What Are You Going to Do with Yours?

Just days away from my fourth deployment in five calendar years, I'm accustomed to the routine—the frantic fitting and packing of the appropriate gear, the vehicle maintenance and administration ensuring that my family will be able to carry on with minimal strain and maximal safety, the arrangements with neighbors to cut the lawn or watch over the household, the updating of wills and power-of-attorney, and the paying up on all the put off promises to push my little girl on the swing, go on that long bike ride with my boys, or take the wife out on that one on one dinner date. These last things are the hardest because with each push of the swing, you wonder if it will be the last time you'll ever hear your little girl giggle, the last time you'll be able to watch whether or not you’ve taught your boys not to quit in the face of that long, daunting hill, the last time you'll see your wife’s smile reflected in the candlelight. It's during these last few days that you begin to reflect and ask yourself, “Am I ready to go (and I mean from this world) knowing that I did all I could for them?”

During this reflection, I wonder if the things I pursued in this life were for something tangible. Have I used the qualities gained for the greater good? As it relates to my physical training, why have I suffered through the aches in my knees, hip pain, and back and shoulder injuries in the pursuit of strength?

Pursuit of strength

Growing up in Iowa surrounded by wrestling gods and hard living blue-collar farmers, I had always wanted to be strong. As a young boy, I’d seen my dad lift iron and remember being in awe as he pressed what I thought was an insurmountable weight of 200 lbs above his broad chest. He’d told me at that time that I should strive to lift my own body weight. Wanting to be as strong as my dad, I strived for just that. When I hit that mark years later, I felt on top of the world and will always remember the time, while helping with chores in the fields, when he told me he needed someone strong like me to help move some machinery. I thought that we had reached some type of common ground, some equality, and that I had joined some unofficial strong man’s club. More importantly, because of my strength, I had a purpose.

It wasn’t until college, still without any idea about how to lift or do it properly, that I was able to pass the 200-lb mark on the bench press. Reflecting on the time that I sat in awe of my dad in that clubhouse gym, I could hardly contain myself in regards to my “gigantic feat” and immediately called my dad to share the good news. I continued to lift on and off again without any real purpose except to be as strong as my dad. I wasn’t athletic enough to participate in collegiate sports. Therefore, there wasn't any reason to pursue strength except to satisfy some internal male need. Unfortunately, distracted by girls, school, and drinking, oftentimes this meant that the only time I would hit the gym was to blow off some steam or get a good pump. Maybe I was using my strength to appeal to girls. It apparently worked, as my wife now tells me that the first thing she was drawn to was my broad shoulders.

Marine Corps

But it wasn’t until the Marine Corps when I started to regain a true purpose for my pursuit of strength. In preparation for screening, I picked up every magazine I could, studied them harder than I had any college course, and successfully shed 40 lbs of excess body fat and replaced it with lean muscle. Finally, I faced my first screening—a three-mile run (worth 100 points if completed in 18 minutes or less), pull-ups (20 reps for 100 points), and sit-ups (100 reps in two minutes or less for 100 points). I scored a 265 out of a possible 300, hitting my pull-ups and sit-ups but struggling on the run. After a month of waiting, I finally got the call. A 265 wasn’t going to cut it. A grown man, I balled like a child. I had never wanted anything more…a purpose…and was overwhelmed that it was related to a strength deficiency. I choked it down and went for a run, again and again. It didn’t matter if it was below freezing outside or pouring rain. I eventually talked my way into taking another physical and received a 285—enough to get me in.


That was in 2005. For the next few years, I continued to pursue strength. This time, however, my priorities had changed. The pursuit of strength became rooted in survival. I wanted to be bigger, faster, and stronger in order to survive. On top of the already difficult demands of the infantry courses, scout sniper courses, and long, 25-mile “humps” with a 90-lb pack, I dabbled in Crossfit, TRX programs, Crossfit football, military athletics, and 5/3/1. I even attempted my own programming in this pursuit. Largely because of 5/3/1 (you’re the man, Wendler) and other strength programs, I'm now able to bench nearly twice my body weight, squat over two times my body weight, and deadlift nearly two and a half times my body weight. I can also still run physical fitness tests within the 290s (I realize this is still nothing compared to many who read this site). But it wasn’t until recently, on the verge of this fourth deployment, that I realized that my priorities—the pursuit of strength for survival—while perhaps primal, were wrong, that my Marine Corps life and my fitness life were not all that different. Perhaps the pursuit of strength hasn’t been about me, or my survival, at all?

If you follow the news at all, as someone in my profession might, you know that there is a conflict going on in a country in which the United States hasn't yet committed military forces (the country will remain anonymous because this isn't meant to be a political piece). In reading about the said country, I was horrified to read about a “force” called the Shabiha, translated as “ghosts.” According to the Daily Mail, the Shabiha are a Mafia style gang who used strength to intimidate others and move weapons and drugs for the nefarious. A description of the Shahiba from Dr. Mousab Azzawi reads: “They were like monsters…They had huge muscles, big bellies, big beards. They were all very tall and frightening and took steroids to pump up their bodies."

Now, the Shahiba are being used by the government to move in on communities after government shelling to “terrorize the civilian population and conduct ethnic cleansing/kill the survivors.” They have recently been accused of carrying out a massacre in which 108 civilians, 49 of which were children, were shot point blank or had their throats slit. Many victims were found burned and had their skulls crushed under the boots of the Shabiha. It is this horrific story that has made me realize that my pursuit of strength was perhaps bigger than me.

Protect this house

Every time I leave, be it for a long training exercise or for a deployment, I tuck my boys into the safety and security of their own beds and I ask them to be good, help out around the house, and, above all else, do everything within their power to protect their mother and their sister—to guard this house. This is, after all, the true purpose of a man—to watch over those who can't watch over themselves. As for me, I’m off to do the same. And for as long as there are people like the Shabiha out there, I’m going to push through that ache in my hips, that sting in my shoulder, and get that damn PR. But this time, it’s with a new purpose. It’s still for survival, but this time it’s for another’s in spite of my own. Strength—what are you going to do with yours?