Embrace ‘the Suck’

May 19, 2011
These are especially difficult times for law enforcement. Optimism is hard to come by and maybe doesn’t cut it anymore. Val Van Brocklin discovers from a younger generation of officers a new model for policing and leading during difficult times.

The suck.

These are particularly trying times for law enforcement. There are the long standing difficulties:

  • Intense exposure to the worst in human behavior
  • A public that doesn’t understand what police work entails
  • A justice system that frequently fails to do justice
  • Failures of management
  • Politics

To name a few.

But the struggling economy has added albatrosses. Budget cuts mean:

  • Hiring freezes
  • Lay offs
  • Forced furloughs
  • Pay cuts
  • Uncertain funding
  • Competing demands for decreasing resources
  • Pressures on unions
  • Rocky succession planning
  • Difficulty hiring and maintaining quality people
  • The need to train people in multiple areas.

Doing More with Less has become Doing Everything with Nothing and 2011 has started off with too many officers giving the greatest love of all.

John 15:13 – Greater love hath no one than he lay down his life for another

Looking on “the bright side” doesn’t cut it.

I used to be a fan of optimism. These days I’ve lost my oomph for extolling, “Look on the bright side” and “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  I can’t find bright sides or silver linings in laying people off, requiring those left to do everything with nothing, and being 5 months into a year that is surpassing the preceding one in officers lost to us.

But I also can’t roll over – not when I read about the young officers attending a memorial service for Lt. Eric Shuhandler last year in Gilbert, Arizona. Some of them were facing potential layoffs. Like a newspaper reporter attending the service, I wondered what kind of person would enter a darkened building with an armed intruder inside knowing they might not have a job the next week.

After the service the reporter asked them whether their comrade’s death and the fact they could be laid off soon might affect how they did their job. They each paused thoughtfully and, to a person, answered firmly, “No.” Their response compelled me to find something that might help officers stay the course in these difficult times.

Embrace the suck.

I found that something from the same younger generation – a way that warriors and “ordinary” heroes both have relied on across the ages to deal with the most difficult of circumstances

Embrace the suck.

I first heard this phrase last summer in a radio interview with Captain Benjamin Tupper about his book - Greetings From Afghanistan: Send More Ammo.

Captain Tupper belonged to an Embedded Training Team (ETT) stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan that fought alongside the Afghan National Army (ANA). Asked about the phrase in his book - “Embrace the Suck” - Captain Tupper tried to explain to the civilian reporter.

Circumstances in Kandahar suck. The heat is often triple digits and you work in a helmet, long pants, boots, long sleeves and 50 pounds of body armor. The food is lousy but since you’re running and gunning, the heat and adrenaline suppress your appetite. Tupper shed 14 pounds from his slender build in the first 3 weeks.

Sleep deprivation is common. You’re on night patrols and even when it isn’t your watch you’re thinking about how night time is one of the most likely for getting killed. Hygiene is a memory. Within 30 minutes of getting clean you’re shrouded in sweat and filth. Tupper recounted shedding his boots and peeling off his socks – along with parts of his feet that smelled like rotting flesh.

These are just the living conditions. Then factor in the killing and dying. So, Tupper explained, you figure out a way to embrace the suck and ply it with wry humor because, if you don’t, you will lose all morale and motivation for the mission. The greatest generation of WWII had FUBAR and SNAFU. This generation has Embrace the Suck.

Two examples.

I’d like to share two examples of embracing the suck: one historic, the other recent.

In 480 B.C. in the mountain pass of Thermopylae, 300 hundred Spartan soldiers faced an invading Persian army that is reported to have numbered from a quarter million to two million. It is written that on the eve of battle one of the Spartan officers, Dienekes, was told that the Persian archers were so great in number that when they released their volleys the arrows blocked the sun.

Dienekes replied, “Good, then we shall have our battle in the shade.” That’s embracing the suck, my friends.

The Spartans held on for 7 days. On the 5th day of battle, seeing the inevitable outcome, the Persian king sent a message to Leonidas, king of the Spartans. He would spare the lives of Leonidas’ surviving men and give them their freedom on one condition – they must lay down their arms.

Leonidas sent a 2-word reply, “Molon Labe,” – Come and get them. The Spartans battled on for 2 more days down to the last man and remain, centuries later, an icon of valor.  

Warriors have embraced the suck for ages. But you don’t have to be a warrior to make such a choice in the face of insurmountable circumstances. You can be an 11-year-old boy like Brendan Foster. Watch and listen to his story – video linked below.  It takes about 2 ½ minutes. Grab some tissues first.

Here’s the deal.

As I travel the country to train on leadership, I know I can’t change the especially difficult circumstances officers face these days in their agencies and communities. I fly in the day before and depart quickly after. Many of the officers feel they’re not in a position to change the circumstances either. So then the question becomes, “What do you do when the circumstances seem insurmountable?”

Epictetus, the great stoic philosopher, said,

“Circumstances don’t make the man, they reveal him.”

He should know. He started life as a slave.

You can pretty much give up and still collect a paycheck. We all know people like that. Or, you can chose - like Brendan Foster and the Spartans – to never give up. Not because you will necessarily win the battle, beat the odds, or be successful, but because – in the end – that’s the story your life will tell.

A description and one more example.

Among his many achievements, Teddy Roosevelt was the top cop of New York City. He eloquently described embracing the suck,

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again … who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Embracing the suck is about entering the arena against insurmountable circumstances – again and again – for the honor of fighting the good fight. 

Last year, across a valley in Arizona, a final call went out on police and fire radios.

"Lincoln two, Lincoln two. Last call for Lieutenant Shuhandler, last call for Lieutenant Shuhandler. Rest in peace, sir. We've got it from here."

We’ve got it from here. Even as they embraced sorrow and grief, Eric Shuhandler’s fellow officers picked up the gauntlet. Some of them knowing they might be laid off soon.

May I live to be deserving of such men and women. May they continue to find the strength to embrace the suck and battle in the shade.

Web Links:

About The Author:

Described by Calibre Press as "the indisputable master of enter-train-ment," Val Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with over 10 years experience as a prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC's Primetime Live, the Discovery Channel's Justice Files, in USA Today, The National Enquirer and REDBOOK. In addition to her personal appearances, she appears on television, radio, and webcasts, in newspapers, journal articles and books. Visit her website: www.valvanbrocklin.com

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