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کتاب: نمی توانی به من آسیب بزنی / فصل 5

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CHAPTER FOUR - TAKING SOULS

The first concussion grenade exploded at close range, and from there everything unraveled in slow motion. One minute we were chilling in the common room, bullsh@tting, watching war movies, getting pumped up for the battle we knew was coming. Then that first explosion led to another, and suddenly Psycho Pete was in our faces, screaming at the top of his lungs, his cheeks flushed candy apple red, that vein in his right temple throbbing. When he screamed, his eyes bugged out and his whole body shook.

“Break! The fu@k! Out! Move! Move! Move!”

My boat crew sprinted for the door single-file, just like we’d planned. Outside, Navy SEALs were firing their M60s into the darkness toward some invisible enemy. It was the bad dream we’d been waiting for our entire lives: the lucid nightmare that would define or kill us. Every impulse we had told us to hit the dirt, but at that moment, movement was our only option.

The repetitive, deep bass thud of machine-gun fire penetrated our guts, the orange halo from another explosion in the near distance provided a shock of violent beauty, and our hearts hammered as we gathered on the Grinder awaiting orders. This was war alright, but it wouldn’t be fought on some foreign shore. This one, like most battles we fight in life, would be won or lost in our own minds.

Psycho Pete stomped the pocked asphalt, his brow slick with sweat, the muzzle of his rifle steaming in the foggy night. “Welcome to Hell Week, gentlemen,” he said, calmly this time, in that sing-song Cali-surfer drawl of his. He looked us up and down like a predator eyeing his kill. “It will be my great pleasure to watch you suffer.”

Oh, and there would be suffering. Psycho set the tempo, called out the push-ups, sit-ups, and flutter kicks, the jumping lunges and dive bombers. In between, he and his fellow instructors hosed us down with freezing water, cackling the whole damn time. There were countless reps and set after set with no end in sight.

My classmates were gathered close, each of us on our own stenciled frog footprints, overlooked by a statue of our patron saint: The Frogman, a scaly alien creature from the deep with webbed feet and hands, sharp claws, and a motherfu@king six-pack. To his left was the infamous brass bell. Ever since that morning when I came home from cockroach duty and got sucked into the Navy SEAL show, it was this place that I’d sought. The Grinder: a slab of asphalt dripping with history and misery.

Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training is six months long and divided into three phases. First Phase is all about physical training, or PT. Second Phase is dive training, where we learn how to navigate underwater and deploy stealthy, closed circuit diving systems that emit no bubbles and recycle our carbon dioxide into breathable air. Third Phase is land warfare training. But when most people picture BUD/S they think of First Phase because those are the weeks that tenderize new recruits until the class is literally ground down from about 120 guys to the hard, gleaming spine that are the twenty-five to forty guys who are more worthy of the Trident. The emblem that tells the world we are not to be fu@ked with.

BUD/S instructors do that by working guys out beyond their perceived limits, by challenging their manhood, and insisting on objective physical standards of strength, stamina, and agility. Standards that are tested. In those first three weeks of training we had to, among other things, climb a vertical ten-meter rope, hammer a half-mile-long obstacle course studded with American Ninja Warrior type challenges in under ten minutes, and run four miles on the sand in under thirty-two minutes. But if you ask me, all that was child’s play. It couldn’t even compare to the crucible of First Phase.

Hell Week is something entirely different. It’s medieval and it comes at you fast, detonating in just the third week of training. When the throbbing ache in our muscles and joints was ratcheted up high and we lived day and night with an edgy, hyperventilating feeling of our breath getting out front of our physical rhythm, of our lungs inflating and deflating like canvas bags squeezed tight in a demon’s fists, for 130 hours straight. That’s a test that goes way beyond the physical and reveals your heart and character. More than anything, it reveals your mindset, which is exactly what it’s designed to do.

All of this happened at the Naval Special Warfare Command Center on prissy-ass Coronado Island, a Southern California tourist trap that tucks into slender Point Loma and shelters the San Diego Marina from the open Pacific Ocean. But even Cali’s golden sun couldn’t pretty up the Grinder, and thank God for that. I liked it ugly. That slab of agony was everything I’d ever wanted. Not because I loved to suffer, but because I needed to know whether or not I had what it took to belong.

Thing is, most people don’t.

By the time Hell Week started, at least forty guys had already quit, and when they did they were forced to walk over to the bell, ring it three times, and place their helmet on the concrete. The ringing of the bell was first brought in during the Vietnam era because so many guys were quitting during evolutions and just walking off to the barracks. The bell was a way to keep track of guys, but since then it’s become a ritual that a man has to perform to own the fact that he’s quitting. To the quitter, the bell is closure. To me, every clang sounded like progress.

I never liked Psycho much, but I couldn’t quibble with the specifics of his job. He and his fellow instructors were there to cull the herd. Plus, he wasn’t going after the runts. He was in my face plenty, and guys bigger than me too. Even the smaller dudes were studs. I was one man in a fleet of alpha specimens from back East and down South, the blue-collar and big-money surf beaches of California, a few from corn country like me, and plenty from the Texas rangeland. Every BUD/S class has their share of hard-ass backcountry Texans. No state puts more SEALs in the pipeline. Must be something in the barbecue, but Psycho didn’t play favorites. No matter where we were from or who we were, he lingered like a shadow we couldn’t shake. Laughing, screaming, or quietly taunting us to our face, attempting to burrow into the brain of any man he tried to break.

Despite all that, the first hour of Hell Week was actually fun. During breakout, that mad rush of explosions, shooting, and shouting, you are not even thinking about the nightmare to come. You’re riding an adrenaline high because you know you’re fulfilling a rite of passage within a hallowed warrior tradition. Guys are looking around the Grinder, practically giddy, thinking, “Yeah, we’re in Hell Week, motherfu@kers!” Ah, but reality has a way of kicking everyone in the teeth sooner or later.

“You call this putting out?” Psycho Pete asked no one in particular. “This may be the single sorriest class we ever put through our program. You men are straight up embarrassing yourselves.”

He relished this part of the job. Stepping over and between us, his boot print in our pooling sweat and saliva, snot, tears, and blood. He thought he was hard. All the instructors did, and they were because they were SEALs. That fact alone placed them in rare air. “You boys couldn’t have held my jock when I went through Hell Week, I’ll tell you that much.” I smiled to myself and kept hammering as Psycho brushed by. He was built like a tailback, quick and strong, but was he a mortal fu@king weapon during his Hell Week? Sir, I doubt that very fu@king much, sir!

He caught the eye of his boss, the First Phase Officer in Charge. There was no doubt about him. He didn’t talk a whole lot and didn’t have to. He was 6’1”, but he cast a longer shadow. Dude was jacked too. I’m talking about 225 pounds of muscle wrapped tight as steel, without an ounce of sympathy. He looked like a Silverback Gorilla (SBG), and loomed like a Godfather of pain, making silent calculations, taking mental notes.

“Sir, my di@k’s getting stiff just thinking about these gaping vaginas weeping and quitting like whiny little bit@hes this week,” Psycho said. SBG offered half a nod as Psycho stared through me. “Oh, and you will quit,” he said softly. “I’ll make sure of that.”

Psycho’s threats were spookier when he delivered them in a relaxed tone like that, but there were plenty of times when his eyes went dark, his brow twisted, the blood rushed to his face, and he unleashed a scream that built from the tips of his toes to the crown of his bald head. An hour into Hell Week, he knelt down, pressed his face within an inch of my own while I finished another set of push-ups, and let loose.

“Hit the surf, you miserable fu@king turds!”

We’d been in BUD/S for nearly three weeks by then, and we’d raced up and over the fifteen-foot berm that divided the beach from the cinderblock sprawl of offices, locker rooms, barracks, and classrooms that is the BUD/S compound plenty of times. Usually to lie back in the shallows, fully dressed, then roll in the sand—until we were covered in sand from head to toe—before charging back to the Grinder, dripping heavy with salt water and sand, which ramped up the degree of difficulty on the pull-up bar. That ritual was called getting wet and sandy, and they wanted sand in our ears, up our noses, and in every orifice of our body, but this time we were on the verge of something called surf torture, which is a special kind of beast.

As instructed, we charged into the surf screaming like senseis. Fully clothed, arms linked, we waded into the impact zone. The surf was angry that moonless night, nearly head high, and the waves were rolling thunder that barreled and foamed in sets of three and four. Cold water shriveled our balls and swiped the breath from our lungs as the waves thrashed us.

This was early May, and in the spring the ocean off Coronado ranges from 59–63 degrees. We bobbed up and down as one, a pearl strand of floating heads scanning the horizon for any hint of swell we prayed we’d see coming before it towed us under. The surfers in our crew detected doom first and called out the waves so we could duck dive just in time. After ten minutes or so, Psycho ordered us back to land. On the verge of hypothermia, we scrambled from the surf zone and stood at attention, while being checked by the doctor for hypothermia. That cycle would continue to repeat itself. The sky was smeared orange and red. The temperature dropped sharply as night loomed close.

“Say goodbye to the sun, gents,” SBG said. He made us wave at the setting sun. A symbolic acknowledgement of an inconvenient truth. We were about to freeze our natural asses off.

After an hour, we fell back into our six-man boat crews, and stood nut to butt, huddling tight to get warm, but it was futile. Bones were rattling up and down that beach. Guys were jackhammering and sniffling, a physical state revealing the quaking conditions of splintering minds, which were just now coming to grips with the reality that this sh@t had only just begun.

Even on the hardest days of First Phase prior to Hell Week, when the sheer volume of rope climbs and push-ups, pull-ups, and flutter kicks crushes your spirit, you can find a way out. Because you know that no matter how much it sucks, you’ll head home that night, meet friends for dinner, see a movie, maybe get some pussy, and sleep in your own bed. The point is, even on miserable days you can fixate on an escape from hell that’s real.

Hell Week offers no such love. Especially on day one, when an hour in they had us standing, linking arms, facing the Pacific Ocean, wading in and out of the surf for hours. In between we were gifted soft sand sprints to warm up. Usually they had us carry our rigid inflatable boat or a log overhead, but the warmth, if it ever arrived, was always short-lived because every ten minutes they rotated us back into the water.

The clock ticked slowly that first night as the cold seeped in, colonizing our marrow so thoroughly the runs stopped doing any good. There would be no more bombs, no more shooting, and very little yelling. Instead, an eerie quiet expanded and deadened our spirit. In the ocean, all any of us could hear were the waves going overhead, the seawater we accidentally swallowed roiling in our guts, and our own teeth chattering.

When you’re that cold and stressed, the mind cannot comprehend the next 120-plus hours. Five and a half days without sleep cannot be broken up into small pieces. There is no way to systematically attack it, which is why every single person who has ever tried to become a SEAL has asked himself one simple question during their first dose of surf torture: “Why am I here?”

Those innocuous words bubbled up in our spinning minds each time we got sucked under a monster wave at midnight, when we were already borderline hypothermic. Because nobody has to become a SEAL. We weren’t fu@king drafted. Becoming a SEAL is a choice. And what that single softball question revealed in the heat of battle is that each second we remained in training was also a choice, which made the entire notion of becoming a SEAL seem like masochism. It’s voluntary torture. And that makes no sense at all to the rational mind, which is why those four words unravel so many men.

The instructors know all of this, of course, which is why they stop yelling early on. Instead, as the night wore on, Psycho Pete consoled us like a concerned older brother. He offered us hot soup, a warm shower, blankets, and a ride back to the barracks. That was the bait he set for quitters to snap up, and he harvested helmets left and right. He was taking the souls of those who caved because they couldn’t answer that simple question. I get it. When it’s only Sunday and you know you’re going to Friday and you’re already far colder than you’ve ever been, you’re tempted to believe that you can’t hack it and that nobody can. Married guys were thinking, I could be at home, cuddled up to my beautiful wife instead of shivering and suffering. Single guys were thinking, I could be on the hunt for pussy right now.

It’s tough to ignore that kind of glittering lure, but this was my second lap through the early stages of BUD/S. I’d tasted the evil of Hell Week as part of Class 230. I didn’t make it, but I didn’t quit. I was pulled out on a medical after contracting double pneumonia. I defied doctor’s orders three times and tried to stay in the fight, but they eventually forced me to the barracks and rolled me back to day one, week one of Class 231.

I wasn’t all the way healed up from that bout of pneumonia when my second BUD/S class kicked off. My lungs were still filled with mucus and each cough shook my chest and sounded like a rake was scraping the inside of my alveoli. Still, I liked my chances a lot better this time around because I was prepared, and because I was in a boat crew thick with bad motherfu@kers.

BUD/S boat crews are sorted by height because those are the guys who will help you carry your boat everywhere you go once Hell Week begins. Size alone didn’t guarantee your teammates would be tough, however, and our guys were a crew of square-peg misfits.

There was me, the exterminator who had to drop 100 pounds and take the ASVAB test twice just to get to SEAL training, only to be rolled back almost immediately. We also had the late Chris Kyle. You know him as the deadliest sniper in Navy history. He was so successful, the hajjis in Fallujah put an $80,000 bounty on his head and he became a living legend among the Marines he protected as a member of Seal Team Three. He won a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars for valor, left the military, and wrote a book, American Sniper, that became a hit movie starring Bradley fu@king Cooper. But back then he was a simple Texas hayseed rodeo cowboy who barely said a damn word.

Then there was Bill Brown, aka Freak Brown. Most people just called him Freak, and he hated it because he’d been treated like one his whole damn life. In many ways he was the white version of David Goggins. He came up tough in the river towns of South Jersey. Older kids in the neighborhood bullied him because of his cleft palate or because he was slow in class, which is how that nickname stuck. He got into enough fights over it that he eventually landed in a youth detention center for a six-month stretch. By the time he was nineteen he was living on his own in the hood, trying to make ends meet as a gas station attendant. It wasn’t working. He had no coat and no car. He commuted everywhere on a rusted out ten-speed bike, literally freezing his balls off. One day after work, he stopped into a Navy recruitment office because he knew he needed structure and purpose, and some warm clothes. They told him about the SEALs, and he was intrigued, but he couldn’t swim. Just like me, he taught himself, and after three attempts he finally passed the SEAL swim test.

Next thing he knew, Brown was in BUD/S, where that Freak nickname followed him. He rocked PT and sailed through First Phase, but he wasn’t nearly as solid in the classroom. Navy SEAL dive training is as tough intellectually as it is physically, but he scraped by and got within two weeks of becoming a BUD/S graduate when, in one of his final land warfare evolutions, he failed re-assembling his weapon in a timed evolution known as weapons practical. Brown hit his targets but missed the time, and he flunked out of BUD/S at the bitter end.

But he didn’t give up. No sir, Freak Brown wasn’t going anywhere. I’d heard stories about him before he washed up with me in Class 231. He had two chips on his shoulders, and I liked him immediately. He was hard as hell and exactly the kind of guy I signed up to go to war with. When we carried our boat from the Grinder to the sand for the first time, I made sure we were the two men at the front, where the boat is at its heaviest. “Freak Brown,” I shouted, “we will be the pillars of Boat Crew Two!” He looked over, and I glared back.

“Don’t fu@king call me that, Goggins,” he said with a snarl.

“Well don’t you move out of position, son! You and me, up front, all fu@king week!”

“Roger that,” he said.

I took the lead of Boat Crew Two from the beginning, and getting all six of us through Hell Week was my singular focus. Everyone fell in line because I’d already proven myself, and not just on the Grinder. In the days before Hell Week began I got it into my head that we needed to steal the Hell Week schedule from our instructors. I told our crew as much one night when we were hanging in the classroom, which doubled as our lounge. My words fell on deaf ears. A few guys laughed but everyone else ignored me and went back to their shallow ass conversations.

I understood why. It made no sense. How were we supposed to get a copy of their sh@t? And even if we did, wouldn’t the anticipation make it worse? And what if we got caught? Was the reward worth the risk?

I believed it was, because I’d tasted Hell Week. Brown and a few other guys had too, and we knew how easy it was to think about quitting when confronted with levels of pain and exhaustion you didn’t think possible. One hundred and thirty hours of suffering may as well be a thousand when you know you can’t sleep and that there will be no relief anytime soon. And we knew something else too. Hell Week was a mind game. The instructors used our suffering to pick and peel away our layers, not to find the fittest athletes. To find the strongest minds. That’s something the quitters didn’t understand until it was too late.

Everything in life is a mind game! Whenever we get swept under by life’s dramas, large and small, we are forgetting that no matter how bad the pain gets, no matter how harrowing the torture, all bad things end. That forgetting happens the second we give control over our emotions and actions to other people, which can easily happen when pain is peaking. During Hell Week, the men who quit felt like they were running on a treadmill turned way the fu@k up with no dashboard within reach. But, whether they ever figured it out or not, that was an illusion they fell for.

I went into Hell Week knowing I put myself there, that I wanted to be there, and that I had all the tools I needed to win this fu@ked-up game, which gave me the passion to persevere and claim ownership of the experience. It allowed me to play hard, bend rules, and look for an edge wherever and whenever I could until the horn sounded on Friday afternoon. To me this was war, and the enemies were our instructors who’d blatantly told us that they wanted to break us down and make us quit! Having their schedule in our heads would help us whittle the time down by memorizing what came next, and more than that, it would gift us a victory going in. Which would give us something to latch onto during Hell Week when those motherfu@kers were beating us down.

“Yo man, I’m not playing,” I said. “We need that schedule!”

I could see Kenny Bigbee, the only other black man in Class 231, raise an eyebrow from across the room. He’d been in my first BUD/S class, and got injured just before Hell Week. Now he was back for seconds too. “Oh sh@t,” he said. “David Goggins is back on the log.”

Kenny smiled wide and I doubled over laughing. He’d been in the instructors’ office listening in when the doctors were trying to pull me out of my first Hell Week. It was during a log PT evolution. Our boat crews were carrying logs as a unit up and down the beach, soaked, salty, and sandy as sh@t. I was running with a log on my shoulders, vomiting blood. Bloody snot streamed from my nose and mouth, and the instructors periodically grabbed me and sat me down nearby because they thought I might drop fu@king dead. But every time they turned around I was back in the mix. Back on that log.

Kenny kept hearing the same refrain over the radio that night. “We need to get Goggins out of there,” one voice said.

“Roger that, sir. Goggins is sitting down,” another voice crackled. Then after a beat, Kenny would hear that radio chirp again. “Oh sh@t, Goggins is back on the log. I repeat, Goggins is back on the log!”

Kenny loved telling that story. At 5’10” and 170 pounds, he was smaller than I was and wasn’t on our boat crew, but I knew we could trust him. In fact, there was nobody better for the job. During Class 231, Kenny was tapped to keep the instructors’ office clean and tidy, which meant that he had access. That night, he tiptoed into enemy territory, liberated the schedule from a file, made a copy, and slipped it back into position before anyone ever knew it was missing. Just like that we had our first victory before the biggest mind game of our lives had even begun.

Of course, knowing something is coming is only a small part of the battle. Because torture is torture, and in Hell Week the only way to get to past it is to go through it. With a look or a few words, I made sure our guys were putting out at all times. When we stood on the beach holding our boat overhead, or running logs up and down that motherfu@ker, we went hard, and during surf torture I hummed the saddest and most epic song from Platoon, while we waded into the Pacific Ocean.

I’ve always found inspiration in film. Rocky helped motivate me to achieve my dream of being invited to SEAL training, but Platoon would help me and my crew find an edge during the dark nights of Hell Week, when the instructors were mocking our pain, telling us how sorry we were, and sending us into the head-high surf over and over again. Adagio in Strings was the score to one of my favorite scenes in Platoon and with bone-chilling fog wrapping all around us, I stretched my arms out like Elias when he was getting gunned down by the Viet Cong, and sang my ass off. We’d all watched that movie together during First Phase, and my antics had a dual effect of pissing off the instructors and firing up my crew. Finding moments of laughter in the pain and delirium turned the entire melodramatic experience upside down for us. It gave us some control of our emotions. Again, this was all a mind game, and I damn sure wasn’t going to lose.

But the most important games within the game were the races that the instructors set up between boat crews. Damn near everything in BUD/S was a competition. We’d run boats and logs up and down the beach. We had paddle races, and we even did the damn O-Course carrying a log or a boat between obstacles. We’d carry them while balancing on narrow beams, over spinning logs, and across rope bridges. We’d send it over the high wall, and we dropped it at the foot of the thirty-foot-high cargo net while we climbed up and over that damn thing. The winning team was almost always rewarded with rest and the losing teams got extra beat downs from Psycho Pete. They were ordered to perform sets of push-ups and sit-ups in the wet sand, then do berm sprints, their bodies quivering with exhaustion, which felt like failure on top of failure. Psycho let them know it too. He laughed in their face as he hunted quitters.

“You are absolutely pathetic,” he said. “I hope to God you fu@king quit because if they allow you in the field you’re gonna get us all killed!”

Watching him berate my classmates gave me a dual sensation. I didn’t mind him doing his job, but he was a bully, and I never liked bullies. He’d been coming at me hard since I got back to BUD/S, and early on I decided I would show him that he couldn’t get to me. Between bouts of surf torture, when most guys stand nut to butt to transfer heat, body to body, I stood apart. Everyone else was shivering. I didn’t even twitch, and I saw how much that bothered him.

During Hell Week

The one luxury we had during Hell Week was chow. We ate like kings. We’re talking omelets, roast chicken and potatoes, steak, hot soup, pasta with meat sauce, all kinds of fruit, brownies, soda, coffee, and a lot more. The catch is we had to run the mile there and back, with that 200-pound boat on our heads. I always left chow hall with a peanut butter sandwich tucked in my wet and sandy pocket to scarf on the beach when the instructors weren’t looking. One day after lunch, Psycho decided to give us a bit more than a mile. It became obvious at the quarter mile marker, when he picked up his pace, that he wasn’t taking us directly back to the Grinder.

“You boys better keep the fu@k up!” he yelled, as one boat crew fell back. I checked my guys.

“We are staying on this motherfu@ker! fu@k him!”

“Roger that,” said Freak Brown. True to his word, he’d been with me on the front of that boat—the two heaviest points—since Sunday night, and he was only getting stronger.

Psycho stretched us out on the soft sand for more than four miles. He tried like hell to lose us, too, but we were his shadow. He switched up the cadence. One minute he was sprinting, then he was crouching down, wide-legged, grabbing his nuts and doing elephant walks, then he loped at a jogger’s pace before breaking into another wind sprint down the beach. By then the closest boat was a quarter mile behind, but we were clipping his damn heels. We mimicked his every step and refused to let our bully gain any satisfaction at our expense. He may have smoked everybody else but he did not smoke Boat Crew Two!

Hell Week is the devil’s opera, and it builds like a crescendo, peaking in torment on Wednesday and staying right there until they call it on Friday afternoon. By Wednesday we were all broke di@k, chafed to holy Hell. Our whole body was one big raspberry, oozing puss and blood. Mentally we were zombies. The instructors had us doing simple boat raises and we were all dragging. Even my crew could barely lift that boat. Meanwhile, Psycho and SBG and the other instructors kept close watch, looking for weaknesses as always.

I had a real hate for the instructors. They were my enemy and I was tired of them trying to burrow into my brain. I glanced at Brown, and for the first time all week he looked shaky. The whole crew did. sh@t, I felt miserable too. My knee was the size of a grapefruit and every step I took torched my nerves, which is why I was searching for something to fuel me. I locked in on Psycho Pete. I was sick of that motherfu@ker. The instructors looked composed and comfortable. We were desperate, and they had what we needed: energy! It was time to flip the game and own real estate in their heads.

When they clocked out that night and drove home after a pussy-ass eight hour shift while we were still going hard, I wanted them thinking about Boat Crew Two. I wanted to haunt them when they slipped into bed with their wives. I wanted to occupy so much space in their minds that they couldn’t even get it up. To me that would be as powerful as putting a knife in their di@k. So I deployed a process that I now call “Taking Souls.” I turned to Brown. “You know why I call you Freak?” I asked. He looked over as we lowered the boat, then lifted it up overhead like creaky robots on reserve battery power. “Because you are one of the baddest men I’ve ever seen in my damn life!” He cracked a smile. “And you know what I say to these motherfu@kers right here?” I tipped my elbow at the nine instructors gathered on the beach, drinking coffee and talking bullsh@t. “I say, they can go fu@k themselves!” Bill nodded and narrowed his eyes on our tormentors, while I turned to the rest of the crew. “Now let’s throw this sh@t up high and show them who we are!” “fu@king beautiful,” Bill said. “Let’s do it!”

Within seconds my whole team had life. We didn’t just lift the boat overhead and set it down hard, we threw it up, caught it overhead, tapped the sand with it and threw it up high again. The results were immediate and undeniable. Our pain and exhaustion faded. Each rep made us stronger and faster, and each time we threw the boat up we all chanted.

“YOU CAN’T HURT BOAT CREW TWO!”

That was our fu@k you to the instructors, and we had their full attention as we soared on a second wind. On the toughest day of the hardest week in the world’s toughest training, Boat Crew Two was moving at lightning speed and making a mockery of Hell Week. The look on the instructors’ faces told a story. Their mouths hung open like they were witnessing something nobody had ever seen before. Some averted their eyes, almost embarrassed. Only SBG looked satisfied.

Since that night in Hell Week, I’ve deployed the Taking Souls concept countless times. Taking Souls is a ticket to finding your own reserve power and riding a second wind. It’s the tool you can call upon to win any competition or overcome every life obstacle. You can utilize it to win a chess match, or conquer an adversary in a game of office politics. It can help you rock a job interview or excel at school. And yes, it can be used to conquer all manner of physical challenges, but remember, this is a game you are playing within yourself. Unless you’re engaged in physical competition, I’m not suggesting that you try to dominate someone or crush their spirit. In fact, they never even need to know you’re playing this game. This is a tactic for you to be your best when duty calls. It’s a mind game you’re playing on yourself.

Taking someone’s soul means you’ve gained a tactical advantage. Life is all about looking for tactical advantages, which is why we stole the Hell Week schedule, why we nipped Psycho’s heels on that run, and why I made a show of myself in the surf, humming the Platoon theme song. Each of those incidents was an act of defiance that empowered us.

But defiance isn’t always the best way to take someone’s soul. It all depends upon your terrain. During BUD/S, the instructors didn’t mind if you looked for advantages like that. They respected it as long as you were also kicking ass. You must do your own homework. Know the terrain you’re operating in, when and where you can push boundaries, and when you should fall in line.

Next, take inventory of your mind and body on the eve of battle. List out your insecurities and weakness, as well as your opponent’s. For instance, if you’re getting bullied, and you know where you fall short or feel insecure, you can stay ahead of any insults or barbs a bully may throw your way. You can laugh at yourself along with them, which disempowers them. If you take what they do or say less personally, they no longer hold any cards. Feelings are just feelings. On the other hand, people who are secure with themselves don’t bully other people. They look out for other people, so if you’re getting bullied you know that you’re dealing with someone who has problem areas you can exploit or soothe. Sometimes the best way to defeat a bully is to actually help them. If you can think two or three moves ahead, you will commandeer their thought process, and if you do that, you’ve taken their damn soul without them even realizing it.

Our SEAL instructors were our bullies, and they didn’t realize the games I was playing during that week to keep Boat Crew Two sharp. And they didn’t have to. I imagined that they were obsessed with our exploits during Hell Week, but I don’t know that for sure. It was a ploy I used to maintain my mental edge and help our crew prevail.

In the same way, if you are up against a competitor for a promotion, and you know where you fall short, you can shape up your game ahead of your interview or evaluation. In that scenario, laughing at your weaknesses won’t solve the problem. You must master them. In the meantime, if you are aware of your competitor’s vulnerabilities you can spin those to your advantage, but all of that takes research. Again, know the terrain, know yourself, and you’d better know your adversary in detail.

Once you’re in the heat of battle, it comes down to staying power. If it’s a difficult physical challenge you will probably have to defeat your own demons before you can take your opponent’s soul. That means rehearsing answers to the simple question that is sure to rise up like a thought bubble: “Why am I here?” If you know that moment is coming and have your answer ready, you will be equipped to make the split second-decision to ignore your weakened mind and keep moving. Know why you’re in the fight to stay in the fight!

And never forget that all emotional and physical anguish is finite! It all ends eventually. Smile at pain and watch it fade for at least a second or two. If you can do that, you can string those seconds together and last longer than your opponent thinks you can, and that may be enough to catch a second wind. There is no scientific consensus on second wind. Some scientists think it’s the result of endorphins flooding your nervous system, others think it’s a burst of oxygen that can help break down lactic acid, as well as the glycogen and triglycerides muscles need to perform. Some say its purely psychological. All I know is that by going hard when we felt defeated we were able to ride a second wind through the worst night in Hell Week. And once you have that second wind behind you it’s easy to break your opponent down and snatch a soul. The hard part is getting to that point, because the ticket to victory often comes down to bringing your very best when you feel your worst.

After rocking boat presses, the whole class was gifted an hour of sleep in a big green army tent they’d set up on the beach and outfitted with military cots. Those motherfu@kers had no mattresses, but may as well have been a cotton topped cloud of luxury because once we were horizontal we all went limp.

Oh, but Psycho wasn’t done with me. He let me sleep for a solitary minute, then woke me up and led me back onto the beach for some one-on-one time. He saw an opportunity to get in my head, at last, and I was disoriented as I staggered toward the water all alone, but the cold woke me the fu@k up. I decided to savor my extra hour of private surf torture. When the water was chest high I began humming Adagio in Strings once more. Louder this time. Loud enough for that motherfu@ker to hear me over the crash of the surf. That song gave me life!

I’d come to SEAL training to see if I was hard enough to belong and found an inner beast within that I never knew existed. A beast that I would tap into from then on whenever life went wrong. By the time I emerged from that ocean, I considered myself unbreakable.

If only.

Hell Week takes its toll on everybody, and later that night, with forty-eight hours to go, I went to med check to get a Toradol shot in my knee to bring the swelling down. By the time I was back on the beach, the boat crews were out at sea in the midst of a paddling drill. The surf was pounding, the wind swirling. Psycho looked over at SBG. “What the fu@k are we gonna do with him?” For the first time, he was hesitant, and tired of trying to beat me down. I was good to go, ready for any challenge, but Psycho was over it. He was ready to give my ass a spa vacation. That’s when I knew I’d outlasted him; that I had his soul. SBG had other ideas. He handed me a life jacket and attached a chem light to the back of my hat.

“Follow me,” he said as he charged up the beach. I caught up and we ran north for a good mile. By then we could barely see the boats and their bobbing lights through the mist and over the waves. “All right, Goggins. Now go swim out and find your fu@king boat!”

He’d landed a hollow point on my deepest insecurity, pierced my confidence, and I was stunned silent. I gave him a look that said, “Are you fu@king kidding me?” I was a decent swimmer by then, and surf torture didn’t scare me because we weren’t that far from shore, but an open water, hypothermic swim a thousand yards off shore in a storm, to a boat that had no fu@king idea I was heading their way? That sounded like a death sentence, and I hadn’t prepared for anything like it. But sometimes the unexpected descends like chaos, and without warning even the bravest among us must be ready to take on risks and tasks that seem beyond our capabilities.

For me, in that moment, it came down to how I wanted to be remembered. I could have refused the order, and I wouldn’t have gotten in trouble because I had no swim buddy (in SEAL training you always have to be with a swim buddy), and it was obvious that he was asking me to do something that was extremely unsafe. But I also knew that my objective coming into SEAL training was more than making it through to the other side with a Trident. For me it was the opportunity to go up against the best of the best and distance myself from the pack. So even though I couldn’t see the boats out past the thrashing waves there was no time to dwell on fear. There was no choice to make at all.

“What are you waiting on Goggins? Get your fu@king ass out there, and do not fu@k this up!”

“Roger that!” I shouted and sprinted into the surf. Trouble was, strapped with a buoyancy vest, nursing a wounded knee, wearing boots, I couldn’t swim for sh@t and it was almost impossible to duck dive through the waves. I had to flail over the white wash, and with my mind managing so many variables, the ocean seemed colder than ever. I swallowed water by the gallon. It was as if the sea was prying open my jaws and flooding my system, and with each gulp, my fear magnified.

I had no idea that back on land, SBG was preparing for a worst-case scenario rescue. I didn’t know he’d never put another man in that position before. I didn’t realize that he saw something special in me and like any strong leader wanted to see how far I could take it, as he watched my light bob on the surface, nervous as hell. He told me all of that during a recent conversation. At the time I was just trying to survive.

I finally made it through the surf and swam another half-mile off-shore only to realize I had six boats bearing down on my head, teeter tottering in and out of view thanks to a four-foot wind swell. They didn’t know I was there! My light was faint, and in the trench I couldn’t see a damn thing. I kept waiting for one of them to come barreling down from the peak of a swell and mow me the fu@k down. All I could do was bark into the darkness like a hoarse sea lion.

“Boat Crew Two! Boat Crew Two!”

It was a minor miracle that my guys heard me. They wheeled our boat around, and Freak Brown grabbed me with his big ass hooks and hauled me in like a prized catch. I lay back in the middle of the boat, my eyes closed, and jackhammered for the first time all week. I was so cold I couldn’t hide it.

“Damn, Goggins,” Brown said, “you must be insane! You okay?” I nodded once and got a hold of myself. I was the leader of that crew and couldn’t allow myself to show weakness. I tensed every muscle in my body, and my shiver slowed to a stop in real time.

“That’s how you lead from the motherfu@king front,” I said, coughing up saltwater like a wounded bird. I couldn’t keep a straight face for long. Neither could my crew. They knew damn well that crazy-ass swim wasn’t my idea.

As the clock ran down on Hell Week, we were in the demo pit, just off Coronado’s famous Silver Strand. The pit was filled with cold mud and topped off with icy water. There was a rope bridge—two separate lines, one for the feet and one for the hands—stretching across it from end to end. One by one, each man had to navigate their way across while the instructors shook the sh@t out of it, trying to make us fall. To maintain that kind of balance takes tremendous core strength, and we were all cooked and at our wits end. Plus, my knee was still fu@ked. In fact, it had gotten worse and required a pain shot every twelve hours. But when my name was called, I climbed onto that rope, and when the instructors went to work, I flexed my core and held on with all I had left.

Nine months earlier, I had topped out at 297 pounds and couldn’t even run a quarter mile. Back then, when I was dreaming of a different life, I remember thinking that just getting through Hell Week would be the biggest honor of my life so far. Even if I never graduated from BUD/S, surviving Hell Week alone would have meant something. But I didn’t just survive. I was about to finish Hell Week at the top of my class, and for the first time, I knew I was a bad motherfu@ker.

Once, I was so focused on failing, I was afraid to even try. Now I would take on any challenge. All my life, I was terrified of water, and especially cold water, but standing there in the final hour, I wished the ocean, wind, and mud were even colder! I was completely transformed physically, which was a big part of my success in BUD/S, but what saw me through Hell Week was my mind, and I was just starting to tap into its power.

That’s what I was thinking about as the instructors did their best to throw me off that rope bridge like a mechanical bull. I hung tough and got as far as anyone else in Class 231 before nature won out and I was sent spinning into the freezing mud. I wiped it from my eyes and mouth and laughed like mad as Freak Brown helped me up. Not long after that, SBG stepped to the edge of the pit.

“Hell Week secure!” He shouted to the thirty guys still left, quivering in the shallows. All of us chafed and bleeding, bloated and stiff. “You guys did an amazing job!”

Some guys screamed with joy. Others collapsed to their knees with tears in their eyes and thanked God. I stared into the heavens too, pulled Freak Brown in for a hug, and high-fived my team. Every other boat crew had lost men, but not Boat Crew Two! We lost no men and won every single race!

We continued to celebrate as we boarded a bus to the Grinder. Once we arrived, there was a large pizza for each guy along with a sixty-four-ounce bottle of Gatorade and the coveted brown t-shirt. That pizza tasted like motherfu@king manna from heaven, but the shirts meant something more significant. When you first arrive at BUD/S you wear white t-shirts every day. Once you survive Hell Week, you get to swap them out for brown shirts. It was a symbol that we’d advanced to a higher level, and after a lifetime of mostly failure, I definitely felt like I was someplace new.

I tried to enjoy the moment like everyone else, but my knee hadn’t felt right in two days and I decided to leave and see the medics. On my way off the Grinder, I looked to my right and saw nearly a hundred helmets lined up. They belonged to the men who’d rung the bell, and they stretched past the statue, all the way to the quarterdeck. I read some of the names—guys who I liked. I knew how they felt because I was there when my Pararescue class graduated without me. That memory had dominated me for years, but after 130 hours of Hell, it no longer defined me.

Every man was required to see the medics that evening, but our bodies were so swollen they had a hard time discerning injuries from general soreness. All I knew was my right knee was thrice fu@ked and I needed crutches to get around. Freak Brown left med check bruised and battered. Kenny came out clean and barely limped, but he was plenty sore. Thankfully, our next evolution was walk week. We had seven days to eat, drink, and heal up before sh@t got real once again. It wasn’t much, but enough time for most of the insane motherfu@kers that managed to remain in Class 231 to get well.

Me, on the other hand? My swollen knee hadn’t gotten any better by the time they snatched my crutches away. But there was no time for boo-hoo-ing. First Phase fun wasn’t over yet. After walk week came knot tying, which may not sound like much but was way worse than I expected because that particular drill took place at the bottom of the pool, where those same instructors would do their best to drown my one-legged ass.

It was as if the Devil had been watching the whole show, waited out intermission, and now his favorite part was coming right up. The night before BUD/S kicked back up in intensity I could hear his words ringing in my stressed-out brain as I tossed and turned all night long.

They say you like suffering, Goggins. That you think you’re a bad motherfu@ker. Enjoy your extended stay in Hell!

CHALLENGE #4

Choose any competitive situation that you’re in right now. Who is your opponent? Is it your teacher or coach, your boss, an unruly client? No matter how they’re treating you there is one way to not only earn their respect, but turn the tables. Excellence.

That may mean acing an exam, or crafting an ideal proposal, or smashing a sales goal. Whatever it is, I want you to work harder on that project or in that class than you ever have before. Do everything exactly as they ask, and whatever standard they set as an ideal outcome, you should be aiming to surpass that.

If your coach doesn’t give you time in the games, dominate practice. Check the best guy on your squad and show the fu@k out. That means putting time in off the field. Watching film so you can study your opponent’s tendencies, memorizing plays, and training in the gym. You need to make that coach pay attention.

If it’s your teacher, then start doing work of high quality. Spend extra time on your assignments. Write papers for her that she didn’t even assign! Come early to class. Ask questions. Pay attention. Show her who you are and want to be.

If it’s a boss, work around the clock. Get to work before them. Leave after they go home. Make sure they see that sh@t, and when it’s time to deliver, surpass their maximum expectations.

Whoever you’re dealing with, your goal is to make them watch you achieve what they could never have done themselves. You want them thinking how amazing you are. Take their negativity and use it to dominate their task with everything you’ve got. Take their motherfu@king soul! Afterward, post about it on social and add the hashtag #canthurtme #takingsouls.

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