Ryan Berg is a former U.S. Marine Corps Combat Infantryman, graduate of UC Berkeley, completed his MA in Leadership Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California in 2016, and is an active security professional. He is married to his wife Nataly, and lives in Concord, CA.
“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 Omaha, Nebraska after my first 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.
I served 7 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. In this context being a warrior 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, and an abnormal 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 successful wasn’t working anymore. To this day, there is a part of me, which has struggled with projecting blame onto the world. 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 yearned for more. I wanted to more fully harness the wisdom embedded in my lived experience, and transform my anger so that I could bring more justice into our world. That’s when I enrolled in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Before beginning the program, I held serious doubts about the possibility of learning leadership outside of a military environment. What could they teach me? I gave it a chance and after a values coaching call with a faculty member, I confronted the possibility that my understanding of what it means to be a “warrior” may have to shift. 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.
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. 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” (Heifetz and Linsky, 2009), or a practice which has helped expand my capacity for observing it. 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, which is: 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…