Learning Purpose The Hard Way
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Sometimes you are able to define your purpose - Sometimes your purpose is defined for you. I was fortunate enough to learn about purpose in one of the most meaningful and unexpected ways.
I was an infantry platoon sergeant in my late 20’s and we were saying goodbye to our families before a deployment to Afghanistan. This was my second deployment and for many of my soldiers, it was their first. As the soldiers were starting to board the bus that would take us to the airfield where we would fly our first leg before landing in Kabul, a young lady holding a baby probably no older than six months who I knew to be the wife of one of my team leaders, pulls on my rucksack and says, “Sergeant, be careful and bring my husband home alive”. I looked at her and smiled and said, “Yes ma’am, that’s the goal.” and she shot back with a fiery wave of anger and through tears and grit teeth said, “NO! I don’t care about your goals! This baby here is your PURPOSE, your girlfriend standing next to you is your PURPOSE, all these women and children here crying because they're scared this is the last time they get to ever see their husbands and daddies alive - IS YOUR PURPOSE. They're all counting on you, Sergeant.”
“Yes ma’am”, I replied meekly. and I turned to walk away when after a few steps towards the bus she said called out softly enough for me to hear, “Remember your purpose, Sergeant!” And I turned to see her eyes filled with tears and sorrow, and I said, “Yes ma’am”.
I still didn’t know what purpose was if you asked me, I thought I did. Up until that point, I had
a successful military career rooted in honor and discipline, and dedication. All of which I thought was a purpose. But her words challenged everything I thought I knew about myself. What was my purpose? Was it to carry out the commander's intent and succeed in my missions? I thought so. Turns out, those were just instructions that I followed and obeyed as a soldier. From that day forward how I looked at my life, every waking minute had changed. I had no choice, it was involuntary, something about what she said resonated with me so profoundly. Making sure my guys came home to their families became an obsession. Ideally, to achieve my purpose I could’ve wrapped everyone up in bubble wrap and shelved them for the next 18 months but that wasn’t a choice. So instead, I had to figure out how I was going to fulfill my purpose in the face of risks and dangers, many of which I couldn’t control or predict. So I trained harder, my platoon train harder, I demanded more from my men than other leaders expected of theirs, because I wanted to make sure every soldier under my command was going to be physically fit and mentally prepared to meet whatever challenge or threat they could face and come out the other side unscathed. My peers thought I was obsessive and even unhinged. I never told him why I trained my soldier so hard or why I was the first one up and the last one to bed to make sure that we were battle-ready. Many believed I was just an overzealous and overambitious blow-hard. But I couldn’t help myself, it ate at me every day, her words concussed in my brain, “Don’t forget your purpose”. It truly was involuntary. In the end, 18 months later of the 48 men that I left with 46 returned with me on our flight home. 2 had returned home earlier due to non-fatal injuries sustained. And that same young wife was there to greet her husband. This time she was with two young children in tow having been already pregnant with their second on the day we deployed.
Ultimately, I had fulfilled my purpose, and out of a 10-year military career and numerous deployments, it was that deployment I was most proud of, not because of the success of our missions or medals or citations received, but because it was purpose-driven and achieved. That was my last deployment. Shortly after, I came to the end of my enlistment realizing that I needed to find a new purpose, not because I didn’t believe training and leading soldiers was a just and noble dedication, but I knew it was inevitably short term. One way or another my military career would sunset either through retirement or end of enlistment but my purpose had to be lifelong. So I set out after my military career to find and pursue my new purpose.
I was lucky. I was fortunate enough to know what life could be like when you’re living with a purpose, and I wasn’t even looking for it. Many people go through life with no sense of purpose and no one to point them in the right direction. That’s a really sad way to exist. What are we on this earth for if not to fulfill a purpose? Otherwise, we’re just occupying space. You don’t have to find purpose through war or some life-changing event. Nor, does your purpose have to be some great feat where tales will be told of you and songs will be sung. It has to be important to you. It has to be relevant to you. It has to be obsessive to you. It only has to make sense to you. Your purpose may not make you popular but it will make you powerful.