While a veteran and friend of mine, Brad, thinks differently, I don’t consider myself a veteran. He was in charge of the Veteran’s Day service at the church I used to attend, and he invited me to go forward for recognition two years in a row.
The third year I just couldn’t do it, and faked being sick.
“You took the oath, Rob,” he stated when I first voiced my feelings about the subject. “You did your best, and sure, you were discharged, but you gave it your best shot, in service to your country. You’re one of us…a veteran.”
While Brad is one of the finest men I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, I must, respectfully, disagree. Ya see, this war in my mind between “veteran or not” is due to my suicide attempt six and a half weeks into basic training. That episode is the crux of my testimony, and the very heart of Demonkill Ministries.
Even though it’s still humbling to speak of, my extremely short stint in the Army was where the OLD me died and was buried, and the NEW me was born.
I may not have made it past basic training, but my Drill Sergeant’s cry of “ASSESS, ADAPT AND OVERCOME!!” still drives my spirit, and is evident in not only my writing, but my whole life.
Sick of dead end jobs, and with seemingly no financial hope for the future, I enlisted in the Army in the early 90s. I was 40 pounds overweight, so I went on a 1200-calorie-a-day diet and started running two miles every morning.
When the weight still wasn’t coming off quickly enough, I cut my calorie intake in half, to 600 calories a day, and doubled my exercise regiment, running two miles in the morning and two miles at night.
I finally lost the weight, and started my journey with lots of tears and hugs from my parents, as well as my wife and baby girl. The bus ride from Springfield, Missouri to Kansas City was long and arduous, but I was blanketed in hope for the future. After being sworn in as a Private in the U.S. Army, I hopped a plane to Columbia, South Carolina.
“Nervous” is a massive understatement to describe how I was feeling when I arrived at Fort Jackson, but I took comfort in the fact that every man there felt exactly the same as me. We came from all over the country, and I was privileged to be housed in a four-man cubicle with three African American soldiers; two from L.A. and one from New York.
As the weeks tore on, I grew close to my new brothers-in-arms. Sometimes, Black fellas in our company would come to our cubicle to hang out, laugh and share stories. When others would hear the laughter, they’d come over, but my bunkmates would drive them away.
“No White dudes allowed,” one of them, Kwami Stamps, would say. “Well, except for Weddle.”
That always made me so proud.
We all shared the fear of the Drill Sergeant’s wrath, and the pain of the two-mile runs and muscle failure days (when we would literally do P.T. until our muscles failed).
We got in shape together and learned how to fire our rifles together. We bonded during KP and other tedious exercises, and slowly became family.
But there were two distinct voices in our heads every day: that of Drill Sergeant Behel and Drill Sergeant Douglas.
Behel was short, in his 60s, and filled with rage over some of his own Army brethren being forced into early retirement. He felt us “young punks” were taking the jobs of those he had fought with, and we could smell his loathing. I know it’s their job to be hard on us, in order to turn us into soldiers, but it seemed Behel genuinely hated us.
The brothers in my cubicle would joke, “God gave him the right name, man, cuz that guy BE HELL on us.”
When guys in other companies would fall short of a goal, most of the other Drill’s would encourage their men, but not Behel. No, he laughed at our failures.
Not realizing the pain in my back, hips and legs was caused by four different and debilitating conditions, I began to fall back on our two-mile runs. I just couldn’t keep up, and the physical and emotional agony grew worse every day. Behel would constantly tell me what a loser I was, but he seemed to be the only one who held such an opinion.
Most tried to help, and I remember one Drill went so far as to encourage me by slowing his whole company down to jog at my speed when I fell back on a run one morning.
He even created a cadence for me, right on the spot, to try and lift my spirits. Wikipedia defines a cadence as “a traditional call-and-response work song sung by military personnel while running or marching.” Drill’s would lead the cadence when we ran, to keep up the morale, and some were even funny, to keep us going when things got tough.
This Drill Sergeant noticed I was jogging alone, and struggling. My legs were going numb and I could no longer feel my feet, which made a slapping sound as they hit the pavement.
“Hey you!” the Sergeant called out, changing up his cadence. “Hey you!” his entire, 60-man company repeated. “Run with us!” he smiled. “Run with us” his guys repeated.
“Hey you! (Hey you!) Run with us! (Run with us!) Hey you! (Hey you!) Run with us! (Run with us!)”
I was so used to Behel’s mockery, this pepped me right up, and I finished the last half mile with his group.
Drill Sergeant Douglas, on the other hand, inspired us. He was Behel’s second-in-command. He was rooting for us to make it, and we knew it. Douglas was young, perhaps 30, and had a contagious smile. He would push us, sure, but also got a kick out of making us laugh.
What came next—my mental breakdown, which occurred halfway through my sixth week—is discussed in one of the first blogs I wrote (https://brokenpeople.blog/2016/12/22/my-suicide-part-1/), so I won’t go into detail now. Please read it if you feel so inclined, and the conclusion, part two.
When I was released from the hospital after my breakdown and suicide attempt, and returned to my unit, Behel took a moment to “welcome me back,” in his own way.
“Next time you try and kill yourself,” he screamed into my face in front of the entire company, “why don’t you jump off a f***in’ building or a bridge, make sure you do the job right!”
Douglas stood behind him, never saying a word. The next morning I ran into him, and without even thinking, said, “Good morning, Drill Sergeant Douglas.”
His head snapped around, at first wondering who would have the audacity to greet him so personally. He noticed it was me, looked away, and then back at me, and replied, “Morning.” He now felt he could be more personable, since I was on my way out, and only waiting for my discharge papers.
We were no longer Drill Sergeant and Private. We were just two dudes, up WAY too early on a cold, Saturday, South Carolina morning. Yeah, Drill Sergeant Douglas was awesome.
Before my discharge came through, Behel made a point of torturing me as much as possible, keeping me locked in the tiny office of the C.Q. (the office where the Drill Sergeants and the brass hung out) for 15 hours a day or more. He made me feel as if I wasn’t even worthy to be with my new-found, military family.
Once when I was leaving for the night, however, after another tedious, 15-hour day, stuck in the tiny C.Q. office, Drill Sergeant Douglas stopped me. Nearly in a whisper, he said, “This doesn’t have to define you, Weddle. Everything you learned still stands. Remember what I taught you: assess, adapt and overcome. You’re still a man, and this is just one stop on your journey. Take all this home to your family and make ’em proud.”
That’s not verbatim, but it’s the way I hear the conversation in my head. That was his spirit. Behel tore us down, mocked us and prayed for our failure. Drill Sergeant Douglas lifted us up, built us up, believed in us and rooted for our success.
My wife still tells people that this was the moment everything changed for me. Before the Army, I was a lazy bum, constantly calling in sick to work, changing jobs every few months and even getting fired from a couple.
After basic training, though, I had a gritty determination to do my best at whatever I set my mind to, eventually earning both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree.
Drill Sergeant Douglas’s words still ring in my head: “Failure doesn’t have to define you, Weddle. Learn from it. Assess, adapt and overcome. Never quit.”
So, after bearing my soul here, my questions to you are these:
Are you a Drill Sergeant Douglas or Behel? Do you lift up your brothers and sisters, or tear them down? Do you applaud their successes or mock their failures? Will people remember you with fondness or contempt? Will your legacy be that of helping or hurting? Do you blanket others in darkness or point them toward the light?
Just a thought. Blessings.