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CHAPTER FIVE - ARMORED MIND

“Your knee looks pretty bad, Goggins.”

No fu@king sh@t, doc. With two days to go in walk week, I’d come by medical for a follow-up. The doctor rolled up my camo pants and when he gave my right kneecap a gentle squeeze, pain seized my brain, but I couldn’t show it. I was playing a role. I was the beat up but otherwise healthy BUD/S student ready for the fight, and I couldn’t so much as grimace to pull it off. I already knew the knee was fu@ked, and that the odds of getting through another five months of training on one leg were low, but accepting another roll back meant enduring another Hell Week, and that was way too much to process.

“The swelling hasn’t gone down much. How’s it feel?”

The doctor was playing a role too. SEAL candidates had a don’t ask, don’t tell agreement with most of the medical staff at Naval Special Warfare Command. I wasn’t about to make the doctor’s job easier by revealing anything to him, and he wasn’t gonna take caution’s side and pull the rip cord on a man’s dream. He lifted his hand and my pain faded. I coughed and pneumonia once again rattled in my lungs until I felt the cold truth of his stethoscope on my skin.

Ever since Hell Week was called, I’d been coughing up brown knots of mucus. For the first two days I lay in bed, day and night, spitting them into a Gatorade bottle, where I stored them like so many nickels. I could barely breathe, and couldn’t move much either. I may have been a bad motherfu@ker in Hell Week, but that sh@t was over, and I had to deal with the fact that the Devil (and those instructors) branded me too.

“It’s all right, doc,” I said. “A little stiff is all.”

Time is what I needed. I knew how to push through pain, and my body had almost always responded with performance. I wasn’t going to quit just because my knee was barking. It would come around eventually. The doc prescribed medicine to reduce the congestion in my lungs and sinuses, and gave me some Motrin for my knee. Within two days my breathing improved, but I still couldn’t bend my right leg.

This would be a problem.

Of all the moments in BUD/S that I thought could break me, a knot-tying exercise never registered on my radar. Then again, this wasn’t the fu@king Boy Scouts. This was an underwater knot-tying drill held in the fifteen-foot section of the pool. And while the pool didn’t strike mortal fear into me like it once did, being negatively buoyant, I knew that any pool evolution could be my undoing, especially those that demanded treading water.

Even before Hell Week, we’d been tested in the pool. We had to perform mock rescues on the instructors and do a fifty-meter underwater swim without fins on a single breath. That swim started with a giant stride into the water followed by a full somersault to siphon off any momentum whatsoever. Then without kicking off the side, we swam along the lane lines to the end of our twenty-five-meter pool. On the far side we were allowed to kick off the wall then swim back. When I arrived at the fifty-meter mark I rose up and gasped for air. My heart hammered until my breath smoothed, and I grasped that I’d actually passed the first of a series of complicated underwater evolutions that were supposed to teach us to be calm, cool, and collected underwater on a breath hold.

The knot-tying evolution was next in the series and it wasn’t about our ability to tie various knots or a way to time our max breath hold. Sure, both skills come in handy on amphibian operations, but this drill was more about our capacity to juggle multiple stressors in an environment that’s not sustainable for human life. Despite my health, I was heading into the drill with some confidence. Things changed when I started treading water.

That’s how the drill began, with eight students strung out across the pool, moving our hands and legs like egg beaters. That’s hard enough for me on two good legs, but because my right knee didn’t work, I was forced to tread water with just my left. That spiked the degree of difficulty, and my heart rate, which sapped my energy.

Each student had an instructor assigned to them for this evolution and Psycho Pete specifically requested me. It was obvious I was struggling, and Psycho, and his bruised pride, were hungry for a little payback. With each revolution of my right leg, shockwaves of pain exploded like fireworks. Even with Psycho eyeballing me, I couldn’t hide it. When I grimaced, he smiled like a kid on Christmas morning.

“Tie a square knot! Then a bowline!” He shouted. I was working so hard it was difficult to catch my breath, but Psycho didn’t give two fu@ks. “Now, dammit!” I gulped air, bent from the waist and kicked down.

There were five knots in the drill altogether and each student was told to grab their eight-inch slice of rope, and tie them off one at a time at the bottom of the pool. We were allotted a breath in between, but could do as many as all five knots on a single breath. The instructor called out the knots, but the pacing was up to each student. We weren’t allowed to use a mask or goggles to complete the evolution, and the instructor had to approve each knot with a thumbs up before we were permitted to surface. If they flashed a thumb down instead, we had to re-tie that knot correctly, and if we surfaced before a given knot was approved, that meant failure and a ticket home.

Once back at the surface, there was no resting or relaxing between tasks. Treading water was the constant refrain, which meant soaring heart rates and the continual burning up of oxygen in the bloodstream for the one-legged man. Translation: the dives were uncomfortable as hell, and blacking out was a real possibility.

Psycho glared at me through his mask as I worked my knots. After about thirty seconds he’d approved both and we surfaced. He breathed free and easy, but I was gasping and panting like a wet, tired dog. The pain in my knee was so bad I felt sweat bead up on my forehead. When you’re sweating in an unheated pool, you know sh@t’s fu@ked up. I was breathless, low on energy, and wanted to quit, but quitting this evolution meant quitting BUD/S altogether, and that wasn’t happening.

“Oh no, are you hurt, Goggins? Do you have some sand in your pussy?” Psycho asked. “I’ll bet you can’t do the last three knots on one breath.”

He said it with a smirk, like he was daring me. I knew the rules. I didn’t have to accept his challenge, but that would have made Psycho just a little too happy and I couldn’t allow that. I nodded and kept treading water, delaying my dive until my pulse evened out and I could score one deep, nourishing breath. Psycho wasn’t having it. Whenever I opened my mouth he splashed water in my face to stress me out even more, a tactic used when trainees started to panic. That made breathing impossible.

“Go under now or you fail!”

I’d run out of time. I tried to gulp some air before my duck dive, and tasted a mouthful of Psycho’s splash water instead as I dove to the bottom of the pool on a negative breath hold. My lungs were damn near empty which meant I was in pain from the jump, but I knocked the first one out in a few seconds. Psycho took his sweet time examining my work. My heart was thrumming like high alert Morse code. I felt it flip flop in my chest, like it was trying to break through my rib cage and fly to freedom. Psycho stared at the twine, flipped it over and perused it with his eyes and fingers, before offering a thumb’s up in slow motion. I shook my head, untied the rope and hit the next one. Again he gave it a close inspection while my chest burned and diaphragm contracted, trying to force air into my empty lungs. The pain level in my knee was at a ten. Stars gathered in my peripheral vision. Those multiple stressors had me teetering like a Jenga tower, and I felt like I was about to black out. If that happened, I’d have to depend on Psycho to swim me to the surface and bring me around. Did I really trust this man to do that? He hated me. What if he failed to execute? What if my body was too burned-out that even a rescue breath couldn’t rouse me?

My mind was spun with those simple toxic questions that never go away. Why was I here? Why suffer when I could quit and be comfortable again? Why risk passing out or even death for a fu@king knot drill? I knew that if I succumbed and bolted to the surface my SEAL career would have ended then and there, but in that moment I couldn’t figure out why I ever gave a fu@k.

I looked over at Psycho. He held both thumbs up and sported a big goofy smile on his face like he was watching a damn comedy show. His split second of pleasure in my pain, reminded me of all the bullying and taunts I felt as a teenager, but instead of playing the victim and letting negative emotions sap my energy and force me to the surface, a failure, it was as if a new light blazed in my brain that allowed me to flip the script.

Time stood still as I realized for the first time that I’d always looked at my entire life, everything I’d been through, from the wrong perspective. Yes, all the abuse I’d experienced and the negativity I had to push through challenged me to the core, but in that moment I stopped seeing myself as the victim of bad circumstance, and saw my life as the ultimate training ground instead. My disadvantages had been callousing my mind all along and had prepared me for that moment in that pool with Psycho Pete.

I remember my very first day in the gym back in Indiana. My palms were soft and quickly got torn up on the bars because they weren’t accustomed to gripping steel. But over time, after thousands of reps, my palms built up a thick callous as protection. The same principle works when it comes to mindset. Until you experience hardships like abuse and bullying, failures and disappointments, your mind will remain soft and exposed. Life experience, especially negative experiences, help callous the mind. But it’s up to you where that callous lines up. If you choose to see yourself as a victim of circumstance into adulthood, that callous will become resentment that protects you from the unfamiliar. It will make you too cautious and untrusting, and possibly too angry at the world. It will make you fearful of change and hard to reach, but not hard of mind. That’s where I was as a teenager, but after my second Hell Week, I’d become someone new. I’d fought through so many horrible situations by then and remained open and ready for more. My ability to stay open represented a willingness to fight for my own life, which allowed me to withstand hail storms of pain and use it to callous over my victim’s mentality. That sh@t was gone, buried under layers of sweat and hard fu@king flesh, and I was starting to callous over my fears too. That realization gave me the mental edge I needed to outlast Psycho Pete one more time.

To show him he couldn’t hurt me anymore I smiled back, and the feeling of being on the edge of a blackout went away. Suddenly, I was energized. The pain faded and I felt like I could stay under all day. Psycho saw that in my eyes. I tied off the last knot at leisurely pace, glaring at him the whole time. He gestured with his hands for me to hurry up as his diaphragm contracted. I finally finished, he gave me a quick affirmative and kicked to the surface, desperate for a breath. I took my time, joined him topside and found him gasping, while I felt strangely relaxed. When the chips were down at the pool during Air Force pararescue training, I’d buckled. This time I won a major battle in the water. It was a big victory, but the war wasn’t over.

After I passed the knot-tying evolution, we had two minutes to climb out on to the deck, get dressed, and head back to the classroom. During First Phase, that’s usually plenty of time, but a lot of us—not just me—were still healing from Hell Week and not moving at our typical lightning pace. On top of that, once we got through Hell Week, Class 231 went through a bit of an attitude adjustment.

Hell Week is designed to show you that a human is capable of much more than you know. It opens your mind to the true possibilities of human potential, and with that comes a change in your mentality. You no longer fear cold water or doing push-ups all day. You realize that no matter what they do to you, they will never break you, so you don’t rush as much to make their arbitrary deadlines. You know if you don’t make it, the instructors will beat you down. Meaning push-ups, getting wet and sandy, anything to up the pain and discomfort quotient, but for those of us knuckle draggers still in the mix, our attitude was, So the fu@k be it! None of us feared the instructors anymore, and we weren’t about to rush. They didn’t like that one damn bit.

I had seen a lot of beat downs while at BUD/S, but the one we received that day will go down as one of the worst in history. We did push-ups until we couldn’t pick ourselves up off the deck, then they turned us on our backs and demanded flutter kicks. Each kick was torture for me. I kept putting my legs down because of the pain. I was showing weakness and if you show weakness, IT IS ON!

Psycho and SBG descended and took turns on me. I went from push-ups to flutter kicks to bear crawls until they got tired. I could feel the moving parts of my knee shifting, floating, and grabbing every time I bent it to do those bear crawls, and it was agonizing. I moved slower than normal and knew I was broken. That simple question bubbled up again. Why? What was I trying to prove? Quitting seemed the sane choice. The comfort of mediocrity sounded like sweet relief until Psycho screamed in my ear.

“Move faster, motherfu@ker!”

Once again, an amazing feeling washed over me. I wasn’t focused on outdoing him this time. I was in the worst pain of my life, but my victory in the pool minutes before came rushing back. I’d finally proved to myself that I was a decent enough waterman to belong in the Navy SEALs. Heady stuff for a negatively buoyant kid that never took a swim lesson in his entire life. And the reason I got there was because I’d put in the work. The pool had been my kryptonite. Even though I was a far better swimmer as a SEAL candidate, I was still so stressed about water evolutions that I used to hit the pool after a day of training at least three times a week. I scaled the fifteen-foot fence just to gain after-hours access. Other than the academic aspect, nothing scared me as much about the prospects of BUD/S like the swimming drills, and by dedicating time I was able to callous over that fear and hit new levels underwater when the pressure was on.

I thought about the incredible power of a calloused mind on task, as Psycho and SBG beat me down, and that thought became a feeling that took over my body and made me move as fast as a bear around that pool. I couldn’t believe what I was doing. The intense pain was gone, and so were those nagging questions. I was putting out harder than ever, breaking through the limitations of injury and pain tolerance, and riding a second wind delivered by a calloused mind.

After the bear crawls, I went back to doing flutter kicks, and I still had no pain! As we were leaving the pool a half-hour later, SBG asked, “Goggins, what got into your ass to make you Superman?” I just smiled and left the pool. I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t yet understand what I now know.

Similar to using an opponent’s energy to gain an advantage, leaning on your calloused mind in the heat of battle can shift your thinking as well. Remembering what you’ve been through and how that has strengthened your mindset can lift you out of a negative brain loop and help you bypass those weak, one-second impulses to give in so you can power through obstacles. And when you leverage a calloused mind like I did around the pool that day and keep fighting through pain, it can help you push your limits because if you accept the pain as a natural process and refuse to give in and give up, you will engage the sympathetic nervous system which shifts your hormonal flow.

The sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight reflex. It’s bubbling just below the surface, and when you are lost, stressed out, or struggling, like I was when I was a down and out kid, that’s the part of your mind that’s driving the bus. We’ve all tasted this feeling before. Those mornings when going on a run is the last thing you want to do, but then twenty minutes into it you feel energized, that’s the work of the sympathetic nervous system. What I’ve found is that you can tap into it on-call as long as you know how to manage your own mind.

When you indulge in negative self-talk, the gifts of a sympathetic response will remain out of reach. However, if you can manage those moments of pain that come with maximum effort, by remembering what you’ve been through to get to that point in your life, you will be in a better position to persevere and choose fight over flight. That will allow you to use the adrenaline that comes with a sympathetic response to go even harder.

Obstacles at work and school can also be overcome with your calloused mind. In those cases, pushing through a given flashpoint isn’t likely to lead to a sympathetic response, but it will keep you motivated to push through any doubt you feel about your own abilities. No matter the task at hand, there is always opportunity for self-doubt. Whenever you decide to follow a dream or set a goal, you are just as likely to come up with all the reasons why the likelihood of success is low. Blame it on the fu@ked-up evolutionary wiring of the human mind. But you don’t have to let your doubt into the cockpit! You can tolerate doubt as a backseat driver, but if you put doubt in the pilot’s seat, defeat is guaranteed. Remembering that you’ve been through difficulties before and have always survived to fight again shifts the conversation in your head. It will allow you to control and manage doubt, and keep you focused on taking each and every step necessary to achieve the task at hand.

Sounds simple, right? It isn’t. Very few people even bother to try to control the way their thoughts and doubts bubble up. The vast majority of us are slaves to our minds. Most don’t even make the first effort when it comes to mastering their thought process because it’s a never-ending chore and impossible to get right every time. The average person thinks 2,000–3,000 thoughts per hour. That’s thirty to fifty per minute! Some of those shots will slip by the goalie. It’s inevitable. Especially if you coast through life.

Physical training is the perfect crucible to learn how to manage your thought process because when you’re working out, your focus is more likely to be single pointed, and your response to stress and pain is immediate and measurable. Do you hammer hard and snag that personal best like you said you would, or do you crumble? That decision rarely comes down to physical ability, it’s almost always a test of how well you are managing your own mind. If you push yourself through each split and use that energy to maintain a strong pace, you have a great chance of recording a faster time. Granted, some days it’s easier to do that than others. And the clock, or the score, doesn’t matter anyway. The reason it’s important to push hardest when you want to quit the most is because it helps you callous your mind. It’s the same reason why you have to do your best work when you are the least motivated. That’s why I loved PT in BUD/S and why I still love it today. Physical challenges strengthen my mind so I’m ready for whatever life throws at me, and it will do the same for you.

But no matter how well you deploy it, a calloused mind can’t heal broken bones. On the mile-long hike back to the BUD/S compound, the feeling of victory evaporated, and I could feel the damage I’d done. I had twenty weeks of training in front of me, dozens of evolutions ahead, and I could barely walk. While I wanted to deny the pain in my knee, I knew I was fu@ked so I limped straight to medical.

When he saw my knee, the doc didn’t say a damn thing. He just shook his head and sent me to get an x-ray that revealed a fractured kneecap. In BUD/S when reservists sustain injuries that take a long time to heal, they’re sent home, and that’s what happened to me.

I crutched my ass back to the barracks, demoralized, and while checking out, I saw some of the guys that quit during Hell Week. When I first glimpsed their helmets lined up beneath the bell, I felt sorry for them because I knew the empty feeling of giving up, but seeing them face to face reminded me that failure is a part of life and now we all had to press on.

I hadn’t quit, so I knew I’d be invited back, but I had no idea if that meant a third Hell Week or not. Or if after getting rolled twice I still had the burning desire to fight through another hurricane of pain with no guarantee of success. Given my injury record, how could I? I left the BUD/S compound with more self awareness and more mastery over my mind than I’d ever had before, but my future was just as uncertain.

Airplanes have always made me claustrophobic, so I decided to take the train from San Diego to Chicago, which gave me three full days to think, and my mind was all fu@ked up. On the first day I didn’t know if I wanted to be a SEAL anymore. I had overcome a lot. I beat Hell Week, realized the power of a calloused mind and conquered my fear of the water. Perhaps I’d already learned enough about myself? What else did I need to prove? On day two I thought about all the other jobs I could sign up for. Maybe I should move on and become a firefighter? That’s a bad-ass job, and it would be an opportunity to become a different sort of hero. But on day three, as the train veered into Chicago, I slipped into a bathroom the size of a phone booth and checked in with the Accountability Mirror. Is that really how you feel? Are you sure you’re ready to give up on the SEALs and become a civilian fireman? I stared at myself for five minutes before I shook my head. I couldn’t lie. I had to tell myself the truth, out loud.

“I’m afraid. I’m afraid of going through all of that sh@t again. I’m afraid of day one, week one.”

I was divorced by then, but my ex-wife, Pam, met me at the train station to drive me home to my mother’s place in Indianapolis. Pam was still living in Brazil. We’d been in touch while I was in San Diego, and after seeing each other through the crowd on the train platform, we fell back on our habits, and later that night we fell into bed.

That whole summer, from May to November, I stayed in the Midwest, healing up then rehabbing my knee. I was still a reservist but remained undecided about going back to Navy SEAL training. I looked into the Marine Corps. I explored the application process for a handful of fire fighting units but finally picked up the phone, ready to call into the BUD/S compound. They needed my final answer.

I sat there, holding the telephone, and thought about the misery of SEAL training. sh@t, you run six miles a day just to eat, not including your training runs. I visualized all the swimming and paddling, carrying heavy-ass boats and logs on our heads, over the berm all day. I flashed onto hours of sit-ups, push-ups, flutter kicks, and the O-Course. I remembered the feeling of rolling around in the sand, of being chafed all fu@king day and night. My memories were a mind-body experience, and I felt the cold deep in my bones. A normal person would give up. They’d say, fu@k it, it’s just not meant to be, and refuse to torture themselves one minute more.

But I wasn’t wired normal.

As I dialed the number, negativity rose up like an angry shadow. I couldn’t help but think that I was put on this earth to suffer. Why wouldn’t my own personal demons, the fates, God, or Satan, just leave me the fu@k alone? I was tired of trying to prove myself. Tired of callousing my mind. Mentally, I was worn to the nub. At the same time, being worn the fu@k down is the price of being hard and I knew if I quit, those feelings and thoughts wouldn’t just go away. The cost of quitting would be lifelong purgatory. I’d be trapped in the knowing that I didn’t stay in the fight to the bitter end. There is no shame in getting knocked out. The shame comes when you throw in the motherfu@king towel, and if I was born to suffer, then I may as well take my medicine.

The training officer welcomed me back and confirmed that I was starting from day one, week one. As expected, my brown shirt would have to be swapped out for a white one, and he had one more sliver of sunshine to share. “Just so you know, Goggins,” he said, “this will be the last time we will allow you to go through BUD/S training. If you get injured, that’s it. We will not allow you to come back again.” “Roger that,” I said.

Class 235 would muster in just four weeks. My knee still wasn’t all the way right, but I’d better be ready because the ultimate test was about to begin.

Within seconds of hanging up the phone, Pam called and said she needed to see me. It was good timing. I was leaving town again, hopefully for good this time, and I needed to level with her. We’d been enjoying one another, but it was always a temporary thing for me. We’d been married once and we were still different people with totally different worldviews. That hadn’t changed and obviously neither had some of my insecurities, as they kept me going back to what was familiar. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We would never work and it was time to say so.

She got to her news first.

“I’m late,” she said, as she burst through the door, clutching a brown paper bag. “Like late late.” She seemed excited and nervous as she disappeared into the bathroom. I could hear that bag crinkle and the tearing open of a package as I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling. Minutes later, she opened the bathroom door, a pregnancy test in her fist and a big smile on her face. “I knew it,” she said, biting her lower lip. “Look, David, we’re pregnant!” I stood up slow, she hugged me with everything she had, and her excitement broke my heart. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. I wasn’t ready. My body was still broken, I was $30,000 in credit card debt, and still only a reservist. I had no address of my own and no car. I was unstable, and that made me very insecure. Plus, I wasn’t even in love with this woman. That’s what I said to myself while I stared into that Accountability Mirror over her shoulder. The mirror that never lies.

I averted my eyes.

Pam went home to share the news with her parents. I walked her to the door of my mother’s place, then slumped into the couch. In Coronado, I felt like I’d come to terms with my fu@ked up past and found some power there, and here I was sucked under once again. Now it wasn’t just about me and my dreams of becoming a SEAL. I had a family to think about, which raised the stakes that much higher. If I failed this time, it wouldn’t mean that I was just going back to ground zero, emotionally and financially, but I would be bringing my new family there with me. When my mother got home I told her everything, and as we talked the dam broke and my fear, sadness, and struggle came bursting out of me. I put my head in my hands and sobbed.

“Mom, my life from the time I was born until now has been a nightmare. A nightmare that keeps getting worse,” I said. “The harder I try, the harder my life becomes.”

“I can’t argue with that, David,” she said. My mom knew hell and she wasn’t trying to baby me. She never had. “But I also know you well enough to know that you will find a way to get through this.”

“I have to,” I said as I wiped the tears from my eyes. “I don’t have a choice.”

She left me alone, and I sat on that couch all night. I felt like I’d been stripped of everything, but I was still breathing, which meant I had to find a way to keep going. I had to compartmentalize doubt and find the strength to believe that I was born to be more than some tired-ass Navy SEAL reject. After Hell Week I’d felt I had become unbreakable, yet within a week I’d been zeroed out. I hadn’t levelled up after all. I still wasn’t sh@t, and if I was going to fix my broke-down life, I would have to become more!

On that sofa, I found a way.

By then I’d learned how to hold myself accountable, and I knew I could take a man’s soul in the heat of battle. I had overcome many obstacles, and realized that each of those experiences had calloused my mind so thick, I could take on any challenge. All of that that made me feel like I’d dealt with my past demons, but I hadn’t. I’d been ignoring them. My memories of abuse at the hands of my father, of all those people who called me nigger, didn’t vaporize after a few victories. Those moments were anchored deep in my subconscious, and as a result, my foundation was cracked. In a human being your character is your foundation, and when you build a bunch of successes and pile up even more failures on a fu@ked-up foundation, the structure that is the self won’t be sound. To develop an armored mind—a mindset so calloused and hard that it becomes bulletproof—you need to go to the source of all your fears and insecurities.

Most of us sweep our failures and evil secrets under the rug, but when we run into problems, that rug gets lifted up, and our darkness re-emerges, floods our soul, and influences the decisions which determine our character. My fears were never just about the water, and my anxieties toward Class 235 weren’t about the pain of First Phase. They were seeping from the infected wounds I’d been walking around with my entire life, and my denial of them amounted to a denial of myself. I was my own worst enemy! It wasn’t the world, or God, or the Devil that was out to get me. It was me!

I was rejecting my past and therefore rejecting myself. My foundation, my character was defined by self-rejection. All my fears came from that deep-seated uneasiness I carried with being David Goggins because of what I’d gone through. Even after I’d reached a point where I no longer cared about what others thought of me, I still had trouble accepting me.

Anyone who is of sound mind and body can sit down and think of twenty things in their life that could have gone differently. Where maybe they didn’t get a fair shake and where they took the path of least resistance. If you’re one of the few who acknowledge that, want to callous those wounds, and strengthen your character, its up to you to go back through your past and make peace with yourself by facing those incidents and all of your negative influences, and accepting them as weak spots in your own character. Only when you identify and accept your weaknesses will you finally stop running from your past. Then those incidents can be used more efficiently as fuel to become better and grow stronger.

Right there on mom’s couch, as the moon burned its arc in the night sky, I faced down my demons. I faced myself. I couldn’t run from my dad anymore. I had to accept that he was part of me and that his lying, cheating character influenced me more than I cared to admit. Before that night, I used to tell people that my father had died rather than tell the truth about where I came from. Even in the SEALs I trotted out that lie. I knew why. When you get beat up, you don’t want to acknowledge getting your ass kicked. It doesn’t make you feel very manly, so the easiest thing to do is forget about it and move on. Pretend it never happened.

Not anymore.

Going forward it became very important for me to rehash my life, because when you examine your experiences with a fine-toothed comb and see where your issues come from, you can find strength in enduring pain and abuse. By accepting Trunnis Goggins as part of me, I was free to use where I came from as fuel. I realized that each episode of child abuse that could have killed me made me tough as hell and as sharp as a Samurai’s blade.

True, I had been dealt a fu@ked-up hand, but that night I started thinking of it as running a 100-mile race with a fifty-pound ruck on my back. Could I still compete in that race even if everyone else was running free and easy, weighing 130 pounds? How fast would I be able to run once I’d shed that dead weight? I wasn’t even thinking about ultras yet. To me the race was life itself, and the more I took inventory, the more I realized how prepared I was for the fu@ked-up events yet to come. Life had put me in the fire, taken me out, and hammered me repeatedly, and diving back into the BUD/S cauldron, feeling a third Hell Week in a calendar year, would decorate me with a PhD in pain. I was about to become the sharpest sword ever made!

I showed up to Class 235 on a mission and kept to myself throughout much of First Phase. There were 156 men in that class on day one. I still led from the front, but I wasn’t about shepherding anyone through Hell Week this time. My knee was still sore and I needed to put every ounce of energy into getting my ass through BUD/S. I had everything riding on the next six months, and I had no illusions about how difficult it would be to make it through.

Case in point: Shawn Dobbs.

Dobbs grew up poor in Jacksonville, Florida. He battled some of the same demons I did, and he came into class with a chip on his shoulder. Right away, I could see he was an elite, natural athlete. He was at or near the front on all the runs, he blitzed the O-Course in 8:30 after just a few reps, and he knew he was a bad motherfu@ker. Then again, like the Taoists say, those that know don’t speak, and those who speak, well, they don’t know jack sh@t.

On the night before Hell Week began he talked a lot of noise about the guys in Class 235. There were already fifty-five helmets on the Grinder, and he was sure he’d be one of a handful of graduates at the end. He mentioned the guys he knew would make it through Hell Week and also talked a lot of nonsense about the guys he knew would quit.

He had no clue that he was making the classic mistake of measuring himself against others in his class. When he beat them in an evolution or outperformed them during PT, he took a lot of pride in that. It boosted his self-confidence and his performance. In BUD/S, it’s common and natural to do some of that. It’s all part of the competitive nature of the alpha males who are drawn to the SEALs, but he didn’t realize that during Hell Week you need a solid boat crew to survive, which means depending upon your classmates, not defeating them. While he talked and talked, I took notice. He had no idea what was in store for him and how bad sleep deprivation and being cold fu@ks you up. He was about to find out. In the early hours of Hell Week, he performed well, but that same drive to defeat his classmates in evolutions and on timed runs came out on the beach.

At 5’4” and 188 pounds, Dobbs was built like a fire hydrant, but since he was short he was assigned to a boat crew of smaller guys referred to as Smurfs by the instructors. In fact, Psycho Pete made them draw a picture of Papa Smurf on the front of their boat just to fu@k with them. That’s the kind of thing our instructors did. They looked for any way to break you, and with Dobbs it worked. He didn’t like being grouped up with guys he considered smaller and weaker, and took it out on his teammates. Over the next day he would grind his own crew down before our eyes. He took up the position at the front of the boat or the log and set a blistering pace on the runs. Instead of checking in with his crew and holding something back in reserve, he went all out from the jump. I reached out to him recently and he said he remembered BUD/S like it happened last week.

“I was grinding an axe on my own people,” he said. “I was purposely beating them down, almost like if I made guys quit, it was a checkmark on my helmet.”

By Monday morning he’d done a decent job of it. Two of his guys had quit and that meant four smaller guys had to carry their boat and log by themselves. He admitted he was fighting his own demons on that beach. That his foundation was cracked.

“I was an insecure person with low self esteem trying to grind an axe,” he said, “and my own ego, arrogance, and insecurity made my own life more difficult.”

Translation: his mind broke down in ways he’d never experienced before or since.

On Monday afternoon we did a bay swim, and when he emerged from the water, he was hurting. Watching him it was obvious he could barely walk and that his mind was teetering on the brink. We locked eyes and I saw that he was asking himself those simple questions and couldn’t find an answer. He looked a lot like I did when I was in Pararescue, searching for a way out. From then on Dobbs was one of the worst performers on the whole beach, and that fu@ked him up bad.

“All the people I’d categorized as lower than worms were kicking my butt,” he said. Soon his crew was down to two men, and he got moved to another boat crew with taller guys. When they lifted the boat head high, he wasn’t even able to reach that motherfu@ker, and all of his insecurities about his size and his past started caving in on him.

“I started to believe that I didn’t belong there,” he said. “That I was genetically inferior. It was like I had superpowers, and I’d lost them. I was in a place in my mind I’d never been, and I didn’t have a road map.”

Think about where he was at that time. This man had excelled through the first few weeks of BUD/S. He’d come from nothing and was a phenomenal athlete. He had so many experiences along the way he could have leaned on. He’d calloused his mind plenty, but because his foundation was cracked, when sh@t got real he lost control of his mindset and became a slave to his self doubt.

On Monday night, Dobbs reported to medical complaining about his feet. He was sure he had stress fractures, but when he took off his boots they weren’t swollen or black and blue like he’d imagined. They looked perfectly healthy. I know that because I was at med check too, sitting right beside him. I saw his blank stare and knew the inevitable was near. It was the look that comes over a man’s face after he surrenders his soul. I had the same look in my eyes when I quit Pararescue. What will forever bond me and Shawn Dobbs is the fact that I knew he was going to quit before he did.

The docs offered him Motrin and sent him back into the suffering. I remember watching Shawn lace his boots, wondering at what point he would finally break. That’s when SBG pulled up in his truck and yelled, “This will be the coldest night that you will ever experience in your entire lives!”

I was under my boat with my crew headed toward the infamous Steel Pier when I glanced behind me and saw Shawn in the back of SBG’s warm truck. He’d surrendered. Within minutes he would toll the bell three times, and place his helmet down.

In Dobbs’ defense, this was one nightmare of a Hell Week. It rained all day and all night, which meant you never got warm and never got dry. Plus, somebody in command had the brilliant idea that the class shouldn’t be fed and watered like kings at chow. Instead, we were supplied cold MREs for almost every meal. They thought that would test us even more. Make it more like a real-world battlefield situation. It also meant there was absolutely no relief, and without abundant calories to burn it was hard for anybody to find the energy to push through pain and exhaustion, let alone keep warm.

Yes, it was miserable, but I fu@king loved it. I thrived off of the barbaric beauty of seeing the soul of a man destroyed, only to rise again and overcome every obstacle in his path. By my third go ’round, I knew what the human body could take. I knew what I could take, and I was feeding off that sh@t. At the same time, my legs didn’t feel right and my knee had been barking since day one. So far, the pain was something I could handle for at least a couple more days, but the thought of injury was a whole different piece of fu@k-you pie that I had to block out of my mind. I went into a dark place where there was just me and the pain and suffering. I didn’t focus on my classmates or my instructors. I went full caveman. I was willing to die to make it through that motherfu@ker.

I wasn’t the only one. Late on Wednesday night, with thirty-six hours to go before the end of Hell Week, tragedy hit Class 235. We were in the pool for an evolution called the caterpillar swim, in which each boat crew swam on their backs, legs locked around torsos, in a chain. We had to use our hands in concert to swim.

We mustered up at the pool. There were just twenty-six guys left and one of them was named John Skop. Mr. Skop was a specimen at 6’2” and 225 pounds, but he’d been sick from breakout and had been in and out of med check all week. While twenty-five of us stood at attention on the pool deck, swollen, chafed, and bleeding, he sat on the stairs by the pool, jackhammering in the cold. He looked like he was freezing, but waves of heat poured off his skin. His body was a radiator on full blast. I could feel him from ten feet away.

I’d had double pneumonia during my first Hell Week and knew what it looked and felt like. His alveoli, or air sacs, were filling with fluid. He couldn’t clear them so he could barely breathe, which exacerbated his problem. When pneumonia goes uncontrolled, it can lead to pulmonary edema, which can be deadly, and he was halfway there.

Sure enough, during the caterpillar swim, his legs went limp and he darted to the bottom of the pool like a doll stuffed with lead. Two instructors jumped in after him and from there it was chaos. They ordered us out of the water and lined us up along the fence with our backs facing the pool as medics worked to revive Mr. Skop. We heard everything and knew his chances were slipping. Five minutes later, he still wasn’t breathing, and they ordered us to the locker room. Mr. Skop was transported to the hospital and we were told to run back to the BUD/S classroom. We didn’t know it yet, but Hell Week was already over. Minutes later, SBG walked in and delivered the news cold.

“Mr. Skop is dead,” he said. He took stock of the room. His words had been a collective gut punch to men who were already on the knife’s edge after nearly a week with no sleep and no relief. SBG didn’t give a fu@k. “This is the world you live in. He’s not the first and he won’t be the last to die in your line of work.” He looked over at Mr. Skop’s roommate and said, “Mr. Moore, don’t steal any of his sh@t.” Then he left the room like it was just another fu@ked-up day.

I felt torn between grief, nausea, and relief. I was sad and sick to my stomach that Mr. Skop had died, but we were all relieved to have survived Hell Week, plus the way SBG handled it was straight ahead, no bullsh@t, and I remember thinking if all SEALs were like him, this would definitely be the world for me. Talk about mixed emotions.

See, most civilians don’t understand that you need a certain level of callousness to do the job we were being trained to do. To live in a brutal world, you have to accept cold-blooded truths. I’m not saying it’s good. I’m not necessarily proud of it. But special ops is a calloused world and it demands a calloused mind.

Hell Week had ended thirty-six hours early. There was no pizza or brown shirt ceremony on the Grinder, but twenty-five men out of a possible 156 had made it. Once again, I was one of the few, and once again I was swollen like a Pillsbury doughboy and on crutches with twenty-one weeks of training still to come. My patella was intact, but both of my shins were slivered with small fractures. It gets worse. The instructors were surly because they’d been forced to call Hell Week prematurely, so they ended walk week after just forty-eight hours. By every conceivable metric I was fu@ked. When I moved my ankle, my shins were activated and I felt searing pain, which was a monumental problem because a typical week in BUD/S demands up to sixty miles of running. Imagine doing that on two broken shins.

Most of the guys in Class 235 lived on base at Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado. I lived about twenty miles away in a $700 a month studio apartment with a mold problem in Chula Vista, which I shared with my pregnant wife and stepdaughter. After she got pregnant, Pam and I remarried, I financed a new Honda Passport—which put me roughly $60,000 in debt—and the three of us drove out from Indiana to San Diego to restart our family. I’d just cleared Hell Week for the second time in a calendar year and she was set to deliver our baby right around graduation, but there was no happiness in my head or my soul. How could there be? We lived in a sh@thole that was at the edge of affordability, and my body was broken once again. If I couldn’t make it through I wouldn’t even be able to afford rent, would have to start all over, and find a new line of work. I could not and would not let that happen.

The night before First Phase kicked back up in intensity, I shaved my head and stared into my reflection. For almost two years straight I’d been taking pain to the extreme and coming back for more. I’d succeeded in spurts only to be buried alive in failure. That night, the only thing that allowed me to continue pushing forward was the knowledge that everything I’d been through had helped callous my mind. The question was, how thick was the callous? How much pain could one man take? Did I have it in me to run on broken legs?

I woke up at 3:30 the next morning and drove to the base. I limped to the BUD/S cage where we kept our gear and slumped onto a bench, dropping my backpack at my feet. It was dark as hell inside and out, and I was all alone. I could hear the rolling surf in the distance as I dug through my dive bag. Buried beneath my dive gear were two rolls of duct tape. I could only shake my head and smile in disbelief as I grabbed them, knowing how insane my plan was.

I carefully pulled a thick black tube sock over my right foot. The shin was tender to the touch and even the slightest twitch of the ankle joint registered high on the suffering scale. From there I looped the tape around my heel then up over my ankle and back down to my heel, eventually moving both down the foot and up my calf until my entire lower leg and foot were wrapped tight. That was just the first coat. Then I put another black tube sock on and taped my foot and ankle the same way. By the time I was done, I had two sock layers and two tape layers, and once my foot was laced up in the boot, my ankle and shin were protected and immobilized. Satisfied, I did up my left foot, and an hour later, it was as though both my lower legs were sunk into soft casts. It still hurt to walk, but the torture that I’d felt when my ankle moved was more tolerable. Or at least I thought so. I’d find out for sure when we started to run.

Our first training run that day was my trial by fire, and I did the best I could to run with my hip flexors. Usually we let our feet and lower legs drive the rhythm. I had to reverse that. It took intense focus to isolate each movement and generate motion and power in my legs from the hip down, and for the first thirty minutes the pain was the worst I’d ever felt in my life. The tape cut into my skin, while the pounding sent shockwaves of agony up my slivered shins.

And this was just the first run in what promised to be five months of continual pain. Was it possible to survive this, day after day? I thought about quitting. If failure was my future and I’d have to rethink my life completely, what was the point of this exercise? Why delay the inevitable? Was I fu@ked in the head? Each and every thought boiled down to the same old simple question: why?

“The only way to guarantee failure is to quit right now, motherfu@ker!” I was talking to myself now. Silently screaming over the din of anguish that was crushing my mind and soul. “Take the pain, or it won’t just be your failure. It will be your family’s failure!”

I imagined the feeling I would have if I could actually pull this off. If I could endure the pain required to complete this mission. That bought me another half mile before more pain rained down and swirled within me like a typhoon.

“People have a hard time going through BUD/S healthy, and you’re going through it on broken legs! Who else would even think of this?” I asked. “Who else would be able to run even one minute on one broken leg, let alone two? Only Goggins! You are twenty minutes in the business, Goggins! You are a fu@king machine! Each step you run from now until the end will only make you harder!” That last message cracked the code like a password. My calloused mind was my ticket forward, and at the forty-minute mark something remarkable happened. The pain receded to low tide. The tape had loosened so it wasn’t cutting into my skin, and my muscles and bones were warm enough to take some pounding. The pain would come and go throughout the day, but it became much more manageable, and when the pain did show up, I told myself it was proof of how tough I was and how much tougher I was becoming.

Day after day the same ritual played itself out. I showed up early, duct taped my feet, endured thirty minutes of extreme pain, talked myself through it, and survived. This was no fake-it-till-you-make-it bullsh@t. To me, the fact that I showed up every day willing to put myself through something like that was truly amazing. The instructors rewarded me for it too. They offered to bind my hands and feet and throw me in the pool to see if I could swim four fu@king laps. In fact, they didn’t offer. They insisted. This was one part of an evolution they liked to call Drown Proofing. I preferred to call it controlled drowning!

With our hands bound behind us and feet tied behind our back, all we could do is dolphin kick, and unlike some of the experienced swimmers in our class, who looked like they’d been pulled from the Michael Phelps gene pool, my dolphin kick was that of a stationary rocking horse and provided about the same propulsion. I was continually out of breath, fighting to stay near the surface, chicken necking my head above the water to get a breath, only to sink down and kick hard, trying in vain to find momentum. I’d practiced for this. For weeks, I’d hit the pool and even experimented with wetsuit shorts to see if I could hide them under my uniform to provide some buoyancy. They made it look like I was wearing a diaper under the tight-ass-nut-hugging UDT shorts, and they didn’t help, but all that practice did get me comfortable enough with the feeling of drowning that I was able to endure and pass that test.

We had another brutal underwater evolution in Second Phase, aka dive phase. Again, it involved treading water, which always sounds basic as hell whenever I write it, but for this drill we were fitted with fully-charged, twin eighty-liter tanks and a sixteen-pound weight belt. We had fins, but kicking with fins increased the pain quotient and stress on my ankles and shins. I couldn’t tape up for the water. I had to suck up the pain.

After that we had to swim on our backs for fifty meters without sinking. Then flip over and swim fifty meters on our stomach, once again staying on the surface, all while being fully loaded! We weren’t allowed to use any flotation devices whatsoever, and keeping our heads up caused intense pain in our necks, shoulders, hips, and lower backs.

The noises coming out of the pool that day are something I’ll never forget. Our desperate attempts to stay afloat and breathe conjured an audible mixture of terror, frustration, and exertion. We were gurgling, grunting, and gasping. I heard guttural screams and high-pitched squeals. Several guys sank to the bottom, took off their weight belts, and slipped free of their tanks, letting them crash to the floor of the pool, then jetted to the surface.

Only one man passed that evolution on the first try. We only got three chances to pass any given evolution and it took me all three to pass that one. On my last attempt I focused on long, fluid scissor kicks, again using my overworked hip flexors. I barely made it.

By the time we got to Third Phase, the land warfare training module on San Clemente Island, my legs were healed up, and I knew I’d make it through to graduation, but just because it was the last lap doesn’t mean it was easy. At the main BUD/S compound on The Strand, you get lots of looky-loos coming through. Officers of all stripes stop in to watch training, which means there are people peering over the instructors’ shoulders. On the island, it’s just you and them. They are free to get nasty, and they show no mercy. Which is exactly why I loved the island!

One afternoon we split into teams of two and three guys to build hide sites that blend in with the vegetation. We were coming down to the end by then, and everyone was in killer shape and unafraid. Guys were getting sloppy with their attention to detail and the instructors were pissed off, so they called everyone down into a valley to give us a classic beat down.

There would be push-ups, sit-ups, flutter kicks, and eight-count bodybuilders (advanced burpees) galore. But first they told us to kneel down and dig holes with our hands, large enough to bury ourselves up to the neck for some unspecified length of time. I was smiling my ass off and digging deep when one of the instructors came up with a new, creative way to torture me.

“Goggins, get up. You like this sh@t too much.” I laughed and kept digging, but he was serious. “I said get up, Goggins. You’re getting way too much pleasure.”

I stood up, stepped to the side, and watched my classmates suffer for the next thirty minutes without me. From then on the instructors stopped including me in their beat downs. When the class was ordered to do push-ups, sit-ups, or get wet and sandy, they’d always exclude me. I took it as a point of pride that I’d finally broken the will of the entire BUD/S staff, but I also missed the beat downs. Because I saw them as opportunities to callous my mind. Now, they were over for me.

Considering that the Grinder was center stage for a lot of Navy SEAL training, it makes sense that’s where BUD/S graduation is held. Families fly in. Fathers and brothers puff their chests out; mothers, wives, and girlfriends are all done up and drop dead gorgeous. Instead of pain and misery, it was all smiles on that patch of asphalt as the graduates of Class 235 mustered up in our dress whites beneath a huge American flag billowing in the sea breeze. To our right was the infamous bell that 130 of our classmates tolled in order to quit what is arguably the most challenging training in the military. Each of us was introduced and acknowledged individually. My mother had tears of joy in her eyes when my name was called, but strangely, I didn’t feel much of anything, except sadness.

Mom and I at BUD/S graduation

On the Grinder and later at McP’s—the SEAL pub of choice in downtown Coronado—my teammates beamed with pride as they gathered to take photos with their families. At the bar, music blared while everyone got drunk and raised hell like they’d just won something. And to be honest, that sh@t annoyed me. Because I was sorry to see BUD/S go.

When I first locked in on the SEALs, I was looking for an arena that would either destroy me completely or make me unbreakable. BUD/S provided that. It showed me what the human mind is capable of, and how to harness it to take more pain than I’d ever felt before, so I could learn to achieve things I never even knew were possible. Like running on broken legs. After graduation it would be up to me to continue to hunt impossible tasks because though it was an accomplishment to become just the thirty-sixth African American BUD/S graduate in Navy SEAL history, my quest to defy the odds had only just begun!

CHALLENGE #5

It’s time to visualize! Again, the average person thinks 2,000–3,000 thoughts per hour. Rather than focusing on bullsh@t you cannot change, imagine visualizing the things you can. Choose any obstacle in your way, or set a new goal, and visualize overcoming or achieving it. Before I engage in any challenging activity, I start by painting a picture of what my success looks and feels like. I’ll think about it every day and that feeling propels me forward when I’m training, competing, or taking on any task I choose.

But visualization isn’t simply about daydreaming of some trophy ceremony—real or metaphorical. You must also visualize the challenges that are likely to arise and determine how you will attack those problems when they do. That way you can be as prepared as possible on the journey. When I show up for a foot race now, I drive the entire course first, visualizing success but also potential challenges, which helps me control my thought process. You can’t prepare for everything but if you engage in strategic visualization ahead of time, you’ll be as prepared as you possibly can be.

That also means being prepared to answer the simple questions. Why are you doing this? What is driving you toward this achievement? Where does the darkness you’re using as fuel come from? What has calloused your mind? You’ll need to have those answers at your fingertips when you hit a wall of pain and doubt. To push through, you’ll need to channel your darkness, feed off it, and lean on your calloused mind.

Remember, visualization will never compensate for work undone. You cannot visualize lies. All the strategies I employ to answer the simple questions and win the mind game are only effective because I put in work. It’s a lot more than mind over matter. It takes relentless self-discipline to schedule suffering into your day, every day, but if you do, you’ll find that at the other end of that suffering is a whole other life just waiting for you.

This challenge doesn’t have to be physical, and victory doesn’t always mean you came in first place. It can mean you’ve finally overcome a lifelong fear or any other obstacle that made you surrender in the past. Whatever it is, tell the world your story about how you created your #armoredmind and where it’s taken you.

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