I remember when I was young, around the time I was 13 or 14, I made a proclamation that I would never make it to 30. I was convinced that I would burn out my flame well before then, as I was sure I was going to have an adventurous life.
Well I did, and life had other plans for me.
I joined the U.S. Army a couple months out of high-school, after a job interview in Cherry Hill, New Jersey fell through, and I had a pretty terrible car accident. Now I was not 100% innocent of the accident, as I had just blown my nose and was looking for a place to put the tissue in my sister’s car. Now I was in the center lane of a 3 lane highway, so how was I to foresee that there would be a Philadelphia Inquirer truck parked in the center lane delivering to a gas station? Needless to say, a seat belt saved my life, and the Mitsubishi engine was designed to crumple away from the driver… Again saving my life.
So there I was, a freshly out of high-school soldier. Where did they send me? Germany, where drinking is legal at 18. The town I was stationed in was in the middle of nowhere. I had only a small pay check each month, and could buy beer and alcohol at 18, what it was I did at this point does not need a doctorate in psychology to figure out.
I pretty much spent every night I was there drunk, at least when I can. We did have training maneuvers, and live firing exercises that would often take us from our base and bring us to another for up to a month at a time. While on these drinking was highly forbidden. Me and a couple guys did occasionally find a way to drink a beer or two without detection, but never enough to possibly endanger the rest of the team.
My next duty station, where I actually began to grow as a human was Fort Bragg, in North Carolina. This was in 1992. Here in the land of the 82nd Airborne, soldiers are honed into killing machines. There is almost no place for the weak of will, motivation is a highly treasured friend and strength of character is built. Here I met probably the most influential friend in my life. Through him, I found how education and personal growth is more important than any party. I am not saying that I didn’t party, rather I just didn’t party every day.
In 1993 My unit deployed to the Sinai peninsula in Egypt. The town where we were is called Sharm El Sheikh, it is the furthest south you can go on the peninsula. It was here that Jeff and I both had a total blast with some of our other friends, Joe Gower was the greatest of them. We had our barracks, a dog named Gumba, and a barbecue pit, all with what I could describe and be honest with as the greatest in the world.
We were part of a force dedicated to ensure the peace treaties between Egypt and Israel was fulfilled. It was here that I enrolled in my first college course, Criminal Psychology, through the University of Texas. I did not realize at first, however the short time I attended the class, I had begun something that would change me as a human.
I started to understand there were other things to do with ones life, rather than look for parties, and drink all of the time. I started to learn that self education and the furthering of ones knowledge in whatever it is you like is more important. One of the things I liked to do was write. However for the most part I kept it to myself. Jeff’s mother was an English teacher, so he would often correct grammatical errors I was showing in writing. I learned that English is actually fun to write, and placing word to paper I was better spoken than I ever was orally. Soon after leaving Fort Bragg, en-route back to Germany, I started to explore story writing and journal writing.
However, back to Egypt, I found out many many truths about myself. It was often times when Jeff, Joe and I would make trips to a small hamlet town (Now a major tourist town) named Dahab. It was here that I truly understood how destructive I was toward myself. I would often find myself the brunt of many jokes of all my friends and people we were meeting who were back packing through the town. We often times would sit on the beach with many people we would meet, and spend days talking, swimming and partying. I would often be left out of many of the activities, as I was trying to find any way to garner attention from people, including belittling myself to be the laughing stock. This measure from me never gained me many friends. I know the friends I did have understood, and liked me for whom I was, not who I was projecting myself as.
I found myself in a moment in Egypt looking inwardly trying to actually discover who I was. The classes in psychology helped me actually understand myself. I realized, with my two friends help, that I was not an average person. I now knew that I was able to excel on my own, and that I did not need to look for others for acceptance. With time that would come, and if someone could not accept me for whom I actually was, I would not adjust to them. They like it or they don’t. It became that simple to me.
I did however get into the occasional trouble there though. I was an infantry mortar man. We tend to team up with the scouts of our unit more often than not, and Egypt was no exception. (Mortars are like a small artillery piece that was able to be carried around, providing almost instantaneous support when needed. Scouts are also infantry soldiers, who often try to go forward of the front line to call for our mortar fire, and also provide enemy intelligence to the unit.) The scout platoon, for one reason or another never liked me. On one occasion Jeff, Joe and I were having a party with a few other people in our barbecue pit at out barracks. It became a crazy night, but we had a blast, and I for the most part, am a person who becomes way to talkative when drunk.
The next morning I was summoned to the commanders office. Jeff and I had no idea what it could have been for. Standing in front of the commander, he looked me over really quick, and asked me why I had attempted to light a guard tower on fire the night before. I stared at him, and tried to make sense of what it was he was asking me. I could not swallow the accusation. I may not be the most intelligent person, but I do know, and I am sure 100% of the other people on the planet also know, metal does not burn. The accusations were unfounded. I called forward 2 witnesses, Jeff and Joe and they corroborated my story. We were talking with the guard on duty, but there was no way I was piling wood under the tower, attempting to set it ablaze. If I wanted to light a fire under it, there would have been no try, there would have been a done!
Eventually I also decided to soldier up, and become more than I was, a mediocre soldier. I decided to attempt to be better in my job. Follow orders more closely, and study the army way. There is a test of basic soldiering for the infantry soldiers. It is a difficult task, involving everything from 12 mile forced foot marches, carrying over 50 pounds of equipment, first aide events, weapons proficiency and many more tasks. It is called the Expert Infantry Badge. It is an elite badge of honor for infantry that places them slightly above other infantry soldiers.
For the first time I took this test studying all tasks with a renewed fervour, determined to make it and pass all of the tasks. I accomplished my mission. In the testing phase you are only allowed to fail three tasks, I made it only failing 1.
One of the most proud moments of my life, I wore the badge with pride for the remainder of the time I was a soldier.
Egypt was an enigma for me. It showed me who I truly was, and I began to aspire to become a better person from that point on. I think of my time within the sand and sun as being a place that turned my life around. It helped me learn to strive to become a better person. To not try to please others, to please myself. It taught me not become what other people wanted of me. If I couldn’t not accept myself for who I was, then I strove to become the person I wanted to be. But only for myself.
I thank Joe Gower, and Jeff Holloway for giving me at that moment what I really needed, Understanding and friendship. Because of them, and Egypt, I finally understood who I was. It was at this point I decided that I would allow my flame to burn as long as it could. I wanted to learn everything I could, and maybe share it with someone else out there who is a confused young adult as I was, maybe showing them how to finally understand who they were to become as well.
Lance M. Goolsby