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Using Fear as Fuel

  • 5 min read

I’ve been afraid my whole life.  

I didn’t have a home as a child, I bounced between houses and family members. I slept on a couch here, a floor there; a bed if I was lucky.  As soon as I got close to being settled, I’d get moved. One of my earliest fears was that I’d never have my own place to call home. I took to living in the woods as much as I could. We called it camping. It ended up being preparation for the many nights I spent under the stars later in life. 

Looking back, I can’t even remember much of high school. It feels like a dream. The instability I experienced did not allow a settled feeling through those formative years. I think I had friends but the fears I had at home carried over to school in the form of not being close to a lot of people. I believe I was friendly, but I was not close to people outside my very close circle of guys who loved the thought of being a commando someday. 

The desire to be a Soldier came early to me. I believe it was more of a way to climb above the fear of being unwanted than it was a way out of the whole mess. The Army offered somewhere I could belong; a home. As we got older, my small circle of friends and I stayed in the forests around our homes more and more often. We all expressed some level of interest in one day being “elite”. It was the eighties. My dad was a Vietnam Veteran. We learned the Ranger Creed and truly tried to understand what it meant; sitting underneath poncho hootches and discussing the meaning of it. This led to more fear for me. Could I live up to what I knew would be expected from a life like the one I wanted? 

Even at that young age, I studied sacrifice. I read everything I could get my hands on at the local library about World War Two and Vietnam. I knew that glory and war didn’t necessarily belong together, but words like honor, sacrifice, and service to a cause bigger than myself really mattered. Late at night, I feared what that meant for me. Would I be someone, like the paratroopers I was reading about, who would step up when it mattered? I knew the only way to find out was to commit. I made that decision long before I ever raised my hand and recited the oath of enlistment. 

It didn’t take long after I joined to the military to realize that all the fears I had been hiding could actually be useful. I could take the knot that came from not feeling good enough and use it to steer myself towards a purpose. The bureaucracy of the Army had its own plans during the early days of my career and I didn’t initially get to walk the exact path I intended years before. Regardless, I was beginning to use that new found drive to try and be better every single day. We didn’t have intelligent workout programs in the early nineties, we just had GO. Go fast, go hard, and don’t ever quit. I was fast, fit, and studied warfare almost every minute of the day. But there was always fear.  

Fear crept in during quiet times to remind me that I was not as fast as some guys within the platoon. I was not as good a shot as another. I was afraid of heights. I ran more; the sound of my feet on roads and trails my attempt to drown doubt. The range became my church. Every single jump, I was afraid and ashamed inside. I didn’t think anyone else was really scared. What could I do? Jump, that’s what. Even when that meant standing on the ramp, seconds away from falling into the dark abyss from 20,000 feet. Jump! Never, ever quit. Always keep moving forward. Keep running, shooting, jumping. Whatever it took.

For me selection was three weeks of fear, though at the time I never would have admitted that to anyone. Even though I had spent ten years in some great Infantry units I was afraid I wouldn’t meet the standard. Would my good be good enough? In the dark hours alone in the woods, I had to take that fear and drive it down. I had to mold that fear into the belly fire I needed to rise above the pain and doubts I saw in the mirror. 

They say selection never ends. My success there came with even more fear. Once I arrived on a team I quickly realized that I had to earn my place every single day. Fear of failing my teammates was a daily part of life and in many ways it still is. I got to 3rd Special Forces Group shortly after their first combat deployment. The day I showed up to my team, I was the only one without the coveted Combat Infantryman’s Badge. My entire career, I had looked at men with their CIB with an awe. Combat: they’d seen it. Grenada, Panama, Desert Strom, Somalia and now my team had all seen combat in the opening phase of Afghanistan. 

Then it was my turn. I found myself in the back of a dark MH-47 en route to blow down some dude’s door to kill or capture him in some Afghan village. In the darkened helo, I reflected on a life of fear that brought me to that moment. Could I live up to a life’s study of what others had done? Yes. I could. Fear equals drive if you can recognize it and use it. That night was a major junction in my life. It was the beginning of many years of combat. Looking back, I cannot even count how many nights I’ve had just like that; controlling the chaos within myself while controlling the actual chaos all around me. It’s life. 

Life is fear whether anyone wants to admit or not. What matters is what you choose to do with it. You can let it win and give up to its dark wish to own you and cause you to fail, or you can move forward in the knowledge that you are unstoppable. I know that I’m afraid. I recognize that I have fear. Hell, I just retired from almost three decades of military service and now I have to figure out the “next”. You think that’s not scary? It fills me with fear at times. But though fear is my constant companion, it will never win. I know that I will never be stopped. I may get hit. I may get knocked back, but I’ll always find a way. Oh, and my circle of childhood friends? Not a single one of them became a commando. 

They must’ve been scared. 

Jim Thompson was born in a small town in Mississippi. He recently retired after 29 years of military service; 26 of which was Active Duty Infantry and Special Forces.