A few years back, I would have described courage in a movie/video game way – the hero fights against long odds, risking his life to save his compatriots. That’s what I had in my head at 24 when I joined the marines.
Drinking in paradise
Right out of college with a degree in electrical engineering, the Marines stuck a gold bar on my shoulder and put me in communications, not in a war zone, which I expected and was prepared for, but on Guam. Guam is a little bit of nothing in the Pacific, but it’s an important communications hub. You might think it was a tropical paradise, with the surf, sun and fishing, but to me it was just spinning my wheels. There’s not much opportunity to be the courageous hero there.
I’d like to blame the boredom and being in my mid-twenties, but I picked up what I thought was the manly habit of drinking. I got good at it. So good I started working on a nightly routine. Until one night, when I was on call, I didn’t answer the phone. I was so blacked out I didn’t answer when they came knocking on my door either.
This was a big deal – no one else on base was authorized to decrypt the message that had arrived. As the communications officer, that was my job. After that, I was presented with a choice, resign or get the boot. I resigned, but I didn’t quit drinking. After all, it was just bad luck.
With my education and military background, it wasn’t hard to get the next job – working as a private contractor for a company developing a weapons system for the Navy. I married Becca that year and we had a daughter the next. I enjoyed a period where my life seemed too busy to drink steadily, and I managed to skate by with only a single DUI which I explained away to my employer.
A missed opportunity
It wasn’t until I was back on a ship, running training and testing for our anti-missile system that I got another chance to be what I thought was courageous. The system I won’t go into, except to say it was radar assisted and shot about a thousand rounds as quick as a blink when an incoming missile was detected. They ran it by joystick with an aiming box generated by the radar.
One night, running dry fire with a sailor on the controls, I saw something no one had noticed before. The sailor nudged the stick and, while no rounds were being fired, it pointed directly at the deck of the ship. The travel in the turrent allowed you to shoot your own ship – not good. The courage part came in when I had to decide whether to bring it up to management or just pretend I hadn’t seen it. It could have been a fatal flaw.
This ate at me for some time afterwards, and I never spoke about it, either to management or anyone else. And I started drinking more steadily then. I told myself I drank because I was a coward. I was scared of losing my job, scared of losing a steady paycheck, but most of all, scared of not being the husband and father I thought I had to be.
A second chance
Last year, I picked up another DUI, this time when I crashed my car, with my daughter strapped in the back. I tried to conceal it, because I was too much of a coward to admit I had a problem to anyone at work. They found out and asked me to take a leave of absence for treatment. One week of treatment turned into three months by the time I and the docs could convince my wife I really had a chance on my own.
And I’m still a coward. I still don’t have enough courage not to drink. But now, I’m more afraid of what happens when I drink than anything else. I’m using my inner coward to keep me sober, which everyone tells me is courageous. Go figure.
The thing I learned is that movies and video games lie. Courage may be heroic every once in awhile, but I’ve learned that is very rare. Courage really means the day to day, the week to week and the month to month. Courage comes from being honest with yourself and your loved ones. And for me, courage means being less scared of sobriety than of losing a wonderful life.
I’m 32. I pray every day that I’ll be enough of a coward to see 42.