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Personal Responsibility and Health, in the Military and Beyond

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I learned a great life lesson from my First Sergeant during our train up for Afghanistan in 2008. We were at Fort Bragg at FOB Patriot with many on the team getting sick from the 18 hours a day, 7 days a week pace accented by the wearing of body armor all day and sleeping in tents 18” apart on 18” wide cots for six weeks. The lesson was simple-you are personally responsible for your health.

At first I didn’t get it. My thought was that if you got sick, it was your pain and discomfort. Besides, people have no control over getting sick, right? The First Sergeant saw it differently. What he saw were teammates who were eating junk food rather than balanced meals, not hydrating, and not taking advantage of the little rest we got. It was also not washing hands before eating and even coming to the mission out of shape, expecting the quick train up to whip them in combat ready condition. Where the First Sergeant saw the real difference was in the personal responsibility of each member of the team to stay healthy so that they contribute to the mission. When they got sick, they let the team down. It was not just their own discomfort; it was a selfish, preventable choice to be unhealthy.

I eventually “got it.” Our team was not deep enough in our manning for even one person to be sick and absent from their job. While you can’t totally prevent succumbing to illness, there are things you can do to reduce the chances. And if you didn’t do those very right things, you let the team down by not doing all you can to stay healthy.

This philosophy got me to thinking about the importance of taking personal responsibility for my health well past our deployment.  I saw its extension in not only the benefit to me personally to be healthy but also my responsibility to my family for me to be healthy. My lack of good health or even my premature death from an avoidable illness is something I have some control over.

It is not only me that suffers but also my loved ones. Simply, if I don’t take care of myself, I am putting myself and especially my family at risk of losing me. While no one wants to be sick or die, others suffer from that result, especially your family.

I saw an example of an extension of this in the early loss of both my father and father in law. Both died too early of cancer, one of lung cancer from smoking, the other of colon cancer that early detection could have caught. While some illnesses, especially cancer just happen and can’t be avoided or cured, so many can be curtailed with life style changes or early detection. Both of these preventions are choices and reach at the heart of a personal responsibility for one’s health. Among the costs are that my children grew up without grandfathers, a huge loss and a lost opportunity for both my kids and the grandfathers. While people die all of the time from unavoidable disease, so many die from things that can be avoided simply by making better choices and discipline. Or, in the words of my First Sergeant, failing at their personal responsibility to be healthy and letting the team, their mission and eventually, themselves and their families down.