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CHAPTER NINE - UNCOMMON AMONGST UNCOMMON

The anesthesia took hold, and I felt myself wheeling backward until I landed in a scene from my past. We were humping through the jungle in the dead of night. Our movement was stealthy and silent, but swift. Had to be. He who hits first wins the fight, most of the time.

We crested a pass, took shelter beneath a thick stand of towering mahogany trees in the triple canopy jungle, and tracked our targets through night vision goggles. Even without sunlight, the tropical heat was intense and sweat slid down the side of my face like dew drops on a window pane. I was twenty-seven years old, and my Platoon and Rambo fever dreams had become real as fu@k. I blinked twice, exhaled, and on the OIC’s signal, opened fire.

My entire body reverberated with the rhythm of the M60, a belt-fed machine gun, firing 500–650 rounds per minute. As the one-hundred-round belt fed the growling machine and flared from the barrel, adrenaline flooded my bloodstream and saturated my brain. My focus narrowed. There was nothing else but me, my weapon, and the target I was shredding with zero apologies.

It was 2002, I was fresh out of BUD/S, and as a full-time Navy SEAL, I was now officially one of the world’s most fit and deadly warriors and one of the hardest men alive. Or so I thought, but this was years before my descent into the ultra rabbit hole. September 11th was still a fresh, gaping wound in the American collective consciousness, and its ripple effects changed everything for guys like us. Combat was no longer a mythical state of mind we aspired to. It was real and ongoing in the mountains, villages, and cities of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, we were moored in fu@king Malaysia, awaiting orders, hoping to join the fight.

And we trained like it.

After BUD/S, I moved on to SEAL Qualification Training, where I officially earned my Trident before landing in my first platoon. Training continued with jungle warfare exercises in Malaysia. We rappelled and fast-roped up and down from hovering helicopters. Some men were trained as snipers, and since I was the biggest man in the unit—my weight was back up to 250 pounds by then—I scored the job of carrying the Pig, the nickname for the M60 because it sounded like the grunt of a barnyard hog.

SQT graduation (note the blood stains from the Trident being punched into my chest)

Most people dreaded Pig detail, but I was obsessed with that gun. The weapon alone was twenty pounds, and each belt of one-hundred rounds weighed in at seven pounds. I carried six to seven of those (one on the gun, four on my waist, and one in a pouch strapped to my rucksack), the weapon, and my fifty-pound ruck everywhere we went and was expected to move just as fast as everyone else. I had no choice. We train as we fight, and live ammo is necessary to mimic true combat so we could perfect the SEAL battle maxim: shoot, move, communicate.

That meant keeping barrel discretion on point. We couldn’t let our weapon spray just anywhere. That’s how friendly fire incidents happen, and it takes great muscle discipline and attention to detail to know where you’re aiming in relation to the location of your teammates at all times, especially when armed with the Pig. Maintaining a high standard of safety and delivering deadly force on-target when duty calls is what makes an average SEAL a good operator.

Most people think once you’re a SEAL you’re always in the circle, but that’s not true. I learned quickly that we were constantly being judged, and the second I was unsafe, whether I was still a new guy or a veteran operator, I’d be out! I was one of three new guys in my first platoon, and one of them had to have his gun taken away because he was so unsafe. For ten days, we moved through the Malaysian jungle, sleeping in hammocks, paddling dugouts, carrying our weapons all day and night, and he was stuck hauling a fu@king broomstick like the Wicked Witch of the West. Even then he couldn’t hack it and wound up getting booted. Our officers in that first platoon kept everybody honest, and I respected them for it.

“In combat, nobody just turns into Rambo,” Dana De Coster told me recently. Dana was second in command on my first platoon with SEAL Team Five. These days he’s Director of Operations at BUD/S. “We push ourselves hard so when bullets do start flying we fall back on really good training, and it’s important that the point where we fall back is so high, we know we’re gonna outperform the enemy. We may not become Rambo, but we’ll be damn close.” A lot of people are fascinated by the weaponry and gunfights SEALs utilize and engage in, but that was never my favorite part of the job. I was damn good at it, but I preferred going to war with myself. I’m talking about strong physical training, and my first platoon delivered that too. We would go on long run-swim-runs most mornings before work. We weren’t just getting miles in either. We were competing, and our officers led from the front. Our OIC and Dana, his second, were two of the best athletes in the entire platoon and my Platoon Chief, Chris Beck (who now goes by Kristin Beck, and is one of most famous trans women on Twitter; talk about being the only!), was a hard motherfu@ker too.

“It’s funny,” Dana said, “[the OIC and I] never really talked about our philosophy on PT. We just competed. I wanted to beat him and he wanted to beat me, and that got people talking about how hard we were getting after it.”

There was never a doubt in my mind that Dana was off his damn rocker. I remember before we shipped out for Indonesia, with stops in Guam, Malaysia, Thailand, and Korea, we did a number of training dives off San Clemente Island. Dana was my swim buddy, and one morning he challenged me to do a training dive in fifty-five-degree water without a wetsuit because that’s how the predecessors to the SEALs did it when they prepared the beaches in Normandy for the famous D-Day invasion during World War II.

“Let’s go old school and dive in shorts with our dive knives,” he said.

He had the animalistic mentality I thrived on, and I wasn’t about to back down from that challenge. We swam and dove together all over Southeast Asia, where we trained elite military units in Malaysia and sharpened the skills of Thai Navy SEALs—the crew of frogmen who saved the soccer kids in the cave in the summer of 2018. They were engaged with an Islamist insurgency in South Thailand. Wherever we deployed, I loved those PT mornings above all else. Pretty soon, every man in that platoon was competing against everyone else, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to catch our two officers and usually came in third place. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t important who won because everybody was capping personal bests almost every day, and that’s what stayed with me. The power of a competitive environment to amp up an entire platoon’s commitment and achievement!

This was exactly the environment I’d been dreaming of when I classed up for BUD/S. We were all living the SEAL ethos, and I couldn’t wait to see where it took us individually and as a unit once we tagged into the fight. But as war raged in Afghanistan, all we could do was sit tight and hope our number was called.

We were in a Korean bowling alley when we watched the invasion of Iraq together. It was depressing as hell. We had been training hard for an opportunity like that. Our foundation had been reinforced with all that PT, and filled out with robust weapons and tactical training. We’d become a deadly unit frothing to be a part of the action, and the fact that we were passed over again pissed us all off. So we took it out on one another every morning.

Navy SEALs were treated like rock stars at the bases we visited around the world, and some of the guys partied like it. In fact, most SEALs enjoyed their share of big nights out, but not me. I’d gotten into the SEALs by living a Spartan lifestyle and felt my job at night was to rest, recharge, and get my body and mind right for battle again the next day. I was forever mission-ready, and my attitude earned respect from some, but our OIC tried to influence me to let go a little and become “one of the boys.” I had great respect for our OIC. He’d graduated from the Naval Academy and the University of Cambridge. He was clearly smart, a stud athlete, and a great leader, on his way to claiming a coveted spot on DEVGRU, so his opinion mattered to me. It mattered to all of us, because he was responsible for evaluating us and those evaluations have a way of following you around and affecting your military career going forward.

On paper, my first evaluation was solid. He was impressed with my skills and all-out effort, but he also dropped some off the record wisdom. “You know, Goggins,” he said, “you’d understand the job a little better if you hung out with the guys more. That’s when I learn the most about operating in the field, hanging with the boys, hearing their stories. It’s important to be part of the group.” His words were a reality check that hurt. Clearly, the OIC, and probably some of the other guys, thought I was a little different. Of course I was! I came from fu@king nothing! I didn’t get recruited to the Naval Academy. I didn’t even know where the fu@k Cambridge was. I wasn’t raised around pools. I had to teach myself to swim. fu@k, I shouldn’t have even been a SEAL, but I made it, and I thought that made me part of the group, but now I realized I was part of the Teams—not the brotherhood.

I had to go out and socialize with the guys after hours to prove my value? That was a big ask for an introvert like me.

fu@k that.

I’d arrived in that platoon because of my intense dedication and I wasn’t about to let up. While people were out at night I was reading up on tactics, weaponry, and war. I was a perpetual student! In my mind I was training for opportunities that didn’t even exist yet. Back then you couldn’t screen to join DEVGRU until after you finished your second platoon, but I was already preparing for that opportunity, and I refused to compromise who I was to conform to their unwritten rules.

DEVGRU (and the Army’s Delta Force) are considered the very best within the best of special operations. They get the tip of the spear missions, like the Osama Bin Laden raid, and from that point on, I decided I wouldn’t and couldn’t be satisfied just being a vanilla Navy SEAL. Yeah, we were all uncommon, hard motherfu@kers compared to civilians, but now I saw I was uncommon even among the uncommon, and if that’s who I was, then so the fu@k be it. I may as well separate myself even more. Not long after that evaluation, I won the morning race for the first time. I passed up Dana and the OIC in the last half mile and never looked back.

Platoon assignments last for two years, and by the end of our deployment most of the guys were ready for a breather before tackling their next platoon, which judging by the wars we were involved in were almost guaranteed to take them into combat. I didn’t want or need a break because the uncommon among uncommon don’t take breaks!

After my first evaluation I started studying the other branches in the military (Coast Guard not included) and read up on their special forces. Navy SEALs like to think that we’re the best of them all, but I wanted to see for myself. I suspected all the branches employed a few individuals who stood out in the worst environments. I was on a hunt to find and train with those guys because I knew they could make me better. Plus, I’d read that Army Ranger School was known as one of the best, if not the best, leadership schools in the entire military, so during my first platoon, I put seven chits in with my OIC hoping to get approval to go to Army Ranger School between deployments. I wanted to sponge more knowledge, I told him, and become more skilled as a special operator.

Chits are special requests, and my first six were ignored. I was a new guy, after all, and some thought my focus should remain within Naval Special Warfare, rather than stray into the dreaded Army. But I’d earned my own reputation after serving two years in my first platoon, and my seventh request went up the ladder to the CO in charge of Seal Team Five. When he signed off, I was in.

“Goggins,” my OIC said after giving me the good news, “you are the type of motherfu@ker who wishes you were a POW just to see if you have what it takes to last.”

He was onto me. He knew the kind of person I was becoming—the type of man willing to challenge myself to the nth degree. We shook hands. The OIC was off to DEVGRU, and there was a chance we’d meet there soon. He told me that with two ongoing wars, for the first time DEVGRU had opened their recruitment process to include guys off their first platoon. By always searching for more and preparing my mind and body for opportunities that didn’t yet exist, I was one of a handful of men on the West Coast approved by SEAL Team Five brass to screen for Green Team, the training program for DEVGRU, just before I left for Army Ranger School.

The Green Team screening process unfolds over two days. The first day is the physical fitness portion, which included a three-mile run, a 1,200-meter swim, three minutes of sit-ups and push-ups, and a max set of pull-ups. I smoked everybody, because my first platoon had made me a much stronger swimmer and a better runner. Day two was the interview, which was more like an interrogation. Only three men from my screening class of eighteen guys were approved for Green Team. I was one of them, which theoretically meant that after my second platoon I’d be one step closer to joining DEVGRU. I could hardly wait. It was December 2003, and as imagined, my special forces career was zooming into hyperspace because I kept proving myself to be the most uncommon of motherfu@kers, and remained on track to become that One Warrior.

A few weeks later, I arrived in Fort Benning, Georgia, for Army Ranger School. It was early December, and as the only Navy guy in a class of 308 men, I was greeted with skepticism by the instructors because a few classes before mine, a couple of Navy SEALs quit in the middle of training. Back then they used to send Navy SEALs to Ranger School as punishment, so they may not have been the best representatives. I’d been begging to go, but the instructors didn’t know that yet. They thought I was just another cocky special ops guy. Within hours they stripped me and everyone else of our uniforms and reputations until we all looked the same. Officers lost rank, and minted special forces warriors like me became nobodies with a hell of a lot to prove.

On day one, we were split into three companies and I was appointed first sergeant in command of Bravo company. I got the job because the original first sergeant had been asked to recite the Ranger Creed after a beat down on the pull-up bar, and he was so tired he fu@ked it up. To Rangers, their creed is everything. Our Ranger Instructor (RI) was livid as he took stock of Bravo company, all of us locked at attention.

“I don’t know where you think you men are, but if you expect to become Rangers then I expect you to know our creed.” His eyes found me. “I know for a fact Old Navy here doesn’t know the Ranger Creed.”

I’d been studying it for months and could have recited it while standing on my head. For effect, I cleared my throat and got loud.

“Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high spirit de corps of the Rangers!”

“Very surpri…” He tried to cut me off, but I wasn’t done.

“Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite Soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster, and fight harder than any other Solider!”

The RI nodded with a wry smile, but this time stayed out of my way.

“Never shall I fail my comrades! I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight, and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, 100 percent and then some!

“Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained Soldier! My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress, and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow!

“Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country! I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might! Surrender is not a Ranger word! I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country!

“Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor!

“Rangers lead the way!”

I recited all six stanzas, and afterward he shook his head in disbelief, and mulled the ideal way to get the last laugh. “Congratulations, Goggins,” he said, “you are now first sergeant.”

He left me there, in front of my platoon, speechless. It was now my job to march our platoon around and make sure every man was prepared for whatever lay in front of us. I became part boss, part big brother, and full-time quasi-instructor. In Ranger School it’s hard enough to get yourself squared away enough to graduate. Now I had to look after a hundred men and make sure they had their sh@t together, too.

Plus, I still had to go through the same evolutions as everyone else, but that was the easy part and actually gave me a chance to chill out. For me the physical punishment was more than manageable, but the way I went about accomplishing those physical tasks had shifted. In BUD/S I’d always lead my boat crews, often with tough love, but in general I didn’t care how the guys in the other boat crews were doing or if they quit. This time, I wasn’t just putting out, I was also looking after everybody. If I saw someone having trouble with navigation, patrolling, keeping up on a run, or staying awake all night, I made sure we all rallied together to help. Not everybody wanted to. The training was so difficult that when some guys weren’t on the clock being graded, they did the bare minimum and found opportunities to rest and hide. In my sixty-nine days at Ranger School I didn’t coast for a single second. I was becoming a true leader.

The whole point of Ranger School is to give every man a taste of what it takes to lead a high-level team. The field exercises were like an operator’s scavenger hunt blended with an endurance race. Over the course of six testing phases we were evaluated on navigation, weapons, rope techniques, reconnaissance, and overall leadership. The field tests were notorious for their Spartan brutality and capped three separate phases of training.

First, we were split into groups of twelve men and together spent five days and four nights in the foothills for Fort Benning phase. We were given very little food to eat—one or two MREs per day—and only a couple of hours sleep per night, as we raced the clock to navigate cross-country terrain between stations where we’d knock off a series of tasks to prove our proficiency in a particular skill. Leadership in the group rotated between men.

Mountain phase was exponentially harder than Fort Benning. Now we were grouped into teams of twenty-five men to navigate the mountains in north Georgia, and buddy, Appalachia gets cold as fu@k in wintertime. I’d read stories about black soldiers with Sickle Cell Trait dying during Mountain Phase, and the Army wanted me to wear special dog tags with a red casing to alert medics if something went wrong, but I was leading men and didn’t want my crew to think of me as some sickly child, so the red casing never quite found its way to my dog tags.

In the mountains we learned how to rappel and rock climb, among other mountaineering skills, and became proficient in ambush techniques and mountain patrol. To prove it we went out on two separate, four-night field training exercises, known as FTXs. A storm blew in during our second FTX. Thirty-mile-per-hour winds howled with ice and snow. We didn’t haul sleeping bags or warm clothes, and again we had very little food. All we could use to keep warm was a poncho liner and one another, which was an issue because the rancid odor in the air was our own. We’d burned so many calories without proper nutrition, we’d lost all our fat and were incinerating our own muscle mass for fuel. The putrid stink made our eyes water. It triggered the gag reflex. Visibility narrowed to a few feet. Guys wheezed, coughed, and jackhammered, their eyes wide with terror. I thought for sure someone was gonna die from frostbite, hypothermia, or pneumonia that night.

Whenever you stop to sleep during field tests, rest is brief and you’re required to maintain security in four directions, but in the face of that storm, Bravo platoon buckled. These were generally very hard men with a ton of pride, but they were focused on survival above all else. I understood the impulse, and the instructors didn’t mind because we were in weather emergency mode, but to me that presented an opportunity to stand apart and lead by example. I looked at that winter storm as a platform to become uncommon among uncommon men.

No matter who you are, life will present you similar opportunities where you can prove to be uncommon. There are people in all walks of life who relish those moments, and when I see them I recognize them immediately because they are usually that motherfu@ker who’s all by himself. It’s the suit who’s still at the office at midnight while everyone else is at the bar, or the badass who hits the gym directly after coming off a forty-eight-hour op. She’s the wildland firefighter who instead of hitting her bedroll, sharpens her chainsaw after working a fire for twenty-four hours. That mentality is there for all of us. Man, woman, straight, gay, black, white, or purple fu@king polkadot. All of us can be the person who flies all day and night only to arrive home to a filthy house, and instead of blaming family or roommates, cleans it up right then because they refuse to ignore duties undone.

All over the world amazing human beings like that exist. It doesn’t take wearing a uniform. It’s not about all the hard schools they graduated from, all their patches and medals. It’s about wanting it like there’s no tomorrow—because there might not be. It’s about thinking of everybody else before yourself and developing your own code of ethics that sets you apart from others. One of those ethics is the drive to turn every negative into a positive, and then when sh@t starts flying, being prepared to lead from the front.

My thinking on that Georgia mountaintop was that, in a real-world scenario, a storm like that would provide the perfect cover for an enemy attack, so I didn’t group up and seek warmth. I dialed deeper, welcomed the carnage of ice and snow, and held the western perimeter like it was my duty—because it damn well was! And I loved every second of it. I squinted into the wind, and as hail stung my cheeks, I screamed into the night from the depths of my misunderstood soul.

A few guys heard me, popped out of the tree line to the north, and stood tall. Then another guy emerged to the east, and another on the edge of the south-facing slope. They were all shivering, wrapped in their measly poncho liners. None of them wanted to be there, but they rose up and did their duty. In spite of one of the most brutal storms in Ranger School history, we held a complete perimeter until the instructors radioed us to come in from the cold. Literally. They put up a circus tent. We filed in and huddled up until the storm passed.

The final weeks in Ranger School are called Florida Phase, a ten-day FTX in which fifty men navigate the panhandle, GPS point by GPS point, as a single unit. It started with a static line jump from an aircraft at 1,500 feet into frigid swamplands near Fort Walton Beach. We waded and swam across rivers, set up rope bridges, and with our hands and feet shimmied back to the other side. We couldn’t stay dry, and the water temperature was in the high thirties and low forties. We’d all heard the story that during the winter of 1994 it got so cold, four would-be Rangers died of hypothermia during Florida Phase. Being near the beach, freezing my nuts off, reminded me of Hell Week. Whenever we stopped, guys were nut to butt and jackhammering, but as usual, I focused hard and refused to show any weakness. This time it wasn’t about taking the souls of our instructors. It was about giving courage to the men who were struggling. I’d cross the river six times if that’s what it took to help one of my guys tie off his rope bridge. I’d walk them step-by-step through the process until they could prove their value to the Ranger brass.

We slept very little, ate even less, and continually knocked off reconnaissance tasks, hitting waypoints, setting up bridges and weapons, and preparing for ambush, while taking turns leading a group of fifty men. Those men were tired, hungry, cold, frustrated, and they did not want to be there anymore. Most were at their ultimate edge, their 100 percent. I was getting there too, but even when it wasn’t my turn to lead, I helped out because in those sixty-nine days of Ranger School I learned that if you want to call yourself a leader, that’s what it takes.

A true leader stays exhausted, abhors arrogance, and never looks down on the weakest link. He fights for his men and leads by example. That’s what it meant to be uncommon among uncommon. It meant being one of the best and helping your men find their best too. It was a lesson I’d wish sunk in a lot deeper, because in just a few more weeks I’d be challenged in the leadership department and come up well short.

Ranger School was so demanding, and the standards were so high that only ninety-six men graduated out of a class of 308 candidates, and the majority of them were from Bravo platoon. I was awarded Enlisted Honor Man and received a 100 percent peer evaluation. To me that meant even more, because my classmates, my fellow knuckle draggers, had valued my leadership in harsh conditions, and one look in the mirror revealed just how harsh those conditions were.

Certificate for being the Enlisted Honor Man at Ranger School

I lost fifty-six pounds in Ranger School. I looked like death. My cheeks were sunken. My eyes bugged out. I had no bicep muscle left. All of us were emaciated. Guys had trouble running down the block. Men who could do forty pull-ups in one go now struggled to do a single one. The Army expected that and scheduled three days between the end of Florida Phase and graduation to fatten us up before our families flew in to celebrate.

As soon as the final FTX was called, we hustled straight to chow hall. I piled my tray with doughnuts, fries, and cheeseburgers, and went looking for the milk machine. After drinking all those damn chocolate shakes when I was down and out, my body had become lactose intolerant, and I hadn’t touched dairy in years. But that day I was like a little child, unable to stifle a primordial yearning for a glass of milk.

I found the milk machine, pulled the lever down and watched, confused, as it funneled out, chunky as cottage cheese. I shrugged and sniffed. It smelled all kinds of wrong, but I remember downing that spoiled milk like it was a fresh glass of sweet tea, courtesy of another hellacious special forces school that put us through so much, by the end anybody who survived was grateful for their cold glass of spoiled milk.

Most people take a couple weeks off to recover from Ranger School and put some weight back on. Most people do that. The day of graduation, on Valentine’s Day, I flew into Coronado to meet up with my second platoon. Once again, I looked at that lack of lag time as an opportunity to be uncommon. Not that anybody else was watching, but when it comes to mindset, it doesn’t matter where other people’s attention lies. I had my own uncommon standards to live up to.

At every stop I’d made in the SEALs, from BUD/S to that first platoon to Ranger School, I was known as a hard motherfu@ker, and when the OIC in my second platoon put me in charge of PT, I was encouraged because it told me that once again I’d landed with a group of men who were driven to put out and get better. Inspired, I bent my brain to think of evil sh@t we could do to get us battle ready. This time we all knew we’d deploy to Iraq, and I made it my mission to help us become the hardest SEAL platoon in the fight. That was a high bar, set by the original Navy SEAL legend still lodged like an anchor deep in my brain. Our legend suggested we were the type of men to swim five miles on Monday, run twenty miles on Tuesday, and climb a 14,000-foot peak on Wednesday, and my expectations were sky fu@king high.

For the first week, guys rallied at 5 a.m. for a run-swim-run or a twelve-mile ruck, followed by a lap through the O-Course. We carried logs over the berm and hammered hundreds of push-ups. I had us doing the hard sh@t, the real sh@t, the workouts that made us SEALs. Each day the workouts were harder than the last and over the course of a week or two, that wore people down. Every alpha male in special ops wants to be the best at everything they do, but with me leading PT they couldn’t always be the best. Because I never gave them a break. We were all breaking down and showing weakness. That was the idea, but they didn’t want to be challenged like that every day. During the second week, attendance flagged and the OIC and the Chief of our platoon took me aside.

“Look, dude,” our OIC said, “this is stupid. What are we doing?”

“We aren’t in BUD/S anymore, Goggins,” said the Chief.

To me, this wasn’t about being in BUD/S, this was about living the SEAL ethos and earning the Trident every day. These guys wanted to do their own PT, which typically meant hitting the gym and getting big. They weren’t interested in being punished physically, and definitely weren’t interested in being pushed to meet my standard. Their reaction shouldn’t have surprised me, but it sure as hell disappointed me and made me lose all respect for their leadership.

I understood that not everyone wanted to work out like an animal for the rest of their career, because I didn’t want to do that sh@t either! But what put distance between me and almost everybody else in that platoon is that I didn’t let my desire for comfort rule me. I was determined to go to war with myself to find more because I believed it was our duty to maintain a BUD/S mentality and prove ourselves every day. Navy SEALs are revered the world over and are thought to be the hardest men that God ever created, but that conversation made me realize that wasn’t always true.

I had just come from Ranger School, a place where nobody has any rank at all. Even if a General had classed up, he’d have been in the same clothes we all had to wear, that of an enlisted man on day one of basic fu@king training. We were all maggots reborn, with no future and no past, starting at zero. I loved that concept because it sent a message that no matter what we’d accomplished in the outside world, as far as the Rangers were concerned we weren’t sh@t. And I claimed that metaphor for myself, because it’s always and forever true. No matter what you or I achieve, in sports, business, or life, we can’t be satisfied. Life is too dynamic a game. We’re either getting better or we’re getting worse. Yes, we need to celebrate our victories. There’s power in victory that’s transformative, but after our celebration we should dial it down, dream up new training regimens, new goals, and start at zero the very next day. I wake up every day as if I am back in BUD/S, day one, week one.

Starting at zero is a mindset that says my refrigerator is never full, and it never will be. We can always become stronger and more agile, mentally and physically. We can always become more capable and more reliable. Since that’s the case we should never feel that our work is done. There is always more to do.

Are you an experienced scuba diver? Great, shed your gear, take a deep breath and become a one-hundred-foot free diver. Are you a badass triathlete? Cool, learn how to rock climb. Are you enjoying a wildly successful career? Wonderful, learn a new language or skill. Get a second degree. Always be willing to embrace ignorance and become the dumb fu@k in the classroom again, because that is the only way to expand your body of knowledge and body of work. It’s the only way to expand your mind.

During week two of my second platoon, my Chief and OIC showed their cards. It was devastating to hear that they didn’t feel that we needed to earn our status every day. Sure, all the guys I worked with over the years were relatively hard guys and highly skilled. They enjoyed the challenges of the job, the brotherhood, and being treated like superstars. They all loved being SEALs, but some weren’t interested in starting at zero because just by qualifying to breathe rare air they were already satisfied. Now, that is a very common way of thinking. Most people in the world, if they ever push themselves at all, are willing to push themselves only so far. Once they reach a cushy plateau, they chill the fu@k out and enjoy their rewards, but there’s another phrase for that mentality. It’s called getting soft, and that I could not abide.

As far as I was concerned I had my own reputation to uphold, and when the rest of the platoon opted out of my custom made hellscape, the chip on my shoulder grew even bigger. I ramped up my workouts and vowed to put out so hard it would hurt their fu@king feelings. As head of PT, that was not in my job description. I was supposed to inspire guys to give more. Instead, I saw what I considered a glaring weakness and let them know I wasn’t impressed.

In one short week, my leadership regressed light years from where I was in Ranger School. I lost touch with my situational awareness (SA) and didn’t respect the men in my platoon enough. As a leader, I was trying to bull my way through, and they bucked against that. Nobody gave an inch, including the officers. I suppose all of us took a path of least resistance. I just didn’t notice it because physically I was going harder than ever.

And I had one guy with me. Sledge was a hard motherfu@ker who grew up in San Bernardino, the son of a firefighter and a secretary, and, like me, he taught himself to swim in order to pass the swim test and qualify for BUD/S. He was only a year older but was already in his fourth platoon. He was also a heavy drinker, a little overweight, and looking to change his life. The morning after the Chief, the OIC, and I had words, Sledge showed up at 5 a.m. ready to roll. I’d been there since 4:30 a.m. and had a lather of sweat working already.

“I like what you’re doing with the workouts,” he said, “and I wanna keep doing them.”

“Roger that.”

From then on, no matter where we were stationed, whether that was Coronado, Niland, or Iraq, we got after it every single morning. We’d meet up at 4 a.m. and get to it. Sometimes that meant running up the side of a mountain before hitting the O-Course at high speed and carrying logs up and over the berm and down the beach. In BUD/S, usually six men carried those logs. We did it with just the two of us. On another day we rocked a pull-up pyramid, hitting sets of one, all the way up to twenty, and back down to one again. After every other set we’d climb a rope forty feet high. One thousand pull-ups before breakfast became our new mantra. At first, Sledge struggled to rock one set of ten pull-ups. Within months he’d lost thirty-five pounds and was hitting one hundred sets of ten!

In Iraq, it was impossible to get long runs in, so we lived in the weight room. We did hundreds of deadlifts and spent hours on the hip sled. We went way beyond overtraining. We didn’t care about muscle fatigue or breakdown because after a certain point we were training our minds, not our bodies. My workouts weren’t designed to make us fast runners or to be the strongest men on the mission. I was training us to take torture so we’d remain relaxed in extraordinarily uncomfortable environments. And sh@t did get uncomfortable from time to time.

Despite the clear divide within our platoon (Sledge and me vs. everyone else) we operated well together in Iraq. Off duty, however, there was a huge gulf between who the two of us were becoming and who I thought the men in my platoon were, and my disappointment showed. I wore my sh@tty attitude around like a shroud, thus earning me the platoon nickname David “Leave Me Alone” Goggins, and never woke up to realize that my disappointment was my own problem. Not my teammates’ fault.

Platoon dynamics aside, there was still a job to do in Iraq

That’s the drawback of becoming uncommon amongst uncommon. You can push yourself to a place that is beyond the current capability or temporal mindset of the people you work with, and that’s okay. Just know that your supposed superiority is a figment of your own ego. So don’t lord it over them, because it won’t help you advance as a team or as an individual in your field. Instead of getting angry that your colleagues can’t keep up, help pick your colleagues up and bring them with you!

We are all fighting the same battle. All of us are torn between comfort and performance, between settling for mediocrity or being willing to suffer in order to become our best self, all the damn time. We make those kinds of decisions a dozen or more times each day. My job as head of PT wasn’t to demand that my guys live up to the Navy SEAL legend I loved, it was to help them become the best version of themselves. But I never listened, and I didn’t lead. Instead, I got angry and showed up my teammates. For two years I played the tough guy and never took a step back with a calm mind to address my original error. I had countless opportunities to bridge the gap I’d helped create, but I never did, and it cost me.

I didn’t realize any of that right away, because after my second platoon, I was ordered to freefall school, then made an assaults instructor. Both were posts scheduled to prep me for Green Team. Assaults was critical because most people who get cut from Green Team are dismissed for sloppy house runs. They move too slow when clearing buildings, are too easily exposed, or are amped up and trigger happy and end up shooting friendly targets. Teaching those skills made me clinical, stealthy, and calm in confined environments, and I expected to receive my orders to train with DEVGRU in Dam Neck, Virginia, any day, but they never came. The other two guys who’d rocked the screening with me received their orders. Mine went AWOL.

I called leadership at Dam Neck. They told me to screen again, and that’s when I knew something was off. I thought about the process I’d been through. Did I really expect to do better? I smoked that sh@t. But then I remembered the actual interview, which felt more like an interrogation with two men playing good cop, bad cop. They didn’t probe my skillset or Navy knowhow. Eighty-five percent of their questions had nothing to do with my ability to operate whatsoever. The bulk of that interview was about my race.

“We are a bunch of good ol’ boys,” one of them said, “and we need to know how you’re gonna handle hearing black jokes, bro.”

Most of their questions were a variation on that one theme and through it all, I smiled and thought, How are you white boys gonna feel when I’m the baddest motherfu@ker in here? But that’s not what I said, and it wasn’t because I was intimidated or uncomfortable. I was more at home in that interview than anywhere I’d been in the military, because for the first time in my life it was out in the fu@king open. They weren’t trying to pretend that being one of only a handful of black guys in perhaps the most revered military organization in the world didn’t have its own unique set of challenges. One guy was challenging me with his aggressive posture and tone, the other guy kept it cool, but they were both being real. There were two or three black men in DEVGRU already and they were telling me that entry into their inner circle required my signing off on certain terms and conditions. And in a sick way, I loved that message and the challenge that came with it.

DEVGRU was a hard ass, renegade crew within the SEALs, and they wanted it to stay that way. They didn’t want to civilize anybody. They didn’t want to evolve or change, and I knew where I was and what I was getting myself into. This crew was responsible for the most dangerous, tip of the spear missions. It was a white man’s underworld, and these guys needed to know how I’d act if someone started to fu@k with me. They needed assurances I could control my emotions, and once I saw through their language into the greater purpose, I couldn’t be offended by their act.

“Look, I’ve experienced racism my entire life,” I replied, “and there is nothing any of you fu@kers can say to me that I haven’t heard twenty times before, but be ready. Because I’m coming right the fu@k back at you!” At the time, they seemed to like the sound of that. Trouble is, when you’re a black guy giving it back it usually doesn’t go over nearly as well.

I will never know why I didn’t receive my orders for Green Team, and it doesn’t matter. We can’t control all the variables in our lives. It’s about what we do with opportunities revoked or presented to us that determine how a story ends. Instead of thinking, I crushed the screening process once, I can do it again, I decided to start at zero and screen for Delta Force—the Army’s version of DEVGRU, instead.

Delta Selection is rigorous, and I’d always been intrigued by it due to the elusive nature of the group. Unlike SEALs, you never heard about Delta. The screening for Delta Selection included an IQ test, a complete military resume including my qualifications and war experience, and my evaluations. I pulled all of that together in a few days, knowing that I was competing against the best guys from every military branch and that only the cream would be extended an invitation. My Delta orders came through in a matter of weeks. Not long after that, I landed in the mountains of West Virginia ready to compete for a spot among the Army’s very best soldiers.

Strangely, there was no yelling or screaming in the Delta void. There was no muster and no OICs. The men that showed up there were all self-starters and our orders were chalked on a board hanging in the barracks. For three days we weren’t allowed to leave the compound. Our focus was rest and acclimatization, but on day four, PT started up with the basic screening test, which included two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a timed two-mile run. They expected everyone to meet a minimum standard, and those that didn’t were sent home. From there things got immediately and progressively more difficult. In fact, later that same night we had our first road march. Like everything in Delta, officially the distance was unknown, but I believe it was about an eighteen-mile course from start to finish.

It was cold and very dark when all 160 of us took off, strapped with around forty-pound rucksacks. Most guys started out in a slow march, content to pace themselves and hike it out. I took off hot, and in the first quarter mile left everyone behind. I saw an opportunity to be uncommon and seized it, and I finished about thirty minutes before anybody else.

Delta Selection is the best orienteering course in the world. For the next ten days we hammered PT in the morning and worked on advanced land navigation skills into the night. They taught us how to get from A to B by reading the terrain instead of roads and trails on a map. We learned to read fingers and cuts, and that if you get high you want to stay high. We were taught to follow water. When you start reading the land this way, your map comes alive, and for the first time in my life I became great at orienteering. We learned to judge distance and how to draw our own topographic maps. At first we were assigned an instructor to tail through the wildlands, and those instructors hauled ass. For the next few weeks we were on our own. Technically, we were still practicing, but we were also being graded and watched to make sure we were moving cross-country instead of taking roads.

It all culminated with an extended final exam in the field that lasted seven days and nights, if we even made it that far. This wasn’t a team effort. Each of us was on our own to use our map and compass to navigate from one waypoint to the next. There was a Humvee at every stop and the cadres (our instructors and evaluators) there noted our time and gave us the next set of coordinates. Each day was its own unique challenge, and we never knew how many points we’d have to navigate before the test was done. Plus, there was an unknown time limit that only the cadres were privy to. At the finish line we weren’t told if we passed or failed. Instead we were directed to one of two covered Humvees. The good truck took you to the next camp, the bad truck motored back to base, where you would have to pack your sh@t and head home. Most of the time I didn’t know if I made it for sure until the truck stopped.

By day five I was one of roughly thirty guys still in consideration for Delta Force. There were only three days left and I was rocking every test, coming in at least ninety-minutes before drop-dead time. The final test would be a forty-mile ball-kicker of a land navigation, and I was looking forward to that, but first I had work to do. I splashed through washes, huffed up sloped woodlands, and rambled along ridgelines, point-to-point until the unthinkable happened. I got lost. I was on the wrong ridge. I double checked my map and compass and looked across a valley to the correct one, due south.

Roger that!

For the first time, the clock became a factor. I didn’t know the drop-dead time, but knew I was cutting it close, so I sprinted down a steep ravine but lost my footing. My left foot jammed between two boulders, I rolled over my ankle and felt it pop. The pain was immediate. I checked my watch, gritted my teeth, and laced my boot tight as quickly as I could, then hobbled up a steep hillside to the correct ridge.

On the final stretch to the finish, my ankle blew up so bad I had to untie my boot to relieve the pain. I moved slow, convinced I would be sent home. I was wrong. My Humvee unloaded us at the second to last base camp of Delta Selection, where I iced my ankle all night knowing that thanks to my injury, the next day’s land navigation test was likely beyond my capability. But I didn’t quit. I showed up, fought to stay in the mix, but missed my time on one of the early checkpoints and that was that. I didn’t hang my head, because injuries happen. I’d given it everything I had and when you handle business like that, your effort will not go unnoticed.

Delta cadres are like robots. Throughout Selection they didn’t show any personality, but as I was getting ready to leave the compound, one of the officers in charge called me into his office.

“Goggins,” he said, extending his hand, “you are a stud! We want you to heal up, come back, and try again. We believe you will be a great addition to Delta Force someday.”

But when? I came to from my second heart surgery in a billowing cloud of anesthesia. I looked over my right shoulder to an IV drip and followed the flow to my veins. I was wired to the medical mind. Beeping heart monitors recorded data to tell a story in a language beyond my comprehension. If only I were fluent, maybe I’d know if my heart was finally whole, if there would ever be a “someday.” I placed my hand over my heart, closed my eyes and listened for clues.

After leaving Delta, I went back to the SEAL Teams and was assigned to land warfare as an instructor instead of a warrior. At first my morale flagged. Men who lacked my skills, commitment, and athletic ability were in the field in two countries and I was moored in no-man’s-land, wondering how it had all gone so haywire so quickly. It felt like I’d hit a glass ceiling, but had it always been there or did I slide it into place myself? The truth was somewhere in between.

I realized from living in Brazil, Indiana, that prejudice is everywhere. There is a piece of it in every person and each and every organization, and if you are the only in any given situation, it’s on you to decide how you’re going to handle it because you can’t make it go away. For years, I used it to fuel me because there’s a lot of power in being the only. It forces you to juice your own resources and to believe in yourself in the face of unfair scrutiny. It increases the degree of difficulty, which makes every success that much sweeter. That’s why I continually put myself in situations where I knew I would encounter it. I fed off being the only one in a room. I brought the war to people and watched my excellence explode small minds. I didn’t sit back and cry about being the only. I took action, said go fu@k yourself, and used all the prejudice I felt as dynamite to blow up those walls.

But that kind of raw material will only get you so far in life. I was so confrontational I created needless enemies along the way, and I believe that’s what limited my access to the top SEAL Teams. With my career at a crossroads, I didn’t have time to dwell on those mistakes. I had to find higher ground and turn the negative I’d created into another positive. I didn’t just accept land warfare duty, I was the best instructor I could possibly be, and on my own time I created new opportunities for myself by launching my ultra quest, which revived my stalled career. I was right back on track until I learned I’d been born with a broken heart.

Yet there was a positive side to that too. Tucked into my post-op hospital bed, I looked to be fading in and out of consciousness, as conversations between doctors, nurses, my wife, and mother bled into one another like white noise. They had no clue that I was wide awake the whole time, listening to my wounded heart beat, and smiling inside. Knowing I finally had definitive, scientific proof that I was as uncommon as any motherfu@ker who has ever lived.

CHALLENGE #9

This one’s for the unusual motherfu@kers in this world. A lot of people think that once they reach a certain level of status, respect, or success, that they’ve made it in life. I’m here to tell you that you always have to find more. Greatness is not something that if you meet it once it stays with you forever. That sh@t evaporates like a flash of oil in a hot pan.

If you truly want to become uncommon amongst the uncommon, it will require sustaining greatness for a long period of time. It requires staying in constant pursuit and putting out unending effort. This may sound appealing but will require everything you have to give and then some. Believe me, this is not for everyone because it will demand singular focus and may upset the balance in your life.

That’s what it takes to become a true overachiever, and if you are already surrounded by people who are at the top of their game, what are you going to do differently to stand out? It’s easy to stand out amongst everyday people and be a big fish in a small pond. It is a much more difficult task when you are a wolf surrounded by wolves.

This means not only getting into Wharton Business School, but being ranked #1 in your class. It means not just graduating BUD/S, but becoming Enlisted Honor Man in Army Ranger School then going out and finishing Badwater.

Torch the complacency you feel gathering around you, your coworkers, and teammates in that rare air. Continue to put obstacles in front of yourself, because that’s where you’ll find the friction that will help you grow even stronger. Before you know it, you will stand alone. #canthurtme#uncommonamongstuncommon.

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