The first stripes I ever earned

Note: Originally posted a shorter version of this last year on my 20th anniversary on Linked in, and this is also over on Medium

It’s remarkable for me to think that today is the 21st anniversary of my discharge from the Army. (and tomorrow is the 26th anniversary of my enlistment).


What a long time ago that was. And what a lasting mark it left.

I enlisted after leaving college — I had started at Georgia Tech at 17 studying computer engineering, but quite frankly, was unprepared to be a serious student at the time. I knew it, and they certainly were able to figure it out after a year or so. I joined the army both to pay for school, and because I wasn’t really sure what else to do as an 19 year old without a master plan.

I served five years active duty in what would be the interlude between the two Gulf conflicts, as a moderately good Arabic translator. (I’ll always hold myself up against the native speakers I served with — ‘moderately good’ was a pretty good standard to achieve). I was fortunate to make several life long friends during my years of service. And saddened when I learned of incidents in places far away from their homes and safety where a few lost their lives. The job was demanding, and rewarding, and has nothing to do with what I went on to do as a professional after I left the army. And yet it has everything to do with how I still do things on a daily basis.

It’s a trite thing to say, but I grew up in the Army. I met the woman that would become my bride. I learned what it takes to be relied upon, and to trust my team. I learned how to plan, and to know when to adjust. I learned to ask the people with experience to teach me. And I learned to teach with what little experience I had gained. I learned how to let others lead, and to lead myself.

Almost every lesson I learned in the Army still applies today:

  • Sleep when you can.

  • Eat what’s offered.

  • Go to bed tired.

  • Wake up ready.

  • Serving is an opportunity.

  • Leadership is earned every day.

  • Improvement always takes effort.

  • The person next to you will probably be in a position to save your life some day: treat her accordingly.

  • Be humble.

  • Complain less.

  • Do more.

When I left the Army, we moved to California and I dropped right into the technology career I had paused when I joined. I was fortunate to find a boss that valued the skills I had gained, and generous enough to overlook those I hadn’t yet developed. He was reasonably confident that if my time in the Army had taught me anything, it included a reasonable amount of discipline and willingness to figure it out.

I still rely on those skills daily

Far too reflective for a Monday

Last week was one of the harder weeks I've had recently.  

My company's website was brought more or less to its knees on Monday by a combination of a technical bug and a third party service. It worked, mostly, but only if you didn't want to buy something during the day. Come back at 7pm when no one else is on the site. Then you'll be fine. But during the day, with peak traffic?  No such luck. 

This meant working with the team until late into the evening every day, and through the weekend. Except Thursday. Because Wednesday night, I managed to crack a tooth. And had to go into the dentist for a filling. Because what I need when there's a crisis in play, what I really need is a punch in the face by a lady with a power drill. And who doesn't love to return to the office with a numb face and drool on your chin? 


The same day, the Boy was scheduled for oral surgery. Because he had an extra tooth growing in right in the middle of his upper front palate. Which is just about as awkward as it sounds. There's a name for this - it's called a mesiodens ('middle tooth' - but that does sound way more medical in Latin, doesn't it?). He's 5, and is deathly afraid of doctors. However, he has no problem at all with the dentist's chair. I do not understand this. The doctor I like (except when he's got large hands, and he gets over familiar). The dentist, I dread (because it is unnatural to have someone sticking their hands in your mouth). 

The Boy came through it just fine, but we did make a family pact to try not to schedule multiples of our family in for dental work on the same day in the future. 

I also got a call the night my tooth broke that one of my uncles had passed away. A few days previously, we had learned he had liver cancer. And then, he died.  Either he had the diagnosis, but didn't want to share with the family early on, or he had avoided going in for the diagnosis.  I'm not sure. We weren't close. 

When I was a kid, I remember my mother's younger brother as a reasonably nice guy, but usually drunk. He was the first adult that I remember noticing as intoxicated. As in, can't really walk upright down the driveway unassisted to his car (where he got in and drove away. It was the 70's. The cars were big and steel. I dunno). He was also one of the first adults that I ever swore at, for showing up intoxicated at one of my events when I was 14 or 15. (I think it was a horse show. I can't remember now). I remember my mother being horrified that I spoke to him that way, and my step-father saying something along the lines of 'well, he's not wrong.' 

After that, we didn't talk much. But I learned a couple of things that day. About him. About my parents. About myself.  

A few years later, my uncle did replace the engine of my first car later on when I blew it up through neglect. He was, by all accounts, always a pretty good mechanic. Maybe that was his way of making things a little more right.

Maybe he got sober later in life. I don't know. As I said, we didn't talk much.

I was saddened to learn of his passing. I figured his liver would get him in the end. I think we all did. Including him.

But not that way. 

I wasn't sure if I was going to write about all this. It's not the fun, light stuff about eating good food or raising pigs or firing off trebuchets with the kids that I normally like to wax prolific on. And in Southern families, one does not talk about family problems. It's just not the done thing. Which (along with not being disrespectful of an adult) was what horrified my mother at the time. But not talking about the drunk in the family isn't helpful to anyone.  Especially not the drunk. And in between the temporary moments of webified crisis last week, as I drove back and forth from the dentist or to the office, I had plenty of time to think. And be - well - maybe 'sad' isn't the right word. But regretful  that   another member of the generation before me. Something there about the irrevocable loss of those connections to my mother, our family, & our shared history which has passed away. Maybe it's just because it puts me a little closer to being the old guy in the family. But I hope it's less self-centered in origin than that. 

I don't know if this story has much of a point, other than that, perhaps. And to reflect that as bad as my week was, it was ultimately trivial things like a flaky website or an extra trip to the dentist.  

Not all stories have an arc and a tidy resolution.

Sometimes, it's just... life.