In 1991 I was at a remote military site in northern Turkey. Our job was to keep an eye on what, until that year, was a decades-long existential threat posed by the Soviet Union. They literally wanted to destroy the United States. Some years before this assignment, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had promised to “bury” us.
My responsibility was obviously significant. Would Russia fall apart? There in the heart of the Middle East, we also wondered what would happen with that region. And the Soviets had just been driven from Afghanistan by the mujahideen, and the Berlin Wall had just fallen and been hammered into a million pieces, and was being sold as memorabilia all over Europe. This was a pivotal moment in history.
I should probably have been sober.
I was not sober, of course. An addict to alcohol, I was doing what any other self-respecting drunk would do: getting drunk. Then my luck ran out. I committed another crime, was arrested yet again, and was taken to the commander. He told me he had no further authority to judge me: in this “third strike” (I hadn’t been caught on many other criminal occasions), the policy of the Navy was to administratively discharge me. I’d be shipped home as a civilian in a couple of weeks. His hands were tied.
Let’s take a look at the definition of Mercy: “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power.” In the above scenario, I was absolutely and inescapably in the power of the most powerful Navy on earth. I had no power. My commanding officer had no power. My own choices, and no other reason, had put us both in that position. In fact, he told me he wished he could prosecute me for “criminal stupidity.” I could see the compassionate frustration in his eyes when he stared at me like an exasperated father preparing to punish the son he loves.
We don’t always get what we deserve. I, for one, am grateful for that little detail.
Sometimes, a priest or a teacher or a parent or a cop or even an enemy will choose Mercy in a moment of our powerlessness, and model a behavior of Mercy that more of us ought to emulate, more often. Commander Delorey, God bless him, made a decision in my moment of crisis that forever changed not only my own life, but the countless lives mine has touched since May of 1991. He told me he still saw real potential in me, and hoped it would be possible to save me from that administrative discharge.
Before I share his action, though, here’s what else I was facing:
During the years of my self-destructive drinking career, I had tried to clean up many times. Four years earlier, the Navy had gone so far as to lock me up for a six-week rehab. It didn’t stick. I remained a liar, a cheat, and a thief. I was suicidal at one point, and I did not kill myself only because my self-loathing convinced me I would fail that, too, leaving me crippled and an even greater burden on society….
Being kicked out of the service could have been the final straw, and cost me my life.
On that fateful day, a few weeks after my 25th birthday, Commander Delorey told me that if I were sincere in my desire to have one final chance, to stay sober, and to begin rebuilding my life, he would “fire a silver bullet to DC.” He described that as the rare prerogative of a commanding officer to request an override of the strict drug and alcohol policy. In effect, he would “vouch” for me. His own reputation would be closely tied to my subsequent choices around that decision. The silver bullet was approved.
During the years that followed, I went to Intermediate Russian language school, advanced Russian language immersion at the State University in Moscow, and Naval Aircrew candidate training. I conducted missions vital to national security.
I married, had incredible kids who are now incredible young adults, and went on to become a U.S. Navy SEAL. I conducted many more vital national security missions, crossed the world and worked in dozens of countries, and ultimately was officially credited with saving the lives of hundreds of American citizens.
Then I retired from the U.S. military, flew back to Iraq and Afghanistan as an advisor and liaison officer for American, British, and Iraqi commanders, and went on to lead the Defense Department’s Red Team (the security assessment process we use to “become” the terrorist in order to discover our side’s vulnerabilities). It is hard to estimate the total value of equipment, facilities, and lives our operations protected worldwide.
Then I wrote a book called Powerful Peace and founded a company called Impact Actual, dedicated to helping people stop making stupid choices and start making a difference.
And now you know why.
The ripple effect is unpredictable. You may be tempted to throw the book at your subordinate, your kid, or your employee, and you may simultaneously feel your Heart wanting to grant Mercy at a person’s vital crossroads of life. Think hard about that, and choose accordingly. Use your best judgment.