I felt that deep, invigorating burn in my thighs as I heaved myself up the third mountain that day. It was a familiar burn, but the place was new. I wasn’t trudging upward next to my Ranger buddies in Georgia, nor was I heading to a target up some desolate mountain in Afghanistan. I was about two days deep into the jungles of East Burma, with a camera instead of a gun.
My body was soaked in sweat and grime; my labored breathing disappeared into the ageless trees. My pack, built with heavier material than I would have liked, drank up the sweat to make it even heavier. On top of the usual field necessities, I had about twenty pounds of film equipment digging into my shoulders, with those awkward edges and that disproportional weight I hadn’t felt in my bag since the Army.
It occurred to me that seventy years earlier, Rangers in World War II had hiked these mountains. They called themselves Merrill’s Marauders, and during my career in 3rd Ranger Battalion I had met a couple of them. I wondered if I was slogging through the same mud they had once slogged through. If I sat under the same ancient trees they rested against in their youth. Undoubtedly they were in far more danger than I–they were in the middle of a world war, I was on the fringes of a civil one. My guides generally knew the movements of the Burmese Army, so my only real concerns were landmines off the path and the immense, unforgiving power of the jungle that had long since swallowed me up. There were easy solutions though: stay on the path, listen to the locals. No problem, this was their home court and I knew it.
The Burmese man ahead of me almost danced up the mountain as if gravity didn’t apply to him. He was no exception either; in the coming weeks I would meet men, women and children–of varying degrees of fitness and health–with calves that would make a boulder look soft. They were born in these mountains. If there was a soccer tournament in a nearby village at noon, they would wake up at 4AM and casually head over with their children skipping ahead, over the mountains and through the dense vegetation. If they wanted to gift a six pack of beer to the foreigners in their village, they were happy to head out for a quick two hour hike in their flip flops, stuffing the beer and a couple sodas in a rice sack, strapped to their foreheads.
Yet somehow I kept up, and eventually we would make it into the small Karen village where I would spend the month shooting my three short documentaries. The village was built around a field hospital, and it was there that I would really learn the fascinating way of life embraced by the Karen people.
In the military I was blessed to be forced to learn the meaning of endurance. Personally, I had never been pushed so hard in my life. I grew up with kind parents and food on my table three times a day. To me, endurance was a word I used when I placed well in some cross country race at my middle school. My parents set me up for success in the military, but it wasn’t until I actually went that I really discovered what it meant to endure.