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3 Important Lessons I Learned About Fitness While Serving in Iraq

3 Important Lessons I Learned About Fitness While Serving in Iraq

War is terrible but there are many lessons that can be learned from serving in one.


In June 2008, I deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As a cavalry scout in a reconnaissance platoon, I knew my job would put me in dangerous situations and austere environments but I was happy to do it. 

It was what I had signed up for.

It's what I had trained for.

I also knew that the US-led coalition had been in Iraq for 5 years at that point and most American soldiers and marines were stationed on large forward operating bases. Most of these had some semblance of the luxuries we're used to back home in the form of dining facilities, fast food, gyms and air conditioning.

One personal goal I had set for myself prior to deploying was to get myself in the best shape of my life.

Due to my military training, I was already in pretty good shape but I wasn't very big.

Lots of running, high repetition bodyweight training and a lack of nutritional knowledge had made me lean but not necessarily strong.

This was unacceptable in my mind.

As a soldier, I knew I had to be big and strong in addition to lean and fast. My goal was to return from Iraq with at least ten pounds of muscle added.

Here are three things that serving in Iraq taught me about fitness.

1. Improvise, Adapt and Overcome

Upon arriving in Iraq, I flew by helicopter to a medium sized forward operating base in central Iraq. It had a beautiful gym that rivaled anything back in the states and a great dining facility to keep me well fed. I quickly settled into a nice fitness routine.

Less than a month in, I hit my first obstacle. I fractured my left ankle. Instead of letting the injury prevent me from working towards my goal, I continued to go to the gym everyday with crutches and got in my workout. I stuck to upper body exercises and used machines that would keep my injured leg safe from falling weights and other hazards. Despite my injury, I made progress and found myself getting bigger and stronger.

2. Bodyweight Exercises Are the Best

In August I experienced another setback. Our mission changed. We left the comfortable base and moved out to an area with nothing.

Our new home was an abandoned airfield with no showers, no bathrooms, no air conditioning, no hot food, and no gym. It was a major setback to my goal but we improvised. Instead of barbells, dumbbells and machines, we had to rely on just bodyweight.

Over the course of the next two months, I got really good at push-ups, pull-ups and squats. For a pull-up bar, we wedged a gun barrel between two humvees. When these got easy, we threw body armor on. I tried variations and progressions. I taught myself to do one-arm push-ups and pistol squats.

Despite having little more than meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) for nutrition, I managed to gain some muscle. By November, the airfield we occupied was starting to become a decent place and we finally had an actual gym with some weights and benches. 

3. Fitness Can Be The Difference Between Life and Death

I learned many valuable lessons while at war, but one of the most important is that taking care of yourself is about much more than how you look.

It can save your life. A stronger body will fight off disease and handle trauma better than a weak one. It can mean the difference between surviving a natural disaster or a house fire. Someone who can pull their body up and over a bar may have the necessary advantage to pull themselves out of harms way.

What if you have to pull someone you love out of a sinking car? You never know when your fitness level may be the difference between life and death. Are you fit enough to save your own life? How about someone else's? I know I would never want to be unsure of my answer.

Bottom Line

Physical fitness is about so much more than looking good. It can mean the difference between life and death and there is no price that you can put on being able to save yourself or someone else because you're physically ready to meet the challenge. Keep things simple and remember that improvising and adapting are key to staying fit when things feel like they're working against you.

Gym or no gym, bodyweight exercises are always an option and will, in my opinion, will give you the greatest results in the least amount of time. 

Cover Photo Credit: Crossfit.com

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