After 20 years flying in the Marines, I saw myself as a man of action. When it came time to retire, I didn’t look for jobs in business or government or even flying in the airlines. I was a life taker and a heartbreaker. Well, a heartbreaker, anyway.
I was by no means a Tier One operator or anything like one, but I had come to think that having a purpose meant being kinetic, meant being in some type of danger. I looked down on staffs and higher-echelon leadership as somehow having betrayed their roots on the pointy end of the spear.
I looked at contract jobs overseas in conflict zones. I looked at flying helicopters for hospitals. I looked at aerial firefighting. I finally went with the Baltimore City Police Department. I’d read about how bad that city and that department were, but fuck it. Embracing the suck is what being a man of action is all about, right? The only question I had was, “Will I get to run and gun?”
The answer was “Hells yeah.” At the age of 42, I went through the Baltimore Police Academy. It wasn’t the “Q” Course or BUD/S, but it did come with a considerable harassment package. Doing a faux boot camp at 42 after having done the real thing was humbling--doing field day and incentive PT while being yelled at by people with no idea how to conduct military-style instruction. Not because it was all that physically demanding, but because I felt like I was starting on a whole new journey from the bottom up when I’d just finished a career doing something I had mastered.
It certainly served as enough masochism to satisfy my need to be a tough guy. And if that didn’t get the action jones out of my system, the 10 weeks I had to spend in a patrol car in Baltimore’s Eastern District (tourism slogan: “As featured in the hit HBO series ‘The Wire’”) before getting to fly did.
I finally set to work turning JP-5 into handcuffs. I can’t say it didn’t have its moments. Playing Star Wars canyon chasing dirt bikes between high-rises is a great way to spend an evening. Getting to do things like surveil a drug dealer from a mile away, getting him on video pulling out dime bags hidden in his dreads, then vectoring two police cars to jam him up made long fly days worthwhile.
But once I got the hang of that, what else was there? Was I supposed to wash, rinse, repeat that for 15 years until I earned another retirement check?
I’d gotten my badge and a gun and that was great, but was I still making a difference? Yes, for sure. I helped take down crime from above. Every arrest was that much less garbage for someone else to take out. And I felt as if I was taking out more than my share of it. My crews didn’t wait for calls to come; we went hunting.
But was that the biggest difference I could make? Not just in terms of what good could be done, but also in terms of what I was capable of?
As much disdain as I had for staff pukes and those in higher-echelon leadership, sometimes making a difference isn’t always a matter of being the one actually doing the hands-on work. Any given person on the front lines can only do so much.
We need people to run things, too. Neither job is better or worse, but in my case, I always felt I needed to be on the front lines to do something worthwhile.
Truth be told, staying on the “pointy end” also let me off the hook for some of my career disappointments in the Marine Corps. Of course, I wasn’t on a high-level staff or a commander! That’s obviously because I was a pilot’s pilot and a tactician, not because I wasn’t seen as suited for such positions. Why not double down on that identity? That justification involved a fair amount of self-deception; while not all staffers are great tacticians and operators, plenty of them are.
After two years in Baltimore, I was lucky enough to have a good friend from the Marine Corps tell me about a job in the defense industry working with the V-22 Osprey program. It wasn’t a job about my stick skills, though--it was about my knowledge. I traded in my gun for a laptop and while I’m still flying a lot, it’s in the back with a cocktail, not in the cockpit with a kneeboard.
I’m no longer helping lock up bad guys, but if I do my job right, a lot of other people have jobs that can support themselves and their families. That’s not an insignificant thing, and maybe in the great scheme of things it’s doing a little more good.
It’s not as badass to say I’m a manager as to say I’m a military or police pilot.
But I am making a difference.
Too often, men and women “of action” think that that action is what defines them. Physical danger doesn’t define action. Impact defines action. Are you making an impact? Are you making the world a better place? Are you utilizing your talents to the fullest?
As much as we like to think we’re immortal, the available evidence doesn’t support that hypothesis. At some point, all of us have to hang up our spurs, or someone else will do it for us.
There’s an old saying in aviation. “Someday every pilot will go on his last flight. The lucky pilots know when it’s their last flight. The unlucky ones don’t.” Just like many superstar pro athletes want to keep playing even when it’s time to start announcing, so do many tactical athletes. Whether it’s the high of the action itself or the immediate feedback it entails, the resulting adrenaline is addictive.
Adrenaline junkies, like any addict, sometimes need a moment of clarity to set themselves straight. Some people can push it further than others, but whether at 30, 40, or 70, eventually one has to change from being the action to directing the action.
If you want to die living, it’s not just about being in the middle of the action. It’s about being in the middle of the impact.
Carl Forsling lives in Arlington, Texas, and works in the defense industry. He is also a senior columnist for Task & Purpose. He is a Marine MV-22B pilot and former CH-46E pilot who retired from the military after 20 years of service. He is the father of two children and a graduate of Boston University and The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.