HAPPY BIRTHDAY |
December 06, 2006
Name: CAPT Matt Smenos
Posting date: 12/6/06
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Santa Maria, CA
The day before the day you turn 30? I doubt I would even think about it if I were somewhere other than here, a tiny battle-FOB in the ice-locked December of another Afghan war. I walked to the gym to knock out some sit-ups and some cardio. I thought about how long I'd been concerned about things like push-ups, sit-ups, running, and fitness in general. As a teen I'd been a swimmer, and kept swimming into my twenties. Those twenties that were about to end. Those twenties in the latter part of which I'd done very little swimming at all.
Fitness, as a concept, seemed to rise in importance in my mind only after the swimming had ended. Poppy taught me how to swim -- my granddad, the only other ancestor I'd known to go to war. He fought the Japanese in the Army Air Corps half a century ago. His big arms held me as I thrashed and paddled and learned what it meant to relax, let go, trust myself and float. He's been dead for a long time, but his Army photo sits next to mine in my parents' house. People say we look alike. Broad backs (from swimming), broken noses and blue eyes. I remember how it felt when he finally let me go. I remember feeling my own weight in the water, and the thrilling confidence in my ability to stay afloat. Swimming became second nature after that. Second nature with a fitness side-effect.
When I joined the military, and stopped swimming, other measurements were applied to decide my fitness, my readiness, my worthiness. I grew stronger in these new areas, but it was never the same. "Swimming" was a game from my youth. I remember begging Poppy to take us, and the outrage of the "30 minutes after you eat" rule. Swimming was a reward. "Fitness" was a chore.
As proud as it makes you feel to max a PT test or break that bench-press plateau, there is no reward but the knowledge that you've passed for another year. How many years until it's over? What are we training for? As I cranked up the interval on my treadmill, as my legs burned and my capillaries screamed, I reminded myself that after this tour in the war zone I'm truly going to be fit. I'll do very well on my next PT test. Then it hit me. What's the point? If the PT test is to prepare you for war, and when at war you prepare for the PT test, they cancel each other out.
I miss swimming. Swimming made me fit, but swimming also made me happy. As I mulled this over, trotting and sweating and going nowhere on the treadmill, I wondered if such thinking was a benchmark of maturity. Or was it a sign that I still have a lot of growing up to do? I think fitness in the military is meant to make more than hard muscles. It's a pair of strong arms to hold a young man up until he learns to do it on his own. Strong arms with a fitness side-effect. I looked around the gym as the treadmill wound down. I was alone. No one was there to see me train or measure my effort. It was just me, and what I wanted to do for myself.
I set the treadmill to a walking pace and relaxed a minute. I let go. I thought about turning thirty, and the next ten years. I wondered how many miles I'd run, or stairs I'd climb, or pounds I'd lift before my next decade gives me the slip. I thought about the other jobs I might get, if I swim off under my own power. I could do so many other things and still make a difference. I could do so many other things and feel successful. If it was all prelude and no performance, then why do I train? If this war isn’t the experience that asks the final question of me -- Can I or can't I? -- then what am I waiting for? If it's all a race with myself, if I'm the only real judge...then I'd rather swim. On my 31st birthday, I'm going for a swim. This year is for me. Happy Birthday to me.