May 29, 2013

Did Not Finish: Accepting Failures is Key to Growth (Volume 1)

"Time Jumpmaster! You are a sequence violator. You placed your fingers inside the rim of the ballistic helmet during the rear head tilt on the first and second jumper...." Those were the words that brought my failure of the fifth parachute inspection during my first iteration of Jumpmaster school. I had recycled both Darby and Rudder phases of Ranger school, but this was the first course I ever failed. I lost it for a second, I let down my platoon, my unit, myself and I thought I would never get another opportunity. My senior parachutist wings and hard earned Jumpmaster armband tell a different story, but for a few hours I thought I lost the opportunity of a lifetime.
Jumpmaster Armband

A few hours later I walked into my company commander's office with my head held low. "Sir, I failed on a sequence violation. It was a petty gig, but I should have done it right and there is no excuse." My commander Captain (now Major), Joe Blanton was outstanding. "Well Lieutenant Miller, you're in good company." He began listing company commanders in my battalion who failed Jumpmaster school on their first and sometimes second attempt. The First Sergeant gave me a lecture on how my platoon was going to be without a Lieutenant for another three weeks and that I better not waste six weeks at Jumpmaster school because officers needed to pull their weight on airborne operations. I have often forgot about this major failure between my first and second deployment, in regards to how I judge mistakes that I make at home.

I came back to Jumpmaster school the next Monday, and the instructor who failed me walked up to me and asked me "are going to try an cheat this time?" Another Lieutenant told me couple of tricks to make parachute deficiencies stand out. I owned up to my mistake. He responded "well hopefully you learned your lesson and you have already paid the price. Trust the training we are giving you, don't cut corners and you will get through. Your instructor should have warned you, but don't do it again or I will make sure you fail." Two and a half weeks later I passed with the same instructor. He saw me take the lesson to heart and use my extra training to help the other people in my squad pass. He was excited because he helped me become a strong Jumpmaster, but, more importantly, I gained a life lesson about failure. Don't forget failures own them, learn from them, and don't waste your mistakes.

When we try to moralize success we also unwittingly demonize failures. We forget that we all fail and accepting our failures regardless of the causes is the first step towards growth. PTSD and mTBI can be a valid reason for any of us to fail to meet our own goals. We tend to also equate all of our failures as life or death when they are not. Even if we have made mistakes that cost lives, that was not always because of moral failings, but because we are human beings who make mistakes. I know that if I lost a soldier for every mistake I made in combat, then I would have lost legions of soldiers. This process of moralizing or systematically preventing mistakes helped us cope in combat not by actually eliminating failure, rather it was a way to assure ourselves that we did everything we could have after a traumatic event. We all drop balls, but you know when you have given your all and when you have not. It would be burdensome task to catalog every minor error in your life, rather than ones that taught you the most. When we demonize our failures, we reject their potential utility to make us better people. Worse, when we moralize success and failure we become defensive about our most obvious flaws.

Instead of tossing the shirt I wrote DNF and traded the 5 for a 4
This last year I experienced a few failures, and I am trying really hard to learn the right lesson. PTSD is often difficult because of the vast comorbidity of other mental illnesses and physiological responses, associated with it. One of the most frustrating aspects is figuring out what setbacks are just natural and which ones stem from PTSD. I run marathons and ultras in order to manage anger, stay my kind of fit, and to manage the high amounts of weight gain that comes with the anti-depressants I take. On two races I DID NOT FINISH (DNF) and in another race I finished at thirty miles rather than my goal of one hundred. It is important to note that on two DNFs that I inevitably did the right thing. I made the right long term decision at the cost of short term disappointment. I tend to try and Ranger through things. You can't pass Ranger school without driving on with an injury: you often cause more harm to yourself than good. It has been a real struggle to figure out when I am going too hard, and my tendency to be a stubbornly stoic Army Ranger goes too far. I am still failing at this, but I have been moving forward.

"Mr. Miller I am pretty sure you're going to be on a ventilator before night is over. You have the highest toxicity that we have ever seen and we have another patient in renal failure with much lower stats.” To be continued....

This will be the first post in a series on my relearning to embrace failures in relationship to the guilt of survival that comes with PTSD, obviously I have survived last year's ordeal.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. That makes so much sense, and it makes me wonder why I never considered it in such terms. Thank you.


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