 yards past the start and came to a halt. The cadre acted like it was just another event and we marched off to cold showers and a box of breakfast.
I came to think of it as the “it’s not over until it’s over” mind game. The only way to win is not to play. The end is not near. Don’t get your hopes up and no high fives. The man will tell you when to stop.
Then there was land navigation. After a long day of walking with a 50 lb ruck, I had already found four points. It was about 4pm and I come up to my next point. There was a truck parked a few yards away with a few guys in it. I identify myself and got assigned my next point. I plotted it out, it’s 15 kilometers (9 miles) away.
My first thought was a little mini-panic. These guys on the truck were done and I still had at least 15 Km to go. I would still be walking after dark and it would be tough finding points. Then my mammalian forebrain kicked in. There was no way these guys were hours ahead of me and there was no way this land nav course ended after dark. They had quit.
The SFQC cadre didn’t offer encouragement or discouragement, they just gave you the next point and checked the destination you plotted before you left. “You will be told what you need to know when you need to know it.” Those guys in the truck did the math and quit. The cadre probably had a very good idea who would quit and where, thus the truck.
So I showed the man where I was going on my map and filled my canteens from the water can. I wasn’t smiling because I wasn’t sure this wasn’t just a new kind of trick. I was ready for another 15 Km and I started walking on my azimuth. Around the next corner was another truck and I was told to get on it. It was the winner truck.
This may seem like a sadistic trick, but it was a valuable life lesson. If you don’t get your hopes up, they can’t be crushed. While it is important to set goals and claim small victories, you can’t stop until the fight is over. You can’t always be the one who decides when the fight is over.
Late one night in Afghanistan, my team arrived at a remote compound by helicopter. We were there to capture a certain individual and take away the heavy weapons he was using to threaten the community. We were supposed to be exfiled from the objective after 8 hours. We didn’t take rucks and carried mostly ammo. Two days later with no resupply and our commander finally pulled us off. Nobody on the team was surprised. There was a pretty busy war going on and if Green Berets can’t work without food for two days, they should turn in their berets. Nobody got excited, because we never believed we would be off target in 24 hours. The exfil bird comes when the man sends it, not a minute sooner and none of us are the man.
I have been deployed all over the world. Ingnorance, incompetence, mechanical breakdowns, bad weather and enemy action can not be avoided, but you can control your reactions. Confidence in your self and training can keep you calm when others panic. Sometimes the winner is decided by nothing more than who stays on the field.
It is not over until it is over. You cannot be disappointed if you don’t plan to stop until the fight is over. You never know how far you can go until you push beyond self imposed limits.
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Excerpt from “IF” — Rudyard Kipling