We talked to one particular soldier with the Stryker brigade about how being a Real Man translates in their world. “We’ve been at war for 10 years now, so we see a lot of things down range. A lot of guys lose their best friends, and we see a lot of terrible things,” he explained. “Actions like this today let soldiers see what the situation will be like when they actually get there. Seeing that now, I don’t want to say desensitizes them to it, but it’s a stressful environment and they’re amped up and it helps them to focus on the matter at hand.”
It all got us worried about whether we were treating what they were going through that day too lightly and maybe there wasn’t a correlation between battle training and relationship training. Maybe we were looking for parallels that didn’t exist. We’d gone there trying to train Andrew to love in the same way as these Real Men live, but the harsh reality was some would not live to love.
A couple weeks later, I was talking about this to my friend Slayer. He’d been in the Special Forces and I told him about going through the Army’s urban warfare training. I asked whether trying to improve Andrew military style had been an off-the-rails approach. “In the SF we learned to focus even during moments of great duress, acting even though fear was a factor. Even the training is dangerous, but you fight like you train,” he said. He was very soft-spoken and thoughtful in his selection of words. “But, combat situations galvanize you within personal relationships.”
In a sense, it took Slayer going through losing members of his team as well as having a mission to kill to develop the Real Man attributes he has today: He learned how to trust. He knows how to put others before himself. He allows himself to put his life in someone else’s hands. And he sometimes has to let go of control. These were things the Stryker brigade also had seemed to embrace on their second training iteration. “They used communication a lot better. Their movements were a lot better. They did a real good job of avoiding the kill zone,” Capt. Cross told us later.
Was it actually possible that my dad and Slayer and the soldiers we met that day were proving there were actually parallels? Like, combat is scary, but falling in love can be, too. Communication is integral to unity. Take pride in who you are and know that you are making a difference in someone’s life. And boot camp and combat training are how you practice getting better at what you do, just as every time you date someone, it’s like practice at getting closer to finding the person you’re supposed to be with for the rest of your life.
And maybe the Real Men of the military teach us the greatest lesson of all when it comes to a strong relationship: What it takes to win the war is also what it takes to keep the peace.
Capt. Cross told us about how one day a few of them had gone out to a firing range. The area had a lot of mineshafts and was a hot spot during the Gold Rush. It was also home to a pack of wild donkeys that had escaped, and their offspring still lived there. On that particular day, some donkeys walked into the impact area. Unlike deer, donkeys don’t get easily spooked and keep on moving. It meant Capt. Cross and the others had to stop firing and wait for three hours because they couldn’t go check for unexploded ordnances. They kind of had to just hang out and breathe. The story was a moment of levity we needed that day.
Capt. Cross and the other Real Men had left an indelible imprint on us. But that Stryker team member I mentioned earlier who talked about losing best friends may have had the most impact. It wasn’t because we thought he was too young to be responsible for so many lives, or that he talked about the resiliency he’d had to develop in order to do his job.
It was because Andrew and I discovered later that we had separately both thought he was the only person we met who wasn’t coming home. We felt it in our souls, and the thought of his loss took our breath away.
When Slayer later told me Strykers “are notorious targets,” I found myself robbed of breath again.
And then Andrew reminded me about how when he broke up with that ex, he turned to yoga. His teacher would always say, “f*cking breathe” in order to feel a sense of calm and focus.
To “f*cking breathe” allows for a certain peace to not always worry about what our future holds, whether it’s when thinking about if love will find us or being the midst of war, “if we all just stop firing for a while,” Andrew said.
And sometimes getting to a place of peace is simply about putting one foot in front of the other, and not always in military formation.
“When I was in the infantry, a lot of the training they tried to make black and white, so you were...I won’t say a machine,” Slayer said. “But you felt a purpose about what you were doing. You realized you were capable of anything.” The Stryker soldier we were worried about had told us that his training built the warrior ethos in him: I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.
Those should be life ethos, too.
After spending the day with those Real Men, I suggested Andrew make a new list of things he now believed women were looking for in a man. It took him 30 seconds to only write:
“What Slayer said: a sense of purpose.”
Maybe he truly was moving toward becoming a Real Man and would indeed find his Real Woman soon. Because the old Andrew would probably have taken 30 seconds to write:
“Women are looking for a man who knows where to find a wild donkey.”