Gunny's Corner: A Marine's holiday, avoiding explosions and empty resolutions

The ground shuddered from the explosion, shifting my balance off my legs and down to a knee. Dust was still visible in the night air, screams muffled by the helicopter blades of the departing vehicle, all orchestrated by a benevolent conductor hell-bent on ruining our holiday season.

We knew our enemy wouldn’t recognize New Year’s Eve as anything other than another day in the war. What we didn’t know was that they planned to launch mortars in base camp that day. Camp Blue Diamond wasn’t a large base, but it sat close enough to the city of al-Ramadi to present an easy target for vengeful insurgents, regardless of their aiming capacities.

I walked out of a blue port-a-john in search of a nearby bunker when the impact near the shower trailers accelerated my pace. The shrapnel peppered one white paneled can like seasoning on a New York steak. Water spewing from a spent pipe gushed wildly through a newly created hole in the wall. My feet moved my body before my mind caught up to what was happening. Our pre-deployment instructors would always explain, ‘That’s when your training kicks in.’ Today, I have to say I wholeheartedly agree.

Diffusing the tension

The bunker was close to my darting direction, unconsciously navigated by some mental map that didn’t require light or even focused eyeballs. I arrived before the other two, just as the three of us found our home for the next few hours. My first thought once I got comfortable was how ironic it was that leaving Fallujah for Ramadi was a planned retreat away from the normal day-to-day chaos.

“Why are you smirking?” The Marine captain sitting across from me almost whispered when she spoke, as if the bombs might hear us hiding in our concrete cove.

“Irony, Ma’am,” I chuckled. “I didn’t get a chance to tell Santa what I wanted this year and now my New Year’s resolution seems a bit pointless.”

“How so?”

“My goal was not to take this year too seriously. Allow life to happen with ease and enjoy each moment. I didn’t figure that would include getting shot at.”

She smiled, but the Lance Corporal next to us maintained his stoic presence, almost unnatural. His silence pulled my attention, and I asked his name.

“Where are you from quiet one?” His nametape read Timothy, which I only caught after the third glance.

“Missouri.” LCpl Timothy answered.

“You know I have to ask right?” “Brandon,” he sighed.

“Brandon Andrew Timothy. My Drill Instructors loved me.”

“Your parents wanted triplets I take it?”

Again, my sense of humor did nothing to budge his mood. The captain sensed tension and took her stab at our dejected bunker dweller. We had nothing else better to do.

“Which name did you go by back home?” She asked.

“Michael.”

Our dumbfounded looks finally broke through his ice barrier. Out of the thousands of times he’s probably told this story, people’s reactions still amused him enough to smile.

“I was a die-hard Michael Jackson fan as a little kid,” he said. “I had the glove, the red zipper jacket, the white socks, and hat every Halloween until I was 14. Every dance sequence from each music video memorized. One day my family starting calling me little Michael and it stuck.”

Another mortar landed close enough to our bunker that dust fell from the ceiling. Any closer and I’m sure we would have watched the concrete crack on top of us. No one spoke for a few minutes while we waited for the next round of barrages. This wasn’t the sort of fireworks show we had in mind.

“Why do people bother with New Year’s resolutions?” LCpl Timothy broke our silence unexpectedly.

That was a valid question. Why? Few people ever follow through with anything they set forth in their declarations. Even the strongest ones fall off after the 4-month mark.

“It’s an opportunity to start anew in some fashion,” The captain answered. “We need a marker in life to stop and start over sometimes. Why not a new year?”

Again valid.

“It’s a waste of time and utter bullshit,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“People believe that they can stop and start their lives over and over again like an Oldsmobile. Life could give a sh@# if you need a break. It will keep hitting you until it feels like stopping.”

If life was a person I would agree with him, but our lives aren’t always ruled by external extenuating circumstances, to include our current predicament.

“Life is choices,” I said. “Plain and simple choices. You can choose to start something just as you choose to finish something else. You get out of it what you put in, for the most part.”

“I hear you Gunny, but what about the bad deal?” he asked. “And how will the New Year solve all of our problems? Look at us, we’re still as miserable as we were when we woke up this morning.”

Getting to the heart of the problem, and the person

The core of a person’s argument, and at times problem, is not always evident at first. It takes a little coaxing to show itself, but finally I got to the root of the young man’s bitterness. At no fault of his own, he just learned a valuable lesson applicable to every person, man, woman or child, and he was teaching us.

“I refuse to believe anything but a random act of nature can stop the crap life throws at you,” he said. “No amount of hoping, wishing, praying, or New Year traditions will ever change that.”

“You may be right, at least partly.” I had his attention, since I guess he expected me to argue an opposing point. Even the captain threw me a puzzling glance.

“Our experiences in this life are the sum of random acts of things compiled into a single strand of footage. The only control we have is how we respond to those circumstances. It’s not until we change our attitude do we change our outcome. Establishing a plan in the New Year is refreshing. It keeps our hope strong.”

He sighed. I expected it.

“More importantly though, is establishing a plan instead of just a goal. Goals are hollow wishes of nothing without a plan.”

“What do you mean?” The captain folded her legs under her as she moved closer, while the LCpl faced me full with his body instead of turning his head.

“If anyone is serious about making a goal achievable they need to map about a physical plan of action on how to accomplish that task in the time allotted.” I continued. “Here’s an example. You know how people say I want to run a faster PFT this year, or lose 20 pounds by June?”

“Yeah.” The captain and lance corporal said in unison.

“That’s crap, destined for failure before week ends. A more accurate approach is to say ‘I’m going to lose 20 pounds by June by increasing my workouts to four times of week instead of two, and not adding bacon to every meal’.”

“Pardon me, Gunny, but wasn’t your New Year’s resolution about taking things too seriously?” The captain asked. “How does that fall in the achievable category?”

“Every Sunday, I’ve set aside personal time to evaluate my previous week and plan for the next. If I blew off the handle less, then I’ve improved. If I’ve been more excited, then I need to work harder in the coming week.”

“Hmm.” The captain scoffed.

“It comes from accepting that I could die from the next mortar round in this bunker. Life is too fragile and short to spend on meaningless expectations. Set a goal, grab your pack, and move out! Simple as that.”

Put a plan behind the goal

My answer may have stunned them both but neither of them showed it. We agreed that once the explosions ceased firing that we would ask random people about their New Year resolutions and see if we could lead them toward establishing a plan to achieve that goal.

This isn’t isolated to the month of January. If anyone you know is setting out on an objective, as a responsible leader, family member, or friend, it is your job to immediately ask them how they plan to accomplish that task. This isn’t about challenging or even undermining. Nope. This is about the most important aspect of that goal: how will it be achieved?

Once you understand your path ahead, anything is possible. This includes writing that novel you always dreamed about, scoring a 300 on a PFT, submitting that business proposal you’ve picked at for years, or even that last 12 credits towards your degree.

Compliment this year’s resolution with a plan, then shut your face, lean forward, and go get it done.

Move out! Now!

Semper Fidelis!