How spending 5 years in the French Foreign Legion helped me find direction.

“Keep your heads up, put one foot in front of the other, and focus on getting to the top of that goddamn hill”, bellowed the Caporal. It was a phrase that I had heard time and time again, along with my other ‘camarades’ legionnaires.

It was an expression we were accustomed to hearing as young recruits in the French Foreign Legion. It never offered us any respite or comfort. On the contrary, the auditive pain resonated by the caporals booming voice only mirrored the agony in our aching limbs, as we trudged up hills in the south of France with camouflaged-coloured sacks so large it made us look more like fatigued turtles rather than soldiers.

When most people find themselves in a situation of difficulty, they usually try to smother their discomfort by resorting to some form of escapism like going to their ‘happy place’. Try doing that on a hot summer day while you trek uphill, carrying 40 kilos worth of kit, while trying to slake your thirst with the beads of your own sweat whilst wearing army-issue marching boots. If anything else, the irony of your situation only fills you with disdain and self-pity rather than washing away the angst. And as we all know… Self-pity whips more than anything else.

There was a frequent thought that entered my mind as I tottered along those hills (the beauty of the belle paysage was lost on me at this point). It was always the same thought. What the hell was I doing here in this heat?

Keep in mind that I was one of the few romantics who volunteered to join the Legion for the fun of it, and that my profile was quite different from the regular stock of recruits.

For those of you who don’t know what the Legion is, let’s just say it’s a unique institution that attracts young gents who have a short fuse and with a slight tendency towards naughtiness. It’s almost like an exclusive and extreme boys club, made up of bad boys with even badder attitudes, who think rules were made just because people had nothing better to do with their time.

I, on the other hand was a follower of rules. I had gone to university, got an engineering degree, had a short but well-remunerated career in the merchant navy, and if that wasn’t enough, had a loving and supportive family who detested not only violence but even aggressive video games. To add to the contrast, I was the only Indian in the regiment at that time. So it wasn’t a surprise that I often ended up ‘volunteering’ more often than the others for carrying out the rather unpleasant tasks that most young recruits are made to do.

Whether it was the repetitive screenings of Predator and Terminator 2 as an adolescent, or the memorization of Simon Murray’s classic book, Legionnaire, the reason behind my motivation remains unclear. But irrespective of my personal motivation, one fact rings clear. The experience did have a lasting impact on me.

Let’s fast forward 3 years into the future. Once again I found myself climbing up hills. Except this time it wasn’t in the perfumed Pyrenees or the sunny steeps of Corsica, but in the savage Afghan terrain. The air was so hot that our sweat vaporised instantly, not even giving us the chance to use it as a sweet antidote to our ever growing thirst. If walking uphill on one the world’s hardest terrains isn’t enough of a challenge, this time we were doing it in the dark, carrying even more weight, whilst hoping that we were not gunned down by a Taliban sniper hiding in the land that only he knows so well. Well at least this time they gave us better boots, so there.

All of a sudden, it happens. At 5:30 AM, after having trekked for over 5 hours we were greeted by rapid enemy gunfire when we finally reached our destination. To say that it dampens one spirit might be a bit of an understatement. In any case the sensation is short lived as the adrenaline kicks in. What followed thereon was even more distressing. Searching for an enemy who you can’t see but who sees your every move. This Stevie Wonder version of Cat and Mouse continued hour, after hour, after hour, till we finally got the order to leave our positions as the jets and the drones took over the fight.  When we finally began to move it was 6PM. We had been on top of that merciless precipice for over 12 hours with no shade from the unrelenting heat.

My team was dehydrated and so was I. Our hearts sank as we realised that we need to do the same march back, but this time without any water. In a desperate and foolish attempt we even tried drinking the Saline transfusion packs that we had in our emergency medical kit. The liquid was so salty that we ended up regurgitating the contents only making matters worse.

This hadn’t happened in the training exercises. Sure we had some tough times, but there was no tactical response to this situation. Where was the handbook that told us what to do in this kind of a scenario? As my tongue began to swell because of the dehydration, a sudden realization came upon me. There was no one I could ask these questions to. You see this time, I wasn’t a young recruit anymore. I was the Caporal.

Before I knew that the words were out of my mouth, I found myself bellowing, “Keep your heads up, put one foot in front of the other, and focus on getting to the bottom of that goddamn hill.” It was a surreal sensation, but one that came with an immense amount of clarity. In one epiphanic sweep I knew what had to be done. My priority was to get my team to safety in the shortest possible time. As this moment of realisation came upon me, it was followed by a sense of duty that erased any form of self-pity. Huffing and puffing, we managed to reach the bottom of the hill at 4am the next morning. It was definitely the longest day of my life, so far.

That day had a transformative effect on me, as on others. For me, it was almost as if the element of self-pity had been lobotomized from my psyche. This new form of consciousness led me to understand that as individuals, we are capable of surmounting enormous amounts of hardship in order to achieve an honourable goal. In fact the pain literally subsides as the goal gets closer. As this sensation overwhelmed my senses, I looked around me for other examples and people with whom I could share this same sense of empathy.

Surprisingly, I didn’t have to look far. The villagers in whose villages we often patrolled, all shared this emotion and sense of duty. As I noticed the challenges faced by them on a daily basis, my one day adventure extravaganza began to pale in comparison on a scale of difficulty. Here was a race of people who had been unwillingly been put in a hostile environment in their own homes, but continued with their lives with a sense of duty…Duty to their beliefs, their families and to their traditions. Imagine the courage that would be required to do that every day.

As my 7 month tour of Afghanistan came to an end, I left the valleys of Surobi and Kapisa with a profound sense of purpose. I understood that the meaning of an existence was no longer simply reserved to the achievement of personal ambitions and materialistic goals. One’s existence was directly related to the decisions one made, and the impact that these decisions could have on the lives around us.

It also stirred my curiosity to unquenchable heights. All of a sudden it became essential to understand politics, science, economics and the impact of technology on society. Subjects in which I had no interest before and which I considered rather frivolous all of a sudden needed to be taken seriously. I realised the power of these issues and wondered why I had not come to this realisation before. It helped me gain the courage to enrol myself in a Master’s program, and it continues to sway my judgment in every career decision that I have made, and will continue to make in the near but distant future.

It’s been 3 years since I Left the army. Since that date I have had a ricocheting career path. I restarted my life as a student, got a job in a multinational and even gave a talk on TedX on the evolution of crypto-currencies. Yeah, go figure. But all of the decisions I made and the learning that I have acquired has been motivated by the events of that fateful day in Afghanistan.

The theme of this article is in tandem with the #BehindTheScenes initiative launched by LinkedIn. But irrespective of my own personal goals, the message that I would like to convey to the reader is the same. Look around you and empathise with your surroundings. It will help you find clarity in your own thoughts. It is this introspective approach towards all that surrounds you, that will help you in defining your goals and your definition of a life.

Life is a continuous form of evolution that is based on a never-ending journey of learning and sharing knowledge. It is not an easy path but a deeply fulfilling one once the moment of clarity has been attained. It is sure to be filled with challenges, obstacles and moments of great despair.  But every time you hit a road block or an unsurmountable obstacle, just remember…“Keep your heads up, put one foot in front of the other, and focus on getting to the top of that goddamn hill”.

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10 thoughts on “How spending 5 years in the French Foreign Legion helped me find direction.

  1. Awesome – really enjoyed it.

    Shared the article with my cousin Sanjay Kalasa – he wants to connect with you on linkedin and of course have a chat about your experience.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  2. Hi Kary,

    Well written; moving, in fact. Your mom was right about your writing. . . I’m glad you listened.

    You’ve captured the highest commandment of storytelling: “Make me care” (Andrew Stanton of Pixar).

    Thanks for turning me on to your blog–it’s bookmarked 😉

    Gordon

    Like

  3. Hi Kary,

    Well written; moving, in fact. Your mom was spot on about your writing. . . I’m glad you listened.

    During one of my favorite TED talks, Andrew Stanton (of Pixar) says “don’t give ’em 4, give ’em 2 + 2.”
    It draws the reader in by engaging their curiosity. You’ve done just this in very short order. Thanks.

    Here’s the link, if you’ve never seen it:

    Take care,

    Gordon

    Like

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