September 2007, I was in the crewroom at the weapons store, commonly known as the Bomb Dump, RAF Cottesmore, kicking arse at table football on our break I got the call I had been waiting for.
“Lyon, you’re on 24 hours standby for Iraq, Jon has lost his arm in a mortar attack”.
November 2007, stood on my own, 20 years old, in the arrival’s hangar at Kuwait international airport. Surrounded by Americans, British, and Dutch military it was pretty obvious I was a CASEVAC replacement, no-one flies to Iraq on their own for any other reason.
“Lyon, front desk” Always with the surname. I made my way to the front desk and confronted by an RLC* corporal she informed me that I was on the next C-130* into Basra, with the Dutch. Nice guys, the dutch, pretty crazy though. All of them at least 6ft2, and all of them with moustaches. I remember one guy had a bit of row with the RLC movers* because they wouldn’t let him on the C-130 with his homemade frag grenade strapped to his body armour.
I climbed onto the back of the C-130 and we strapped in. Two lines of chairs along the edge of the aircraft separated by large cargo pallets and two snatch* Land Rovers, and as soon as we got the nod we had reached our cruising altitude everyone unbuckled and climbed on top of the cargo pallets and Land Rover rooves to stretch out and catch some much needed sleep. A couple of hours later we had the call come in that we were approaching Basra Airfield and that we were to make a tactical landing due to heavy ground fire and a large presence of enemy fighters positioned in the approach path. A tactical landing is a method used by military pilots to descend rapidly from 33,000ft to ground level, kind of like a helter skelter in the sky. The lights went out, everyone donned their helmets and body armour and the descent began. Now I have done many adrenaline sports in my life, such as parachuting and bobsleigh, but that tactical landing, in a commercial sized aircraft, while being pinned into my chair by a 5T armourer plated Land Rover, was not pleasant. We heard the flares fire, illuminating the aircraft, and small arms fire cracked around us; seconds later we hit the runway screeching to a halt. The back door dropped and before you knew it the RAF movers were screaming at us to get off the aircraft and run to the cover by the terminal building. I will always remember the Dutch guy next to me grabbing me by the body armour while we were running for our lives, smiling and saying “safe at last mate”, sure it was a joke.
A few hours later I found myself lay on the floor of my Corrimec* staring at hundreds of cut outs of NUTS and ZOO mag models stuck to the walls and the ceilings. My buddy “Jonesy”, obviously welsh, stood at the end of the room in his underpants, body armour, and helmet singing Christmas songs. I let out a huge sigh, from waving my mum and dad goodbye at Brize Norton, to listening to the explosions of mortar attacks below the C-130, I had been through what felt like a lifetime of emotion within the past 36hours.
Listening to Mariah Carrey’s All I want for Christmas is you, sang in a deep welsh baritone calmed my nerves perfectly. This was my new normal.
Take a second to define your perception of normal.
Truth is, there is no constant normal. Normal is your environment, at that given moment. I had gone from the comfort of my barracks in sleepy Rutland, training twice a day and playing with fast jets, to living on high alert with a weapon system strapped to my leg permanently for 6 months; literally overnight. This is not to brag, this is to say that often the most rewarding experiences and situations are those you are thrust into at an explosive pace, with little time to adjust, so rather than mull over the safest course of action you react instinctively. In human nature it is widely accepted that there are two natural reactions, fight or flight.
I would argue there are three…
Fight, flight, or freeze. In my experience freeze is the most common but the most dangerous natural reaction. To do something is better than nothing.
You cannot pick your natural reaction, it is fundamentally part of your personality, your behaviour, it is what makes you, you. However, you can expose yourself to situations to build up your arsenal of different ways you can react, and act. Putting yourself through stress increases your ability to make better decisions when the shit hits the fan. By regularly straying from your comfort zone, you increase the space you are happy to operate in. Think physical fitness; to become fitter and stronger you must endure physical stress and strain to improve. Tearing muscle fibres for muscle strength and growth as an example.
Stress is a valuable tool, when correctly managed. Google the Stress Response Curve. This graph shows how peak performance occurs along a very fine line to fatigue, and by managing your exposure to stress positively and recognising the oncoming signs of fatigue early, you develop your stress point and push it further and further up the graph. Stress makes us stronger, strain causes fatigue.
Going deeper, stress of any form has transient benefits across your personality and performance. By being stronger and fitter you may possess more confidence in your physical ability if faced with a physical challenge. Furthermore, the discipline and dedication you may have put into achieving your level of fitness may help you knuckle down and maintain resilience in your workplace. I cannot comment on every line of work, but I know that if I need to pull the stops out to file a report it’s not a case of if I can, it will be done. We need to add a stress variety into our personality cocktail, hence Fit classes and GPP is great as it covers most areas of physical fitness. But I put it to you that you need more, to be specific you should read more (or listen as the case may be). Reading is learning, and learning is stress. Don’t confuse stress with stressful, stressful is a potential strain and can be detrimental to you. By challenging yourself to read more you are broadening your cognitive comfort zone, you are challenging yourself mentally, you are training and equipping yourself with weapons you need to battle demons only you can see and hear. The body will always give up before the mind.
In the military, we train. We train a lot. A general cycle of a military flying squadron is to spend 4 months testing and training pilots in a specific area, 4 months travelling around the world on exercise* then the next 4-6 months on operations*. It is the middle 4 months that counts. Norway for cold weather training, Canada for large battle group training, Dubai for air to air combat training, the world was literally a huge training ground and as exotic and exciting as it might sound it offered 1 simple thing. Exposure. It exposed every element of our squadron to the rigors of war, it didn’t just minimise the flight and freeze aspect of our reactions, it removed them to ensure that something happened when it needed to. It is not good enough to flee your post, or do nothing, when the lives of others depend on your actions.
Fight, flight or freeze. Make fight your go to option, this includes a conscious decision to flee.
What is your current norm? I am not going to avoid talking about COVID, it is real, it is having a huge effect on everyone, and it is not going away. That is the reality. Too many people sit on their laurels and “wish COVID would go away” or even worse pretend it does not exist. Well, it does. So how have you adapted to this new situation? We first heard about COVID in Jan and Feb 2020, and at the time of writing we are 12 months on from that, what have you done with that time? I am not here to judge, I am here to make you think.
Did you fight, flee, or freeze?
Whatever your reply, use it. Use whatever you have done, or not done, during this pandemic, make sure that what you do from today will build you into a better person, a COVID 2.0 version of yourself ready for the next time this happens.
Encourage yourself to have a better relationship with nutrition, run more, and most importantly spend as much time as is physically possible with your friends and family. If there is ever another lockdown and you have to spend that time on your own you want to be armed with as many positive memories and experiences as possible, you want to be able to relive the time you spend with your family and visualise every moment. Life is your training, and what you do from today will prepare you to punch COVID 2.0 right in the dick, or fadgey foo.
Write down three personal values and or gratitudes. Write these down in BOLD BLOCK CAPITALS across the top of your page.
Underneath those headings ask yourself these two questions and write down your answers next to each other…
- As a person, what could I be better at?
- What have I always wanted to do, but never got round to it?
You should hopefully identify two separate areas for development. The first something personal, emotional or psychological, the second probably a skill. Now under each answer I want you to list 3 ways you can achieve each answer.
You should have in front of you a hierarchical diagram, starting at the bottom with very simple actions, leading up to the top where your values and gratitudes are set. The point is your values and gratitudes define you as a person, and it is your actions that keep you aligned with them.
Now put on your shoes and get to work.
*C-130 – Capable of using unprepared runways for takeoffs and landings, the C-130 was originally designed as a troop, medevac, and cargo transport aircraft
*RLC – The Royal Logistic Corps provides logistic support functions to the British Army. It is the largest Corps in the Army
*Mover – Responsible for planning and executing the movement of RAF personnel and cargo by road, rail, air and sea
*Snatch Land Rover- Armoured Land Rover Defender for patrolling in low threat areas
*Corrimec – Prefabricated accommodation building, much like a shipping container
*Operations – Coordinated Military action against another state
*Exercise – Simulated