Every mountain climber knows the “Three Points of Contact Rule”. Life balances on either two hands or one foot, or one hand and two feet to prevent falls. The rule is only broken when we reach our destination. I learned this in the Marines. I was with Special Operations Training Group where we climbed, day and night, and in monastic silence, everything from buildings to shear cliffs that rose from the ocean. Years later, as a SWAT Operator, I even repelled down San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica building. I had recently discovered that the climbing rule had become a metaphor for my life during Warrior Week at country music sensation Zac Brown’s Camp Southern Ground.
Warrior Week provides veterans with the self-discovery tools needed to become veterans who help other veterans, so we can continue to help other people. The experience was nothing more than transformational. I realized, in all the awe and wonder of Indiana Jones discovering the Holy Grail, that life also has a three-point rule: We balance between mind, body, and spirit as we climb life’s mountains. This is a groundbreaking solution for the challenges faced in a purpose-driven life.
The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.– Robert M. Pirsig
Warrior Week taught me that everyone’s life has two mountains. It took the presenter about three minutes to tell the story of life’s mountains. Each word landed upon me with the dense weight of an avalanche. The speaker, without the use of visual aids, explained that the first climb is toward the pinnacle of success. The mind and body thrive on our path toward earthly destinies. But the ego neglects the soul in the pursuit of recognition. Fear motivates where one places their hands and feet. Faith is an afterthought. And the journey can be lonely.
Every word rang true. Then he said that from the top of the first mountain, one spots the peak of their second mountain. It struck me that all the struggles up the first mountain had prepared me for the second summit. I was Indiana Jones, holding the map to the Ark of the Covenant. Staring at my spiritual purpose—the reason I was alive. Wow! I felt as if I’d just stepped into a bold new world.
So I ask you: Where are your hands and feet today? I realized that I had mistaken bumps in the landscape for peaks on my journey. Adventures are safe in a book or on a silver screen, but are deadly and frightening in experience. Both of my epic adventures happened in June. However, thirty years apart.
Mount Pinatubo’s eruption proved to be the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, devastating communities and shrouding the Philippines in darkness for several days.-A survivor
I thought I’d climbed to the top of my first June 1991. I was a young Marine stationed in the Philippines, where I was ushered to a front-row seat to the adventure I craved. While enduring the fatigue of jungle patrol, I’d befriended a local selling machetes, “Marine, I know where a cave is,” he went on to disclose to me the suspected whereabouts of a treasure trove rumored to be near the top of the now-infamous Mount Pinatubo.
A treasure hunt roused my soul. There is much history about this legendary Golden Lily Treasure and intrigue behind the origin of the secret caves—Imperial Japanese soldiers had buried billions of dollars of loot inside. I soon took a jarring jeepney ride with my new friend, to board a slow-sinking banca boat that ferried us back to the boonies, where we footslogged toward Pinatubo’s Vesuvius splendor. The bewitched machete led me to the symbols carved in boulders and around booby traps. Two hands and one foot, or one hand and two feet. I made my way to the sealed cave near the peak. I savored the perfume of my soul… that undeniable fragrance of my hopes and dreams. The more significant problem was staying alive to claim it. But, in the end, it didn’t matter. A couple of days later, I was back on filthy jungle patrol. I could still taste the unmistakable fragrance of treasure that seeped into my nose and caked to the back of my tongue, as I watched Pinatubo’s cataclysmic eruption blow 500 feet of its summit, twenty-two miles into the wild blue yonder.
I survived Pinatubo, and I would have considered that apocalypse to be my life’s first mountain. My two hands and one foot, or one hand and two feet fell like sand through an hourglass. Then, I became a cop.
My second First Mountain
A police officer lives a lifetime in a shift. All the danger, trauma, death, violence, despair coupled with the reward of saving lives can happen in one tour of duty. Such condensed experiences taxes officers both emotionally and physically. I thought I was a Superman and found that I was not immune from slipping on my climb. I was fortunate at forty to have discovered yoga following a back injury, and at fifty I discovered the priceless benefits of daily meditation. Both practices helped me maintain balance as I continued to climb my rugged first mountain. On June 1, 2020, the day of my retirement, thousands of angry people descended upon the town that I sacrificed so much to protect. A place where I watched friends give their lives, hearts, and limbs. I stood like Pliny pondering Pompeii as the mob looted and burned my hollowed ground. I witnessed a death of a city.
More bullets buzzed around me than any other night in my career. Every muscle and emotion was wiped out. I got home to a quiet house about 3:30 in the morning, rummaged in the dark for a pair of scissors, then cut off the left sleeve of my uniform that had my sergeant’s stripes, department patch and the twenty-five years of service stripes I was so proud of. I rolled up my shiny silver badge in the shroud, then threw everything else in the garbage. I’d survived, but wasn’t a cop anymore. I was retired. I sat down and had a nice cry next to my garbage can as I wondered what was next for me?
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil: for you are with me.-Psalm 23
My first retirement goal was to publish a book. Typhoon Coast (One man’s adventure between mountains) went to market while I was still in uniform! Mission accomplished. I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family. Many of us are writers. I’d reinvented myself many times: Marine, husband, father, officer, narcotics detective, trainer, and tactical operator. And now, author. One of my six brothers was walking the California Missions and needed company for sixty miles of his 800-mile journey. Four days into retirement, I was trudging along one of the most remote roads
in Central California. In three days I saw only a hundred yards of shade in the blistering heat. There was plenty of time to soul search as my feet suffered through a painful penance.
I dwelled on one of my life’s most conflicting episodes. A month earlier my wife Beth (my rock) and I almost lost our oldest son, Michael. In the shock and awe, I lost my three points of contact. I was falling off my first mountain.
Michael was away in the Marines when he suffered a minor injury. He treated it himself instead of reporting it. The cut became septic. His own body was rapidly killing him by the time he called home. The doctors had few answers for his dire condition. To make this family emergency worse, COVID locked down America the same week. Beth and I hopped the first plane from San Francisco to San Diego. A Marine sergeant met us at the airport then sped us directly to our beautiful boy who was incapacitated on life support, following his life saving emergency surgery. We suffered at his side for eleven days. All I could do was blame myself. However, I neither encouraged him to join, nor discouraged him. I only gave him the physical and moral strength to follow his dream of being a United States Marine. It’s all a father can do for his warrior son.
There was a silver lining to this two-pronged assault on our family’s happiness and security. Beth and I had the honor of meeting so many of the wonderful people who serve our country. They were the many faces of our great nation, and so unified by hope for a better America—The polar opposite of the fractured and hostile country crumbling outside Camp Pendleton’s guarded gates.
I leaned something very important as an Eagle Scout: you can’t get very far carrying a heavy backpack. My life’s metaphorical load of life’s mounting challenges was buckling my knees in the halls of the Intensive Care Unit. And my first summit was within reach. It was a long journey for our son, but he fought his way back, and is serving strong today.
I didn’t know it then, but Camp Pendleton gave me a glimpse of my second mountain that was on the other side of the country outside of Atlanta.
Second Mountain: Lessons from Warrior Week
No one’s born to be a warrior–Zac Brown Band, Warrior
No one born an average man
We made one or the other
And we try to understand
The best view comes after the hardest climb. Shortly after getting home from my Mission walk, I received a call from Camp Southern Ground. Of course, I was available to attend Warrior Week as a mentor. Their invitation humbled me. My mentors along my climb up my first mountain taught me to be a good listener and to give gentle shoves in the right direction. I didn’t recognize them until I made it to the summit. They were the ones who made me wiser and stronger, and better able to face the challenges of my climb. After all, it’s not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.
Camp Southern Ground, is committed to serving post-9/11 veterans seeking a productive and fulfilling life after military service. Warrior Week, is a signature 12-month workforce and wellness program, that helps veterans discover their strengths, define their purpose, and develop an action plan. Warrior Week is provided at no cost to veterans, including all meals, transportation, and world-class lodging. Be part of a community of veterans again and jumpstart your goals for what’s next.
Why Warrior Week?
Here is a short video that may help you understand some of what happens during the week.
Please forward this to veterans who may benefit from Warrior Week. We all appreciate your help in spreading the word.