When I first deployed to Iraq in 2005 the “Guardian Angel” policy was well ingrained in the consciousness of every Marine in my battalion. “Guardian Angel” meant that every unit in the combat zone would always have at least one armed, alert member providing security – or “overwatch” as it was popularly known – from an advantageous position, thereby allowing other members to rest, relax, and refit. While such a concept seemed self-evident in a war, the reality was that all of us knew of units that had ignored the “Guardian Angel” rule and suffered ambushes and needless casualties as a result.
The “Guardian Angel” policy is quite possibly one of the reasons that I survived the war. No matter how professional, physically capable, and mentally alert you are everybody from time to time needs a break, a helping hand, or a timely intervention to prevent bad things from happening.
An incident from Labor Day Weekend reminded me of the continued value of “Guardian Angels” in my own life, with further application to other veterans who could benefit from some unasked for “overwatch” from family, friends and even strangers, as the veteran gradually reintegrates fully into civilian society.
I hate asking for help. No matter how great the need or dire the circumstance, something deep down inside of me recoils from seeking assistance. I suppose it is pride – the downfall of mankind and the frustration of every passenger who has ever been trapped in an aimless vehicle guided by a confidently lost driver.
Compounding my pride is the fact that I was once a Marine, part of that most humble of services characterized by quiet self-effacement and a cultural disregard for media attention, glory, and posturing. Right.
The truth is that I rarely seek help because I dislike for others to know my weaknesses, my faults, or my needs. When self worth is built upon a framework of publicly perceived competence, the slightest hint of inadequacy is cause for a private crisis of confidence. It is often less threatening to deny the needs, excuse the faults, and mask weakness under a stoic demeanor. Not a great model for a healthy life, but a model that is nonetheless consistently recognized and rewarded in the military.
Who has two thumbs and doesn’t need anyone’s help? This guy. Many veterans could say the same.
That habituation of hubris put me into a dangerous situation over the long holiday weekend and reminded me of the importance of guardian angels in my life: people who watch over my wellbeing and intercede as appropriate.
A former Marine and his family invited me to spend some time at their beautiful new cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia. We enjoyed moderate libations and warm camaraderie until late Friday night. Rolling out of bed on Saturday morning, hungry and slightly dehydrated, it was my intent to rest, relax, and perhaps run a few miles later in the day. The 16 mile run scheduled on my marathon training plan for the weekend could wait until Sunday or Monday, when I would be back on the flat earth of Atlanta.
But after sipping some coffee on the wraparound porch and absorbing the peaceful mountain atmosphere, the Appalachian foothills inspired in me a sudden change of plan.
“I’m headed out for a quick run,” I announced, emerging from my bedroom with shoes in one hand and GPS watch in the other. It would be nice to get the run out of the way before the sun got too hot and before breakfast was on the table; that way I could truly enjoy the rest of the day. The family offered encouraging thoughts on possible run routes and reminded me that each route would have hills. Note: when families in North Georgia talk about hills, what they really mean is mountains. I know this now.
Declining an offered water bottle (I’ll only be out for 3 or 4 miles) I jogged down their slanting gravel driveway and turned left onto the narrow road. It was 85 degrees and humid. This is going to be great.
Greatness lasted for about 15 minutes.
My route was supposed to take me a fraction of the way around a sweeping circle of mountain passes, gravel roads, and a sun-drenched section of the Appalachian Highway. The family hadn’t been certain about what the distance would be if the circle was completed in its entirety, but I had a good idea that it was in the neighborhood of 10-12 miles; too far to run without a water source on a warm day. I’ll just see how I feel and turn around when I start to get tired.
For the first few miles I was enraptured by the glorious mountain scenery. Stained-glass leaves cart wheeled into my path from overhanging branches as I huffed up long ascents and then pounded down hairpin turns. Blue sky framed the most gorgeous white clouds I had ever seen. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom of a particularly wicked climb that I realized the heat and humidity had noticeably increased. The slight breeze that had accompanied me for the first two miles gasped raggedly and then was gone. A small voice of warning echoed in my head. Two miles out. That will be four total – good enough for what you said you wanted to do. Shouldn’t you head back now? You don’t have any water….
I ignored the warning. In the back of my mind was a vague idea of triumphantly completing the entire circle, from door to door, without retracing my route. It will be fine. I’ve run in the heat plenty of times before. And think about how impressed the family will be when I finish the entire loop.
I ran on.
The route got harder. Pockets of humidity clung like wet plastic bags to the hollows and orchards along the way. Sweating livestock gazed disinterestedly at the sweating runner struggling past. This was no longer fun, refreshing, or enjoyable. It was a self-imposed mission.
I longed for the sound of traffic that I knew would signal my approach to the highway – and what I assumed was the halfway point of the run. But as the crumbling pavement finally rose to intersect with another road in the shadow of a small country church it was clear that the highway was nowhere to be found. Squirrel Hunting Road and Maple Grove Road. Of course. Cue the banjo music. Tired and hot, my light running shirt soaking wet, I trudged off to the side of the road and began the halfhearted stretching ritual favored by all runners looking for an excuse to rest.
This was not good. Glancing down at the face of my watch, the distance 3.52 swam mockingly behind beads of sweat. If I was going to run the entire loop I was less than a third of the way done. Yet, turning around would take me up a series of difficult hills that I had just descended. I hadn’t hydrated properly and I had little hope of finding a drinkable water source whichever way I went.
The sun beat down mercilessly from a bronze sky. Much military hot weather and endurance experience informed me that my body was losing fluids at an unsustainable rate. If I was going to keep running, I needed help.
Just at that moment, an ancient white pickup truck rumbled up behind me and ground to a halt in front of the church. Inside the cab, a white-bearded mountain man smiled warmly from beneath the brim of a tattered ball cap. His assessment of the situation was immediate, engaging and accurate.
“Son, I hope you drank plenty of water this morning.”
I laughed unconvincingly and looked away. It was embarrassing to be caught in the middle of an obvious mistake. My face was red; my clothing was soaked with sweat; and I was miles from anywhere that an out-of-towner would want to be. He knew all that. From the twinkle in his eyes, I gathered that long distance running in the mountains without water was exactly what he expected from city folk. At least he doesn’t know I am basically lost, too.
“The highway is just over two miles that way,” he said, nodding down the road. “I expect you’ll be wanting to head in that direction.” Another smile.
I desperately wanted to ask for a ride – at least to the main road – but my pride choked off the words before they could form. Miserable in my own world of thirsty self-pity, I was about to start running again when I realized that the old man was handing me something from the open window of the truck. It was a sparkling, unopened bottle of Dasani water.
“You’ll need some water to finish your run.” And he drove off, still grinning.
I cried, running slowly towards the highway with a bottle of water in my hand. And I thanked God out loud. During 20 years and at least 15,000 miles of running, not once had anyone ever stopped to offer me help. Not once. But on this day, when I had the least hope of being helped and the greatest need for it, a Guardian Angel appeared.
For the veterans reading this, I hope that you will realize that asking for help is not a weakness, but an opportunity for you to allow friends and family into your life. We weren’t expected to operate independently in the military and we really aren’t equipped to do so in life. Our friends and families often watch concernedly from the outside as we struggle silently with awful memories, fruitless job searches, and frustrating college classes. We have Guardian Angels all around us, ready and willing to help us move forward and achieve the better life that we once fought for. Just ask.
For the families and friends of veterans, you are truly our Guardian Angels. We may not always ask for your help or thank you when you do, but without you our lives would be empty and sad and mean. Thank you for your love, patience and support. Don’t give up – the best is yet to come.