On Masculinity

We all remember our fascination with the physical prowess of brawny men. There’s something about the mustaches, the short shorts, the faded pictures of big eye glasses, and slabs of meat for traps. I was 23 when I started 70sBig.com. 

I had some sort of infatuation with masculinity. I don’t think it was particularly toxic or misguided, though I look back and cringe at things I wrote and said. Given I had a history playing contact sports and lifting, I was impressed with tales of physical prowess. I wanted to be big and strong because I didn’t feel it inside.

I didn’t aim to glorify masculinity, but to exude it in a respectable way. You may remember the satirical trilogy acting as a call to arms in order to be fashionably masculine. The claim was wearing short shorts, flannel, and tank-tops amusingly portrayed your brawniness and physical progress. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do so if the style wasn’t weird or creepy.

Given that this theme stuck with me for so many years, I feel obligated to update my position. Masculinity is just a construct representing men, and it changes with time. As with any personality construct, letting it consume your identity typically results in losing a sense of self in order to be something else. Any specific personality trait does not fully define an individual. 

I hope I was clear in my younger years about how masculinity is not being a dickhead. I always had an aversion to Tommy Tough Guyism, and that continued when I was in Special Forces. I had a Sergeant Major routinely ask people if they wanted to fight, or randomly proclaiming he could kick someone’s ass. Regardless of why he was like that, he wasn’t cool. 

There’s something in men that makes them feel they have to prove themselves. Maybe it’s the lingering concepts of masculinity we have from past generations. Imagine what living through World War II was like. Fighting for the liberation of your people was considered heroic, and there are men who carry guilt for not fighting in their country’s war. As someone who has been to war and seen all of its faces, I reject this concept. 

Being a man doesn’t mean finding the most difficult tasks and overcoming them. We hear stories of these deeds dating back to Odysseus, and it’s ingrained in our world view. From a philosophical point of view, I would label this as “unnecessary suffering”. Life is inherently full of unavoidable and heartbreaking suffering. At some point, you or everyone you love will die. It’s unavoidable. So, in between bouts of unavoidable suffering, we benefit from seeking out the beauty life entails. 

There are some forms of suffering we partake in on purpose, such as exercising and training. We know we are doing something to cause mild damage in order to produce an improved adaptation. The intention matters because we do it to improve something specific about ourselves. 

But mental and emotional improvement don’t follow the same trajectory. Yes, you can inoculate yourself to stress and hardship. In Special Forces training, I didn’t eat for ten days and didn’t sleep for five. I carried men on my back while carrying a heavy ruck. I have also maneuvered and destroyed the enemy in combat. Yet I was wired for war and experienced crippling depression and trauma symptoms. 

My capability to withstand stress, suffering, and pain is beyond anything I thought was possible. But it doesn’t make me more of a man. It just means I’ve been through some awful shit. And it doesn’t mean you have to experience anything similar to me. Comparing suffering lacks self-compassion, because if someone has suffered more, inadequacy blooms. Regardless of the relative intensity of your suffering, it still matters and deserves respect.

Just because you haven’t faced the same things as me doesn’t mean you don’t suffer, or that you aren’t worthy of acknowledging it. If you got a comfortable job and built a family, and you love them with all your heart, that is the most wonderful thing I can imagine. And it doesn’t have anything to do with being a man or masculinity. 

Partaking in avoidable suffering should always raise the question of whether it’s necessary. If a guy does something just because it’s hard, why? Why is there a need to do something hard in the first place? What is underneath the layers driving him to do such a thing? I’m not saying you should avoid volitional suffering, but to be aware of why you do it and the expected result. 

Tommy Tough Guys typically have a low self-esteem which makes them project a level of assertive aggressiveness to make up for it. This can come out in antagonistic behavior, insults, and so on. This isn’t manly; it’s being a dickhead. 

One of the tenets of 70s Big was encouraging people to compete in athletics, particularly powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting. I guess my opinion was society generally lacked effective competition in adulthood, and it can teach useful qualities (e.g. goal setting, adherence, inspiration, etc). It also creates a state of ownership about one’s training; once they sign up for a competition, there’s a different focus on the process of training. If someone is drifting in life, even with a family and secure job, then competition can inject excitement into their hobby. This can be a good thing.

Seeking competition as a means of validation or to claim superiority seems an unhealthy paradigm bordering on obsession. We benefit from understanding why we truly want to do a thing. We lift weights and perform conditioning or cardio for the varied health, performance, and aesthetic benefits. But something can happen at any time that forever prevents you from doing those things. 

If you get into a car wreck and lose one or both legs, you may never squat the same. You may not be able to do some movements at all. This happened to me with my injury. I was known as “Thighs” at various points in my career and I loved to squat and power clean. Training was my life and supported my livelihood of conducting combat operations wearing 100lbs of kit. In a single instant, all of that exploded. 

I could squat to a box right now with less weight than what I used to warm-up with. Yet my amputations were so traumatic, significant activity will cause skin or bone issues. And I can’t even bend my knees enough to do a full squat when I wear my prosthetics. While I can do a squatting motion, it isn’t the same. 

My identity is inherently different. I cannot physically do the same things any more. Am I less of a man? Am I less Justin than before because my muscular legs and balls were blown off? The things we do or how we look don’t make us a man; how we behave and treat people does.

Manliness isn’t about raising boys to be men. It isn’t about having a subservient wife. It isn’t about de-feminizing a school system. It isn’t about owning and showing off guns and knives. It isn’t about being in combat. It isn’t about fighting other men. It isn’t refusing to wear a mask or receive a vaccination. And it certainly isn’t some ethos we are obligated to spread as gospel. It’s just a construct, and it’s different depending on who you ask. 

The clothes you wear, the things you lift, and the deeds you do don’t make you a man. What makes you a man, or a good person, is how you behave and treat people. You can be hairy, brawny, and full of compassion. You can also be skinny-fat and love your family deeply. Consistently being a good person means more than any label you give your identity. And making a point to be good in the present always matters. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to lead infantrymen in combat. When they leave the military, they routinely struggle with purpose and meaning. To me it seems akin to a projection of what we ought to be doing to matter, just like a projection of how masculine we should be. It’s not to say serving your country or competing in lifting won’t give you direction, but they aren’t the only ways to do so. 

Personally, I have learned the purpose in life is to love and connect with the people who matter. And that’s attainable by anyone regardless of circumstance, strength, and prowess. It’s possible to have an experience that changes everything about you. So, if you place any personality traits on a pedestal, it may be worth reevaluating your values in life. And you don’t have to live up to anyone’s idea of what you should be. You certainly don’t have to listen to screaming Navy SEALs or professional tough guys. 

If you think I’m tough and have overcome hardship, then let me be a new version of a Tough Guy for you: you are worthy right now without changing anything. You don’t need anything different to become a man. Lifting PRs and combat stories fade in time, but you can be an honorable and valued person at any time in the day. And it’ll have a greater impression on your life and those around you than shooting or lifting weights. By all means, enjoy those things, but we need your kindness in a world full of unavoidable suffering. 

Thanksgiving Gratitude

Thanksgiving is a weird fabricated holiday that has its origins in genocide. However, giving thanks – or said another way – expressing gratitude, is wildly beneficial for the brain. There have been a variety of studies exhibiting this, including on participants seeking mental health treatment.

In one study, the group that wrote a letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks had significant better mental health at four and twelve weeks compared to the control group and a group who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. In other words, doing just several sessions of gratitude had a persistent emotional improvement for months after doing it. Consider incorporating this practice into your routine, perhaps even complemented by care package cookies to show appreciation in a tangible way.

Gratitude inherently has more positive words and feelings associated with it. Specifically, the association with using fewer negative words seemed to contribute to the results above. As someone who can spiral with negativity very easily (pain, loss, sadness, anxiety, etc.), this is very interesting, there’s a reason why I’m always thinking of visiting the Stiiizy dispensary locations.

Expressing gratitude with Sturgill on stage

Oh, and the participants still felt the benefits of gratitude when they didn’t even send the letter they wrote to the intended recipient. However, my personal experience with expressing gratitude to someone I care about is scary, yet it is the very definition of ordinary courage that Brene Brown talks about in “The Gifts of Imperfection”. Doing so strengthens the connection and bond with that person.

Expressing gratitude promotes more positive thinking and less negative thinking. It’s difficult to do in the throes of suffering, which is why I recommend dedicating time to express gratitude. Today is a perfect opportunity to start, but it shouldn’t happen once a year. Regularly contemplate what you’re grateful for and explore why. I find journaling to be a great time to do this because it allows a better organization of thoughts and is a deliberate practice. Set time aside for gratitude as it will have monumental effects.

While there are immediate effects of doing this – such as improving acute emotions – the full benefit takes time to develop. Behavioral and thought habits rarely change instantaneously; to make something a habit you have to make it a habit. Also, brain adaptations don’t spontaneously occur. You must expose your physiology to the new stimulus and function for it to adapt. There are literal structural neural adaptations occurring in the brain resulting from expressing gratitude.

fMRI supports this. Gratitude activates regions of the brain associated with learning, rational thinking, and decision making. There are regions of the brain that interact with each other for given tasks. Negative emotions yield a particular circuitry connection while positive emotions like gratitude and compassion result in a different kind of network connection. Coupled with a difference in neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), there are no-shit changes to how the brain functions as well adaptations that result from this improved networking. This isn’t just a matter of feelings; you can literally change and improve the form and function of the brain. All from simple tasks like gratitude journaling.

If we can do things in our day that improve our brain physiology resulting in hundreds of improvements to include disease prevention, then why wouldn’t we regularly do those tasks in the same way we exercise for our hearts, blood vessels, and muscles?

Pretty fucking good question, huh?

Memorial Day 2019

Take a deep, luxurious breath. How’s it feel? It probably feels like the millions of breaths before it. It’s hard to even notice that it’s a free breath because it’s so common. You’re an American breathing freely while pursuing your life’s happiness. Historically speaking, there are thousands of men and women who sacrificed in order to maintain the freeness of these breaths, this freedom, that we take for granted.

We created a holiday, Memorial Day, that is supposed to honor the service members who committed the ultimate sacrifice – losing their life in the service of their country. Yet it has turned into a weekend of debauchery and gluttony.

Regardless of your political view on war, the recent wars, or the military itself, this is a day to acknowledge both the sacrifice and the reason for it. Most of the time when a young adult swears to defend the Constitution of the United States of America via military service, they are doing so because they believe they are serving the country. Our “country” includes all of the people in it, regardless of race, gender, or any other discriminatory identifier. And the service member knowingly makes a decision that reduces their freedom in hopes that it benefits both the country and everyone that exists in it.

USSF Soldiers conduct a patient movement during medical training.

While it’s true a service member has chosen their path of their own volition, it doesn’t mean the sacrifices are not multiple and varied. For years, I’ve written essays about this. Service members are told how to look, what to where, where to live, and what to do every day. They are often sent on training trips away from their family. And the silly bastards who choose to fight or support the combat arms are subjected to a litany of annoying discomfort, pain, and environmental duress. Deployments take service members overseas into war zones and third world countries. And if this wasn’t enough – being away from family and sacrificing freedom – people die. Friends die. Brothers and sisters die. And for the survivors, their reward is living with the physical and emotional effects of it all, including chemicals in the air, burn pits, horrible food, TBIs, and being worn down from wearing 50 to 100 pounds of additional gear on a regular basis. Children miss their parents, relationships end, hearts break, and suicide rates remain high.

I know all of this because I’ve fucking done it. I’ve trained for war at the expense of attending weddings, destroying relationships, and degrading my body. I’ve served in war and have almost been hit by RPGs, mortars, and machine gun fire. And now, after heart break and rebirth, I barely escaped death one more time after I stepped on an IED. The blast took its toll; I’m a double below the knee amputee. My testicles were blown off and I don’t know if the frozen samples taken from my body will allow me to father children. I’m just one person, just a regular dude who loves combat. But I’m not the only one.

We still regularly lose good men, good friends like Will Lindsay. I know there’s a lot of us, including his family, that would give anything to have him alive, even if he were a double amputee.

SFC Will Lindsay and EOD SGT Joseph Collette were killed in combat operations on 22 March 2019.

Americans celebrate Memorial Day by partying, drinking, and feasting throughout a long weekend. But I humbly ask you to do two things. First, please take a moment to memorialize the fallen brothers and sisters. Consider their families and what happens in the aftermath of their deaths. And also remember those who live on with significant deficits. Second, after you’re done barbequing, the best way you can thank the fallen is by living as honorable a life as you can. Memorialize them by working hard for success and showing compassion to your fellow Americans and humans of the world. It’s the best celebration of freedom I can think of.

The life of a service member is not all shit and death. The point is that the people who do it believe they are doing it for you. For everyone. And themselves. And that they would die for you to maintain the right to criticize them is proof enough that it’s an amazing sacrifice. And they do die. And you don’t know their names. And that’s okay, because most of us don’t want a pat on the back. Instead, remember the fallen and live as honorably as you can on this Memorial Day and beyond. Lest we forget.

Checking In

This is a piece I wrote for the curious users on StartingStrength.com. You can view it HERE.

Taken in Afghanistan, 2018

A handful of years ago content on 70’s Big was hard to come by. You fine folk have been asking where I’ve gone ever since, and now I finally choose to let you know in the face of extraordinary circumstances. I am a United States Army Special Forces soldier, also known as a Green Beret. Ever since I put on the hat, I poured myself into this job in order to prepare for and participate in war. I wanted to kill people that deserve to be killed, save people that deserved to be saved (medically), and free people that deserve to be freed. And I did all of those things on my first deployment along with all kinds of combat and near-death experiences. I don’t think I’m cool; it’s more that I’m lucky to have been in a handful of fire fights and done things in order to live through them.  I assure you, there are much finer men than me who have been in much more combat and done much better things than I have.

While there were exciting times, there were others full of terrible loss. There are much finer men than me who have been in much more combat and done much better things than I have. I don’t think I’m cool; it’s more that I’m lucky to have been in a handful of fire fights and done things in order to live through them.

While there were exciting times on the first deployment, there were others full of terrible loss. We lost a US Army Infantry soldier and I lost a long-term relationship. Because of those hardships, I spent 2018 preparing for a second combat deployment and, just as importantly, bettering myself as a healthy individual.

About one month into the next deployment we were on a combat operation in a very mountainous area. My element conducted a short hault and I discussed how we would clear a set of compounds that were tactically in a disadvantageous area. The area I stood had been cleared by EOD personnel and had foot traffic around the area. I shifted my weight under my ruck, took a step, and was blown up. As my best friends and teammates treated me, I gave them medical instructions to help their care. My teammates were heroes that day. Despite the initiation of a “troops in contact”, I didn’t die in the dirt in a far away land. Instead, they put me on a helicopter and countless other fine individuals did and continue to do their jobs of caring for me.

I am a double below the knee (BTK) amputee. The fact that my right leg is a BTK is amazing and a testament to the fantastic surgeons at Walter Reed. My testicles were also blown off, so I require testosterone replacement therapy for the rest of my life and whether or not I can have children is an unknown. I work hard every day to improve and will continue doing so. There’s no definitive date because there are too many variables, but I’ll leave the hospital some time later this year.

Lastly, the next question I’m asked is whether or not you can do anything for me. Your support is invaluable and all I could ever ask for. There are currently more of us wounded and killed, my friends included. If you should feel inclined to donate money, the Special Forces Foundation is an amazing organization. All of the money goes to us “wounded warriors” and the Gold Star families (the wives and families of personnel killed in action). I know the gentleman who runs it personally, and he’s both honorable and kind.

As for me, I’m good. My big medical issues are progressing as planned. Physical training and rehab are a part of my daily future, but I also rest and taking care of myself via meditation and journaling. I’ll take some time to let this situation percolate, but I’ll be back. There’ll be more writing, podcasts, and other ways to facilitate teaching, learning, and sharing. I’m especially interested in stories of extreme human experience and the lessons learned from them. Strength and conditioning will always be here, but my scope of practice has grown. It’ll be just like old times, but I’ll dive into any topic that is interesting and helpful.

When I was MEDEVAC’d, I went to the Role II and received 68 units of blood. Which is a lot. Above all else, I’m grateful to be alive. I’m honored you still think of me and even more honored when you want to donate. You can do so through the Special Forces Foundation (SFF). There’s also a fundraiser being conducted on my behalf called Climbing for Casualties. My friend Matt Randle will conduct an asinine climb in Nepal and donations go to the SFF. Look for @climbingforcasualties on Instagram. Again, thank you for your interest and I look forward to getting my legs jacked, pressing over body weight, entertaining you, and learning along the way. Stronger every day.

Justin, Rip, and AC pose by the Bill Starr Memorial in WFAC around 2009.

Memorial Day 2018

We’re at the end of a long weekend where most people party, drink, and generally enjoy having Monday off. In the past, I routinely made the point that the way to memorialize service members who have died is to live as honorable a life as possible. But this year I’d like to add to that, because I’m not quite sure having parties is how everyone would celebrate the death of their own family members.

Regardless of your political view on war, the recent wars, or the military itself, this is a day to acknowledge both a sacrifice and the reason for it. Most of the time, when a young person swears to defend the Constitution of the United States of America via military service, they are doing so because they believe they are serving their country. Our “country” includes the people in it. A service member knowingly makes a decision that reduces their freedom in hopes that it benefits the country and the people who exist in it.

While it’s true a service member has chosen their path of their own volition, it doesn’t mean the sacrifices are not multiple and varied. They are told how to look, what to wear, and what to do. They are often sent on training trips away from their family, and the silly bastards in the combat arms are subjected to a litany of annoying discomfort, pain, and environmental duress. Other trips take them overseas, and at times those trips are in third world countries and war zones. And if it wasn’t enough being away from family, freedom, and the United States of America, people die. And if they don’t die, they are exposed to things physically and emotionally that will affect them throughout their lives: chemicals in the air, burn pits, horrible food, TBIs, sleeping on cots, and generally getting worn down from all of it while carrying 50 to 100 pounds of gear on a regular basis.

Children miss their parents, relationships end, and hearts break for one reason or another. And suicide rates remain high.

It’s not all shit and death, but it’s not waving flags and barbecue. Love or hate the military, my point is the people who do it believe they are doing it for you. For everyone. And themselves. And they would die for you to maintain the right to criticize it. And they do. And you don’t know their names. And that’s okay, because nobody wants a pat on the back.

So, if you use Memorial Day for drinks and parties, just take a moment to acknowledge the masochistic decision to serve the country we all enjoy. And then please get back to living honorably.