Written by Eddie Penney
When asked to talk about when in my life/career did I feel the most growth I could pin point that moment immediately. I have spent 20 years in the US military, 4 with the Marine Corps and 16 with US Navy SEAL Teams and have since started a Risk Mitigation/Security Consulting company named Contingent Group. All I am extremely proud of and have learned so much being a part of both services and taking the risk in starting a company. Most would think that I would say it was in BUD/s (SEAL training), which is the butt kicker to break you down to see what you, as a man is made of as my turning point. But, that was not the case for me. Mine came a little bit earlier when I was in the US Marines.
Becoming a man or reaching a new limit can mean many things to many people, and most probably have a difficult time narrowing the nebulous process down to a single event. Not me, I can tell you the exact place and time where I crossed the threshold from boy to man. It was a hot and humid summer day in one of the toughest places on the planet: Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina.
Boot camp is hour after hour, day after day of mundane military tasks and harassment from the Drill Instructors (D.I.s) for any error, no matter how small. One of the D.I.s’ favourite ways to induce stress and discipline was to require the recruits to stand at rigid attention without moving a muscle, sometimes baking for hours in the brutal Sun. Getting caught moving, even the slightest bit, inevitably lead to a beat down session in the infamous sand pits. The sand pits are conveniently located everywhere that recruits train so that the D.I.s constantly have a nearby playground on which to enforce their discipline. For those of you who do not know about Parris Island and its mythical sand fleas, let me tell you, they are very real and extremely annoying and, yes, they love the sand pits and everywhere else on that island.
On this particular day, we were on the drill field practicing and the sand fleas were biting as normal. I developed, or so I thought, a fool proof plan to tactfully remove the infuriating insects from my body without letting the drill instructors know. We were at “right shoulder arms” with our M-16 rifles rested against the shoulder when I saw the flea land on my bare right forearm. I caught myself pleading with it not to bite me, praying that it would move on to one of the other recruits around me. I winced silently as I felt his bite pierce through my skin—the pain was maddening. Using my peripheral vision, I attempted to locate each of the ever-vigilant drill instructors, so I could remove the painful insect from my arm. When the coast was finally clear, I went for it. As soon as my arm wiped away the blood sucking insect, I heard the word that every Marine Recruit dreads: my name.
“Recruit Penney, come with me,” the closest D.I. uttered in his deep robotic voice. Knowing what was about to happen, I quickly got out of ranks and followed the drill instructor to the nearest sand pit to commence the beat down. Once we got to the pit, I stripped off my gear, as well as the camouflage uniform blouse that I was wearing and set it on the side of the pit with my rifle. Clad in pants, boots and a t-shirt, I stood in the middle of the pit facing the instructor waiting to see what was in store for me. I had endured these sessions before, but never a one-on-one with a drill instructor, all alone but for us and the fleas. We started with the usual modes of punishment: push-ups, sit ups, sprints, side straddle hops (jumping jacks) and other physical exercises. I was in good physical shape that, though the exercises were tough, they were mainly just annoying. As the constant movement endured, though, I moved beyond my physical comfort zone. I could feel the sweat dripping down from my forehead into my eyes, the salty liquid creating a burning sensation. It felt like someone was pouring battery acid in my eyes which only added to the misery. As time continued to pass, I began to really fatigue and grew more irritated at my current situation—I wondered if it would ever end. I’m not sure how long I was in that sand pit, but you know you have been somewhere for a long time when the shadows from the trees and other objects are on the complete opposite side from when you arrived.
As the beat session continued, the D.I. instructed me, by screaming of course, to run a given distance and back in a certain time. After the first iteration of this, I realized that the time limits were impossible to meet, which would inevitably lead to another iteration. It was a no-win situation, and all I could do was my best and hope that he got bored before I collapsed. My irritation level escalated quickly. I can remember visualizing putting my fist through his face, which would have been great had I been able to lift my arms. Besides, the D.I. would have had his way with me if things got physical, he was a short stocky Marine with massive arms bursting from under his rolled-up sleeves.
I had no choice but to submit to his constant physical and psychological punishment. I started to fall into what I call the “feel sorry for me phase”, which is never a good place to be. This was another real course in mental toughness, one that I received without realizing that it was happening. As is often the case in life, I was caught up in the stress of the event, blind to the big picture. Years later, when I made it into the SEAL teams, you would often hear the phrase “stop looking through the paper towel roll”. If you hold up a roll of paper towels and look down the hole, you will find that your vision is restricted to a small circle. Remove the toilet paper roll and you can see all around, something we call situational awareness. Situational awareness will save your life.
The physical punishment was driving me toward a wall of exhaustion and I didn’t think that I could take any more of it. After one of the sprints, I stood in the centre of the sand pit at the position of attention and started crying. Here I was, a high school athlete, dressed in a U.S.M.C. uniform, crying like a baby in front of the D.I., it was a defining moment in my career, for sure. I stood there, feeling the sweat just drip down my face and onto my soaked t-shirt. I was desperately hoping that the drill instructor did not notice that I was crying but I’m sure that he did; those guys didn’t miss anything. I was near my breaking point and he knew it. He made me do another sprint, and then another. I was back in my position of attention in the centre of the sand box, still crying and telling myself to pull it together.
Then, something surprising happened. The D.I. stopped yelling and began to speak to me about discipline, the importance of it and what poor discipline can lead too: namely, men dying. Swatting a flea on the parade ground seemed harmless but the same act during an ambush could get someone killed. While he was speaking, something shifted inside me. It was like a button had been pushed and I instantly knew that I could take any punishment that he was prepared to deliver. Exhausted and defeated only moments earlier, I suddenly felt that this could continue all day and I would not care in the least. He made me do another sprint but this time I was angry, I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself and I was sure as hell was not going to quit. After a few more iterations, the D.I. called me over and, as I stood at the familiar position of attention, he looked at me straight in the eyes. He didn’t say a word, he just looked at me as if he were reading my thoughts. He knew what had just happened inside me and I could tell that he was pleased with his results. He had done his job and made me both a man and a Marine. From that day forward I knew that, no matter what, I would never quit, and I would always keep going, regardless of the circumstances. In the moment, I had no idea how well that never-quit attitude would prove its worth throughout my military career and personal life.
After this incident and the future of my career, this lesson turned out to be one of the finest. My brain no longer thinks the word “can’t” or “I quit”, because all things are possible. We as humans are designed so well and our mindset determines how we feel and handle certain situations.
Never quit, never stop, and ALWAYS keep pushing to be a better you.
Eddie Penney is a former Gold Squadron U.S. Navy SEAL. He is the Founder and CEO of The Contingent Group