Trust is an interesting concept. For every individual you trust, you expect that it goes both ways. Now that I am a pararescueman, there is a specific level of trust I have for my peers, superiors, and those that are placed below me. Each level in that structure has a different amount of trust placed upon them by me until they can improve that based on their competence. Additionally, I have a specific level of trust placed upon me by them until I improve that level.
Every person who went through pararescue selection came from a totally different background. Ultimately, we were united by one single goal and that is to become a PJ and save lives. Through the sheer length of what used to be pararescue indoctrination it would weed out everyone who didn’t truly want to be there or maybe were just in over their heads. During all of this we were unintentionally learning life lessons, and through indoctrination we acquired skills and an understanding that would have been harder to learn otherwise. One of lessons is the ability to trust the man to your left and right.
During indoctrination we would spend a large amount of time with the men to our left and right. Understandably when we first started out, we didn’t know each other well enough to trust one another. We started with 160 people in our indoctrination class. There was no way to know everyone. Every day our class got smaller, and the remainder would get closer physically and mentally.
Week two we did an exercise called the buddy brick. During this exercise you and a buddy hold on to a brick under water, your goal is to get that brick from one side of the pool all the way to the other and then back to your starting point. This exercise had a catch. The brick was not allowed to leave the bottom of the pool. Additionally, it could only move when both of you have a hand on it. To make matters worse, one of you had to always have a hand on it. So this meant that only one of you could come up for air at a time. This exercise alone accounted for the largest exodus of individuals from our class. Somewhere between 30-50 people quit that day.
I remember sitting at the bottom of the pool looking up at my partner gasping for air at the top. I remember the world getting darker while staring up at him getting screamed at and mildly harassed by instructors for not going back for his buddy. Teetering on the edge of a shallow water blackout I came up for air, the instructors ignored me completely and kept yelling at my buddy. After two or three breaths I went back down to my brick as my buddy proceeded to quit by action. I cannot remember if this was the day he blew the horn or later but he did eventually blow the horn.
It was a cutthroat environment at that time. When someone quit, we didn’t sulk about losing someone. We were happy. It made us feel stronger, faster, alive. If someone was issued better equipment than us and they decided to quit, it turned into a free for all to trade our crappy gear with the better gear so we could get an edge on the training. Looking back on it now, the whole situation was pseudoscience but it made us feel better.
Once we got to around 50 people left is when we really started to get to know each other. This is when the quitting started to feel personal. This is where the trust truly began. It was us against the instructors. Whenever the team had its guard down, we had people on watch to call the area; we were on constant guard. Nevertheless, we still had people decide they couldn’t take it anymore and when they quit, we felt it. When our class graduated, we did so as one of the largest in PJ history with 32. Not all of them became PJ’s. Some got washed out in the apprentice course. It is a long pipeline after all. Of all of us who did graduate some got kicked out after getting their berets and going to their units for various reasons. In retrospect the trust extended further than just the men suffering with you, it extended to the instructors.
We had an insane amount of trust in the instructors. While we were “drowning” in a pool, we trusted the instructors to know when it was time to step in and pull us out. We trusted them with our lives. We knew that these complete strangers who we have only known as our instructors would be able to pull our unconscious bodies out of the pool and resuscitate us if required. At least that is the trust I had in them.
I remember tying the three-knot sequence under water. I forgot how to tie one of the knots and this was evaluation day. I tied, untied, and retied the knot at least ten to fifteen times under the water. Everything was starting to get dark, and I had “were off to see the wizard” playing in my head repeatedly as I was struggling to tie it. I was not going to pop, there was no way in hell. A large part of it was pride. A large part of it was the trust I had in the instructors. Eventually I figured it out, tied the sequence correctly and just as everything was going pitch black, I broke the surface and shouted “Hooyah sergeant I feel fine!” Or at least that’s what I thought I said. When all the instructors looked at me like I had a dick growing out of my forehead and the one with a megaphone shouted “what the f*ck did you just say” I realize what I truly said was incoherent nonsense. At this point I had breathed fresh air and felt like a new man and repeated myself “Hooyah sergeant I feel fine” and the one with a megaphone smirked as we progressed with our training.
Here is the ultimate thing I learned about trust after becoming an instructor. It goes both ways. When you graduate selection or the apprentice course it is the instructors showing you that they trust you. When we graduated indoc it was with the instructors blessing. We have passed this phase of the job interview. Don’t be fooled, that’s exactly what the pipeline is. You are stressed to your limit, taught new skills, evaluated, and evaluated again under extreme pressure all to see if you are good enough to stand on the front line with those who are already doing the job. So, when you graduate, it is a sign of trust from the instructors to you.
Don’t be that guy who graduates with a chip on their shoulder. Don’t be that guy who thinks they made it just because they wear a floppy hat. Be the operator who has the humility to walk into a room and read it appropriately. Be the man who can meet an individual on any level and build and maintain the relationship necessary to get the mission done. Be the silent professional who can gain trust from his peers by proving his competency by action.