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The Napkin

I think it was the napkin that affected the woman most, even more than my speech. But I’ll get to that. That came later.

Addressing a banquet hall full of young Navy folks, I began by saying, “This is a special thing for me, and I’m honored to be in your presence.” All of them were clad in the Navy’s version of a tux, the distinguishing feature of which is those smart, short, navy-blue formal dress jackets. I was wearing a suit, in which I never feel comfortable.

For my speech, I recapped key parts of what you’ve already read, but with a slightly different spin. Here are the highlights of the talk, which was accompanied by slides:

I’ve been in the military twenty-five years, which is more than many of the people in this room have been alive.

Here’s the best way to sum up those twenty-five years: I went from being a team leader in a gunfight trying to save an American, to being in a mental hospital with a hand towel so I didn’t hang myself. This shocking turn of events was largely driven by my decision to put a gun in my mouth.

Entering a second mental hospital (this one down south), a woman went through my bag. I told my buddy I was going to run. He said no I wasn’t, because I was doing the advance work for the rest who were coming after. This was a man who had covered ground to get to me.

Who covers ground to get to you? Generally speaking, that’s a good thing to know in life. Try to have someone who will. I don’t just mean literally.

What changed me in that southern hospital full of civilians, including engineers and other professionals, was the young woman who explained that she had been raped by her uncles in front of her dad on Christmas Eve when she was eleven. I volunteered to get shot at. And then there was this woman. I couldn’t even comprehend what she had endured. I was a tough-guy commando? Whatever. That woman was really tough.

I think about our country. I was lucky to fight, because I had a mission. Collectively, we need a mission. We all have personality conflicts. But not when a ship is on fire. Or in a gunfight. When things are serious, not trite, that’s when we rely on each other. And that’s when silly social differences evaporate. We need to get away from agenda. Agenda is less than mission.

What’s my mission these days? Helping dogs. And trying to help people, by telling them my tale. Yes, the structure of the person I used to be has been dismantled, but it turns out there’s still a foundation, and although it’s awkward for me to admit, parts of that foundation are solid.

Hearing my rapid-fire presentation, the young Navy folks may have felt a bit like they were speed-dating my soul. I wrapped up, and then the Q&A portion of the evening began.

Someone asked about our interventions overseas, and whether we were helping. I replied by saying that an equally valid question is How do we intervene and help here at home? One good method for that is creating an environment where a neighbor or friend or member of your community is OK with saying she is having problems.

Some folks won’t admit they’re struggling. So watch for signs. Is a friend breathing zoo at work, because he was hammered a few hours earlier? Watch. Speak.

But we don’t, because of Stigma. Which I call cowardice. And I was subject to it. In recovery, it was hard. I didn’t feel that normal people understood what people like me were going through, and I used that to stay silent and haughty, when what I really was, was afraid.

Whom do I admire? I look at the people I rolled with, and the discretion they showed, and the value they placed on the lives of noncombatants.

What to watch out for? There are two kinds of people in the military who will get you killed. First are the “Status Quoians.” They don’t have to think, and they like it that way. Their bread and butter is doing things “the way they’ve always been done.” They don’t care about evolving threats or efficiency. They love to languish in the illusory comfort of stagnation. The second type of people that will get you killed are the “Ambiguians.” They have no spine, so they waffle and wait to make a decision until after they get an indicator from someone who can impact their career, and then they decide. They get people killed.

What’s a tool I use in my new struggles? They call it “cognitive behavioral therapy.” I call it touching the dragon. I have tattoos on my arms of the names of dogs that got killed saving me, and I saw other things that were hard, too. They don’t go away. But the key is being able to be comfortable with them if they don’t go away.

What’s more powerful than cognitive behavioral therapy? Love.

What is the best way to get close to war? Read Forgotten Soldier. And chapter 26 of For Whom the Bell Tolls. And then go to the Korean War Memorial in D.C., but do it on a very rainy day, in the cold, so that when you stand amidst the poncho-clad figures, you can let your clothes soak through, while you try to feel the weight they carried.

Books that inspired me? In combat, I read Marcus Aurelius, the emperor running the show in a place called Rome. The observations he had about getting real with himself resonated. I also love Othello. Shakespeare understands me. But I wonder how the hell he knew what he knew about me. He was never in a gunfight.

I reminded the audience to be careful, and not think for a second that I’m heroic. I’ve done all these bad things. But don’t forget, I served my country, and for the most part, I did a good job.

When I give these speeches, where I throw my guts on the floor for everyone to look at, the “after party” tends to be really interesting. This speech to the young Navy folks was no different. In the scrum that formed afterward, many came up to ask questions, some occasionally pulling me aside so they could tell me very personal things. In those moments, I feel lucky to be able to have an impact. I also feel a responsibility. People come at me with their rawness, and it’s heavy. But it’s good. I prefer to be in that real world.

This time, the member of the audience who brought the most rawness afterward was not the one you would have picked as the prime candidate for suffering, based on appearances. They rarely are.

A junior sailor on the cusp of being put in charge of other sailors, and looking like the picture of someone with a bright military future, this young woman waited until all of the others had moved on. She then approached me, looked me square in the eye, and said, “Can I meet with you later? I’d like to talk to you about something.” And I said, “Well, I’m leaving in the morning, so maybe we can do it via phone or email.” She said, “No, I want to talk to you face-to-face.” I didn’t know what was up, but I could tell it was significant. I said, “OK, let’s meet early tomorrow morning, before my wife and I grab breakfast and head home. How about 7 a.m.?” She said, “Cool,” and then, being local, told me where we would meet, at a coffee shop in town.

That night, in my hotel room, I began to wonder what it could be that was so important that she wanted to get up early on a weekend to discuss it. I’d had dramatic discussions in the past, but I’d never met anyone as adamant as she was about a rendezvous.

The next morning, I woke up, practiced hygiene, and waddled briskly along quaint small-town streets to the coffee shop, which was not crowded at that hour. I was the first person in. It wasn’t yet seven. I’m always early. She was punctual, too. Right on time, she came in with a notebook and sat down. Without much in the way of preamble, she dove in and started to tell the story about her issues with self-destructive behavior. She was recovering from substance abuse and going to CDA meetings, which are like AA meetings, but for the chemically dependent. She talked about how she didn’t really like many people in her orbit, and didn’t feel comfortable where she was. I could tell that, as with me, there was an underlying issue she didn’t feel comfortable talking about, although with her it was deeper, and also somehow tied to the sensitivities of being female.

So I picked up her pen and started writing something on a napkin. Before showing her the written message, I prefaced it by saying, “This is the most important thing, I think.” What I scrawled on the napkin was Forgive yourself. I turned it around and slid it in front of her. Her eyes welled up.

The gates opened a little bit, and she revealed what was troubling her. It turned out to be an issue that comes up far too frequently when I do speaking events with military audiences.

It was sexual assault.

In today’s military, sexual assault training is so prevalent that not a week goes by without a new mandatory class or a new flyer posted on a bulletin board talking about zero tolerance and other bold statements. And yet this person had experienced it, and, what’s more, she’d been forced to stay in the same organization as the person she’d accused of committing the sexual assault.

She explained what had happened. They were at a remote location, in a hotel, with no real senior guidance. These were people in their early twenties, and there was heavy drinking, which is typical, and risky. She doesn’t remember it, but a man had sex with her. He says it was consensual. They were both drunk. She didn’t want to talk about it with her family because she was ashamed, and she didn’t want them to feel that way, too. She had reported it through the proper channels, but the events weren’t significant enough for action, and there was no real verdict in the case. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. There was a verdict. The verdict was Sorry, you have to live in close proximity to this guy. We are not changing his location or day-to-day life. The military review panel couldn’t determine guilt or fault; it was his word versus hers.

That’s why she blames herself. Because it is hazy. And booze had been a key factor. In fact, it still was. She had been abusing alcohol recently. And in the psychological blender of her mind, the alcohol abuse was getting jumbled up with the other unhealthy ingredients that kept piling in: cultural taboos, unwilling witnesses, managerial hypocrisy, shame, guilt, regret, self-hate, and anger.

She was angry that someone had done something wrong and not been held accountable. Making matters worse, “I still have to be around him, every day,” she said. “And, if nothing else, I wish the leadership would get involved and at least make him avoid me. Why am I the one who has to avoid him? Why is it my job?” I said, “Why should you be uncomfortable around him? You did nothing wrong. Do you ever stand there and stare at him and make HIM uncomfortable?” I don’t know if I should have suggested that.

Complicating everything was the fact that it was all happening in a military environment, which inadvertently intensifies certain pressures, especially self-loathing. I could relate. I did not experience anything even remotely close to what she had, but I was also disgusted with myself for not suffering well, just like she was. It’s often the case in the military, when bad things happen: people hold themselves to a standard that is unrealistic. I was one of those people. So was she.

Her situation was different from mine, in this regard: I felt like everything that occurred was my fault. Everything was a result of decisions I’d made that were wrong. All of my dragons were my own errors. With her, I don’t believe it was that way. Yes, there was a significant amount of regret on her part, I could tell. But she was not the only one at fault. There was the guy, of course. But there was also the system. Based on the message that was being communicated to her in the weekly sexual assault training fiestas, she was, ironically, put in a very vulnerable position. If, instead, she’d just been told, “You are at risk, so watch out,” well, then, OK, that’s different. But the amount of (mostly cosmetic) seminars and posters in the military ecosystem suggesting there is a way to handle sexual assault, and that it was being handled, and that everyone was in sync on the issue, misled her. She was hurt that her expectations had been so wrong. And I think she also felt guilty, and stupid, like she’d fallen for something.

So she was on her island.

I sipped my coffee, not so much for the caffeine hit, but more to give myself a moment to think. I do not have adequate tools for this girl, I thought to myself. I’m not a professional therapist. Seeing her pain, I was emotional and sad. And then I remembered where that pain can lead, based on my personal experience. A bad place. But before I could ask about that bad place, she broached the subject herself and volunteered that she’d thought about suicide. We discussed it. She had been thinking about it because she didn’t have any hope that things would get better. I wasn’t surprised. I knew what it was like to not see hope, because you feel like a pathetic, worthless waste of oxygen.

The coffee shop was more crowded at this point. And because we were now talking about things that were sensitive, we stepped outside and started walking.

I decided to use some of the mental judo that had been used on me. I said, “If you take yourself out of the world, you will leave a gap where you can’t help people who aren’t as strong as you. You won’t be able to help people who will be going through something similar, people who are coming down the pike, because you have to realize that you’re not the last one who’s going to go through this kind of thing.” She was shocked; it seemed she’d never considered that. Which I fully understood, because I’d never considered it either, until the Fly Fisherman hit me over the head with it.

It’s amazing to me how prone we are to this error. This woman was a very intelligent human. And I’m not a complete moron. And yet the two of us—and a lot of other very smart folks I know—suffer in this way, thinking we should be able to heal ourselves. The truth is, you just simply cannot apply your own intelligence to the emotions going on inside your body. I don’t believe there’s a way out of it on your own. I had this idea that I’m a fucking commando, and I’ll straighten my shit out. But I didn’t have a clue how. She didn’t either. She was so overwhelmed with so many things that were so far out of her control that she only saw reasons for ending her own life. This only supports my idea that smart people can disproportionately add to their woes by dwelling on the fact that they are unable to fix themselves.

The pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps idea is a fallacy. That might apply to a hike, but not to self-destructive things you don’t understand. When you employ that mistaken rallying cry, you end up stranded on an island, blaming yourself.

We talked more, then stopped. I gave her a hug and said, “I’ll be in touch.” She went back to her life. I went to breakfast. I then made a call to a friend at the Marcus Luttrell Lone Survivor Foundation, which had created a dedicated retreat staffed by professional female therapists whose focus was helping military sexual assault victims. I requested access to a therapist for this young woman. My friend obliged, and then some.

Within thirty minutes, the young woman was on the phone with someone. Within three hours, she was offered an all-expenses-paid five-day retreat.

I was impressed that she’d jumped on the phone to talk to a stranger. Later that day, I texted her: You’re a very strong woman, and the world needs more of those. She texted back: Coming from you, that’s incredible.

That struck me, and I marveled at where I was in life. If you’d told me several years ago that I’d be talking to a woman about suicide and her options, after having met her at a military event where I told a crowd about putting a gun in my mouth in front of my wife, I’d have said you were batshit crazy. And yet here I was.

I feel like I gave the woman a few things. (1) I revealed some of my dragons in the speech, which allowed her to feel comfortable offering me a glimpse of hers. (2) I did her the service of not judging her, but also not kissing her ass. (3) I told her to forgive herself and to think about her ability and obligation to help someone else in the future—two ideas that really took hold. (4) Through my friend at the Lone Survivor Foundation, I gave her a ladder to climb out of the hole she was in.

But there was nothing I gave to that woman that had not been given to me.

I’d had a moment’s doubt, sitting with her in that coffee shop, about whether I possessed adequate tools to help. That fear wasn’t well founded. Looking back on it, I see that I was, in fact, carrying some equipment: a wrench in my hand, and a pole over my shoulder.