000: The Black Toenail

IT BEGAN IN THE SHOWER

A couple of weekends ago, I was standing in the shower and had an idea. An epiphany, really. I looked down at my big toe nail and saw the bruise formed beneath it. I earned it through my first GORUCK Heavy back in November, which was months ago. But it was still there, staring back at me. Something clicked. That black toenail came from “getting after it.” It came from pushing myself beyond boundaries I thought I had. It came from 24 hours of sweat and cold and sand and weight. It came from the Pain Train and teamwork and community. It’s the same injury all us humans deal with when we run, ruck, push, fight, and trudge for hours in the pursuit of combat – personal or actual, internal or external.

The black toenail symbolizes injury and resilience.

The black toenail unites us.

As a Combat Veteran and Active Reservist, I am very close to my community of Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen who have served or are currently serving. None of us come back from combat the same. If you spent time in a combat zone, you changed. You were injured somehow – even just a little bit. The result has been numerous amputees from IED strikes, firefights, and vehicle accidents. It has resulted in a mental health struggle never before recognized or seen on such scale in Western culture.  It has left scores of Veterans with the only way out from the pain being suicide.

It has left friends and family of Servicemembers struggling to help those who have served; struggling to help those they love.

So, how do we come back from this? As a culture, as a society, as a family – how do we come back from this?

It’s not as if there aren’t a lot of very smart people working on this very problem. Lots of resources are being thrown at this problem – money, studies, non-profits, even the Department of Defense. It’s a complex problem, involving psychology, physiology, neuroscience, economics, neural pathways, memories, diet, exercise, hormones, sleep, dreams, and so, so much more.

There are successes; little pockets and corners of success solving parts of this complex problem. But one size simply just does not fit all. Trial and error is the only way we can muddle ahead. Try as we might, there are no instant solutions.

Personally, I’ve had my own struggles with returning from combat as well as other life stresses. Divorce, debt, job struggles, and the loss of my son to cancer after almost four years of fighting it. Add two combat tours to the mix and there is a lot to come back from. Some say I’d be justified in putting my feet up and staying numb with whiskey for a good while. But that isn’t good enough for me. I’m better than that.

So are all of us.

I sought out professional help, but struggled with it. I found a few factors really came to play in that struggle. First, my own sense of Self-sufficiency. “I can do it myself” and “I don’t need anyone else.” I was trying to find a therapist who “gets it”. Impossible. All I ever got was academic nods of the head and “yes, I see – what do you think about that?” No accountability. No “I’ve been there.” No reason for me to open up. It just left my thick emotional armor intact and me sitting in the comfy chair wondering why the fuck I was sitting there.

At the same time I was watching friends struggle and deteriorate as they fought their own battles with coming back from war. Some were cutting masochistically, struggling with isolation. Some were addicted to pain meds. Most were trying to stay numb and distracted through self-destructive behavior of some kind, burning their relationships to the ground, and further isolating themselves.

I was there too. But it pushed me to what I have always loved in life – learning. I read and researched and asked questions. How did ancient cultures deal with this? What is working for other vets? Will that work for me? I don’t know. Let’s try it.

Pressfield. Greitens. Homer. Hackworth. Lee. Lao Tsu. Sun Tzu. Plutarch. Grossman. Buddha. The internet. Blogs. Podcasts. And so much more. Answers.

I also buried myself in the one thing I learned as a young Marine – PT. Physical Training. I knew from years of running marathons, half-marathons, triathlons, trail runs, and swimming, my head always felt better after I got my sweat on. Life always seemed better with fresh air in my lungs and sore muscles powering me through the day. More answers.

The more questions I had answered, the more questions I needed answers to. I kept digging. Relationships. Supplements. Community. Sex. Alcohol. Sleep. Diet. The VA. Mental Health. Emotional Health. And how do I manage all of these aspects of my life to be the best I can be? How can I come back better, stronger, faster, and smarter than I was before life dealt me this shitpile?

What did I find out? I found that I’m still working on it. I found that depression and sadness is always at arm’s length away. Always. I found that this is a lifelong study and battle and effort in order to come out on top and be better than yesterday. I found that I falter at times and that I can get back up and continue moving towards being stronger, faster, and smarter. And I found I had a lot of amazing people around me that I hadn’t seen before. Some were military. Some were Police and Firefighters. Many were civilians who found a way to show me what I wasn’t seeing.

Those amazing people helped me through some very difficult times. They held me close. They helped me see. They listened to me. They held me accountable. They killed the isolation. They taught me how I can do more.

They gave me the gift of this black toenail.

The black toenail symbolizes injury and resilience.

The black toenail unites us.

ENTER THIS PROJECT

Eighteen months ago, my son was in hospice losing his fight with cancer. I was having a hard time with it, and out of the blue a friend of mine called and asked if we could have dinner to discuss some career issues he was having. I didn’t really want to go, but we met. Very little of our conversation was about his career – we covered that topic quickly – and our conversation turned to loss and grief. While a former Army Infantry Officer with multiple combat tours, he is also a very devout Buddhist. He came to Nichiren Buddhism while looking for a way to heal from his experiences in war and it really worked for him. My friend explained through his experience and Nichiren teachings, life is all about the learning. We come to this existence to face these obstacles – warfare, death, love, hate, life – in order to learn the lessons needed to succeed in other forms. Once we pass, we forget all of the pain, the loss, and the suffering. The only thing that remains is the learning.

Where there is pain, there is learning to be done. The greater the pain, the bigger the lessons that need to be learned in order to get through that obstacle. While that may be an oversimplification of the teaching, it really stuck with me. It certainly gave a different perspective of the pain and suffering I was going through as my time with my son was coming to a close.

John Lee Dumas, an Army Veteran and host/founder of Entrepreneur On Fire (eofire.com), introduced me to the concept of ILT: Invest, Learn, Teach. Invest in yourself – take a class, read a book, go on a trip, attend a conference – anything you can do to improve yourself. Learn as much as you can about that investment. Eat, sleep, and breathe it for a while. Take notes, read your notes, and re-read those notes. Truly take it in. Then, Teach it to as many people as possible in as many forms as possible. This way we solidify the learning we are seeking and pay forward those valuable lessons we have learned. Then we become of value to those around us, giving our lives meaning and fulfillment.

Tying these two ideas together brings me to this: the Black Toenail Project.

I believe in learning. I believe in sweat therapy. I believe there are answers to everyone’s questions about how to deal with adversity. The mission is to build – through a blog, podcast, social media, and events – a community to help each other get stronger, faster, and smarter. To “get after it.” To find partners and networks to get through those difficult times. To be held close. To help see. To be listened to. To be held accountable. To kill the isolation. To do more.

To get the gift of the black toenail.