Lessons From An Army Ranger: "Find a Way to Win."

After 20 Years Training Elite Soldiers, MTNTOUGH COO, Retired Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel and United States Military Academy Physical Education Instructor, Ara Megerdichian discusses How to Get Off the Couch and "Find a Way to Win."

We’re heading into the summer season, and wow, what a year it’s been so far! I saw a great clip of a garbage truck screaming down a muddy road with the dumpster in back on fire and a quote underneath saying, “this is how 2020 feels.” I don’t know who posted that, but I think most of us can relate to it really well. 

This summer is undoubtedly going to be a bit different than previous ones, and it brings its own set of unique challenges. For example:

  • In previous years we knew for sure we had races and competition season ramping up

  • The kids would be ready to start their charging, and those baggy winter clothes would be coming off (well, today they’re the baggy quarantine clothes). 

  • And for the hunters…hunting season would be 3 to 4 months out. 

What makes this year unique is while in past years we could laser-lock on upcoming events and use them as motivation to get off the couch and into the gym or onto the road, this year the uncertainty means that for many, we’ve lost the laser lock. 

  • That dragon at the starting line is not just reminding you of how hard it is to start or how you’ve started this journey before. Instead, this year, he’s saying, “why bother?” 

When I first wrote this blog a year or two ago, I asked you if going into this season, you would be better than you were last season. But this year, I want to rephrase that into two questions:

  • Regardless of whether you have a season or not or whether the summer shapes up the way we’d like, – will you enter this next chapter better than the last?

  • And then here’s the tougher question – is your “why” bigger than your season or your event?

The answer to those two questions will determine whether the dragon on the starting line slays you this year…or you slay it. 

  • My vote is that you slay it. That you come out stronger this year than last year; a bit wiser this year; a lot tougher this year; and a whole lot stronger.

My vote is that the dragon standing on your starting line loses the battle this year regardless of what you face going into the summer, and I hope this article helps you along that journey in some small way. 

“Find a Way to Win”

I taught at West Point for several years, and one of the highlights of my time there was going to Army Football games. There’s just an electricity that cannot be described, especially when you talk about big games like Army/Navy. I’m not sure that many venues even compare to it.

At that time the Army Football team wasn’t really at its prime – like any other team, things go up and down, and that period was a bit of a down period. But they had a motto – a really cool one – it was “Find a Way to Win!” And, for many games, especially the more exciting ones, our players would take the field against a bigger and tougher foe.

I’d sit in the stands and think, “man, those guys are bigger than our guys, they’re faster than our guys, and boy…it even looks like there are more of them than our guys…”

But our team would come out on that field and fight – and over time – as the game ground them down, you’d hear it in the stands … It would start small, and then you’d hear it begin to grow: “Find a Way to Win!”

And it would grow, and grow, and grow into an absolute crescendo until it drowned everything else out.

Over and over and over – until that stadium was rocking with the stomping of feet and the clapping of hands, the fans (and there were a lot of us) would be stomping and chanting “Find a Way to Win!”

It was a powerful moment in every game as our team dug in against its formidable foe.  

If you happened to be standing on the field (or even in the stands), I don’t think it’s something you’d easily ever forget.

And that’s what I want you to grab hold of going into this summer – “Find a way to win.” The odds may or may not be stacked against you, but don’t let that dragon standing at the starting line telling you not to bother defeat you. Instead, “Find a Way to Win.” 

One of the hardest parts about a journey is not just the starting of it but the restarting of it and finishing it after a set-back (or multiple set-backs). I think it’s one of the more challenging aspects of any journey – the point of taking that first step or … the dreaded repeat of the first step. 

That dragon can be a tough one to slay. While you’re standing on the wrong side of the starting line, he’s standing directly on it; and he’s reminding you that the finish line is a long way off, it’s going to a tough road to get there, and that you’ve been here before. He’s asking, ”Do you really want to do this again?” This year especially he’s going to make you wonder if it’s even worth it at all – I mean after all, who knows what’s around that next corner? 

  • So, here’s my response to that question – I don’t know what’s around that corner, but I do know this…whatever it is, I want to have done my best to be prepared to meet it. 

Do I want to start again? Oh yeah … because not starting would be a hundred times worse!  

Let me share a piece of my personal journey with you: I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have served over 20 years in the US Army as an Infantry Officer in a variety of assignments, but that kind of lifestyle does tend to take its toll on you.

When I went to the VA for my exit physical before retirement, they handed me some paperwork to fill out. But, when they saw my branch and the indicator that I was an Airborne Ranger, I remember the clerk chuckling and handing me an entirely new (and much larger) ream of paperwork to fill out.

He looked at me and said – “you’re going to need it.”

And he was right – one journey was ending, but another was beginning – and part of that journey was going to be dealing with the residual effects of 20 years of treating my body like a punching bag.

I’ll save the long story for another time, but let me share a snippet of it with you. A few years later, the first of many damaged discs in my back blew out – I lost the use of my right foot for a period – lost a good portion of strength in my right leg – and the pain was phenomenal.

The docs thought for sure I was due for a fuse – but it turns out they didn’t need to do it – we opted for a more conservative treatment of cortisone injections into the spine (not pleasant but still…).

I was out for almost 6 months – taking pain killers – and I lost 25 pounds. I was definitely not the guy I used to be.

Finally, I was functional (sort of) – and could start working out again. This was not my first time crawling back from an injury, but I knew this one would be a bit tougher because those discs are always riding the ragged edge of a repeat. And here’s the bottom line:

I could either lay on the couch and say that’s it – or I could get back into the gym and figure out how to, within my ability, prevent that from happening again. 

  • In other words – I don’t know what’s around the corner, but I want to have done my best to have prepared myself to meet it. 

The only way to do that was to strengthen my body and maintain a conditioning that allowed me to function, protect my back, and do what I needed to do (i.e., play with my kids, move stuff around the house, and be a contributor in this life – to have an impact) without blowing those discs out again. So, it was time to foray back into the gym – and that first step is always really, really daunting. You’ve probably been there. 

I was, at that point, in my forties, weaker than I’d ever been, and walking into the gym surrounded by those guys throwing weight around like it was nothing while I’m having to work with all the little weights. But, this was the starting line, and for me, another opportunity to “find a way to win.”

Wouldn’t you know it – I started to crawl out of that one – started feeling better – and a few months later – blam! – out went my thyroid.

Holy Cow! I was down again! And, once again, I was 20 pounds down by the time it was over.

This was definitely getting annoying. What was really frustrating was that the only dogs we had at that time were my wife’s chihuahuas, and my first goal was (and don’t laugh) … but my very first goal was to be able to out-walk that stupid Chihuahua!!

That’s how bad I was.

“Find a way to win.” Back to the gym – starting all over again.

Now – I’d love to say the story ends there – but it doesn’t. I had barely started crawling out of that one and getting my feet back on solid ground when I was diagnosed with something that required a trip to the Mayo Clinic. Bad enough as it was, what was worse is they couldn’t get me in for a few months. All I could do was keep crawling forward, not even knowing if there was a forward to crawl to (by this time, at least I could out-walk that stupid Chihuahua, which was at least one goal plunked off the list).

The Mayo Clinic worked out – and I was good, but…turns out I needed at least one of my hips replaced and had a decent amount of permanent damage to my leg from all the back injuries.

So… back down again – full hip replacement (at 50 years old) and once again…starting all over.  

I don’t know if it’s getting old for you…but it was definitely getting old for me – this was the third major event in the same number of years and the third restart!

The doctor who did the hip replacement was amazingly good, but when you have a body as beat up as mine, nothing is ever simple. The surgery went well, but no such luck with the prognosis for recovery. I jumped back into the gym, and three months later blew out my elbow and was right back into surgery again.

I’m several years out of the hip replacement and still dealing with the pain – it affects every workout and almost every day. It’s just part of the process – and it’s part of my new normal.

But please understand something - quitting would be a million times worse!

I share my personal stories, such as they are, not because I think I’m special – because I know I’m not. I’m not even that good, to be honest with you. I share them because of this: one of the tools in my kit bag is that I’ve met that dragon at the starting line many, many times.

  • He’s big, he’s kind of scary, and he’s very discouraging… But, I have learnt this: he’s full of hot air, and his only purpose is to keep you from stepping across that starting line because he knows something you don’t. He knows if you step across it and start running… your journey is going to be phenomenal.  

And the only thing that can derail that journey is you. It will always come back to you. 

That journey starts in your mind, works its way down to your heart – and then, the big one – it has to work its way down to your feet…and then back up again into a loop so that your feet keep moving.

Whether you’re coming back from a failure, an injury, facing uncertainty, or just the prospect of starting over after a long time on the couch – the specifics don’t matter – what matters is that the journey is yours; and the dragon, while real, is just air.  And when you take that first step and then the next and then the next, you’re going to realize just how full of hot air he is. 

Can it be difficult? Absolutely - but all great challenges are.

Can it be discouraging? Yes – but anything worthwhile can be.

But you have two real options in front of you:

1) Keep looking back at what you used to do compared to what you currently do – which is not a happy place or...

2) Move forward, which means that pretty soon, you’ll be looking back at right now and laughing because of what you’ll be doing then!

Just for the record… I like that second one much better.

Going into this summer, I’d like to challenge you once again to commit —commit to “Find a Way to Win.”

Find your new normal – work in that new normal – and get moving!

Oh… and one more story for you:

We used to have a tradition in the Ranger Battalion (I don’t know if they still have it or not).

Before a jump – in the final one or two minutes – as the plane was pitch black, flying extremely low level to get to the drop zone, the Rangers are hooked up and weighted down under hundreds of pounds of gear.

Each lost in his own thoughts as he prepares to exit the aircraft at 1200 feet, 135 knots, in the pitch black...

There starts, from the front of the aircraft (which is behind all of us jumping because we’re going out the back) – a hand on the shoulder and a whisper from the Ranger behind: “Have a good jump Ranger.”

And that would pass up from one Ranger to the other all the way to the very first jumper.

See, every Ranger will make that jump on his own – we will face the cold shock of the wind, the fear of the night, the opening of the parachute, and the leap into the absolute unknown alone – each facing our fear. That phrase is a reminder that while every one of us will face the jump individually, we are not alone. Every one of us will face it at the same time.

And if something happens to one of us, the others will be there to carry us.

Each one of us will walk this journey individually, but when you’re a part of MTNTOUGH, always remember: there will be hundreds of others walking that journey with you – ahead of you – and behind you.

That’s why we started MTNTOUGH – so you would know that no matter what – you are not alone.

This season – “Find a Way to Win.”


- Ara Megerdichian


And if you’re ready to face your dragon, the Backcountry Hunter Preseason Program is open for enrollment right now.

Click here to start the program today!