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Helipad of confusion: When getting left behind is the best thing for you

Updated: Jun 10

Helipad of confusion: When getting left behind is the best thing for you. 
Homecoming Jan 2005

Black ops, special ops, military intelligence, military maneuvers under the cover of night, storming enemy strongholds, kicking in doors, using my Arabic language and interrogation training, unleashing military shock and awe with my own personally assigned quick reaction support team to capture the bad guys. If it sounds like a FULL-BEING dopamine hit, then you’re tapping into where I was that night. It was the most amazing highlight from my wildest dreams unfolding in real-time as absolutely the most exhilarating and best experience… that never happened. 


When getting left behind is the best thing for you


Yeah… That’s right, it never happened for me. I mean… I was in the right place at the right time. I had danced all the dances, passed all the tests, verified all “the things” needed for success, but I got left behind that day.  I was by a helipad for about 10-15 hours with all my gear waiting for “the big pickup” that never came. No one ever walked out to say “hey steve, there’s been a change of plans.” No one called over the radio to give me clarity or closure… I just eventually had to figure out they weren’t coming. It was awkward because helicopters continued to appear overhead, and so I just had to assume that at some point one of them would land. One of them had a spot set aside specifically for me. Out of the stream of them passing near our location… surely one of them HAD to be meant for me. 


Layout of the compound we occupied
Layout of the compound we occupied

Aaaaaany minute now, one of them will bank towards me, and I would run into the hurricane winds of propellers, hold my hat to my head, and crouch slightly while someone slides open the side door as I tossed my gear in… just like in the movies… just like we talked about. 


It will land.. right?


Not showing up wasn’t in any of the briefing materials and it wasn’t covered in any of our lead-up conversations about how things might shake out. Nothing had prepared me for that moment of realization that this may not be happening. I was at a decision point after all those hours of waiting. What did I do? I have to eat at some point… There wasn’t anyone to really check in with… because it didn’t work like that where I was. So I finally took my gear back to my bunk. I found a spot and sat behind the living quarters of the prison we occupied, and I ate an MRE alone, in absolute confusion with a smidge of humiliation, and a lot of defeat. Then, I waited in line to make a crazy expensive phone call home.  Since I couldn’t tell anyone about what was happening, I asked Pepper to just tell me about normal life for a bit. I really needed some grounding and reminders about what was real. I’m sure I talked with both her and Trey for as long as my calling card could afford, and then collected my rifle, walked back across the dusty compound, climbed into my sleeping bag, flipped off my light, and drifted off to sleep. 


Deployment shenanigans.
Deployment shenanigans.

Skipped with no explanation.


That big moment never came for me, and I’m extremely blessed for that. 


You see, that year was the most ridiculously stressful and trying year of life for my family. If I had caught that flight, I may have gotten lost in a distracting hit of pure adrenaline rather than staying true to myself. My family may not have made it through that phase intact. I know of many that did not.


Here’s the lead-up details. 


I deployed in April of 2004 while Pepper was 4 months pregnant with Harper. Suddenly I was in Iraq, and Pepper was pregnant, caring for a 4 year old, and house hopping across the U.S. from California to Georgia to Oklahoma to North Carolina and back to Georgia. 


Yeah, I just want to take a moment to say and remind myself “Daaaaayuuumn that chick is made of absolute iron.” Aaand I’ll continue now.


Deployment shenanigans.
Pepper, Trey, and newly born Harper with Sue in the background

When it comes to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, imagine pretty much all of the bottom layers dissolving overnight. I was in my first deployment, using a language that I wasn’t great at, in a culture I didn’t really understand, juggling an interrogation case load that was new and intense, and I will not even go into the other stressors surrounding the location we were in. Fun times to say the least.


Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid

And if you’ve never been blessed with an opportunity to interrogate someone, imagine having a conversation with someone who doesn’t want to be there, using information that is marginally accurate, to discuss a holy war that I barely understood, in a dialect that was as initially foreign to me as a completely new language. Arabic is drastically different in each country. I had not learned this dialect well. You know in the movies where a linguist says “I’m not familiar with this particular dialect” and then they proceed to master it in 10 mins… that wasn’t my experience. I got it, but it was hard work and mentally defeating. 


Examples of how to say hello in Arabic
Examples of how to say hello in Arabic

Map of the world where Arabic is spoken. Sometimes it doesn't even sound the same from country to country.
Map of the world where Arabic is spoken. Sometimes it doesn't even sound the same from country to country.

At the time of the helipad incident, I desperately needed something to cling to. I needed a win because when I wasn’t immersed in case loads, I was doing plenty of “round the clock” military work like servicing humvees, riding in convoys, and escorting day workers around the camp to empty port-a-johns… in the heat of an Iraqi summer. When I was in my “down time” I was tracking my family’s progress around the country, praying to God that the military bonus checks would FINALLY hit our empty bank account, and just waiting for the news that Pepper was in labor. I was in Iraq… not exactly around the corner. I had resigned myself that I would likely miss the birth. I knew that I would get to come home for 2 weeks, but that still left 6 months that I would miss before the deployment ended. That’s a lot of “stuff swirling” in my head and heart. So you can imagine my "woo-hoo-o-meter" was not really wooing.


Trey rocking the medical gear after Harper's birth.
Trey rocking the medical gear after Harper's birth.

So when the achievement planets started to align, all I could think was THIS IS WHAT IT HAS ALL BEEN FOR. Like that scene in Willy Wonka when he knows he has the final golden ticket and rushes home.


So walking away from the helipad in the dark that night was as anti-climactic as one can imagine. It was a true WTF moment… times 1000. The next day I was filled-in on the details of how it all went down. Turns out there was a reason they didn’t come by to pick me up, and the show went on as planned. Things happened, decisions were made, and life went on without me. 


Still, there was a lingering feeling of “why didn’t that work out for me?” 

Spoiler alert: I made it home and eventually left the military. When I got out I didn’t have a list of organizations clambering for me to join them. I thought I would. I mean, my Arabic was spot on, I was fresh out of theater, I was on the “better than average” side of questioning and interrogation with some unique encounters under my belt, I was more mature, I had a degree and a clearance, my mattresses and pillows all had the tags still on them… I followed all the rules. What's not to love? 


Trust me. I'm not crazy.
Trust me. I'm not crazy.

Applications were sent out and letters of rejection came back. And for me, I found myself with a smidge of Uncle Rico syndrome from Napoleon Dynamite. “Back in '82, I could throw a pigskin a quarter-mile. If the coach had just put me in fourth quarter.” I still don’t know the answer for why things didn’t go that direction, but I’m happy with it.



With age comes clarity and a perspective shift.


It took a few years for it to finally make sense, but I recently bumped back into someone that I knew well in that span of my life. This someone actually caught a heli-flight similar to the one I described above. For reasons unknown, they descended from the sky and welcomed this person into the side copter door, and they disappeared into the hurricane of wind, dust, noise, and life. This someone transitioned smoothly into a life where midnight flights led to doors getting kicked in. This person’s life would make an excellent movie… They clicked through some images on my Facebook page one night and liked several old posts and images, and then reached out from the void to say that “they are happy I’m doing well. I have a nice family, and we look happy.” We traded a few messages, and then they faded back into the void.


When we used to do holiday photos...
When we used to do holiday photos...

Two versions of me were talking to each other that night over social media.


One was the life I “would have had” if things had gone differently. That life was talking to me in my “now.” I’m so grateful that I was skipped that night. Not that I could not have been happy if I had tread down the other path, but my perspective shift allows me to see that I wasn’t just skipped, I was spared. Those helicopters were literally passing me over in a very different way than I understood at the time.


What I was slow to realize back in 2004 is that “the coach had already put me in.” 


That was just one of many diversions and opportunities in my life. It was a diversion that I didn’t have the emotional maturity, spiritual discernment, and resolve to say “not for me.” Since I was unable to say it myself, the universe said it for me. My future was not in that world. My future is where it is now. My future is with my family. My future is my here and now. 


What have I learned from that? 


I’ve learned that sometimes our desperation for “something to give me a win” is the in-road for a “choose your own adventure” of misery.


Interrogation was not a long-term career path for me. I wasn’t great at it. I disliked the false emotions associated with running approaches. I disliked not having as much information as we needed to figure out what was real. I disliked assuming guilt first and ultimately learning to not trust people until they prove they are trustworthy. In truth, I’m the opposite. I am learning that I’m rather naive. If you’ve ever had an influence come into your life, and you don’t realize until later that "this is not for you," then you can relate.


Pokémon Go... yeah, enough said.
Pokémon Go... yeah, enough said. If you knew me at that phase, then you know.

What I loved about it was learning to talk to someone about an issue of importance, seeing their passion, asking solid questions, and learning about a new part of this world. 


If I had it to do over again, I would have happily waved to the helicopters as they passed overhead. I would congratulate the person who got to stand in my place on that night, and I would wish them the absolute best of success in building the life of their dreams. I can say that because I am happy with how things turned out and continue to turn out. 


Rocking Comicon.
Rocking Comicon.

One flip of the butterfly wing can change everything, and this is one MASSIVE butterfly that I was spared from. 


My path forward helped me see that I was in the interrogation field because I needed to learn how to ask better questions and learn to allow space for the answers to come back to me. It is more than simply calling it Active Listening. It is patiently cataloging both the “said and the unsaid” parts of a conversation. It is looking at what manifests and does not manifest after an action or decision. It is looking at the world of variables and determining which of these are impacted by me, which are impacted on me, and which ones are happening regardless of my existence. 


Since the day the copters didn’t arrive, I have been on many, many adventures around this world. Adventures by myself, adventures with my family, and adventures where I have layers of Maslow's pyramid firmly in place. Adventures with safety and support that far outweigh any “might have been” moments. I’m able to tap into this perspective whenever I am faced with a myriad of opportunities and get frustrated when they don’t turn into options for me to decide which one I want. Opportunities that are denied for me. Opportunities that “could change my life forever.” I hear people say frequently that “It would be game changing for xyz to happen. It happens for other people. Why not for me? I’m a people, and it costs the universe nothing to let my winning numbers get picked. Someone has to win the lottery after all.”


Spontaneous vacation weekend with the fam.
Spontaneous vacation weekend with the fam.

The thing is that in all of those scenarios, the world is passing you over. In a good way. It is just saying “this is not for you.” Did the helipad moment TRULY change the world or was it just a moment that could have gone either way?


All I can say is that last night I napped with my granddaughter laying beside me. My family is safe, secure, happy, thriving, and together. I wouldn’t risk rocking that boat for anything. So embrace whatever your version of now looks like because it has been custom created to give you the best experience it can. Even if that means you are left with a little confusion along the way. It will all make sense one day as long as we have the patience and reflective nature to look back at it in peace. 



And even though I’m sleeping in the picture… I’m one hell of an awesome husband, father, and grandpa, and that perspective shift has made all the difference.


If it sounds like a FULL-BEING dopamine hit, then you’re tapping into where I am now. It's the most amazing highlights from my wildest dreams unfolding in real-time, and it's absolutely the most exhilarating and best experiences… that happens every day.


I'm never sure who is "getting put down for a nap."
I'm never sure who is "getting put down for a nap."




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