19 February 2010

Rhodes Sholar to Navy SEAL

This morning, I heard from Eric Greitens, a Rhodes and Truman scholar and Navy SEAL officer. He's done humanitarian work in eight countries, served in combat hunting top Al Queda operatives, and now runs an organization called "The Mission Continues", dedicated to challenging wounded warriors to continue their service to their nation in many different ways.

He began his speech by telling us about the Hoplites of Athens. The defenders of the first democracy were the first citizen soldiers. When their shields were joined, it looked as if it was all one shield. They were called "the shield of Athens".

We, then, are the shield of America: "When we're serving, we're not simply representing America; we are America in action." When you kick in a door in Fallujah, when you're manning a checkpoint outside the city, when you're distributing food in Rwanda... those people you interact won't be coming to St. Louis or San Diego or Chicago. Their experience with you is the only American experience they'll ever have.

Dr. Greiters went on to speak about courage, things he'd learned in refugee camps and in BUD/S (SEAL training). "We have an uneven level of courage," he said, like the national heavyweight boxing champion too afraid to confront his gardener over an overcharged bill. Soldiers often have great courage in combat, but when it comes to facing people at home, they hide. I can't really blame them.

Courage is easier to have when we're in the fight, when we're doing the task. Dr. Greiters told us about Hell Week, the hardest part of the hardest military training in the world. On the second night, the instructors took all the trainees out to the beach and had them watch the sunset. Then they came over the megaphone:

"This is only the second night."

"That water's only getting colder."

"If you quit now, you'll get hot coffee and doughnuts."

Men began running to ring the bell, to quit. As Dr. Greiters said, "Who would've thought that the hardest thing in SEAL training would be to stand on the beach and watch the sunset... I could count on one hand the men number of people who quit when we had started something. They quit when they thought about how hard it was going to be."

He went on to talk about how to build courage and purpose in people who have lost their reasons for purpose and courage: refugees and wounded soldiers. Wounded soldiers who can't return to their unit are heartbroken. Refugees have lost everything they've ever known.

The way to inspire purpose in these people is not to give them things. It's to challenge them to give something back. Wounded warriors need to hear "thank you" and "we still need you".

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