The Lost LT

One week into my new unit, and one of the lieutenants in my Battery said my OER blog helped him. This made me [almost] cry! I definitely blushed. Just recently, a Captain e-mailed me just to tell me “Great job” on my writing. I didn’t know this guy, and he found the blog helpful for his future Platoon Leaders! I was then 100% reminded of why I write. I think I started getting into that rut. You know, the one you fall into when you don’t find satisfaction from your current occupation and you’re just so tired. All the time. For me, this often happens because I don’t feel like I’m fulfilling my perceived mission in life. Whether you believe that mission comes before or after your “essence” (Sartre, anyone?), it doesn’t matter. It’s so easy to get caught in the weeds of meaning. More like…brambles. Lots and lots of prickly brambles. So here I am, the Hermione Granger of your life shining a light into the Devil’s Snare that is lieutenant-ship.

If you didn’t get that reference, it was from Harry Potter…geez.

The doe-eyed LT

My friend and I sat on the balcony of my new apartment. We overlooked the lights of the homes sparkling in the sunset as the mountains cast a shadow over the small valley in the distance. We began to do this often as an unofficial tradition that we comfortably grew into as a part of winding down for the week. There’s something about German summers that makes a person ponder life. Or, maybe it was the wine.

Today’s topic had taken a familiar turn, with me, going on my usual Nihilistic rants.

“Sometimes when I think of it, I just rationalize we’re all going to die one day. For some reason, that makes me feel better. I know that we’re all headed down the same path, so how we influence others now is what matters. That way, at least we’re having some type of effect on the future through the way we treat people. So, even little things, like when I say “Good morning” to a Soldier with a positive attitude makes me feel a sense of purpose.”  

“Do you really think that?” my prior service friend skeptically arched her eyebrows and peered at me through her glass.

Very momentarily, I hesitated. Was this the truth, or was I trying to evade the feelings of anxiety I often have when faced with my impermanence?

Finally, I found a friend who understood my skepticism and feelings of absurdity. Absurdity as in…my life feeling absurd. Fortunately, and unfortunately, she could challenge me instead of nodding and looking confused whenever I shared my general ambiguity with life and current work. Such are the plights of a Philosophy student.

After a moment of thought, I looked her in the eye. With a hint of self-assurance, I replied, “Yes. I do.”

Her combat hardened mind, however, drove a small wedge into my still squishy and optimistic brain as I tried to explain that I find fulfillment in the Army when I interact with my Soldiers. Even on days when I’m stuck in meetings for hours, at least I greeted PV2 Snuffy with a smile in the morning, and maybe—just maybe—that was the one thing that brightened his day. Besides moments like this, sometimes I feel the Army has attempted to compensate menial and sometimes unexplainable tasks with the promise of a paycheck and benefits. Not to say these amenities aren’t GREAT, but are the long hours and stress worth it?

Sometimes I’m left to wonder…do I belong in the Army?

Even for the “pogue-y” Air Defender like me, Army life can be difficult. I think life can be hardest for the new Lieutenant and junior Captain for three main reasons:

1. We’re trying the figure out what we want to do with our lives! Do I stay in the Army? Do I find meaning and purpose in the Army? Do I even like the Army?

2. We enter the Army with the rosy expectation of joining an organization with highspeed Officers and NCOs who are ready to mentor and shape us, but the reality does not always match.

3. We don’t have as much control over our destinies and our units’ destinies as we originally thought. Training plans coordinated weeks in advance are often shot down due to more “urgent” taskings from higher, and this often leads to a sense of unpredictability, and worse, loss of trust in the leadership that claims to protect training. 

If any this sounds familiar to you, do not worry, you’re not alone. I believe that part of the reason for junior Officers’ disenchantment with the Army is that it does not serve the needs of the generation of budding entrepreneurs, fighters for social change, and those who feel their skills are better suited for an occupation that matches their passion and skill set, but with less bureaucracy.  

These small, existential crises coupled with unmet expectations can become exhausting when they occur more often than not. The exhaustion transforms into a feeling of emptiness that comes from working long hours, rushing from one task to the next, and arriving home to simply eat and sleep. Of course, this is not a daily occurrence, but it is enough to cause me to ponder: Are we forced to sift like sand in the desert façade we’ve created for ourselves?

Two different things…

Conversely, even deserts house diverse and essential ecosystems.

Take stock in the small joys of your vital role as a Platoon Leader, Chemical Officer, Assistant S3, oh yeah, and Executive Officer. Remember the Soldier who took the time to ask you how your day is going? What about that time your platoon passed a Battalion exercise with flying colors because they trained so hard? And yesterday, when SPC Smith drank soap water because he thought it was juice? Ok, maybe not as meaningful, but that definitely made you laugh.

Passion for the Army and passion for accomplishing tasks that require dedication and teamwork are not the same. You don’t have to love or even like the Army to find joys within your daily duties.

Understandably, however, these small joys become lost in the muddle of multi-colored power points and drowned out in the sea of meetings.

Go back to your roots. Define your values. Most Officers that I know joined the Armed Forces as a way to serve others and to express their gratitude for the privileges offered to them by living in the US. When I feel lost, I revisit my values.

I reflect, “Did I do my best today? Did my actions align with my values of serving others? If I were to die tomorrow, would I be happy with the way I led my life today?” If I performed according to my ideals, then I must chalk the rest up to occurrences beyond my control. If I made mistakes that day that my supervisor so nicely pointed out, then I learn from them and try not to make those mistakes again. By focusing on the small joys, defining and acting according to your standards, most else will fall into place.

When “counting your blessings” isn’t enough.

I know what some of you may be thinking… “This girl is basically preaching an ‘attitude of gratitude.’ Give me a break.”

Thinking positively is a habit that is difficult to maintain. It becomes especially difficult when you encounter others in your work environment that don’t seem to care. Even worse, when the espoused values of the Army such as selfless service do not seem to align with enacted values, work becomes pretty frustrating. This an extreme bone of contention when dealing with an unhealthy command climate or toxic leadership. How am I supposed to find value and meaning in an organization that doesn’t care about its people?

Even as an Officer who never directly experienced a toxic command, I experienced similar frustrations to the ones mentioned above. Sometimes I feel like I’m in this complicated relationship where I keep giving my partner a chance because he takes me on cool trips outside of the US, and is generally a well-meaning person. In these moments, I gaze at him, give him a half-smile and think, “Yeah. We’re going to be ok.” Then, he says something stupid or contradicts himself. He starts acting possessive. In those times, I just stare into nothingness and wonder how I ended up in this relationship in the first place.

There are a few things you can do in response to a floundering partnership…

You can give up. Do nothing. Don’t write. Don’t read. Stop traveling. Let yourself get lazy and unhealthy. Drone away on episodes of New Girl. Munch on some chocolate and stare off into the distance day-dreaming of past lovers and beaches and opening a philosophy café. This will likely leave you and your partner unfulfilled, unloved and unsatisfied…in more ways than one.  

You can leave the relationship. And that’ ok, too. If you discover it’s healthier for you to move on and pursue other interests, then that’s what you should do.

In the contracted time you cannot pack your bags and move on, however, you can work on another relationship…with yourself. How funny is it that some couples love to focus on the other’s shortcomings without first taking an introspective look? In a similar way that you will never change your partner, you will be hard-pressed to change the Army. In a paradoxical way, the angst caused by the Army has forced me to be free. Starting my blog did not come from a place of wedded bliss with the Army. My blog began from built-up anger and frustration. I harbored anger with myself for making stupid mistakes. I clung on to frustration with the meetings and the slides and the colors and the paperwork and leadership…with everything and everyone from a perceived lack of control.

I finally realized, though, that I had plenty of control—over myself, my time and my actions. I began to write about my experiences as a creative escape. I listened to French parlor music again and ate avocado toast like a good wanna-be hipster. I bought a yoga mat and divulged in an at-home yoga practice. I began reading books on personal development and listening to podcasts on the way to work, or in the gym. I prepared my meals for the next day, and I went to sleep feeling accomplished. Finally, I wasn’t achieving tasks for outside approval or external gratification. I worked for Ive. I worked for myself.  

And even then…

But, what do you do when you enter the abyss and nothing feels right? What do you do on those days when your Commander just lectured you about lack of planning and the S-3 hated your range brief? When your end of contract date constantly lurks in the back of your mind while you’re blasting Rise Against on the radio on the way to PT? For some reason, good habits are the easiest to break.

Start again. And again. And again. Remember how good it feels to take care of yourself and make yourself a priority.

Revisit why you joined in the first place.

Remember your Soldiers.

That way, next time your friend challenges you on how you create meaning, you don’t hesitate. You simply reply, “Yes.” And move on.

“All that is gold does not glitter; not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither; deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien