No one would have predicted TJ Trent’s success, not even him. One thing helped him survive and reach the top.
In 2002 when I entered Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina Carolina. I was in for a rude awakening. Sure the Drill Sergeants yelled at the top of their lungs and expected blind obedience. Honestly, that was not a surprise at all. We’ve all seen the war movies and heard relative’s accounts of basic training or boot camp. So, in that respect I was not surprised at all! What surprised me was a culture that quickly labeled and judged people with an alarming alacrity. If you were judged “not good enough” you got more attention (not the good kind), less mentorship, and slowly (subtly) shown the door.
I know because I started off on the wrong foot. On April 22, 2002 I reported to Fort Jackson, South Carolina in terrible shape. Almost immediately I failed the physical assessment. While I was not the only one, it put me on the Drill Sergeant’s radar. It was the first strike against me and after the first the next two come very easy. Secretly, I wondered if I could pull it all together. My mind was a flurry of self-doubt and angst. I did not want to go home a reject.
The next six weeks were a roller coaster of emotions. I was struggling to fit in where it seemed (in my mind at least) I did not belong. Every training exercise, every physical evolution was excruciating for me. In hindsight, it seems I struggled because everything was so foreign to me. When we did combatives I got beat down, literally. When we learned how to shoot the M16A2 rifle it took me twice as long as someone else. While my peers were competing for leadership awards and awards for excellence I was just hoping and praying I would survive.
The phrase “it gets worse before it gets better” rang true for me. It seemed like my journey was a daily battle for survival. I was fighting for subsistence in an environment that naturally rallies to eliminate the weakest link. More often than not it seemed I was the weakest link. There were many days and nights that I cried privately, and on really bad days I cried publicly. Crying publicly, not being able to control my tears in public, made me persona non grata. It was the ultimate sign of mental weakness and almost earned me a trip home.
Quite honestly I felt like a total loser. I did not believe I fit in and the enormity of the obstacles seemed too much. My Drill Sergeants even told me they would be surprised if I graduated. Towards the end I wanted to give up and go home. I told myself I could start over (like I had many times before) and eventually the shame would pass.
Today, marks my thirteenth year of service in the United States Army. I never gave up! I refused to relinquish my dreams in order to validate the cultural status quo. Being able to enlist in the United States Army was a huge milestone in my life. It represented months of grueling workouts, significant weight loss, and hope. The hope that I could enlist and begin creating a better life for my family. Simply being accepted was the first of many hurdles I would have to overcome in my career.
When I marched down the parade field at graduation that hot summer day at Fort Jackson, South Carolina I was so proud. It was a culmination of hope and determination. It marked the beginning of a determination that would allow me to reach the pinnacle of success in my career field. In 2013, I was able to achieve that pinnacle in my career when I was selected into the Army’s premier course on cyber network defense. Over the course of the next 14 weeks I would receive the training necessary to specialize in cyber security. (Less than one percent of the Army’s enlisted information technology workforce was invited to apply). On day one, the commanding general made it clear that we had earned the invitation. He was even clearer that he did not expect everyone to pass.
Four months later in front of a packed auditorium I graduated number two in my class. In front of my family, battle buddies, and friends; senior Army leaders proudly brooded over this best in class group of cyber professionals. Now I am looking to achieve the next level of success. I am looking forward to furthering my skills, mentoring those who wish to join us, and achieving even greater heights.
We all have dreams, and I truly believe we all want to excel. There are also many obstacles that stand in the way of our dreams. I battled being overweight, lacking in self-confidence, failing to live up to stereo-typical male gender stereotypes, and a culture that naturally eliminated the weak. I choose to never give up! I made a choice to keep going no matter what obstacles came up and I proved that if you choose to never give up and you’re willing to look deep within and confront your skeletons, you can and will excel!
The key is we have have to be willing to defy what others call normal. We have to be so committed to our life vision that what someone else says doesn’t matter. No one should be more committed to your success than you!
Ultimately, it wasn’t my physical conditioning that stood in my way. Rather, it was my mental conditioning that presented my greatest obstacle. I had to overcome my fear of not fitting in, not measuring up, not making it through. In other words, I had to change my mindset. When I focused on my purpose for joining and my goals I was not only able to survive, but I was able to reach the top echelon in my field.
Are you committed? Are you focused? Are you ready to defy the stereotypical male gender stereotypes in your path?
Photo: Flickr/The U.S. Army