Marines on patrol at Camp Pendelton, October 2007

The Legend of Billy The Kid killed more people than Billy ever did

When we were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan in 2009, our unit was going through the typical spin-up exercises. Field exercises, where we went to remote training areas on our base for days and weeks at a time. Everything culminated in a month-long visit to the Joint Readiness Training Area located at lovely Fort Polk, Louisiana. As the Platoon Sergeant, I was typically the last one asleep, and the first one awake. In a moment of brief relaxation, one of my NCOs said, “You know they think you’re a robot, don’t you?” Apparently, my habit of going as long as I could fueled by coffee and edgy irritation had some unintended side effects. Maybe it was good to think that the leaders taking you into combat are somehow infallible and indestructible, but I was as human as anyone else. Sometimes, the legend grows bigger than the individual.

I’ve experienced this with my own leaders. My first squad leader has developed into some mythic hero, striding across the Army with an M16 in one hand and a steering wheel in the other, some incredible mix of Rambo, Buddha, and Patton. Depending on what story I tell, he either shrinks, as he’s grabbing me by my collar and yanking a knot in my butt, or he grows, towering over me as the Lord of Discipline that I remember him to be.

I hope I never meet the real guy, because I’m sure to be disappointed.


Sometimes, impending events can seem more daunting than they actually are. The shadow of an event, the unknown nature of the outcome, is enough to bring shivers to the knees of Hercules. Figuring out how to continue, to push on, despite those concerns, is what will bring success rather than failure or stagnation.

Anxiety is beneficial, to a certain extent. It helps us to keep us sharp, to keep us on our toes. I recall the advice of my Platoon Sergeant when I was in the 82nd Airborne Division. “You damn well better be scared jumping out of an airplane,” he used to say, “It’s when you stop being scared that you start being stupid.” Having an appropriate amount of anxiety helps you to know that what you’re about to do is important, so pay real close attention to it.

It’s when anxiety turns into real fear, or even terror, that it becomes harmful. When anxiety causes you to freeze instead of react, or to quit before you even begin, it’s time to take a real hard look at what you’re afraid of. Is it the shadow of the event, or the actual event? Is it the legend, the tale, that you’re reacting to, rather than the actual thing? Recognizing that you’re jumping at shadows instead of what’s really there can help calm you down.


About a year before I retired, I was talking to a friend who was the 1SG in one of the other companies in our Battalion. As we walked into her headquarters, she looked over at one of her Soldiers, a Staff Sergeant (E-6) and told him, “Get out of here! Go take care of what you need to take care of!” As we went into her office, I asked her what the deal was; she told me that he was going on terminal leave for his retirement in less than a week. She had been doing her best to make him leave, to get ready to transition, but he was still the first one in the office and the last one to leave. “The Army’s all he knows,” she said, shaking her head, “He’s going to have a hard time when he gets out.” For that Soldier, the shadow of life without the Army was huge and daunting, and he wanted to cling to what he knew as long as he possibly could.

How many times has that happened for you? The first actual interview you walked into, the first job fair. The first day on the new job. The night before you took over a new position. The day before a big presentation, a critical meeting. Even the big life moments, your wedding day, the birth of your child. These are huge life-changing events, or at least have the potential to be so, and so it’s probably good that you’re anxious. That you’re on your toes, making sure things are going right. It’s what keeps you sharp.

If you don’t experience anxiety, then good for you. Maybe you’re the robot that my joes were looking for. But if you’re like the rest of us, the living and breathing people, There is always room for a healthy dose of anxiety, and never room for an unhealthy dose of it. It’s not the lack of anxiety that is important, but how you react to it. Do you let it control you, or do you control it? It’s by harnessing our anxiety, and using it, that we can truly get things done.

The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

Categories: Awareness

Duane France

Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.