There are lots of motivational sayings relating to not giving up until you quite literally can’t go any further—”don’t leave any gas in the tank,” for instance. These relate to the idea that you never quite know when success is right around the corner and just hanging in there for a tiny bit more time might get you to your objective. There are sayings for that as well, including, “The night is darkest just before the dawn,” but I like to think of this one in a more military way and use the analogy of not leaving any rounds in the magazine.

This one stems from the concept of leaving a cartridge or two in your magazine in the combat environment in order to give yourself the option to turn the rifle on yourself as an alternative to falling into enemy hands if all has gone to custard. It is the stuff that gets glamorized in war movies for the most part, but something that I actually found myself pondering seriously prior to my first tour of Afghanistan.

It was assumed that any coalition soldier falling into enemy hands in that theater was in for a particularly rough time, and the thought of a swift ending at your own hand might have been a fairly reasonable alternative. I dismissed the idea outright myself for a couple of reasons. First of all, I was always pretty rubbish at counting the number of rounds that I had shot, especially under the heightened state associated with a tactical situation, and I figured that I would have little to no chance of pulling up with one or two rounds left in my final magazine if it came to that. Secondly, you just never know how things are going to play out.

It would be a terrible shame to turn the rifle on yourself only to have a helicopter gunship show up overhead a few seconds later or a support element arrive to save you only to find you with a rifle in your mouth! In my opinion, I might as well keep shooting until my rifle goes click instead of bang, and then cross that bridge when I got there. I had a lot to live for and I was committed to staying alive at all costs and seeing how the chips might fall in the worst-case scenario. Many years later I had the chance to hear a firsthand account from a British SAS soldier from the ill-fated and much-publicized Bravo Two Zero patrol in the first Gulf War who had been captured and tortured by Iraqi forces and then subsequently released. While his vivid recollections of the torture he endured were chilling to say the least, to his credit he had managed to physically and psychologically move past the ordeal and return back to his role as an SAS soldier. Hearing his remarkable story solidified my stance for future deployments that I would leave no rounds in the magazine if it came to it and see how it all played out. Thankfully it was a decision I never had to make for real.

Translating that metaphor into a far less dramatic application, I had an experience on my Special Forces selection course where my overwhelming desire was to quit but, largely thanks to the motivation provided by another candidate, I managed to push on and fire the last few rounds in my magazine. The event occurred on a section of the course involving a five-day individual navigation exercise comprising long-distance hikes in a national park between checkpoints at the tops of mountains while carrying a very heavy pack. The real challenge of the exercise was a psychological one in that we were provided no indication as to how much distance we needed to cover or how many checkpoints we needed to reach to pass the activity. We were left completely to our own devices and needed to pace ourselves to cover as much or as little ground as we felt reasonable, all the while keeping in mind the fact that there was an additional five days of the selection course to go afterward.

We were under strict instructions not to interact with other candidates during the activity and, for the most part, the individual routes between checkpoints we had all been assigned meant that full days could pass without seeing other candidates, anyway. I had crossed paths with a few others over the first couple of days and we had played by the rules and given one another nothing more than a nod of acknowledgement before going our separate ways. On the morning of the final day of the activity I bumped into another candidate in a deep creek line I was moving along. Figuring that the chance of getting caught was slim, we took the chance of having a quick chat. The topic of that discussion centered on how much distance we had both covered and how many checkpoints we had hit. During the conversation the other candidate told me with a decent degree of conviction that a minimum of five checkpoints were required to pass the activity. Without really questioning the authenticity of his information, I took it as gospel.

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We wrapped up our conversation and parted ways, leaving me to ponder my situation. I had hit four checkpoints by that point and my fifth was at the very top of a mountain some 20km away. We were under instruction not to move after dark, which left me with about seven hours to get to it. By that stage we were a couple of weeks into the selection course and my body was starting to show some wear and tear. I had strained one of my quadriceps muscles quite badly and it was giving me hell with every step. I had started to lose a considerable amount of weight from the intense physical exertion of the course and the limited food provided. My physical deterioration was starting to take a toll on my psychological state. For the first time on the course I was having moments of mental weakness and doubt. I trudged along throughout the rest of the final day of the activity and was approaching the base of the mountain that my fifth checkpoint sat atop as the sun started to get low on the horizon. By that time I had resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t make it to the checkpoint before dark and I had decided to set up camp at the base of the mountain for the night and radio in my location for the scheduled pick-up the following morning. In the final few hundred meters of stomping toward the base of the mountain another candidate came charging up from behind without me noticing and drew level with me, scaring the life out of me as he did so.

It turned out that his next checkpoint was the same one as mine, but unlike me his attitude was positive and despite acknowledging that he wasn’t going to make the checkpoint before dark he was going for it anyway. He urged me to do the climb with him, but I was mentally defeated at the time. When we hit the start of the track leading up the mountain I wished him the best of luck and then found a place to camp for the night and dropped my pack. Although I had made my decision to quit, something inside of me didn’t allow me to unpack my kit to set up camp. As I sat there dejected, I turned my gaze to the other candidate in the distance making his way
up the climb to the checkpoint as the sun began to set. I ran all the years of training that had led up to that point through my mind. As I did so it occurred to me that they had all led to that moment and I was in the very process of giving up on my dream. I had the sickening realization that everything that I had worked so hard for and all the sacrifices I had made may have been all for nothing if I didn’t at least give that final climb a crack.

My fifth checkpoint was less than a kilometer away, albeit all uphill, and I wouldn’t get there before dark, but I’d rather take a beating from an angry SAS soldier at the checkpoint for moving after dark than live the rest of my days knowing that I’d let myself down by quitting on my dream. I slung my pack back onto my aching shoulders, and with my lungs and legs burning, I made the best pace I was capable of up the mountain track as the light faded. As it got darker and darker I got more and more frantic, stumbling on the rocky track underfoot as I
raced toward the summit, the close foliage surrounding the track grabbing at my shoulders and pack as I plowed on.

By the time the tracked leveled out and I neared the checkpoint I was in a trance-like state, fueled by the endorphins that my body was spewing out in response to the extreme exertion of the climb and the pain from my strained quadriceps muscle. I paused for an instant to catch my breath and focused my eyes through the darkness to see the faint glow of a light at the checkpoint. With absolutely nothing left to lose I made my way to the checkpoint and, bracing for the worst, announced myself to the directional staff there. Without any emotion whatsoever, he proceeded to radio in to the higher command that I had reached the checkpoint and then he promptly dismissed me, instructing me to set up camp nearby and to make my way back down to the base of the mountain in the morning for pickup.

Rudyard Kipling captures the essence of this experience for me eloquently in his poem “If” with the following line:

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!”

I truly believe that I reached the very state that Kipling referred to on that evening during selection. To this day I have no idea whether reaching that fifth checkpoint was important or not; it may have been that I had done enough to pass the activity by the time I got to the base of the climb and I could have just camped there and still been allowed to progress on the course.

Regardless, I have since been glad that I made the decision to tackle that climb. Even if it had no bearing on my being allowed to continue and subsequently successfully pass the course, it represented a mental turning point for me on selection. From that point onward, I was unwavering in my resolve to finish the course. No matter how tough it got I never even allowed another thought of self-doubt to enter my mind. I had smashed through a barrier of exhaustion and physical pain, and in doing so had proven to myself what was possible if I could just keep my mind in the game. I had fired every last round in my magazine on that night and the following morning I was still there and still putting one foot in front of the other, every second edging closer to my objective.

Of course, there is a limit to how far any human can push themselves both physically and psychologically, and I was lucky not to succumb to my physical injuries or infection on my selection course. Had that happened I believe I would have eventually come to terms with the fact that those outcomes were largely outside of my control, and with time may have come to accept them. Had I not gotten up on that evening and attempted that final climb and then subsequently been removed from the course due to a failure to reach the fifth checkpoint, I am certain that I would have regretted my decision for the remainder of my days, as that decision was well and truly within my power to influence. The point of this chapter is this: If you have a life goal that you are set on achieving, don’t leave a single round in your magazine in your effort to achieve it. You just never know when that final effort to reach your objective might be the difference between success and failure.

This article is a chapter taken from Dan Pronk’s recently released book titled “Average 70kg D**khead – Motivational lessons from an ex-Army Special Forces doctor,” available now.

Featured image courtesy of Dan Pronk