Crow Wing Energized: Resiliency and hope - a vet reflects
As summertime relinquishes its vibrancy to the warm, subtle hues of autumn, abundant
reminders of this predictable miracle can be found in all directions.
The echo of boat motors and raucous laughter resonating across the lakes is replaced by the mellow hum of chain saws reverberating through the woods as mother nature settles herself for another winter respite.
This season's familiar transformation brings with it quite unfamiliar change in my own life. I celebrate, with gratitude, my brother and sister-in-law's first Christmas in marriage and our family's first Christmas spent together in many years. This year, I celebrate (and lament) my last Christmas as a soldier in the United States Army, the ringing of the New Year will culminate my 13 years of service.
Ages have passed since I raised my right hand in front of my mother, father, and recruiter to swear an oath to God; an oath whose subsequent journey would bear little resemblance to the predictable comfort of changing seasons. Still, the vivid recall of raising that same hand to my parent's door to tell them what I had planned to do upon graduating high school required far more courage than my promise to God.
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Resiliency starts with community
Crow Wing County's Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program connects service members and their families to offer support and education on the challenges and stresses before, during, and after deployment. Contact them at 218-831-0137 or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/CrowWingCountyYellowRibbonCommunity/.
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In fact, I had no idea what I had been about to do and no expectations for my ability to survive it, which would unwittingly become my saving grace. My mother's most critical question would prove the most difficult to answer and the most frequently asked in the years to come. "Why? Why do you want to do this?"
For every explanation I furnished, my mother offered innumerable alternatives which, she pointedly affirmed, did not require defending my life with a gun. Having since looked back at the baby fat still youthfully rounding my cheeks in the photos from my first tour, I understand her fear.
Especially in our most vulnerable moments, we appear as the babies we will forever be to our mothers. Much to my distress, all I could offer her then was the assurance that this was less a choice and more a calling. Her thought-provoking challenge had strengthened my resolve, much to her distress, and with the selfless love and seasoned grace of an incredible mother, she let me go. My father and I required less exchange; understanding passed between us with more than what words could convey. Every day since, my parents have been the unwavering support without which I could not have endured.
As one might intuit, there came to be many instances throughout my career which prompted me to revisit the reflection my mother hoped would alter my course. Some harmlessly jovial, others devastatingly life altering. The first came early; I was 19 years old in the initial phase of Basic Combat Training when I realized with ridiculous incredulity that, despite being a seasoned Northerner, I had never been colder in my life than in the latter half of a South Carolina spring.
I was lying on my stomach in a muddy fighting position that had taken me an hour to dig. My battle buddy had deserted that morning, which left me to march her pack and my own to the field, dig her fighting position and mine, and defend them alone. The sun had long been down by the time I had settled in and still more than half the night was ahead of me.
The rain persisted with vengeance while the hours resisted deliberately, burying me in the ever-rising mud until it became difficult to distinguish limb from earth. My fingers burned gripping the cold, wet iron of my weapon until I felt nothing at all. It was then that my 'intestinal fortitude' as our Drill Instructors referred to it, began to dissolve. Thirteen years of research later, seeking to understand the devastating mental health crises eroding our fighting force, the United States Army now calls this resilience.
I hesitated to check the time, but looked at my watch anyway and what I noticed was not the time, but the day; it was Friday. Friday Night Dinners evolved as a McGregor family tradition without intention and I began to ponder this one in particular. What did they end up eating, Chinese, pizza? Maybe Mom and Dad made a pot of spaghetti ... Suddenly, I was acutely of the cold, exhaustion, and hunger. I began to wonder what had possessed me to CHOOSE this?
Maybe my mom had been right to steer me towards other options. Even though I knew it wasn't routine for the chaos of Friday Night Dinner, I envisioned my Dad saying grace.
As I recited what I imagined his prayer might be, I did not realize it was my own until years later. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sky to send my prayer on its way and saw that dawn had begun its weary approach; I had survived. I fortified myself in the realization that this night would be the least of what I might endure if I managed to graduate Basic Combat Training and that if God called me to this service, He would also guide me through it.
It was years later on my second deployment to Afghanistan that another pointed moment would help reveal my ultimate motivations for joining the United States Army. On our small compound in Eastern Afghanistan, my team employed three men from the local village to which our forward operating base was attached.
In the year we spent with them, we became a crude, dysfunctional, loving unit ... a family, like any other. The men were contractors, engineers, craftsmen. Often as I would pass them working, I would marvel in awe at the ingenuity born of necessity. What they could create with such limited means was beyond my reckoning. I wanted to show them something beyond theirs.
The company to which my father dedicated over 20 years has built many recognizable structures across the Minneapolis skyline: The Best Buy Headquarters, Regions Hospital, Mall of America and most recently in his tenure, the New US Bank Stadium. The men would laugh and tell me my father would be pleased to hire them because they could do so much with so little; little did they realize how much truth was buried in their humor. Their curiosity for our country was boundless so one day I printed some photos of these structures to share with them.
They poured over the images for some time, smiling, pointing wildly, making loud exclamations
and talking to one another faster than our translator could keep up. Finally, the eldest, Noor, said to me "It is amazing how different our worlds can be, that in some places there is so much,
but here we must live like the prophet."
The tumultuous history of Afghanistan erodes the potential for a national identity or infrastructure so instead its people survive mostly through subversive corruption that becomes less a sin and more a way of life in the third world. They do not call themselves Afghans as we call ourselves Americans, at least not in the rural areas. Rather they identify by tribal and religious ties. I listened to Noor as he elaborated but I saw it differently and then offered my consideration. "You're right," I told him, "But there is inherent danger in not living as the prophet did. The more one has, the further from the prophet's life one lives. That can distract from true purpose. We are not so different. Your prophet is Mohammed, mine is Jesus Christ, but they both taught us to love, to live on this earth as they did so that we might live with them in next place. Whatever your position, those who forget the prophet's life will not fulfill their own." I worried in the silence that followed that I might have offended Noor until he cracked a sly, weathered smile full of wrinkles and said, "You are smart, are you sure you're not a teacher?" The word for teacher in Pashtun means someone who dedicates their life to the study of Islam for the purpose of helping fellow Muslims derive its meaning. Cleverly using the language barrier in his favor, Noor was teasing me with yet another joke. He patted my hand, as everyone broke out in laughter and congratulated him for getting one past me.
These experiences, with the many others, have strengthened my resolve for choosing a life of military service as well as the path I designed. Service is my calling and I was blessed to build a career that enabled me to serve my family, my community, my country, my fellow man, and God with one sworn oath. While both my mother and I considered and discussed my welfare at the time of my enlistment, I do not recall us considering, nor could we ever have predicted, the impact my service would take on all aspects of my wellbeing, most pointedly on my heart and soul. This point brings me to the second question most commonly asked question throughout my time in service, "Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?" "Yes, absolutely," though the answer to this question often hinges on the moment at which it is asked.
The University of Pennsylvania Penn Resiliency Program has been influencing positive psychology practices for over 25 years, and their reach includes the United States Army's Master Resilience Training. After having experienced in my own life, and in the lives of those with whom I serve, the devastation of both service and nonservice-related mental health struggles, the program became a purpose. In an earnest effort to protect myself and others from the serious consequences of compromised resiliency, I became a Master Resilience Trainer in 2013 following my second deployment. Upon making the Brainerd area my permanent home in the summer of 2017, a long-time goal, another opportunity to serve presented itself in the form of serving local veteran's and service members as a volunteer member of the Crow Wing County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Program. Part of that work has involved building an affiliation with Crow Wing Energized whose resources for healthy and happy living are an incredible asset to supporting the missions of the Crow Wing County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon Network!
This work has taught me, and continues to emphasize, that life is built on a foundation of hope.
It has also demonstrated that life it is not comprised of the plans we painstakingly construct but rather, it is defined by the unexpected which happens in between. When life challenges us, when it takes us to the edge of our intestinal fortitude, our resilience, and scatters our carefully< laid plans to the wind, it is hope that offers a refuge from which to rebuild. With hope to inspire, love to connect, and faith to guide, there is no storm we cannot weather and no plan which cannot be laid anew. I am grateful every day for the friends, partnerships, and resources which work to reinforce this message in my own life and who help to disseminate it to the incredible potential of our communities.