What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part III

Fear Inoculation

Fear inoculation is exactly what it sounds like. It is a process of becoming partially immune to the effects of fear. Lt. Col Dave Grossman describes in his books On Combat and On Killing, it is the experiences, conditioning and training to deal with events which would cause fear or stress and managing them to a level your body and mind can handle. Fear, causes people to forget things. It causes a reduction in the amount of blood reaching the brain and reduces the effectiveness of our vital sensory inputs. Fear makes your body do many, many things that it shouldn’t to maintain your effectiveness in high stress situations. Basically, fear makes you a stupid sack of meat. It is put perhaps the best in the science fiction classic Dune,

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

I’m not saying that Marines and soldiers are some sort of superhero caricatures of real people who can’t feel fear. It’s quite the opposite. These are people who go into some of the worst periods of places where it is impossible to not feel fear. General George Patton even said, “All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.” I tend to agree. Since their jobs force them into intense periods of fear, though, it is necessary to develop mechanisms to suppress and manage your fear. Perhaps an example would be more appropriate.

I have a phobic reaction to heights. I don’t like being near balconies or high places where all there is preventing my fall is my ability to not somehow stumble off the wall or guardrail. I recently had this sensation when visiting a local historic watchtower overlooking our local lake. When I say I have a phobic reaction, I mean that when I am in these situations I can feel my heart rate spike, my breathing changes, and I get cold and perhaps a bit sweaty in the course of a single minute. I know that my fear is also not rational because I can reason that I won’t possibly accidentally trip and stumble off the four foot wall on the edge of that tower. I’ll still go up there, because my wife, completely immune to heights, likes the view. I even can acknowledge that it is a beautiful scene of the lake, but I can’t enjoy it. My body tells me this is a time to be afraid, whether it really is or not. That is a phobia.

So it surprises me that, when I needed to, I willingly stood on the edge of a fifty foot tower, leaned over and jumped off. Repelled is the more correct  term. Either way, heights are one of my greatest fears, yet I jumped off a tower for no other reason than that someone who I knew wouldn’t kill me told me to with nothing but a rope and a fall, which might. This process I would later come to realize, was the Marine Corps training me time and time again to overcome my fears and find a way to perform. While I still use it to go with my wife to be with her while she enjoys a view I very much do not, it was put in me for a very different reason. The Repel Tower, along with many other exercises in warrior training was intended to help Marines survive the wars they may face with some degree of mental clarity.

When I actually went to war I remember the first time I was really afraid. Years later, I realized how this worked. The first time I ever received indirect fire, a rocket attack on the base, I was naturally very scared. It was my first week in Iraq. It was a loud boom that you could feel, like the feeling of standing near a massive drum in a small room. We all scurried to our pre-planned locations. This wasn’t a new thing in 2005 so everyone knew what to do, at least, enough people knew what to do that the rest were able to follow along easily. I followed a Corporal who made his way to one of the bunkers. I didn’t know how long we would be there or if we were still in danger, or what came next. I remember being confused and a bit frustrated at how cavalier the Corporal was about the attack. I remember geared up and sitting under the concrete bunker, built for such purposes. After a long time, I turned to my Corporal and asked him, “Isn’t someone going to go after them?” He just laughed at me without saying anything.

The truth was, there was nothing we could do about the guys with rockets. Those rockets were ingenious little devices set to go off long after the person who set it up had gone home. By the time the blast hit, he was probably at home watching The View. It was a popular show back then. They were also fired from the center of the town of Habbaniyah down below the base, so we couldn’t just blanket the area with artillery fire, because that would be like using a grenade on an ant hill to kill one ant. There was nothing we could do about it. The constant threat of enemy rocket attacks was just something we were going to have to deal with.

So we did. I remember many days when my good friend and fellow comrade at arms Cody Solley would be asleep in our tent and an explosion would go off somewhere on the base. I’d roll over lazily and say to him, “Did that sound like inbound or outbound?” and he would say that it sounded more like us firing at them. “Good.” and I would try to go back to sleep. Moments later, the sirens would cry and we would angrily roll out of our cots, don our protective armor, grab our weapons and make our way to whatever rally point we were instructed to go, the whole time muttering colorful expletives about the stupid terrorists ruining our sleep.

While I fully accept that this story demonstrates how utterly complacent we had become, it also showcases how inoculated to the fear of being struck with one of these rockets or mortars we had become. After telling this story to others who didn’t go through it, people have told me that they don’t know how they would have ever been able to deal with the not knowing. They said that it would be terrifying not knowing if death would just come from anywhere at any time. I thought that was more dramatic than the situation deserved, but there were cases of people that definitely succumbed to this kind of pressure. There also were some casualties throughout the base, and several people I knew had close calls, but mostly just damage to the base itself. The church was hit, as was the mosque, and my blessed chow hall once, as well. The flight line was hit numerous times and as I understand, at least one of the birds was taken out. The worst we saw was a relay hub where a large number of our cabling and communication equipment was taken out, disrupting communications through half the base. That was a bad few weeks, especially for the wire guys. I can think of one person who most certainly lost his wits under the stress, though there were other factors, as well. As for those of us that were able to adapt, we knew not to let it trouble us and were able to focus on our work, in spite of the random timing and locations of these attacks. It could have come at any moment, that was true, and I can see many people being unnerved by that, but we had been conditioned to the point that they were really just nuisance.

I think this is an important time to mention the importance of training for the military. I’ve gone in very deep on the importance of boot camp as well as rationalizing how crazy it is to people who haven’t gone through it in What is U.S. Marine Corps boot camp like? The synopsis of that answer can be found in the first line:

“It is a place where you have to train 18 year olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.”

One of the most intriguing descriptions I have seen for Marine Corps Boot Camp is in the way it conditions its warriors towards focused aggression and repression of fear through combat conditioning. Combat conditioning isn’t the same as working out. Regularly recruits are put into situations which simulate high stress, fear inducing events, whether it is jumping off a tower or being yelled at by six different people for minor infractions. Recruits face nonstop situations where they will be tested under extreme stress levels. This isn’t anything like test anxiety, or deadline anxiety. I can state for a fact that we can still fail at those like anyone else. This is high impact stress where in the course of two minutes a person can go from completely calm to a heartbeat of 180 beats per minute. At that heart rate, usually only brought on by the fear of death, extreme exercise or in the sultrous throws of passion (which better be seriously good since you are close to dying from it) much of the brain and body stops working predictably. You lose fine motor control, some of your senses may fail or deceive you, and you might only be capable of thinking at the very base level of mammalian instinct. The Marines train in this environment, know how to induce it under safe conditions and expect the recruit to dismantle and put back together a weapon consisting of numerous extremely tiny parts in under a minute while in it.

This type of training doesn’t just focus on higher order thinking. That is there as well. Military history, customs and courtesies, structure, communications systems, first aid, weapon characteristics, and all manner of scholastic knowledge will be trained. An example would be re-calculating the trajectory of an object traveling at 3,110 ft/s for a three inch change in elevation at 5 times the length of a standard football field when factoring in for wind speed and direction as well as differences in elevation. That’s basic rifle marksmanship. Marine Corps boot camp goes deeper, though. They focus also on mid-brain thinking. This is the mammalian brain and the one where most of our innate, instinctual reactions come from. You might think that because I said, “instinctual”, that one can’t train it, but you would incorrect.
Combat science has shown that most of the time a kill is rendered in combat for infantry, it is a reactionary response. This means that to prepare warriors, you have to train them to react to dangerous situations, not to rationalize their way through them. Essentially, modern militaries know that their soldier is being pitted not against the rationality of the other soldier, but against their enemy’s innate instinctive responses, trained in the middle brain. Under ideal situations, they will be able to take a well aimed shot from cover and concealment at a time of their choosing, but more likely for the young infantryman, they face the danger of needing to react faster than they can think of what to do. To do this, the Marines use numerous operant conditioning mechanisms that reward their reactions to stimulus and condition them to ignore non-important information instinctively. This channels their brain’s cognitive abilities to react to stimulus and building the same neural pathways connecting their reactionary subconscious brain to their bodies muscle receptors. This means that when the training is applied correctly, a person can recognize a target from a non-target, sight in and kill the bad guy, before the average person would rationalize that they are in danger. Yeah.

I’ve made a point of promoting training as the single most important trait that businesses should learn from the military. I’m not saying that businesses should start pushing their accountants off of buildings to see how they handle mid-April or that we should scream at the receptionist for messing up the coffee, but the Marines and most modern militaries have mastered training not only a of a Marine’s ability to analyze a situation when calm is allowed, but to even groom the other parts of the brain to function when it isn’t. This is happening when most civilian companies are wasting millions of dollars in human resources on recruiting because they still pride themselves on a “Sink or Swim” model of management from the nineteenth century. It isn’t that sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it will just ensure an unnecessarily high turnover rate and fearful company culture, rife with paranoia, politics, and unproductive competition. This isn’t because it is a better system, but because civilians don’t have experience of a better model. While this feels tangential, I can honestly say that I have had a profound respect for the Marines’ education system of training its individuals for success after seeing the failures of the business world, even very successful companies, in this regard. The United States Marines are one of the most successful organizations on the planet because of their training, which doesn’t make them fearless, but which makes them immensely competent under stress. I only really realized after the war and one only really appreciates it when he is wondering what to write in this article, and can think clearly enough to find inspiration from the top of a very, very tall tower.

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Thoughts on Bullying.

I was recently asked by a parent what they should do when their child feels they are being bullied. I teach middle and high school. I deal with kids who make bad choices regularly. A major aspect of my job is counselling them on ways to correct that behavior, or how to protect themselves from it in the future. I was also ruthlessly picked on and bullied during that period of my life, so I am glad a friend asked me answer this question. Since I learned how to deal with my bullies, I feel I have become a much healthier and happier person based on that life changing, and perhaps life saving, choice. I know that the experience of being bullied is anything but “character building” and has been shown in the answers to What are the long term effects of being a victim of bullying?, one of which being my own. Having said all that, I assume you love your child enough to read, because I have a lot to say on the matter.

1) Open a Dialogue.

The first thing that I think I would want as a parent is an understanding of the child’s situation. Information can open your eyes to depths of the problem as well as make it obvious what actions need to be taken. You know that your child feels that they are being bullied. What is this bullying like? Perhaps it isn’t as severe as you might have feared. Perhaps your child simply hasn’t learned the appropriate thing to say or do in a certain social situation and is getting negative reenforcement for that behavior from his peers. That isn’t bullying, but it still feels really bad. Those problems are normally easily corrected when an adult gives the child new options they haven’t yet considered or independently invented to solve that social problem. Remember that all situations a child will face have happened before; the question is, do they have the experience to handle it in a productive way?

Mentoring children is a lost artform. We, at least we in America, have the false belief that children should learn everything “out in the real world”. That may be how our parents raised us, but it may not be right. Speaking with your children in a setting about possible events that are bound to happen, before they happen lets them know what to prepare for. It lets them ask questions and allows you to impart wisdom before mistakes are made. Conveying new tactics to handle a particular situation will gift your child new routes to solve it when and if it comes.

Simply assuming this is your child’s fault, though, is obviously not always the case. I faced many situations growing up where I had absolutely no control over the actions of my aggressors. Perhaps it’s more than what is tolerable or what a normal child should be expected to be capable of addressing. You personally need to address it with faculty immediately, in that case. The point is, you don’t know if you don’t have open communication about it.

The second thing to consider about this is that this type of open communication between child and parent is going to get harder and harder as your child grows up. This distancing is natural and necessary. The early, formative years of a child’s development are meant for you to groom them and train them on all the social signals that they should be acting on. When they are very young you are teaching them how to take care of themselves and how to be social with others. As they age, be it by you or outside influences, they have learned most of the social signals and are more and more set in their ways in how they will respond to them. They are going to start trying to assert their independence from you at that point and attempt to find their own way. This is generally a good thing and necessary to being an adult, but in this case, it can be dangerous as it limits your information and therefore limiting the influence you have to help them deal their problems. My advice, if you have a child who is very young, ensure that communication between each other stays an important role in your family. If they are older, middle school aged or above, it will be very hard to build that communication.

1) a) Communicate with Educators Next, you have to ensure you have communication with the educators. As a teacher and as the husband of a teacher, I can tell you that most parents don’t have a relationship with their children’s education and the faculty. From the teachers’ perspective, many parents aren’t that invested in their child’s future. Don’t act shocked. It’s true. Seeing one who is, is refreshing. It lets teachers feel like they have support and will work hard to give you support as well… if you communicate to them. Keeping an open dialogue with your child’s school, the place where 95% of his social interactions take place, is a valuable way of knowing what the problem is and how best to handle it. It also lets your teachers know that there may be a problem, as well. Remember that to you, your child is special. To your child’s teacher, all sixty of their children are special, even the bullies. They know things you don’t, but also, could never know everything you think is important about your child. Be fair in your judgement of them and they will be fair in how they deal with you.

2) Don’t say him/her.

Your child is a boy. Boys, i.e. less than fully matured men, don’t respect nor show respect towards political correctness amongst themselves. Social dynamics with youth, at least in the United States, is very polarized between genders, though perhaps less so than past generations. That said, younger children are still socially simplified enough that they will be judging themselves based on their ability to fulfill what few gender roles exists at their age. Just as importantly, others are going to be judging them on their ability to showcase that ideal, as well. At most points while still in school, that still means the top boy is athletic, handsome and authoritarian, the top girl is still pretty and social. Intelligence is a bonus, but not necessary. Welcome to the real world. Anyone who fails to fit well enough into these roles will still face ostracism as there are relatively few other roles which they can adapt to, especially before they reach high school.

Others may want to say that this is morally wrong and I am sure that on some level, it is. You may want to fight this mentality. Go ahead, but unless you want to volunteer your child for a crusade against every form of social injustice that exists, I wouldn’t advise it. If you do, you would be bringing down upon him a level of unrestrained social martyrdom he doubtfully would want. Simply enough, if you are concerned about bullying, you are going to need to help him adapt to the social roles available in his culture. You need to raise your son with that thinking in mind because this situation is very different depending on the gender. Boys pick on boys in very different ways than girls pick on girls. Solving this problem with an ambiguous solution set will only make it worse.

3) Address the Social Causes of Your Child’s Bullying

You mentioned that your boy is red haired and fair skinned and asked if this is relevant. It isn’t. Those are just the things that distinguish your child from the others. The hard thing that you need to hear is that the others, the bullies, aren’t targeting your child because they have a problem with these identifiers. They have labelled these identifiers as weak or inferior because of how they view your child. For whatever reason, they have pooled your child as weak or inferior and are attaching labels, such as creating pejorative names based on some physical attribute, to justify that.

To make my point, I’d like to cite a project done by another teacher by the name of Jane Elliott. It is actually a project meant to showcase and teach children about prejudice, but is also a fascinating study on child psychology. In the lesson, which goes on for a few days, she divides her class into two groups, Blue Eyes and Brown Eyes. One day she treats the Brown Eyes with great amounts of disdain because of their inferiorities and uses the evidence to showthe Blue Eyes how they are better. The effect it has on the third graders is remarkable. By the end of the day, both groups have shown that they fully embraced the roles, one Blue child saying he felt good, like he was the “king” of the Browns and the others adapting to the role of the lessers. One student (a Blue) even went on to berate others in the class, resulting in a violent alteration with one of the Browns. Most remarkable, test scores even predicted which group a student was in after the lesson started. Remember, this is due to labels they had been assigned only hours before. On the second day the roles were reversed and the results were fascinating.

While this documentary is on prejudice, I see also the extreme nature in which children will attach perceived failures of character or social standing to physical attributes. The fact that your boy has red hair doesn’t matter. Some bully who doesn’t like your son, or is just a jerk in general, looked around and saw the one thing (at the moment) that appeared to differentiate your child from all those the bully wasn’t targeting. In this case, it could be red hair. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this will be true in the future. He might wind up in a group where everyone has red hair, but he is the one with a green shirt. As Mrs. Elliott’s experiment shows, other kids will accept the perceived failures once the theory is presented by an authority figure, i.e. the big kids, the older kids, the popular kids, the scary kids. It is easy to prove that a person is a failure, based on any example you like, as Mrs. Elliott’s work has shown. Given enough time, an arbitrary characteristic will become a stereotype. Given enough time, your child will learn to hate his hair color because he thinks it makes him stupid.

Having said that, let’s assume that your child’s red hair doesn’t have much to do with the other children making fun of him for being red headed. What then is causing their behavior? As I said before, what I would suspect, knowing nothing other than what I understand about bullies, is that bullies target those who they view as weak. These are children who don’t readily fit into the cultural ideal model, those who don’t have strong social networks among peers, those who are awkward and don’t quite know how to handle a situation correctly. Another situation I have seen is when a child succeeds greatly in one avenue, like academics or in favor by teachers, a bully will attempt to knock them down a few pegs by targeting insecurities and attempting to isolate them socially. This is actually a reaction on account of the bully’s own insecurities and their attempts to mitigate the social inequity. I think, in all honesty, if your child is being bullied, one of these scenarios is playing out. For me, it was all of them.

When I was young, I was overweight, nerdy, very bright, and socially inept. I was desperate for friendship so I tolerated far more than I should have. I was target practice for the Art of Bullying. So believe me when I say that I don’t want you to feel as if I am blaming the victim in this situation. I know more about how it feels than anyone. I also know that justice in these situations is rare. The cold, hard, bitter and unfair fact is that to solve this situation, your child is the one who is going to have to adapt, because the bully will never do so for him. They can’t be made to. They can’t be reasoned with. Your child is going to have to change some of his behaviors to avoid their attention. The reason I say that the victim must try to adapt isn’t because they are failures. It is because you can control the way you react to situations; you can’t control the way that others act.

3) a) Find new hobbies
One of the hardest things about fitting in when you’re young is that you just don’t know what you are in to. If your child is giving you signals that he may be feeling ostracized, maybe you should try to expand his interests. Even better, try to feed the interests in other activities he has, but that he doesn’t have an outlet for. These need to be activities that will force him to socialize face-to-face with other people. (Online video games don’t fit this description. It doesn’t matter what he tells you; they don’t. Once again, personal experience. Those are black holes and antisocial behavior.)

Is he interested in Anime? Take him to an anime convention. Does he like music? Get him lessons. Is your kid a giant nerd? Introduce him to Dungeons and Dragons. I wish, so badly that my town had a group of people who played Dungeons and Dragons. I would have been so into that if it was available. Sadly, my town didn’t have a strong nerd community and we were all isolated from meeting one another. Had such a thing existed, I could have associated with people who were more like me. I could have been happier doing things I wanted to do, rather than things others wanted to do that I hated, anyway. Had I had that chance, I would have been happily invested in my activities. If that had happened, I probably would have grown much more in my social abilities, rather than always feeling like the social outcast.

3) b) Find new friends
This was another one of my problems. I wanted to be friends with the wrong people. My town was very small. There weren’t a lot of options. I was pretty much stuck with the people who I shared a crib with in diapers until we graduated. What I didn’t truly accept, was that I had the ability to find a different group of people whom I would have rather spent my time being with. The truth is, my so called friends, probably would have wanted me more if I did leave them.

Oliver Emberton explores this phenomenon marvelously in his answer to Why is “neediness” such a repulsive characteristic? He correctly states, as verified by other studies, that many of our own perceptions of self worth are based on how badly others seem to need us. When they see many people wanting to spend time with them, they feel they are of high social value. When someone sees that I want to spend time with them, but then they see no one wants to spend time with me, that is a sign that I have little social value. When they see that I will accept their negative treatment because I need them still, they see me as extremely needy, which is detestable. The more you try to make others be your friend, paradoxically, the more you become a pariah. Turning the tables, when I decide to leave my social group for greener pastures, it sends the signal that I have found something better and that my old friends are less desirable, maybe even, that I feel I am of higher value. This has the effect of making them want to be around me more. It doesn’t mean they will roll out the red carpet or wash my car, but it is something to think about.

In pointing your son towards new friends who your son actually enjoys spending time with, see 3) a), you give him options to choose and prune his groups of friends. When you’re lucky, this can have the effect of isolating out the bad elements and making all those who once looked down on him for neediness feel compelled to see him more, if for no other reason, than because he asserted to them that he has value and that they are expendable too.

4) Observe a Continuum of Force.

I served in the Marines and when we deployed to places like Iraq or Afghanistan we had was known as the “continuum of force.” This was part of our rules of engagement and basically translates that when a potential aggressor is taking an action, such as driving too fast toward your guard shack, you take an increased defensive posture, such as attempting more and more vigorously to communicate to them to slow down until you are sure they are a threat. As the vehicle drew closer, you became more aggressive in how you dealt with it. When I joined the Marines I realized that this mirrored the system I was raised with.

For you as the parent, you have to try to classify many different actions which your child might face, grouping them according to severity. In this example, a kid walking up and saying, “Hi Buttface.” shouldn’t be solved the same way that being threatened with a knife would. Each one of these groupings of offenses your child might face can have one simple solution, i.e. tell the teacher, but telling the teacher every time will bring its own very negative social consequences. I can’t tell you how to categorize all these problems, but it is something you have to think about and address them according to your own family’s values. For me growing up, the continuum was rather simple. 1) Ignore the offense/ignore the offender > 2) Tell the person to stop > 3) Tell an adult > 4) Take self defensive actions as necessary.

4) a) Time is a consideration in this. Sometimes, (often) your child will be picked on when there is no adult around. Bullies are smart. They will attempt to isolate victims. You need to teach them to have the judgement to know when a step must be skipped and support him when he makes a judgement call as well as supportively correct him when he could have made a better one.

4) b) You’ll note, if you were reading carefully, that I said that defensive action should be taken when necessary. For me, that sometimes meant violence. Most people would never advocate violence, ever, especially teachers. I, however, know that there are times when it is needed if one is capable of grasping the consequences.

I had one completely unrestrained bully. He ruthlessly picked on me for the better part of a year. He was a year older and had a good fifty pounds on me. I wasn’t actually afraid of this, though. I had martial arts experience and had won several state championships for it. Because of that, however, I was told that if I were to ever get into a fight, I better never throw the first punch. The rule was designed to ensure that I, with my advanced fighting skills, did not become a bully. Ironic isn’t it? I was functioning under rules and a moral structure that was working against me, causing nothing other than unintended consequences.

I was a very quiet child who didn’t need the rule to be passive in most things, but it existed anyway. It wasn’t until after a full year that my mother saw my ongoing depression and forced me to open up (remember point 1 -Opening a Dialogue) that she realised the dilemma I was in. She told me to beat the kid up. It was remarkable to be given that advice. She told me that day, that a man can make any decision he wants, so long as he is willing to pay the consequences. For me, that would probably mean getting suspended and being grounded. Oddly enough, this was exactly what was needed. I go into that story in great detail here: Jon Davis’ answer to What is it like being bullied in school? I advise it for anyone who has had problems dealing with bullies. Please read it before casting judgement on my belief that violence is sometimes necessary. I count that day as the first of three days that defined the man I would become.

One lesson the experience taught me was the truth behind the axiom that a bullies don’t like the taste of their own medicine. They selectively target and prey on the weak. They target the weak because it makes them feel strong. It is empowering to them to see the power they hold over others. When they see that their power is threatened by their source of it, they don’t usually keeping fighting it. They target individuals because they are weak, so once a person stands up, the bully can’t resolve this. More often than not, they will seek out a new target, one which doesn’t challenge their authority. That challenge weakens their own standing, and they know it, so they always gravitate towards the kid who will provide them the greatest satisfaction, i.e. the weakest threat.

As I said, most people would never advocate defending yourself in the way I did. Most people, even experts, have never known what truly being bullied feels like. This whole bullying problem is still something that is theoretical, clinical, something to study. More often than not, they would never tell you something they might feel liable for down the road. Advocating self defence, even pre-emptive self defense in my case, is one of those things good psychologists would never say. If you don’t want to keep that option available to your family, it’s understandable, but know that choice is limiting the power they have. Someone with the knowledge of when to use violence, the morality to know when it is right, and the self control to stop when they no longer need to fight, is not a violent person. They are a force for good.

5) You Can’t Solve this Problem for Him

As I have said before, bullying is an attack on someone for their perceived weaknesses. If a person wants to overcome being bullied, not only today’s bully, but those he will face throughout life, they have to learn to do so on their own. That means without you. Independence is the greatest show of strength and a person who is confident enough to tackle problems without their parents holding their hand is someone who others will view as capable.

You should view your role in this as a mentor. Generally, by the time “bullying” starts, children are not really children anymore. They have reached that six to eight year limbo between child and adulthood where they need to learn how to think for themselves. They are old enough to place their own band aids and they know that if they don’t study they will fail the test. Your job as the nurturer is waning and if it doesn’t transition with their progression into adulthood, you will fail them.

That’s why this answer was structured so that you are the one who is giving advice, showing new options, and opening new doors. You aren’t the one who must walk through those doors. You aren’t the one who must grow. You are the adult. You are the one who has had the experiences. You are the one who is teaching them how to handle situations which they haven’t yet faced. You can’t fight their bullies and you can’t yell at their teachers until they spend their whole career circling your child, protecting them from the bad things when you aren’t around. That definitely won’t help with the ostracism. The only solution, assuming you don’t actually think your child is in literal danger, is to prepare them for the situations they may face in the future. Then you get out of the way, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and cheer them on either way.

Thanks for reading!

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Military Education Doesn’t Mean Uneducated

A question was recently asked of me, “Why is so much power and authority entrusted to those with comparatively low levels of education, such as the common ranks of police and military?” There is a failure in this question. It assumes that a lack of education, which is more clearly interpreted as inadequate schooling, is the same as a lack of intelligence or knowledge. It’s a subtle form of class prejudice, whereby all those who don’t have the means to a “proper education” aren’t capable of being trusted. Having made note of that failure, I must address a second. It assumes that those possessing great power in the military and police are uneducated, meaning that they are not properly schooled with a great deal of actual time in seats at prestigious houses of higher learning. There is an ironic arrogance in that statement, as anyone who would ask it must be profoundly ignorant of how the United States trains its members. I’ve spoken of this before, when a professor in college thought it would was appropriate to explain to a student what an oxymoron was with the adage, “Military Intelligence” to snickers  Being that it was a civilian professor in a room filled with civilian students, I made sure to correct her and the rest of class.

Pictured above is a graduation ceremony of one of the four military academies of the United States. Here officers are trained for four years in everything from leadership to aerodynamics, structural engineering, telecommunications, and law.  They are among the greatest and most exclusive academic organizations in the United States and they supply the United States military with many of the world’s most advanced warfighting masters at only the beginning of their careers. To be accepted to one you must have shown exemplary talent, superior intelligence, and monumental initiative far superior to your peers among the “general” civilian population of pre-college aged youth.

Of course, the academies aren’t the only sources of education. Pictured above are students of the United States Army War College. In case you didn’t notice, I said that these men are students. The college provides graduate level instruction to senior military officers and civilians to prepare them for senior leadership assignments and responsibilities within the Department of Defense and other high value positions. Army applicants must have already completed the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the required Professional Military Education for officers in the rank of major. The College is one of the three senior such institutions including the Naval War College and the Air War College. A major focus of the school is placed on research and progressing military theory. Students are also instructed in leadership, strategy, and joint-service/international operations. When the students, Colonels and Lt. Colonels in the US military among others, complete the courses, the college grants its graduates a master’s degree in Strategic Studies.

The last two examples, though, focused specifically on military officers. The elite leadership of the United States military. Beyond this, there is the enlisted side. Pictured above is a training taking place at one of the Marine Corps Recruit Depots where 18 year old young men are transformed into elite fighting riflemen. Education is not about the time one spends in a classroom. It isn’t even about the knowledge that one acquires. It is about the transformation a person endures. As a person who has both graduated Marine Corps boot camp and a person who graduated cum laude from a four year university, I can honestly say that the growth I experienced in three months of boot camp was far, far more valuable than the education I received in four years of college. Without going into specifics on boot camp (which I have) undervaluing the experience that military enlisted professionals is a grave mistake.

Besides that, every Marine, Soldier, Airmen, Sailor, whatever, spends months, if not years, in technical training schools taking part in world class technical instruction and certification. These schools cram more education into a few short months than others in civilian trade schools could hope for in years of paid tutelage. Here, students fresh out of high school become trade professionals in advanced fields such as linguistics, satellite communications, and aviation technician repair specialist. I’m proud to say that my first specialty was a computer guy in the Marines. Yes, we have those. That MOS now specializes in information warfare, and in the war of the future you might just find some 21 year old Corporal hacking distant foreign servers to bring down their anti-air capabilities prior to an attack. A similarly trained individual in the civilian education system is lucky to even get a job making sure that the email is being delivered.

I can’t speak for the police officers of this country. I’ve never served with them, but I know enough to respect their qualifications. I do know that they aren’t just some barbarian with a badge and a gun. My sister herself is going through college to get her degree in Criminal Justice with hopes of joining the force. Having said that, I know that they are also well educated, much more than this question would assume. Considering how much risk they take everyday, often surpassing even that of deployed Marines such as myself, I feel that dismissing them as uneducated is profoundly ungrateful and disrespectful, besides also being ignorant of the sacrifices they make just to be sworn police officers. This is especially true when those making these assumptions do so because they simply haven’t invested the time to rid themselves of their own ignorance.

I’ve spoken often of the prejudices against the military as being a class of individuals designated as being fit only for the lessers of society who couldn’t get into college. As a college graduate myself, I can honestly say that I felt that the demands and capabilities of our higher education system are severely lacking. They lack the fundamental quality that a system that is supposed to prepare you for your future should have, they don’t motivate you to learn, and they don’t offer the slightest guarantee that the education they provide will be relevant once you stop taking out student loans to pay them. There is a myth that I think young people aren’t aware they have, that by being at a college, one will simply absorb “smartness” from brilliant professors and expensive facilities. They, however, don’t want to learn. They want to be there, get their piece of paper and go on to have success handed to them. Perhaps they lack a significant training and cultural indoctrination period that molds them into good students (like boot camp.) Quite honestly, though, colleges don’t do much more than allow, if not promote, the idea by lowering standards to bolster attendance while increasing tuition on an exponential scale.

I remember the most disturbing thing I have ever heard in my life was the semester before graduation hearing the words from my student councilor that the economy wasn’t hiring new graduates because they lacked the skills needed in the business world. My jaw dropped and she shrugged. So much for a college education.

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Military Intelligence is an Oxymoron? I Think Not.

I was in class some time ago when a professor made a joke about the meaning of the word oxymoron. For those unaware, an oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. She gave examples like “Act Naturally” and “Aunt Jemima Light”, but then she mentioned another that struck a chord with me. As she snickered away, the last one she said was “Military Intelligence.” The class full of college freshmen, not unlike myself at the time, laughed at that one too. The professor knew that I was a Marine and that I had served two tours in Iraq, one of which ended less than six months before, so she knew this was a mistake I would not take lightly. I saw the look on her face as she saw the look on mine when she suddenly remembered.

She gathered herself and attempted to move back to whatever lesson was slated for that day. Whatever it was, that wasn’t the lesson they would be receiving.

“Ma’am,” I interrupted.

“Are you aware of what it takes to re-calculate the trajectory of an object traveling at 3,110 feet per second for a three inch change in elevation at 5 times the length of a standard football field when factoring in for wind speed and direction, as well as factoring for differences in elevation?” (Marine recruits do in week six of their basic training.)

Trajectory 2

“Furthermore, I feel that it is important to note that by the time many military people have reached the age of twenty-two they have become experts in occupations and fields of study that takes years for civilians to achieve.”

This is true, be it Infantry (0300 Military Occupation Specialty series), Engineers (MOS 1300 series)  a data network specialist (MOS 0650 series) or (here’s a fun one) 2834– Satellite Communications (SATCOM) Technician. Most have, by that time, achieved the rank of E-4 or E-5 and been given responsibility of a small team of 4 up to a squad of 13 (that’s like an assistant manager for people in college working at the fry kitchen.) Let’s also not forget that many have learned to perform their job under harsh climate, horrible living conditions and the threat of someone shooting at them.

“And while wars like Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for far too long, you may be hard pressed to find a military battle since Korea that ended in an American defeat. As you may also know, since so many students declined military service because you don’t like taking orders, the military is not free to go about and do as it will freely. They are following orders. Orders given to them by politicians. Politicians…you voted for.”

“And as an additional note, I am making an A in this class, as well as all my others.”

Calculation sheet used to make marksmanship “less complicated.”

I felt I made my point clearly, in spite of my lack of modesty. The issue stuck with me though. It does bother me that so many people perceive the Military as being synonymous with adjectives such as boorish, crash, or doltish, i.e. stupid. Oh they always thank us when they see us at work, church, or the bar. “I sure do respect what you boys did for us over there,” but they still don’t believe we could carry on an intellectual conversation with anything beyond a six year, much less anyone else. We’re sadly typecast into roles around being disciplinarians, authoritarians, or the types of guys who will be “kicking in doors” for the organization. If roles such as these do not exist, we’re looked over in a manner that is becoming societally unsettling. We couldn’t add to a company for our empathy, our artistic abilities, for our overwhelming scope with respect to the world and it’s people. We are forever known by one overriding perception; the military is made of people who went straight to the military and have received little or no college education, and since a college education is the equivalent to educated, that doesn’t shine a very bright light on military folks. That is all most civilians will ever have to go on.

What the average person doesn’t understand is that most MOS (Military Occupational Speciality) schools require a grade of 80 or above on each and every test or you fail out of the course (and mine was much harder than anything I took in college.) Few are aware of the massive education system that exists within the military for its members. They also don’t know that by the time a military person is nineteen, many have been deployed overseas, where they did the most extreme version of their particular specialty in the world. I was a Data Network Specialist. That is the equivalent to the company network administrator who sets up the computers, runs the switches and servers for five hundred people. Yeah, the Marines have computer nerds too, but our computer nerds can shoot an open sights rifle from five hundred yards away, run three miles in less than twenty minutes and have green belts in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (that’s like mixed martial arts, except the ultimate goal is that the other guy stops fighting for good.) The only other difference between what I did in the military and what a civilian does is that I also dug the three mile trench for the fiber optic cable as well as replaced a relay station when it was hit by rocket fire. My friends and I ran code and we ran convoys.


By the time I was twenty one I was on my second deployment and headed a small team. I worked as a part of a security team and in a week learned over four hundred words in Arabic that I needed to communicate with locals. That is enough to have a conversation with someone, which I was forced to more than I would like. It had it’s upsides, though. For instance, if you need to communicate with Iraqi army personnel, who just so happen to be curious how much you would sell your iPod for if you might get a good deal for your sister-in-law on the Iraqi arranged marriages market, or if anyone around had heard of a men with bombs (pronounced ka-na-buhl in Arabic. Go ahead, Google it if you don’t believe me.) When I was twenty-two I was responsible for ensuring that over $3 million worth of gear in the form of new laptops, switchboards, servers and accessories safely and completely changed hands along with all necessary updates, installs and user modifications.

Air Force officials are seeking volunteers for future training classes to produce operators of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)
Air Force officials are seeking volunteers for future training classes to produce operators of the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

What I think is interesting is that in the military, this isn’t that special. Many military people reading this are saying to themselves “I had it harder” or “my job was a lot worse than that” and they would be right. I suppose you could ask an engineer about how to build a house, or like ours who build forty living spaces in a week. You could also ask a 40 year old department manager what it takes to handle fifteen thousand units through the warehouse in a month, or you could ask a 26 year old army logistics chief to do the same thing. For those real academics out there I will ask it this way “If two vessels are traveling towards each other, one heading east at 40 knots with a 10 knot headwind and the other traveling west at 32 knots and a 6 knot headwind and they are 4200 miles apart, how long before they meet? A butterbar ensign in the Navy could tell you that. Oh, but a civilian in my job made three times my salary, and if he ever got shot at doing his job it was a news breaking event. That’s different. So what I am curious about is “What ignorant person thinks people like me are stupid?”

As a special note, I graduated three years after that conversation with that professor and the class. I earned a degree in a school where a four year degree, which takes most students five, in three and half. I also graduated cum laude in the top 15% of my class. That is out of the 50% or so that made it to graduation from when they laughed at a funny joke about people like me and our inferior intelligence. Since then, I’ve worked in a Silicon Valley startup and am now teacher and a writer, with one book under my belt and another on the way. Although my family and others in my life were instrumental in pushing me through every step of the way, I know that really set me apart in achieving all of this was my intelligence, my military intelligence. 

– Joncropped-maxresdefault.jpg

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