Uncharted Waters

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Blog by: Scott Whisler

Like many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tragedies at the World Trade Center and Pentagon were fierce motivators behind my decision to join the military. There was this deep desire to ship out and defend my nation’s honor. Not once did I question where it came from, because it felt natural to me. Surprisingly, there were few veterans in my family when I was growing up. One of my great grandfathers was a Sailor at Pearl Harbor on that Day of Infamy. Another great grandfather was a soldier with the Army Air Corps and was a crewman on the B-17. They told few stories, but enough for me to be hooked on the idea of serving in the greatest military since the Roman Legions. Eighteen year old me was made out of pure motivation and sheer will to fight. That is how I earned the title “U.S. Marine.”

Nothing could have prepared me for that enlistment, most of which was rather uneventful. The first year was spent in training, followed by two years at a naval base, eventually hitting the Fleet Marine Force in 2009. The unit I joined had recently returned from an MEU and wasn’t scheduled to deploy until early 2010. We trained hard and in April 2010 were deployed to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. For many vets the hardest thing to talk about is the physical traumas they suffered that were the catalyst for the emotional and psychological traumas they endure. However, in my case it is the lack of physical trauma that tortured me when I came back home. Over the course of our seven month deployment we lost 13 men and one K9. To come back home while they could not was painful beyond description. That pain was only the precursor, as I separated from the military just 8 months after returning home.

Transitioning from the Marine Corps to civilian life has been the hardest task I have ever undertaken. Shortly before separating, my wife left me and took our 4 month old son with her. That gave me no choice but to move in with my mom, who had moved several times since I enlisted and no longer lived in the same area that I grew up in. Any friends I had from school were 60 miles away at best, my son was 40 miles out, and the town we were living in was an old tourist town that had all but washed away. Isolation became the only thing I knew. Once I began using my GI Bill to attend school, I was able to secure an apartment that put me closer to my son and a community that I could engage in. Yet without a job, I couldn’t afford to go anywhere, let alone do anything with anybody, and so I continued to isolate. It took me 14 months before I found my first job, an on call position as a carpet cleaner. There wasn’t a single big name company that I hadn’t applied to, or continued to apply to. For 3 more years I struggled to find full time, permanent employment while switching industries multiple times. There were periods where I worked multiple jobs at the same time while still attending school. Eventually I just got burnt out, receiving an academic dismissal from the local community college.

There had to be more to life than this, I could feel it. There’s no way that life has to be this hard on anybody. Not long after running into an old high school friend, we were able to reconnect with a few others. Out of the four of us, three were Marines. Each and every one of us was struggling with employment and life after the military. We began getting involved in local Veteran Service Organizations (VSO), even putting on a car show where we raised $1,200 for two VSO’s. I sought help from groups that held activities, offered community service opportunities, provided assistance for finances, and even groups that provided gardening services. Through the act of serving, I found that the pain went away.  That need to serve forced me to dive in with all I had, I wanted to be a part of every VSO I could and affect every Veteran I came across. Team Red, White, & Blue found its way into my crosshairs and in early 2015 I jumped all in.

Having been a part of so many other organizations that had different platforms in which they aimed to help veterans gave me the ability to appreciate what Team RWB was when I joined. Eagles aren’t exclusive to any ONE demographic, nor are they only for veterans. The pureness of the mission statement and communities reached into me and pulled at my heart like I had never felt before. From that came this passion, a burning desire to be a part of more, and drove me to lead weekly activities to connect with others. At last I had found my tribe and I committed myself to growing, maintaining, and enriching my community of Eagles. With the encouragement of my chapter captain I applied to the NW Regional Leadership Camp. I saw this as the next step in fulfilling that mission statement.

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On the last Friday in September, I stepped into uncharted waters on my personal map. I had never met another Eagle outside of my chapter, nor had I attended a leadership seminar outside of the military. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. Yet my nerves were immediately calmed by the love and support displayed that first night. We had taken a bus out to a local farm where we sat around a campfire on bales of hay. One by one we were asked to stand up and introduce ourselves, where we called home, how we came to Team RWB, and most importantly what was our “Why.” I believe that night built a foundation for the bonds we were about to establish the following day. Most of Saturday was spent in the classroom as we learned from established leaders within the organization and Eagle Leader Fellows (ELFs) on the values of quality, effective leadership. Some of the concepts I had heard before, but many challenged the ideals that had been taught to me previously and truly sparked a change within my brain housing group. Finally, around 1pm we stepped off for our GoRuck Light challenge under one inspirational Cadre. Since that weekend was the anniversary of the events in Mogadishu, Operation Gothic Serpent, our Cadre had planned our evolution to coincide with the timeline of events 23 years ago.

We started the ruck with a simple circuit of pushups, thrusters, flutter kicks, squats, and a 400m ruck that we broke into groups for. Once our circuit was over we walked 50ft over to the Boise River and got wet as all 26 of us had to dunk our heads in the water with arms interlocked, and even making waves with our rucks by slapping them on the water from overhead. Soaking wet and feeling good we pushed forward to the next objective where we had to search for a downed pilot; our Cadre had us search and find a memorial plate that had been placed in the local park. This is when things began to get challenging, as we were given a casualty to carry. Thankfully it was not me; I was hands down the heaviest person there. But the person selected was no twig, and so we definitely had to switch our carriers out regularly as we went up a hill in order to prevent exhaustion. Once at the top of the hill we had an absolutely breathtaking view of Treasure Valley and the city of Boise. With the sun beginning to set this is where our Cadre had someone read the Medal of Honor citation for MSgt Gary Gordon, who was a Delta Sniper that heroically sacrificed his life in Mogadishu. While the citation was being read, one of our team members began to have an emotional reaction. As a Gold Star mom, I can’t even begin to imagine the emotions that she was experiencing as the details of MSgt Gordon’s actions were read. But I had this moment where I realized that I had signed up for the Marines, gone to training, and deployed to a combat theater myself. It tore at my heart in that moment to realize it could have been my mom on top of that hill as this citation was being read. Unsure and afraid myself, I walked over and put my arm around her because I didn’t want her to be alone and I knew that I would want someone there for my mom if the roles had been reversed.

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The ruck continued down the hill, still carrying our casualty, and contouring the river for a little while longer as we worked our way to our final objective. At the last checkpoint before the final location I was selected to be the ATL. This was probably the most upsetting portion of the whole ruck, because as I was selected ATL the cadre was making the team pick up a log in addition to our casualty. Being a leader in this event meant not being able to carry a physical load and so I was helpless for the final segment as my teammates carried the log, our casualty, and made sure all gear was accounted for. Finally we arrived at a park as the sun had begun rapidly setting and the cadre gave us the command to make a formation. From that we began the tunnel of love exercise, which is where everybody lines up in the front leaning rest and one by one we low crawl through with our ruck on. This was quite the challenge for me as most of my teammates were much shorter than I was and that meant a much smaller gap between them and the ground, but we made it work. After a couple of times through the tunnel, we were told to form up again where we did inch worm pushups in formation. It had been so long since I had done this form of PT, which made this section of the ruck the hardest. Our cadre had us hold the front leaning rest between each set of inch worms, but on the last one he had us hold it for the duration of the Ballad of the Green Berets.

Now in the classes, our cadre had shared a wonderful quote with us “pain shared is pain divided.” Each of us had our own way of doing this. Some focused inward and internalized the pain, others like me externalized it. But one of our teammates began singing along to the song and helped to sooth many of us with his deep baritone. Little did we know that while we were cringing and yelling and singing, our cadre had been putting the GoRuck Light patches on our rucks. Once the song was over we were allowed to go back to our packs in formation and our cadre pointed out the patches, then came another patching: our Ruck Camp patches. These patches are only for the Eagles who attend the GoRuck Leadership camps and are really cool. For me it was way more than a patch, it was a symbol of the hard work I had been putting in at my chapter and at the camp to change all of the bad things that had been happening in my life and to help myself by helping others. Even more valuable than that patch are the bonds that developed from that weekend. Thankfully I am still in touch with many of my teammates from that weekend and they continue to inspire me to push myself and help others.

Words truly cannot describe how that weekend, with Eagles I had never met, changed me. There were so many takeaways and lessons learned and connections made that a novel could be written on the event itself. I am so grateful to be a part of Team Red, White, & Blue and feel  blessed to be able to say that this is my tribe and if you’re wearing an Eagle on your chest, you are my family.

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