By Justin Green
Making and keeping friends has gotten harder as I’ve gotten older. It was easy when I was young. Sports, clubs, and school all created an endless cycle of like-aged dudes to hang around with. But I’ve grown apart from most of my childhood friends, and the combined urgency and importance of work and family life have pushed building new friendships to the bottom of the priority list. The end result is that I have a ton of acquaintances – colleagues who I might have a drink with or casual friends who I might watch a game with, but a diminishing number of close buddies. And that’s a shame because the few close buddies I have had over the course of my adult life have played a central role in shaping who I am. I gave them fake names below, but they’ve all enriched my life in very real ways.
Ethan challenges me and gives me an example to emulate — Ethan was my first close friend in the military. As Second Lieutenants, we spent most of our time together commiserating in pure terrified confusion about what we were supposed to be doing day-to-day. He left the military after four years but we talk monthly and make it a point to see each other at least once a year. Our long phone calls range in subject from stupid movie quotes to books we’ve read recently to confessions of personal issues; he’s the only male buddy I’ve ever talked with about relationship issues. I look up to Ethan the most of any of my friends. He’s always made success in his professional and family life look easy; he taught me that it’s possible to be great at both. I’ve also never seen someone achieve so many things with such grace and humility. There’s not an ounce of arrogance, hollow self-deprecation, or virtue signaling in him, just honest hard work for its own sake.
Dan reminds me that friendship is a two-way street — I got really into road and mountain biking when I moved to my first duty station. It got me out of the house and forced me to do something unrelated to the military. I met Dan in the parking lot after a morning mountain bike race. What started as a short conversation about bikes turned into weekly rides usually followed by pizza and beer. Unknown to me at the time, I met Dan at a critical time in his life. Dan had a rough childhood, was into heavy drugs, and hung around a rough crowd. He was about to graduate college at the time and was struggling to find his footing to avoid falling back into the same destructive routine. Dan is five years younger and asked a ton of questions during our rides and post-ride hangouts: when I went to the gym, what work-outs I did, what I read, how I did my personal budget, etc. I learned a year into our friendship that this was more than just shallow small-talk.
He called me one morning to apologize for getting high the night before (he had been sober for a couple months). I laughed at the time because it felt weird he was apologizing to me. I said I wasn’t his mom and didn’t care. He responded by saying that I should care because I was the first friend of his who wasn’t “an absolute dumpster fire”. It finally struck me that all the questions he had been asking was an exploration into a new way to be – a push to get out of the destructive cycle he’d been stuck in. I had been so selfishly entrenched in my own life and my own problems that I didn’t even recognize when I might be of some service to someone else. My friendship with Dan helped me grow up and realize my constant pursuit of improvement means nothing if it only benefits myself. My relationship with Dan changed after that morning phone call. He didn’t become some charity case in need of my help, but I became more giving as a friend and more present during our conversations. Dan never fell back into his destructive routine; he got his Master’s and now works at a pharmaceutical start-up. I deserve no credit for this; he had done all the hard work the day he decided to search for another way to be.
The worst experiences of Simon’s life are the bonding point of our friendship — Simon is a close friend from a bygone CrossFit phase of my life. He owned a gym where I worked as a coach for a short time. We also shared a common bond in the military. It was 2008, and he had just gotten out of the Marine Corps after eight years as a Scout Sniper; I was in the process of preparing to attend my second phase of OCS. His vast combat experience compared to my aspirations for combat made him close to a god in my eyes. The flippant tone with which he spoke about combat seemed to me like cool guy nonchalance. In reality, he was just trying to change the subject.
Simon had been an infantry Marine in both battles of Fallujah – the fierce door-to-door clearance operations the Marines conducted to “pacify” the city after Blackwater contractors had been dismembered and hung from the bridge. It was the bloodiest fighting the Marines had engaged in since Vietnam. He relayed his personal experience during the battles one night at his house. He described to me in tears how he watched almost half his squad get killed or wounded over the course of a week. At first I just sat there listening, stunned. I had no idea how to relate or even contextualize what he was describing; I was in my third year at a little private college in Connecticut at the time. When the shock wore off, I hugged him and cried too. I’m not sure if mine were tears of sympathy for what he had gone through and what he carried as a result of it, or tears of shame and embarrassment for the number of times I had brought the subject up and how “cool” I had thought his experience was. Either way, I matured a decade that night. I started going over to his house regularly after work just to listen. He said talking to me about his experiences was cathartic. I think he felt more value teaching the “new guy” something rather than just off-loading his problems to some shrink on a couch. I hadn’t experienced anything he had, but hearing his stories gave me a new respect for what I was trying to join. Those experiences, and the friend that gave them to me, are both vital to who I am today.
Dean holds me accountable and keeps me grounded — Dean was my first team chief after joining SOF. I still remember how I met him. He was the Staff NCO of the final phase of our initial training pipeline. He showed up at every single one of my leadership evaluations during the final exercise, a clear indication to me that I was about to be dropped from the course. Being watched by the phase Staff NCOIC during the final exercise is rarely a good thing. He walked up to me at the end of the exercise – I assumed to notify me of my fate – and extended his hand to introduce himself as my team chief. We had been slated for the same team and he had been shadowing me to feel me out (somehow that was even more stressful).
Dean has the calmest demeanor of anyone I’ve ever met, almost docile. But he’s an absolute savage in combat. “Don’t bring work home,” he says. Dean taught me the definition of servant leadership. I came into the team room one afternoon early in the work-up to find him sweeping the floors. He had taken the brooms of our junior guys and sent them all home after some early morning training. Here was a guy with 20 years’ of experience and 9 combat deployments picking up the menial tasks so the younger guys could see their families and rest. I had the arrogance to believe that was below him (and me). I watched over the coming months as this culture of selflessness spread throughout the team.
Our friendship grew over many late nights at work and long trips away from home. Hardship forms the closest bonds. But more than hardship, our friendship was founded on accountability. We called each other on bullshit and had more disagreements than I can count. It was a refreshing kind of honesty, devoid of posturing or ego-covering. We felt more responsibility to our team and the guys in it than we did toward each other’s ego and feelings. This honesty created a very close and durable friendship. Dean’s been an incredible friend and mentor ever since.