Bob Dylan may have had it right. After about a decade, the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down. How I Met Your Mother finished it’s season finale with the ‘Last Forever’– the coming of age narratives of an entire generation transitions to the future.
I’ve been in Africa going on 5 months now, my first deployment as an Infantry Platoon Leader, and have had more time for introspection then is probably advised or even healthy. But still… life comes fast and sometimes stopping and taking a look around you realize how things have a tendency to change rather quickly. 10 years. Just like that.
So what has changed? 10 years ago I was transitioning into my junior year of high school– around that time I was stressing about Spanish homework in Sra. Dennis’ class, essays for the Herminator, who to ask to Prom, my first kiss, what I wanted to do after high school and the man I wanted to become. I was listening to a lot of Modest Mouse, Sun Kil Moon, and Indie Rock. Gerardo ‘Bone’ Yanez was still giving me rides to and from Cross Country practice every day– where we argued over the merits of hip-hop and rock music and talked about the girls we had crushes on.
A year later I was doing triathlons around Texas, camping with Joel Thompson out on the farm and talking about life, dreams, and the aspirations inherent to a 17 year old boy. Cooking canned food over fires and trying out Christmas presents from REI pretending we were roughing it in the Back Country. And occasionally giving up and going to Burton’s when the weather got bad and we needed an out. We disregarded our AP Chem and AP Physics and instead passed National Geographic’s back and forth to each other and made bucket lists of future travels, before they were even the ‘cool’ thing to do, blatantly feigning note taking and class participation. Barely regretting that we failed our AP exam miserably (Ironically, he’s now a high school science teacher and ruthless grader, from what I hear…. if only his students knew). But the seeds were planted– I spoke of wanting to go to West Point. Wanting to be an Infantry Officer. Of wanting to backpack Nepal, race my road and mountain bike, run a marathon, do an Ironman, take the Xterra to Baja and kayak with whales and try out my Spanish by bribing Mexican check points with Toro Rojos. He spoke of wanting to be a father and raising a family and teaching his son (because it just had to be a boy…right?) love for the outdoors and adventure.
In 2006, by the time I had graduated the narrative had shifted. My application to West Point had gotten denied. Jessica Owens died in a car accident that fall. And I was no longer a stranger to the realities of life. Suddenly I became more tuned to the brevity of life and more self-aware– it permeated my mental frame for years– I urged to get away– to remove myself by distance and time from pain and start somewhere new.
“There are so many things that weigh on me that I can’t seem to put to words. When I think of the struggles I will have to endure in the coming years my current existence seems so childish and trivial. I have moments when that reality becomes completely lucid.
Those moments often force me to take a long hard look at myself. The person I am now and the person I will become are worlds apart. I see myself growing, but it’s still not enough. When will I cross that line? Sometimes I think that if I follow where it leads I will never be the same. I fear my friends may never relate to me again. That that part of me will slip away as just mere memories of boyhood.
Maybe it’s what is meant by sacrifice. Maybe I am trading a piece of my heart for something bigger than myself. Something important.”
-My Xanga Blog, Oct 11, 2006
By the time I found myself in Nepal in 2007 hiking to Everest Base Camp I had completely shifted. I was no longer on a quest to check off some bucket list but on a path of self-discovery. As if my own separation from all the distractions of life could somehow bring clarity to my existence. I wanted answers. And even 7 years later, I still believe that my time hiking along glaciers and the world’s tallest peaks were the best writing I ever did. With a pen and a little yellow journal, I finally put words to paper– about why I wanted to go to West Point, the life I wanted to live, and about Jessica. I still have that journal and have looked back at it quite often when I am feeling lost, confused, or missing direction.
“I just returned to Gorak Shep from Base Camp. The hike in was simply majestic. I was surrounded by peaks on al sides, hiking the Khumbu Glacier and seeing the icefall run up and bend into the mountains. The road to Everest, with blocks of ice as big as buildings. To the north the steep mountain pass and on the other side– China.
Behind me– more peaks surrounded in clouds. I think of a song by Death Cab… “I wish we could open our eyes to see in all directions at the same time– oh what a beautiful view if you were never aware of what was around you…”
The sound of a melting glacier fills my ears. It’s rythmic lull broken up by the occasional rumble of distant avalanches. The cold wind fills my nostrils and the sun beats on my face.
I am walking on a glacier. I struggle to keep my balance at times. My lungs burn from 50% less oxygen, the pressure in my head feels like someone is swinging a ball-pin hammer right square between my eyes. My lips are chapped, my face sunburnt, my stomach churns. But it is all delightful– a painful ecstasy. The culmination of 16 days of trekking reached at the pinacle that is the “rooftop of the world”.
I take some pictures, I have to show this to somebody. But the reality is nothing can capture this moment. Not just the visual depths, colors, and sheer magnitude of the mountains… but the sounds, the feels, cannot be described. So, I pocket the camera and do my best to burn the moment in my memory forever.
Though the climbing season is over, I look up the Khumbu Icefall and try to envision expeditions heading for Everest. Navigating the crevasses, gracefully walking the rungs of ladders in their crampons in a deadly balancing act.
I wonder what it feels like knowing the next step could be your last. I gaze at the deadly beauty. Generations of climbers have traversed that route– that stairway to Heavan. They have returned speaking tells of adventure. Yet many have not, their bodies laying at the bottom of some crevasse or frozen high in the clouds, never to be found. They are an eternal testament to the cost of pushing the limits of human exploration. If you listen close, you can hear their whispers.
There is a magic to this place. It is hell, it is heaven all tied into one. It shows itself to those who seek it out. But in the end, it is not the mountain you end up finding– but yourself.”
-June 7, 2007.
By the time I stepped into West Point a month later and traded my civilian life for a military one– things were again different. Whatever youthful idealism I had, whatever existential crisis I may have been going through, took a back seat to the practicality of day to day existence. Classes, military training, polishing shoes and brass and 15-20 hour days. Disconnected from my family and friends, not fully adjusted to my new friends, those first few years were lonely. My Dad had sold the house and gone to Nepal for months– I hadn’t just left the nest– the nest no longer existed.
I just wanted to go home and be with people that I had left behind. That somehow things would be the same and during some of that first year I had let my imagination run– that somehow being home would fulfill all the fears, emptiness, and loneliness I was experiencing. But things never pan out quite like that– my high school crush had found a boyfriend, my friends had all moved to College, my Dad was still overseas…. and I guess that was the first time I realized that there was only one way but forward. Clinging to my past was never going to bring me closer to my dreams.
I had this feeling that maybe I had been cheated– in the desire to grow up so fast I had missed out on these great experiences. That I was always chasing false expectations instead of enjoying life for what it is. In short, I was either living in the future or the past– but I always neglected the present. I went back to the Academy and vowed not to return again until I had made something of myself. I traded in my running shoes for a parachute– initially hoping that by doing something most people considered insane I would fulfill my need for acceptance through accolades and accomplishment. But skydiving changed me. My first ten jumps were a shit show…. my palms were sweaty, heart pounding out of my chest, I doubted my training, doubted my confidence– doubted everything. I used to wake up in the night with these falling sensations. But I got through it. I learned to control my fear– and hundreds of jumps later it almost became boring at times– like an inconvenience to have to do all that work for a few seconds of free fall. I embraced the superficial– adrenaline, parties, drinking, one-night stands, and the machismo of competing on a sky diving team constantly talking crap and trying to one up the other guys with something a little more daring or manly. The first time I had a malfunction that caused me to use my reserve my hands were shaking when I made it down to terra firma– but I got a few slaps on the back, promises of shots of Jack Daniels to celebrate my brush with death, and that was that.
The realization that all of this wasn’t quite what I was expecting was depressing at first. That I had lost touch with the root of who I was. That I no longer was working towards something bigger and I should just be content living day to day. Chasing whatever short-sighted desire came to mind– but again I was wrong. I had entered another world– where deep feelings of loyalty and purpose aren’t communicated verbally. But are expressed through action. It took me 3 years to learn this. Outwardly, my new family of friends were the biggest delinquent self-centered assholes you might ever meet. But, they weren’t superficial…. they just pretended to be. Inwardly, I had never experienced more loyalty and dedication from anyone in my life. And I had to hit rock bottom to see this.
In their world talk is cheap. Only action speaks. What started as a few cheap thrills ended in a life long brotherhood of a group of men that became known as The Mongeese. For years we spent our holidays together, spent our entire lives together– and when it was all said and done entered the profession of arms together with full hearts. Idealism gets you into West Point, but brotherhood keeps you there.
And those men have went on… first to Ft. Benning and then to Army post all over the country (and one back to Paraguay). Some have went to Afghanistan, some have gotten married, some to Ranger School, they have led platoons and done our nation’s bidding. And we still find ourselves getting back together every year or so. They became my family and taught me something more about myself then I would have ever anticipated.
And now… here I am. I have lead combat soldiers through training exercises, a National Training Center Rotation a deployment to South Africa and now a deployment to East Africa. All those things I wanted at 16 have largely been realized– my footprints grace 5 separate continents, I have skydived over 400 times, mountain biked the Rockies, learned to snowboard, written articles for newspapers, graduated from West Point, I have shot and trained soldiers to shoot everything from tanks to artillery to small arms. I’ve been stood up on dates. I’ve stood up others on dates. I have gotten my nose broken in a boxing ring and have broken my hand throwing a punch in a fist fight. I have been drunk. I have loved. I have won and I have lost. And If I could go back and tell myself that 10 years ago…. that yes, your dreams will all come true…. I would also tell him this:
All of that means nothing in comparison to what you will learn about yourself and the friends you will make on the path to achieve them. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get in a hurry. Everything comes in time. So enjoy the ride. You will know joy and you will know suffering– and will gain an appreciation for both. You will have the opportunity to lead others. They will teach you responsibility. They will teach you humility. They will teach you how to work for something more than yourself. Nothing you do in life will be more rewarding or more important than making a difference in the lives of others. Don’t ever lose sight of that responsibility and don’t sweat the small stuff. You’re character is not defined by what happens to you in life– but only how you choose to respond.
Ty Stephens is a Native of East Texas, and he is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with a BS in International Relations. After commissioning in 2011 as an Infantry Officer, he has served as both a Armored Platoon Leader and a Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader while assigned to 1st Battalion 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas. He has deployed in support of Operation Shared Accord to South Africa in 2013 and Operation Enduring Freedom- Horn of Africa in 2014. Ty has traveled to the North, Latin and South Americas, Western Europe, and South Asia. Ty enjoys the outdoors and adventure sports.
The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the United States Military Academy or the United States Government.