It’s said that back in ancient Rome, returning Generals were given a triumphant parade, their troops marching behind them, slaves bearing treasures and exotic animals pillaged from far off lands. In the General’s chariot, standing just behind him, was a slave… and as they passed by the adoring throngs of people cheering the General’s name, the slave would whisper in his ear:
“Fame and glory are fleeting. You are only human, and you, too, will someday return to the dust.”
I spent six years in the Army, two and half years in Active Duty, three and a half years in Reserves. I spent my first four years as enlisted, but my last two years, I was an NCO, a non-commissioned officer. A Sergeant.
Contrary to what some folks will tell you, it’s really not all that hard to succeed as a Private in the Army. Be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there wearing what you’re supposed to wear, and you are ninety percent there… after that, do what you’re told to do when you’re told to do it, and you’ve aced the last ten percent. Once you’re out of Boot Camp and Advanced Training – and as long as you don’t get shipped off somewhere jerky people are trying to kill you – the Army is not a bad gig.
(Those stories you hear about Boot Camp are true, by the way… so if you have a problem with authority – especially when that authority is doing its best to emasculate you in front of all your compadres – think twice before signing up. I only just got through by the skin of my teeth.)
I was a very good enlisted soldier. Having spent many years in the Scouts and a couple of years in JROTC, I nailed the daily routine. Being smarter than the average bear, being willing to give way more than what was expected, meant I was noticed by all the right people in all the right places in all the right ways. I began wracking up badges, medals and promotions in nothing flat.
I was back in Texas for maybe a year when I was sent off to Sergeant Camp – Primary Leadership Development Core, or PLDC. Took a month in Active Duty, but the Reserves condensed it down to two weeks. Arkansas sucks in the summer time, hot and humid as Southeast Asia, so I spent a fortnight looking liked I’d been dropped into the deep end of a swimming pool wearing all my gear, I was so sweaty. The training was a blast, though: learning Small Unit Tactics, leading mock assaults, calling cadence, delivering Operational Orders (Op Ords), writing up After Action Reports (AAR), setting up Guard rotations… it felt like being back on Active Duty. I got my PLDC ribbon, and a month or so later, I got my Sergeant Stripes.
Here is where the confession truly begins.
For four years, I had been the high-speed low-drag enlisted kid with all the potential. I was accustomed to being viewed that way, I was accustomed to being treated that way. I knew all my superiors thought highly of me, expected great things from me, and so they treated me differently than the majority of the rest of the enlisted. That was my status quo, and I was good with that. Once the Sergeant Major pinned on my stripes, however, that all changed. The officers visibly relaxed around me. The other NCOs were much more friendly and open around me. All of my superiors were suddenly treating me as… one of them. I was no longer the kid with all the potential – I was the man who had made it. I was now one of the Cool Kids.
It was an intoxicating sensation.
Most of my life, I had been the nerd outsider, fodder for bullies and shunned by cheerleaders – being embraced by the Ruling Class was not something I had ever experienced. I wasn’t expecting it, and I didn’t know how to handle it. For about ten minutes, I was walking on air, I was all that and a bag of chips. Luckily for me, my swelled head had the good fortune to swagger up to my Best Bud. I mouthed off something self-centered and aggrandizing… and without missing a beat, my brother gave me the side-eye. “Don’t pull that horse hockey on me, Boyfriend. I remember when you were in Boot Camp about to crap your britches because you couldn’t pass the PT test, crying about how much you missed your girlfriend.”
You could hear the air deflate out of my ego. I got over myself right then and there.
Emotionally, I was appalled. All it took was Making the Grade for me to turn into THAT GUY. Intellectually, I was stunned. I didn’t even notice it had happened – my best friend had to point out I was being THAT GUY before I even saw it. I was damn lucky the Best Bud had been there… that ten minutes could have been much longer. That ten minutes could have been permanent.
I learned my lesson. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing now, it doesn’t matter how much applause I receive or how good the reviews are, I always keep one foot on the ground. I remind myself how blessed I am, how much of the success is based on being born with good genes and not on anything I did to earn those talents… and I keep my ego in check.
All these stories we are now becoming privy to, all these men in positions of authority abusing their power to sexually harass and assault their subordinates… I can’t help but wonder… how many of them would have been different people had they just had a best friend beside them to keep their ego in check? How many were seduced by that intoxicating sensation of having Made the Grade and became THAT GUY with no one there to remind them of where they had come from? Had someone just warned them in advance about the change in attitudes, been with them to weather the shift in paradigms, how many of these abusive rapist assholes could have otherwise been paragons of humble success?
I’m not making excuses. No one put a gun to their heads and demanded they be serial abusers – they all made their choices. These dirt bags need to be investigated fully, and if found guilty, they need to lose their jobs, be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and go to prison, all while being shunned by their professional communities and the public. What I am saying is those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. The ancient Romans understood the intoxication of success and the seductive nature of adoration… and placed someone next to the Champion’s ear to remind him not to forget where he came from and where he would eventually end up.
Whatever your career goals, be it business or artistic success, do yourself a huge favor and have that friend to whisper in your ear, keep you grounded and humble. Because when it was my turn and left to my own devices… I failed. I became THAT GUY. A brother was there to save me from myself. So don’t chance it – have a brother or sister there in case you need saving, too.