“No matter where you go in the world people are people and they all want many of the same things”…are words I spoke while standing in front of a large gathering in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska after my first combat tour in Iraq as a U.S. Marine in 2005. While those words rang very true for me, I remember wondering to myself if the crowd agreed with me.
They appeared confused – as if they were expecting something more patriotic. During my second tour of duty, however, I was the confused face in the crowd, as I encountered a suicide bomber who detonated himself just meters from where I was. My attitude towards the Iraqi people was mostly caring as we entered villages and towns, meeting with local families, and seeing children in the streets. It was when we were being attacked that I knew for certain we disagreed.
I served seven years in the Marine Corps Reserves, deploying twice to Iraq in some of the most dangerous areas, including the Triangle of Death. This is the same place that the modern day terror group, ISIS, was hiding out and trying to harm my friends and I. My experiences in country, and the training received to become a Marine, helped shape my understanding of what it meant to be a warrior, and leader. In this context being both meant being ready to destroy anything that stood in the way of mission accomplishment. Upon returning home, this perspective, coupled with a severe existential anxiety as a result of the constant fear I felt in Iraq, and an outsized, trigger response to stressful stimuli, led to an unhappy life. I quickly turned my back on relationships that were meaningful to me. My temper was short and everything that I knew about being a good Marine wasn’t working anymore. To this day, there is a part of me that continues to struggle with projecting blame onto the world. There are moments when I am filled with not just anger, but a deep rage. My experiences in Iraq were often very scary, and so sometimes the fear I felt in Iraq rises to the surface and interferes with trusting people. Is the world safe? Are others on my side? Do they believe that war is the answer to the world’s problems? If they knew how violent it was, would they change their minds? Good Marines that I knew died in the midst of conflict, so in some sense, I wrongly hold other people responsible: people within this democracy that we live in. I tend to view them as supporters of the war, and accountable for taking my friends away from me. A question I ask myself in these moments is: “How could they have sent me to war when it is so terrifyingly ugly?”
Despite these challenges, I was able graduate from UC Berkeley in 2012 with a degree in Rhetoric by using the GI Bill. The degree has served me well in many ways, but my heart and mind yearned for more. I wanted to more fully harness the wisdom embedded in my lived experience, and pursue the truth about the nature of war – and the importance of dialogue among human beings. I also wanted to transform my anger so that I could bring more justice into our world, and help address the social issues that cause people to be oppressed, myself included. That’s when I enrolled in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College of California. The program helped me do both by creating an environment where practicing practical and authentic dialogue was at the core of the curriculum.
Before beginning the program, I held serious doubts about the possibility of learning leadership outside of a military environment. What could they teach me? Conveying to a Marine the possibility that he or she may have to change is like expecting a pebble to pierce through his bullet resistant helmet; we’re stubborn. I gave it a chance and after a values coaching call with a faculty member early in the program, I confronted the possibility that my understanding of what it means to be a “warrior,” and leader, may have to shift.
As I continued the program with my fellow learners, I began to realize that they weren’t the enemy, and more importantly neither was the rest of the world. By engaging with members of the cohort week after week, I began to realize that the pain of engaging in the most difficult dialogue is always easier than violence – and often leads to our desired results. Our interrelatedness in this world is now clear to me: by fighting others we are fighting ourselves, suppressing compassion – and not allowing our unique gifts an opportunity to heal our world. While my anger didn’t disappear, I noticed that I wasn’t responding to it in the same ways. I found myself “on the balcony” a leadership practice of reflection, which has helped expand my capacity for observing my experience so I can respond, not react. Slowly but surely, I began to cultivate an internal sense of peace. This process also included beginning a personal yoga practice that has helped me to relax on a deeper level, and reduce the stress levels that so often prevented me from moving forward.
On the last day of the program, during our final retreat ceremony, I told my cohort mates what the experience and learning among them has ultimately brought forward in me: a more tender heart, a deep desire to love the world once again, to come out from hiding and isolation, to live by my highest values, and be a Warrior for Love – unbeaten by life’s negative forces – always ready to connect with others, feel their pain as my own, and fight the good fight as a Marine on ship…
The good ship, leading…
Ryan Berg will complete his M.A. in Leadership at Saint Mary’s College of California upon submittal of his final synthesis project, which is focused on how yoga may be able to contribute to the well being of the veterans and their community more broadly.
He is married to his wife, Nataly, and lives in Concord, CA. He continues to passionately pursue his desire to support the veteran community through the non-profit that he created returningvetsofdiablovalley.org
Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M. & Grashow, A. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership:tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Hoge, Charles, (2010). Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press.
Image credit: Warrior, Leah Pellegrini