On Mental Strength

If you had the chance to write something for elitefts™, what would you write that hasn’t already been written?  You can only talk about special exercises, technique, training programs and diets for so long before it’s all the same stuff, over and over again. You’d need to think “outside of the gym,” so that’s what I did.

I started wondering who the biggest bad-asses on the face of the earth really are and I've got to give top honors to the men and women of our armed forces. I can think of no other situation in which people volunteer to give so much for so little in return. It truly takes a special breed of person to enlist in the military. I served in the Marine Corps for four years—naturally, I like to think that the Marine Corps is a little more bad-assed than the Army or the Navy, but please don’t mistake my pride in the ‘Corps as disrespect.

I started doing some research and I found that there were tons of famous Marines, 50 of which became professional athletes: boxers, football players, coaches, wrestlers and Olympians (for the Matt Kroc fans, sorry he didn’t make the list).  Founders of famous chains like Dominos, Little Caesars and Taco Bell were also former-Marines. If that’s not enough, you can thank a Marine for those Danica Patrick “GoDaddy” commercials. It’s difficult to dispute that there is some kind of correlation between Marines and success.

I could write an article about myself and what I learned when I was in the Marine Corps, and while there are things I could share that could be helpful to you, I wanted to give you the absolute best that I could come up with. How about someone who taught Navy Seals and Army Rangers? Someone who has been on the front lines and knows a thing or two about what it takes to succeed in life-and-death struggles?

Caylen Wojcik is all of these things and more. I met him when we were 17 or 18 years old and we were preparing to ship out for Marine Corps Boot Camp. I remember him saying that he was going to be a sniper and, I have to be honest, I had my doubts. Marine Corps Scout/Sniper school is no joke: the attrition rate for that school is somewhere around 60 percent, meaning only 4 out of every 10 men meet the standard to be snipers. I didn’t stay in touch with him and I never knew what became of him until about six months ago. That’s when I learned that he succeeded in becoming a sniper; he was actually so damn good at what he did, that he became an instructor at sniper school. In 2004, he was deployed to Iraq where he handled business until he was taken out of the fight by enemy rocket fire.

I arranged an interview with Caylen. I wanted to find out what made him so mentally tough and, as you read through the following transcript, try to take what he’s saying and apply it to your own training/preparation and your life. I hope that it helps you become a strong(er) person.
Ken Friend: Before you even went into the Marine Corps, I remember you said that you wanted to be a sniper and that did come to fruition. Did you always have that drive?

Caylen Wojcik:Yeah, I decided I wanted to be a sniper when I was about 15 years old. I read a couple of books, it sounds kind of cheesy, but I read a couple of books and one of those books was Carlos Hathcock’s story (Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills). Obviously I’ve always been fascinated with shooting and realized that was definitely something I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to be in the military—I hadn’t at the time figured out whether I wanted to be a Marine or whether I wanted to be in the Army. As a matter of fact, the only reason I’m not in the Army is because the recruiter really pissed me off and I basically told him to go kick rocks.

KF: Hahaha.

CW: He bothered the shit out of me. I decided I was going to become a Marine, I knew that I wanted to be a sniper and I knew that Marine Snipers were the best and that’s what I wanted to do.

KF: Throughout your training, were there ever times that you questioned what you wanted to do?

CW: In terms of being a Marine, no. Being at boot camp and recruit training and all this stuff is no fun, it’s no picnic. You and I both know that everybody goes through those thoughts where you’re like “What the hell am I doing here?”

When you go to do something like sniper school or indoctrination to get into sniper school and the pre-sniper course was the hardest thing, it made sniper school a breeze. They really pounded us, they really kicked our balls in…hard. It was designed that way, for a purpose, so that when we did go to sniper school you were like “This is all you’ve got for me? This is ridiculous.” But during some of those nights when you’re doing a circle-jerk PT (physical training) session and you’re on eight-count bodybuilder number 364 and the fourth instructor is rotating in to take over, yeah, you’re asking yourself “Oh my God! How much longer can I do this?” Or when it’s 2:30 in the morning, frickin’ February, and you’re crawling through the surf in the surf zone wet and sandy, piggy-backing with a reconnaissance team doing a surf observation and you’re using that as an insert to go on a mission, you’re like  “Yeah, this sucks!” But it’s all in the moment and it’s no fun when you’re doing it, but I would never go back and I would never trade it for anything in the world.

KF: Can you recall anything that comes to mind that helps you to really push through during those times that are a real struggle? I remember from boot camp, the drill instructors would say the mind will want to quit long before the body ever will.

CW: Actually your mind will take your body a lot further than you ever thought it could go. Your mind, as long as you stay in that mindset, my mindset was “I’m not going to quit, never, I will never quit. I don’t care what it is, I will never quit.” The only thing we used to talk about when we would mention the word “quit” is when we were talking about the guys who HAD QUIT, and that’s it. Because if someone was talking about quitting and you knew they were a good dude, obviously you did your best to try and talk them out of it. But hey, that’s your fight, that’s not my fight, that’s your fight. I can only do so much to motivate you. In the end, when it’s you and me and two other dudes and we’re 10 miles from the nearest friendly position and I only have myself and three other guys to rely on, that really changes the perspective on a lot of things and people don’t really grasp that until it actually happens. It’s one thing to talk about it and be all gung-ho and motto (motivated) about the shit but then when you first step foot outside of that wire ,or you get off the truck or that helicopter, you’re on your own and when that realization hits– that it’s just you and three other dudes – that is a defining moment in your career.

KF: What was the most difficult aspect of sniper school or pre-sniper school?

CW: The most difficult aspect was never knowing when it was going to end, that was the biggest mental struggle for me. The indoc’, it was basically five days of physical anguish. Pre-sniper school, again, was basically six weeks, Monday to Friday, start the morning at 0400 and you end the day at 0200. You never knew when it was going to end and that, I think, is the hardest thing for the mind to handle. I remember one time we had screwed up on the range and we were bear-crawling from the 100-yard line to the 500 and back, and we started bear crawling at 1530 in the afternoon and it was well beyond dark when we stopped. When you don’t know and you hear them say “again” and your mind whittles a little bit away – you just have to have that mental mindset, “I’m not going to quit, I don’t care how long this takes, I can put up with anything.” It’s mainly like, if you look at BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal), BUD/S is world-renowned as being one of the most difficult schools in the world in terms of special ops and it very well could be; I’ve never been through the school so I don’t know. They have a week-long evolution called “Hell Week.” If you know that you’re doing something for a week and that’s it, then you can put up with f*%$ing anything. It’s a totally different mental mindset when you’re in a situation when you don’t know when it’s going to end and you don’t know what’s coming next.

KF: So when they were running you through some of this trash, after the fact, did you build on some of those successes? Like, yesterday was a real bitch and I made it through yesterday, so I don’t care what they throw at me today?

CW: Absolutely man. And you know we joke about it and we look back on it and say, “Remember that time they fit 18 of us in a porta-shitter?” That sucked, but it was funny. Now, you look back and just try harder and work harder because, “The harder we work, the faster we move, the less we get f'd with.” You build on it every single day. It becomes a game, it just becomes a game.

KF: In the sport of powerlifting, it’s important to have a strong team around you that is constantly pushing you do be better. Is it the same way for snipers?

CW: Yeah. The beauty about being a sniper is, I can probably compare it to powerlifting because people aren’t going to powerlift unless they want to, right? It’s the same thing with being a sniper; you’re not going to be a sniper unless you want to. There’s no way that you’re going to graduate, no way that you’re going to pass, there’s no way that you’re going to successfully complete the school and all of the training and do it without wanting to be there. There is that 10 percent, there’s always that 10 percent no matter where you go, in life, in the military, in the civilian life, there’s always that 10 percent. You know what, those guys, that 10 percent even if they do squeak through the cracks and graduate, they are very quickly identified in their platoon and they are shunned, they don’t last long.

KF: I can understand that—I wouldn’t want to be out in the trenches with someone who didn’t want to be there because he’s not going to be giving his best.

CW: Exactly, and that’s what it’s all about it about every time you go on; whether it be on a training operation or a real mission, you have to give 110 percent each and every second that you’re out there because everyone else is depending on you and you’re depending on everyone else, as well. When you're around people that want to be there, you motivate each other, you keep each other going, whether that be through joking around or the relentless banter that is always part of being a Marine. You pick each other up when you’re down and you carry each other. You don’t get through it by yourself, you get through it as a team.

KF: I understand that while you were teaching the Scout/Sniper Basic Course at Camp Pendleton in 2001, you had both SEALS and Army Rangers at times? Were you responsible for just marksmanship or was there a physical-fitness component to the training?

CW: The command would not let us add training hours to the day, so we did what good NCOs usually do and frickin’ adapt and overcome and we decided that— roger that, you’re not going to let us put PT in the training schedule then we’re just going to PT before the training schedule. Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 0400 PT. So we’d show up and PT with the students for two hours from 0400-0600, and then at 0600 they could go get cleaned up, get chow and be at the armory at 0700 ready to go hot on the range.

I had these two SEAL Lieutenants in one of my classes, and I will never forget these two guys. They had just graduated BUDS and they were just getting into the teams and they had gotten the chance to come to sniper school and this little guy’s name was Lieutenant JG Barkuff. There’s was NOTHING that I could do to kill this guy, nothing. We would PT, 0400 PT, thrash during the day. I’d be driving home and I’d see Barkuff running towards the ASV at Pendleton, he would do a 10-mile run after school. These two guys scored 300 PFTS’s (physical fitness test, 300 is a perfect score) regularly; they were just really solid dudes.

KF: So, I would imagine that pretty much answers my next question: As an instructor, did you encounter anyone who didn’t want to be there that required a little extra motivation?

CW: It’s a little different than boot camp for us, because the way we look at it is I shouldn’t have to fucking motivate you. If your classmates want to motivate you, that’s fine, but I’m not going to motivate you as an instructor. I’m here to do a job and I’m here to break you and if you break you’re gone and you go home. My job is to maintain the standard, if you cannot maintain that standard, you have to go. That’s just the way it is. If I saw a kid that really wanted to be there and he was struggling with a certain area of academics whether it be marksmanship, stalking or something like that, of course, that is my job and duty as an instructor to give that guy the help that he needs, as long as he is showing the desire to succeed and do well. If he’s some shit-bag who is not applying himself, I have way too many other students who need my attention. Basically, it’s survival of the fittest: you fall to the wayside, you get thrown to the wolves. This is the way that it is.

The biggest attrition killers in school are stalking and marksmanship; these are the areas that we, as instructors, have to focus on to help these kids get through it and qualify and obtain enough points during the stalking phase to graduate.

KF: I’ve seen the stalking phase on television and that was close enough for me.

CW: Stalking is one of those things that is an art. It’s an art that if you don’t have it, there’s not a million instructors in the world that are going to give it to you. The instructors can give you the fundamentals, they can give you the building blocks, but it’s up to you to go out and just basically wait for that light bulb to turn on and say “OK, I got the shit now…no big deal.” It’s something you’ve either got or you don’t.

KF: I was reading an interview that you did for “Shooting Times” (j. Guthrie) and he quotes you as saying:

"There are guys who show up to my courses, start having a bad day, and immediately blame it on their rifle or scope," Wojcik said. "You have to break it down for them and say, ‘Hey man, there is nothing wrong with your equipment.’ Know that you are going to miss and accept the fact. Good long-range shooters will identify why they fail and work towards making sure it doesn’t happen again. Mind-set relates to training, knowing your capabilities and limitations."

KF: Do you think that the limitation of capabilities is mostly physical or mostly mental?

CW: It’s a combination of both. One of the things you’ve got to do when you’re training, you have to train to failure, whether that’s with a physical ability or a mental ability or fine motor skill ability. Like manipulating a weapon system, I can only manipulate a weapon system so fast before I fail, before I start fumbling with that magazine, that speed reload, or before I’m moving at Mach 2, my mind is moving so fast that my hands cannot keep up…

That’s a point where you need to identify your failure point and slow it down. That means, drop down a gear and work at this speed until you can accomplish this task, whether it be physically, mentally or any other capacity you have and then once you establish at that speed, you can start picking up the speed a little more and shift into a higher gear to work towards that end goal. You always have to train to a FAILURE POINT because you have to know where that is. Once you establish where that failure point is, now you build on it and you push that failure point even further.

KF: Identify the weaknesses and turn them into strengths!

CW: Exactly, exactly. Anyone who is a professional athlete that utilizes a skill professionally, they know that.

KF: Is there anything else that you wanted to share with the readers?

CW: Preparing somebody, key points to help people prepare their minds for a difficult evolution. Your mind will take your body a lot farther than you ever thought it would go, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Your mind is going to be the weakest link in the chain.

KF: I agree, you’ve got that split-mind, where part of your mind is saying, “Give up, I can’t do this,” but once you push that aside, you’re able to do some crazy stuff.

CW: Yep, you really can. One of my former students, Sgt. Ethan Place, was a sniper with Second Battalion First Marines (awarded the Silver Star for his role as a sniper while participating in Operation Vigilant Resolve, First battle of Fallujah, April, 2004). During sniper school, we used to have this evolution called “Trail of Tears.” It was the final evening of Hell Week. Basically what we would do is give the students a patrol order and they would execute an ex-filtration movement. This was a 20-mile movement. Along that movement, we would harass them, we would throw smoke and CS (tear/riot gas – it burns and it’s no fun to breathe) at them, make them call fire mission, walk them into ambushes, just to do as much as we possibly could to stress their minds when they were already extremely tired, mentally and physically, and they haven’t eaten. This is the failure point that we want to test them on and see if they can really keep their minds in the game.

One of these evolutions we give them casualty and they have to move that casualty with all of their equipment, all of their mission essential gear, they can’t drop any gear. I spoke with Ethan after we had both gotten done with the Fallujah go-around. Ethan told me a story about carrying one of his teammates off of a rooftop and the only thing they had to carry this guy on was a steel door that had gotten blown off of the hinges. It was April and the steel door was burning hot. He and another guy carried this Marine on this steel door using it as a stretcher, and he said “The whole time I was doing that I thought about the Trail of Tears. I thought about carrying that stretcher with that guy with his ruck with two sandbags in it and how I didn’t think I could go any farther, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s what got me through it and that’s what helped me get that casualty back to the Corpsman.”

That was the most profound statement that I’ve ever been told and it really solidified our purpose as instructors at sniper school. For him to say that, that’s what I thought about when I was under fire, in combat trying to evacuate a casualty before the guy bled out and to complete that task and go right back out there to shoot more bad guys.

Have the mindset “Don’t quit, don’t ever quit.”

KF: A big part of this interview is that I wanted to take this further than the basic Marine Corps mentality and find the baddest individual and see what he had to say about everything.

CW: Ha! Ha! Well, I can tell you man, we all want to have that type-A personality, but you have to be careful of that and stay humble. We all want to be the badass, but you’ve got to know that there’s always going to be someone around that corner that can shoot faster than you, that can shoot better than you that can move faster than you and that’s always got to be in the back of your mind when you’re training and when you’re trying to obtain those goals and identify those failure points.

KF: I know powerlifting is a far-cry from what you do, but I’ve always felt the same way. If you’re always walking around like you’re the baddest man on the face of the earth and you know it all, you’ll eventually find out that you’re wrong.

CW: That’s right, that’s absolutely right…at that point in time you’re going to look like a total jackass. We’re on the same sheet of music.

Caylen Wojcik is the Director of Training / Precision Rifles Division at Magpul and is also the owner of Central Cascade Precision. 


Semper Fidelis!