Last Saturday marked my one-year anniversary of receiving my DD214 — the paper that officially signifies my transition from active duty military life to that of a veteran (prior service members can never really be “civilians” again). For most vets, their DD214 Day is a day of celebration, somewhat better than Christmas but maybe not quite as good as Halloween. For me though, it’s bittersweet — a bit like a holiday that a favorite pet died on. As much as it reminds me of how excited I was to be an autonomous adult for the first time in my life, it also reminds me of an upsetting truth: I was fired from Naval Special Warfare and then kicked out of the Navy.
When people hear that, the next question is, understandably: “Why did you get kicked out?” There’s an air of excitement for a juicy story and almost no hesitation, as if they’re not asking the equivalent of “How did you end the dream career you worked fifteen years to build?” or “Your pet died? No way! How?”
Revoking someone’s SEAL status is not easy. When other service members hear mine was removed, they assume I must have thrown a baby off a roof, and my mom keeps insinuating I must have slept with the wrong person’s spouse (I didn’t). I don’t mind telling the story, but it’s hopelessly undramatic and there aren’t enough beers or boba teas on the planet to make you sit through something so convoluted and drawn out. For example, the actual incident that got me fired was when I had a weapons malfunction on the shooting range and lied to cover for myself. If that doesn’t sound terribly serious, you’re right. The problem was that the year before I’d almost gotten kicked out for chewing tobacco in an ICU and showing a bad attitude to a civilian nurse at a hospital where I was working. Even that wouldn’t have been so bad, except six months before the hospital I was caught lying to cover for a teammate who was doing drugs. And don’t even get me started on the steroids scandal. That summary is how I usually answer (unless we’re sitting down with beer or boba).
Having told them this elevator-speech version of my debacles, I sometimes hear something along the lines of “I wish I could be as honest about my failures,” or “How can you sound so confident in talking about your screw ups?” These are strange questions to answer, because I don’t really feel ‘confident’ — I just feel like I have no choice. In order to explain, I’ll have to backtrack a little.
You see, if you’d asked the one-year-ago version of me about his mistakes, he’d tell you he didn’t make any at all during his first eight years in the Navy. He was always the victim, always the one doing the right thing or the one with the excuse to do the wrong thing. Sure, I lied for my buddy, but ‘they’ put me in that situation. Sure, I talked back to the nurse, but ‘she’ was unclear in her instructions to begin with. I could always make some rationalization or jump through some mental gymnastics hoop to protect my fragile self-esteem: the situation was beyond my control, the politics of the command were complicated, my leadership was out to get me. It took fuck-up after fuck-up and ultimately losing it all before I finally took stock of all the events and realized that the common denominator was always me.
Old me did his best to cover up for or disown his mistakes. I used to constantly worry whether my leadership would shun me, my friends would still like me or new employers would still want me if they knew my past. It was miserable. There’s a transition story that I’ll also have to skip, but over time I learned there’s just no good reason to hide. To get a little meta: if determinism is true, then I have no choice but to passively ride my vehicle of molecules and observe as events unfold at the mercy of entropy. If, on the other hand, I have some iota of free will, then I had control of myself and those mistakes are mine. Mine to make, mine to own and mine to learn from. Having accepted that, I’m now at a point in my life where I don’t have time for any relationship or partnership that isn’t grounded in my authentic, flawed self.
There’s a ten-cent philosophy that sometimes gets thrown around, probably intended to comfort me: “Everyone makes mistakes,” as if that’s supposed to be some sort of consolation or absolution. But I don’t care about everyone else’s mistakes — I care about mine. Caring about other people’s mistakes is what got me stuck in a rut in the first place, spinning my wheels in an endless cycle of mistake-blame-overcompensate. I broke the rules and I paid the price. I, not everyone else, was my own enemy.
Some have accused me of bragging or acting like I ‘beat the system.’ But how can that be true when I’m admitting that I received a reduction in rank, months of extra duty and ultimately administrative separation? Others will say that if I can talk so flippantly about my failures, it must mean I never really cared. With them, I patently disagree. I think that’s just another protection to keep us from accepting our imperfections. I’m perfectly capable of admitting that I still care deeply about it and it still hurts to talk about. But there’s an upside to all this admitting, too.
If experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want, then by owning the fact that I still want it, that I gave everything I had to it and still came up short, I get that experience. I made the mistake I most feared making, lost the thing I most wanted, disappointed the people I was most desperate to impress. And I get to say that after all that, I’m still here. So when you see me talking about things that would make others cringe to admit, I’m neither confident nor flippant. It’s a test, a disclaimer, a waiver that needs to be signed before we can be friends. Either you’ll accept me with all my blemishes because you’re aware of your own, or you won’t and I’ll move on. Regardless, I’m unshackled from my shame, and I’ll never have to worry about being ‘discovered’ because I’ve already exposed myself. I suppose, in a way, that could be considered confidence.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.