2018 USX Denali Expedition: Through the Fog (Part VI)

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Editor’s Note: The mission of the USX 2018 Denali Expedition is to gather research data to assist the science and medical communities in understanding how the human body’s sympathetic and parasympathetic systems change with acclimatization. This data will be harvested using Cardiac Insight’s wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors during a summit expedition of Denali, North America’s highest peak, by USX’s team of military members and veterans from May 14-June 5, 2018. The team includes U.S. Army veteran Adam Storck (pictured above at center). Here’s his story:

“So, what made you want to join the global death machine?”

This was a serious question that a friend of mine asked me after I signed up to join the Army.

For the first few months after starting ROTC, this was a common experience – the aversion, the questioning, the arguments for why I shouldn’t. I didn’t have productive conversations with my mom for multiple years; they inevitably devolved into her trying to convince me to leave while I could. To those I grew up with, this is probably not a surprising revelation. Seattle in the mid-2000s was a hotbed of antiwar sentiment, complete with demonstrations and vitriol. And full disclosure, there was a time that I was lock step alongside them; I walked out of class in 2003 to protest the Iraq invasion, only to find myself with a possibility of going there to fight not 5 years later. The irony of that is not lost on me, though I never did deploy to Iraq in the end. Part of me is still a little disappointed in the universe for missing that chance.

Eventually, my close friends – and even my mom – came to terms with me being in the military, though I’m sure that given the ability to choose, every one of them would have pulled me out the first chance they got. The reverberations continued to echo, though, in how I visualized my own identity, and how I related to some of the people I was closest to. I took on the mantle of the protector; I wasn’t able to express fears, doubts, or uncertainty with them. I had other outlets, don’t get me wrong, but they were newer friends; much of my foundational community was not a support structure for anything Army.

In gaining distance and reflecting, I don’t begrudge any of them for how they felt. The military, for those who lack close personal ties to it, can be ineffable. The prevailing knowledge of what it means to be a soldier comes from popular media, and even if you take the best of what Hollywood has to offer, it’s still a story of explosions, death, and destruction. Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Band of Brothers. These count among the most highly regarded depictions of war, and they portray bravery and exceptional performance in the worst of conditions, but are not particularly representative of my experience in Afghanistan – or of my experience in the Army as a whole. Certainly, there are those for whom Iraq and Afghanistan were far more kinetic, who dealt with violence up close and personal on a daily basis. But I would venture to say that was not the prevailing reality for most. My reality was far more dominated by the need to creatively solve inherently unsolvable problems in an uncertain and dynamic environment. It was lots of planning, but never being able to count on following the plan to the letter. It was adjusting on the fly to different pressures, with the only metric of success our accomplishment of the mission’s intent. It was building interpersonal ties based on immovable trust that those around you have your back. And yes, sometimes it was reacting to explosions, death, and destruction in constructive ways, but for me this wasn’t the proximate concern on most days.

Explaining this to people who have no experience with the military can be challenging. As far as I was concerned, my foundational community – seized by fear over my mortality – could only superficially engage with anything beyond the popular imagination of war, so I chose not to try to engage deeper with most of them. This turned out to be a mistake on my part, but fortunately it hasn’t critically hindered any of my relationships.

As I transitioned back to being fully civilian, this problem became more urgent to understand how to address. Employers who fundamentally lack an understanding of the roles and responsibilities people undertake while in the military will forgo interviewing candidates that can bring real value – and many who leave the military are not given the tools to translate their experience into language that employers understand. More broadly, this is a reflection of the simplistic interaction that many have with the military. Either we are broken and damaged from war, in need of pity, or we are held up on high, put on a pedestal as exalted members of society. The problem is that neither picture is complete.

Yes, many veterans have battle scars from all manner of trauma. We also have resiliency cultivated through training, camaraderie, and a foundational belief that we can – and will – overcome the uncertainty of now.

And yes, we signed up in full knowledge that we might need to sacrifice our lives, ostensibly to protect the American ideals (even if recent history has largely proved this to be a delusion). We also don’t have a monopoly on sacrifice in the name of service – teachers, firefighters, and people who work in non-profits, among others, also routinely put the needs of society before their own. Every human will at some point put the needs of someone else before our own. Soldiers are not unique in that, even if our method of service is different in form and in immediate mortal peril.

Simplifying veterans to either of these two extremes also creates an unhealthy and dangerous distance between us and everyone else in society. We need neither pity nor exaltation. We need neither feelings of inadequacy nor of exceptionalism. We are not in need of a savior or entitled to life on a silver platter.

As the veteran community, we need to become much more deliberate about integrating ourselves back into the civilian world we all (briefly) left behind during our time in uniform. We need to help people see the valuable skills and attributes we carry with us, leaving behind the feelings of entitlement and contempt so pervasive in our community, because we do still have to prove ourselves just like everyone else.

Earlier this month, I was both thrilled and entirely unsurprised when it came out that the pilot who safely guided Southwest 1380 to the ground after the fuselage was ripped open by an engine explosion was a veteran. I doubt I was the only veteran who felt this way. Reports talked about how in control she seemed, even among the chaos. The focused calm in uncertainty is a benchmark of the veteran, and we should be talking more about that – not because her service made her implicitly better than others, but because her service gave her the tools to enable exceptional, and in this case, life-saving performance.

This is part of the reason I think it’s so essential to shout from the rooftops about things like the USX Denali expedition. This is a group of veterans, coming together to plan and execute an exceptionally complex and challenging task requiring endurance, drive, and management of uncomfortable, dangerous, and stressful situations. This all must be accomplished with a team, where each individual has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own tolerance for risk, their own goals for the climb, and their own definition of success. This represents a showcase of the experience and skills that we as veterans all built during our time in service – skills that make us exceptionally well-suited to working in teams to define and accomplish ambitious goals, to rapidly understand and react in our environment, and to do so with a sense of responsibility to ourselves and the team to put the shared goal first.

Adam Storck, 31, is a U.S. Army veteran (Captain) and Head of Devices for M-KOPA Solar, overseeing new product development, delivery, and testing. Storck is from Seattle and resides in London and Nairobi, Kenya. He is a graduate of Seattle’s Garfield High School (2005), UNC-Chapel Hill (2009), Oxford University (2016), and a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (2010-2011, 2013).