“The final weapon is the brain; all else is supplemental.”
SOF Assessment and Selection (A&S) courses are designed to bring the suck – in a number of different ways – to everyone privileged enough to receive an invitation to be evaluated as a candidate for various SOF units. Despite the suck, there’s a total beauty to it – to a struggle that methodically breaks down and challenges the strongest, most capable individuals.
However, despite the most adverse of conditions, circumstances, or challenges, an individual absolutely can succeed with the right mindset. Sure, it helps to meet any known standards you can (i.e. various ruck march weights and distances, run times, etc.). But with the right mindset and appropriate levels of skill, timing, and a bit of luck, the unconquerable is verily vanquished.
However, this isn’t about the superficial elements of preparing for A&S. We’re taking it from the valley to the peak, past the foundational element of mindset and physical preparation, to an area with a major stigma attached: mental health.
“But 14Charlie, do we really have to talk about mental health? It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“I’ve got a strong mindset; I’m never going to quit, and I’m going to work insanely hard to prove it!”
“I don’t want to hear about some guy that couldn’t take it anymore.”
“SOF are too professional, or busy, or capable to have mental health problems…they can’t afford to be weak like that! They need to be able to suck it up, stay strong, and keep going when it gets hard.”
“I don’t have time for this mushy shit! Harden the f*** up, man!”
You’ve likely heard the above before. Maybe you’ve said it yourself, or thought it. And you may erroneously believe this as truth. But mental health is one of the most fundamental pillars upon which one’s foundation is built, and from which all else flows. Bear with me here when I say no one is immune from the stressors that present mental health challenges, especially to those operating under significant pressures in the most adverse of environments.
Given these challenges, it’s perfectly acceptable to experience mental health challenges as a military member, SOF or not. The overall narrative about men and their mental health needs to change, especially in the military. The easiest way to do that is to talk about it.
I made that text larger for greater emphasis. Read it again to make sure you understand.
Below is a tale of my personal struggle with mental health and the lessons learned from the journey in the valley to the peak of the mountain. It’s a slight departure from the usual ‘REP content pertaining to A&S, but that’s where I think it’s valuable. The hope here is to provide contextual content from which parallels to your own circumstances can be analyzed – and bettered – to create a more resilient foundation for performance. Take it or leave it.
You must remain devoted to your mission
Note: I didn’t just say “committed.” This is a lifestyle change and a true calling for some, if not mostly all. This is a devotion and requires your complete and utter commitment. Consider that your “Condition.”
Preparation for Assessment & Selection (A&S) fanatically dominated my existence for one year, with no fewer than six years preceding it of calculated posturing, goal setting, sport-specific physical conditioning, and simply being the right person for the job when the dust settled and the assessment process had run its course.
That may have been a long time, or maybe not. On that note, you must also persevere. They don’t have any billets available for you to fill right now? No sweat, more time to train. Rejected after the initial screening? That’s ok, now you’ve got areas to improve for next time. Not a good fit for the organization you applied for? Try another unit where you may be a better fit. There’s more than one way to the top of the mountain – you just need to figure out which path to take.
Sacrifices will be made; it comes with devotion to your mission
Naturally, sacrifices were made along the way and were readily accepted; diet, nutrition, exercise, sleep, and prayer were my mainstays. Anything else was superfluous and therefore discarded. I know guys who have even hired personal trainers to take them to the next level. A bit much? Depends on the individual and your ability to maintain self-accountability.
The physical, spiritual, mental, moral, intellectual, and emotional aspects of life were all refined and directed towards a specific objective. The objective was my entire focus, consumed all energies, and permeated my entire existence. The objective was pursued with an intensity and laser-like focus that few could observe, understand, or appreciate (wouldn’t want them to necessarily anyway).
To the outside observer, this precisely crafted existence did not make much sense, as people were often left in wonder at the countless early morning rucks for long distance under heavy weight, long endurance runs, extremely limited alcohol consumption, strict diet enforcement, easy disregard of social obligations in favor of training, and constant self-assessment and refinement of physical capability and performance.
Others’ confusion or dismay was welcome, as there is no need to seek acceptance “outside the guild,” or from anyone who does not understand the Cause and the Great Struggle required to achieve it. To the outside observer, this man was a machine incapable of failure, or fatigue, or faltering. This man drove on with a relentless and vigorous disregard for anything that did not contribute to the objective. Everything was possible; nothing was impossible; it was the Cause or bust.
You are not infallible
While arguably effective, these modus operandi were not healthy or sustainable. The same laser-like focus and intensity that enabled me to push for so long and so hard was indeed finite, and my pursuit of the Cause slowly gave way to an internal struggle that I continue to recover from today.
My mental health deteriorated as anxiety, emotional detachment, hyper-criticism, and hyper-activity slowly consumed me. While I could recover and regenerate my core, neck, back, and hips with yoga, stretching, foam rolling, and other physical therapy, my mind lacked a true resilience. What began as clear focus, motivation, and drive morphed into a range of behaviors that were significant cause for concern.
I was often exceptionally irritable and struggled to control my mind as it occasionally raced away from me, prohibited me from relaxing, and left me mentally exhausted. No matter the quality or quantity of sleep, or the level of training conducted, the anxiety persisted. I felt fatigued and grew frustrated. No matter the time spent stretching, or praying, or resting, or conducting active recovery training, my mental health felt exceptionally fragile, and my physical performance suffered as a result.
Despite the external image of strength and infallibility, there was an internal struggle that created a sense of desperation as it grew stronger while its host grew weaker, seemingly incapable of stemming its growth. I did not ask for help. I did not know how to communicate my problems, and I feared the reactions if I did. These symptoms eventually manifested themselves physiologically as I grew more fatigued, experienced high blood pressure, was physically tense, possessed a rapid or faint pulse, and experienced heart palpitations.
It’s okay to ask for help, really, it is
Nothing short of actual panic attacks, it was at this point of desperation that the effects of poor mental health on performance were acknowledged, and the level to which I slipped before recognizing that I was in a tailspin. I did not know where to turn, and had internalized every bit of this struggle to the point that it was completely hidden from view.
This internal battle was taking its toll, and despite remaining highly functional with family, my relationship, and at work, my internal distress eventually gave way to what I deemed was a final recourse: asking for help. It had taken months for me to acknowledge, and will take countless more before the symptoms are even manageable. And thus begins the story of rebirth. Of regeneration and recovery.
Fight the stigma, and talk about mental health
There’s a stigma about mental health in military circles, and this needs to change. This stigma has been previously discussed and highlighted in discussions on PTSD and veteran suicide rates, but the narrative must continue. The merits of this discussion and that on men’s general mental health are the foundation upon which we can continue to build.
As I silently suffered and grew more desperate to find a solution on my own, slowly fearing the loss of control or a breakdown, etc. I realized that no man is an island. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to talk about mental health. In fact, I encourage it as it’s one of the few ways we’re able to alleviate that which ails us. Indeed, putting pen to paper in this article is a testament to that very same narrative, one that I stand behind and encourage others to embrace as well. But it’s not easy. Even as this article is written, I fear reprisal, or judgement, or the perception of failure or strength for acknowledging a major shortcoming in my mental health. But this is wrong and needs to change.
Embrace recovery and regeneration
I mentioned a path to recovery; there is a way. But it’s a long path, and it’s not always visibly marked. There’s no easy recipe for success; just like most things in life, it must be worked towards.
My daily routine now includes copious prayer, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and an attempt to find an elusive inner peace. It’s a conscious effort that includes talking about mental health with close and trusted friends, family, and my girlfriend. They don’t always understand, nor will they likely fully, but the dialogue is maintained and must continue.
If internal peace cannot be found, then at least some measure of understanding and context for the suffering that I for too long buried deep within the recesses of my mind out of fear of reprisal, damage to my career, or pure weakness. Compartmentalizing these feelings, while arguably useful in the short term, did nothing but grow into a force that I was unprepared to deal with, and that’s dangerous.
Remember, talk about mental health
The new Struggle I embrace is one of openness, and recognition of fallibility, emotional and mental capacity, and a necessity to talk about mental health. The new Struggle requires true strength, and does not adhere to the common stigma surrounding mental health.
Despite the institutional deficiencies currently in place for military members experiencing mental health challenges, this approach advocates for and seeks to inspire further dialogue of men’s mental health, and to provide an example of how professional success can still be attained despite mental health challenges.
I’m really (or try to be) an unassuming person who is blessed and fortunate enough to possess the proper aptitude, attitude, and desire to serve in a capacity that is truly humbling and with the Greatest our nation has to offer. As such, it’s only fitting that my mental health meets those same requirements.
Don’t ignore the symptoms like I did. Don’t become so focused on your objective that you lose the feelings of joy that this life has to offer. Be your own mental health advocate, and nurture it as you would your body or spirit.
Thanks for listening.
Feature image courtesy of Small Wars Journal and the DoD.