These highlights are from the Kindle version of Thank You For My Service by Mat Best.
The one thing I have missed more than anything—every waking moment of every day—since I left the military: the thrill of war.
Having a fucked-up sense of humor is probably as important to keeping a soldier alive as his weapons or his armor.
I started with movies. I watched every single war movie I could get my hands on: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, The Deer Hunter, Patton, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down, Hamburger Hill, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now, Major Payne. I studied these war flicks the way conspiracy theorists study the Zapruder film—pantsless.
After I was done with every military film ever made, I turned my attention to learning about generals. George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
They weren’t just testing us to see if we could endure all this bullshit, they wanted to see if we could work together as a unit to unfuck ourselves.
My utter lack of self-confidence made me terrified of saying the wrong thing or doing anything that might overtly sabotage my chances. Little did I realize that all my worrying was the biggest cock-block of them all. No girl wants to fuck a guy who can’t make a command decision. Now I didn’t care one way or the other.
The one thing Ranger Battalion drills into your head more than anything else is putting your thoughts and feelings aside in order to get the job done.
Getting on the plane to Tacoma, Washington, back to my unit to prepare for our next deployment, I was filled with even more purpose than I had had before the first one. I was feeling a new sense of confidence, and I was ready to get back overseas and finally get into the real combat I had been dreaming about for the last two years. That’s the funny thing about dreams, though. The fun is in the chasing. Once you achieve them, they usually don’t give you the sense of satisfaction or gratification that you had thought they would. Sometimes you realize you were really chasing something else all along.
Even though coalition forces were bagging some big players in the Global War on Terror at the same time, that offered me no solace, because my interests were not geopolitical. They were visceral. I wasn’t obsessed with winning; I was obsessed with the act of war. That’s what I was there for, and that’s what I wanted to be good at.
Humans and other mammals have engaged in some version of battle in defense of territory, family, the pack or the tribe, for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. Today, “educated people” like to think we’ve evolved beyond this fundamental instinct, and they look down their noses at warfighters as primitive or regressive (whatever the fuck that means), but all you need to do is spend two minutes on Twitter to realize that this ancient animal impulse is alive and well.
A city called Ramadi. At this stage of the war, the vibe in Ramadi was totally different. In recent weeks the insurgency had been getting pretty nasty in that area and the place had turned into a fucking tinderbox, one that would explode a couple months later as the Second Battle of Ramadi—a six-month pitched battle that involved the famous Task Unit Bruiser led by Jocko Willink of SEAL Team Three. It’s also where Chris Kyle got his nickname “The Devil of Ramadi.”
Ramadi produced dozens of American casualties, a Medal of Honor recipient, and God knows how many bronze and silver stars. Many brave Americans sacrificed a lot on those streets. And unlike the insurgents my unit encountered in and around Anbar, the fighters infesting the streets of Ramadi were willing to stand their ground and fight to the death.
Ranger School is a two-month combat leadership proving ground open to all branches of the military, but the 75th Ranger Regiment is the only unit that requires all of its officers and non-commissioned officers to attend the course.
If you’ve never been in the military or to a nightclub in Las Vegas, ChemLights are those neon-colored sticks that you snap to activate and then they glow in the dark for twelve hours. When you see one at a club, it means “Look at me, I’m tripping balls.” In this case, it meant “Look at me and please don’t shoot.”
Thinking you’re going to die and wanting to die are totally different things. I didn’t have a death wish. It’s just that, in my experience, the more you deploy and face the dark realities that exist in life, the more comfortable you become with the idea of death.
At some point, you bump into guys who graduated a year or two ahead of you and they let you in on a little secret: There’s more after high school, and it’s way better. Dominating high school is cool and all, but college? Working for yourself? Not having to do anything if you want to be a bum for a while? That’s real. That’s freedom. And it’s fucking awesome.
I wasn’t in the real world. I was on a college campus. My immediate concern for these kids was completely unwarranted. No one whose path I had crossed so far that afternoon had actually done anything to arouse real concern. And why would it? They all lived in a giant bubble. They’d experienced no danger, no risk, no decisions involving life-or-death stakes. And the entire system was set up to keep it that way for as long as possible.
College wasn’t their proving ground. It was their playground, with no sharp edges and no one keeping score. Emotionally, they were lumps of Play-Doh drowning in Purell. Practically, they weren’t even that useful.
I had gone directly from having one of the realest, most authentically important jobs imaginable to living in one of the fakest, vainest places on the planet. Looking back, it’s incredibly mind-blowing how quickly that town can break you down. The selfishness, rudeness, and disrespect that oozed from so many people in L.A. just going about their day doing absolutely nothing with their lives made me alternately furious and depressed.
When you’ve lost track of the person you were proud to be for all those years, who cares what happens to whatever is left in his place? He could go crazy, he could go nowhere, he could go to hell. What’s the difference? I spent five tours dedicated to killing bad guys, and now the baddest guy of all was the voice in the head of the person looking back at me in the rearview mirror.
Selection starts with a PT test that consists of a mile-long run, followed by a 100-meter 200-pound dummy drag, and finishes with another three-quarter-mile run. All of this you have to complete in less than thirteen minutes.
For kicks, the instructors had us do what they call in the biz an “El Presidente,” which is a speed drill to test firing accuracy. You start out with your back to a target, and the instant you hear a ding you turn and fire five shots in the center of a human silhouette as quickly as you can.
I wanted the world to know that veterans like me, who loved man shit like beards and whiskey and guns and hot chicks in American flag bikinis, weren’t ticking time bombs waiting to explode. We were normal people who just so happened to have gone through some extraordinary experiences and come out the other side proud of our accomplishments, grateful for our brothers and sisters, and ready to apply all that experience to the next chapter of our lives in the civilian world…and thrive.
The whiskey company we called Leadslingers Spirits. The podcast we called Drinkin’ Bros. Both are amazing, but only one was really a good idea. I won’t say which, but word to the wise: If you hate having a fun, profitable, relatively frictionless professional life, the heavily regulated whiskey trade is the perfect business to get into. Brown liquor is great because it fucks you up nice and good. The whiskey business is awful because it fucks you up the butt without any lube and blames you for bleeding on its sheets. In contrast, for the one-hundredth episode of Drinkin’ Bros we had two people have sex in front of us and we commentated it like a UFC fight. I’ll leave it to you to choose which of these experiences you would prefer to be a part of.