Interview Gary Ferguson, Founder/CEO Pathways for Veterans
Q: What would you say to those who are considering participating in Pathways for Veterans 30-day extended evaluation?
A: For those of you considering working with Pathways for Veterans, I can only offer the following recommendations based upon my personal experience. For nearly 8 years I have been on a mission to find and partner with the best experiential leadership development company in our country. I have had the benefit of working with some of the very best along the way,this includes completing their curriculum. As a result of all my extensive professional training, I have been able to create one of the most profound re-purpose training programs in the country. The 30-day extended evaluation gives veterans access to their core character strengths and who they really are. The 16-week Curriculum for Living builds on their character strengths and coaches the veteran in creating a road map for the re-purposing of their life now that they have left the military.
Q: What have you personally gotten out of creating the Pathways Curriculum for Living program?
A: Re-wind forty years ago! I was getting off the plane in San Francisco on a very cold and foggy day. I had been sitting on a plane for the past 18 hours. I just returned home from the Vietnam War where I’d been in combat for the past 12 months. I’m 21-years-old, at 185 lbs with 1% body fat, and I am excited and grateful to be home. As I am getting off the plane and going down the gangway I hear this loud commotion several hundred yards away down on the tarmac. There were hundreds of people with signs yelling and jumping up and down. I thought, wow a welcome home celebration. As I walked closer my intuitive instincts kicked in, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up, alerting me to danger. Suddenly, I realized that the angry crowd I was walking into was protesting the war shouting, “Stop the War”, “Baby Killers”, and “Murderers”!
Holding back my rage, I pushed to work my way through this crowd of angry protesters until I was approached by a kid with long hair. He was holding a sign saying, murderers and baby killers. For a brief moment he looked me right in the eyes, and then he looked at my uniform, and spit on me. Now get this, in addition to his spit on my uniform, I was proudly wearing the Silver Star for Valor, the Bronze Star for Heroism, the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, the Air Medal (with three clusters for over 60 combat missions), two Purple Hearts, a Combat Infantry Badge and other medals I can’t even remember.
What I can remember is, in that moment, I became ashamed to be an American. I realized I had just spent the last year risking my life every day defending this boy’s right to protest. I started weeping for all my men who had given their lives, somehow knowing they wouldn’t understand. I made a decision right then, I was never going to tell anyone the truth about what happened during the war. When I left for war, it was the right thing to do and I was proud to be an American. When I returned, the war was no longer the right thing to do. Now I was wrong and I felt guilty and ashamed. It shouldn’t be this way! I knew that I couldn’t trust anyone, including my country ever again. From then on, I decided that I couldn’t tell people the truth because they couldn’t handle it. If they ever knew what I had done during the war they would never accept me. I became extremely good at telling people what they wanted to hear. This allowed me to fit in and be liked, never really sharing myself again.
During the creation of Pathways to Purpose I realized what really happened that day. There was a crowd of people who were protesting the war at the airport and one of them spit on me. It shouldn’t be this way! The feeling of being guilty and ashamed and never trusting anyone ever again,”was just a story” I made up about the event at the airport.
Since being involved with Pathways for Veterans and the Curriculum for Living, I have found the freedom to be myself and to be straight with people, even if it means they won’t accept me. Today I have honest and open communication with everyone in my family, my employees, my clients, and yes, even complete strangers. I’m no longer afraid of what other people might think of me. I now have the freedom to “just be myself.” Thank you God.
Q: What would you say to veterans who are considering going through the Curriculum for Living?
A: That’s an easy one. Just yesterday I was having a conversation with my daughter about whether to stop after two years of college and get a job, or continue her education in order to obtain her degree. Your question is very similar in that the “curriculum for living” at Pathways for Veterans has three parts. First is the extended evaluation program, then the Pathways to Purpose workshop, followed by the 16 week Curriculum for Living. The “curriculum for living” at Pathways for Veterans is a journey of self-examination with the intention of uncovering and discovering one’s authentic self. When completed, the participants gets present to who they really are and are given access to a way of being that will produce extraordinary results in their life while providing a new sense of purpose.
Life is all about choices and their consequences. Some of the most difficult and profound choices I have made in my life came from my military combat service. They were truly life and death choices. I will share one particular choice that has stayed with me all these years. It was in the summer of 1967 while I was serving as a combat soldier in Vietnam. My job in the military was that of a forward observer in a search and destroy unit. Every night we would leave our secured position and go out into the bush on ambush patrol. Our mission was to lay in wait for Charlie to show up and then kill him. During a normal patrol my squad of nine would go out just before dark and come back at dawn or until we engage the enemy. This one particular patrol was different. That night a rookie officer gave the order he would be joining us. I knew in that moment this was not a good idea. He did not have the combat experience it takes to be on ambush patrol and could most likely get us killed. Instead of listening to my gut instincts I let the chattering in my head choose for me.
So off we go nine seasoned combat veterans and a rookie officer with no experience, who is now in charge. Clearly this was a recipe for disaster. Just before dark we came upon a burned out church and our officer decided we would set up the ambush around the church. I told him this was a very bad idea. In the event we make contact with Charlie we would have no clear line of sight. Nevertheless he ordered me to take up my position along with my other man, making it very clear, once again, that he was in charge. Several hours later in the middle of my watch all hell broke loose. All of a sudden Charlie was everywhere! They were inside our perimeter with no line of sight we were now being overrun. Like ants coming out of their disturbed anthill they just keep pouring out of the church. The entrance to their underground bunker complex was inside the church. My GOD, we are about to die. My training and past combat experience had prepared me for my next choice. I had two choices, one was to continue doing what we were doing with small arms fire and hand to hand combat with the certainty of death as the outcome. My other choice was to pray, God please help me, I will do anything. I have never forgotten my next few words “fire for effect 3 batteries on my mark”. I had just directed artillery on our own position in order for my men and I to have a chance at survival. When it was over I sat up in my foxhole and witnessed the consequences of my choice. Tears began rolling down my cheeks as I made my way through all the body parts and dead bodies. When help finally arrived we just “sucked it up” and moved on forward. Ten young men went out that night, only four returned. I was one of them. For over 44 years I was unable to forgive myself for the choice I made that night. Prior to Pathways for Veterans I believed that there were only good or bad choices, along with right or wrong choices. Come to find out, there are only choices. My attachment to the outcome of my choices in the realm of good or bad, right or wrong, was robbing me of my life. Add moral judgment about the outcome, and you now have the definition of “survivor’s guilt”. Today, my choices are not made from the endless stream of chatter in my head, they are made from my heart. To those of you considering going through the Pathways Curriculum for Living you will stop looking in your head and start looking into your heart, then choose. I was delighted with my choice.
Q: Having completed the Pathways for Veterans Curriculum for Living is there one thing that stands out above all the rest?
A: Yes, I was finally able to get complete with my combat experience in Vietnam over 44 years ago. I realized that through the body of work I had completed while creating the Curriculum for Living at Pathways for Veterans I was also being prepared to speak “the unspeakable truth”. Had it not been for creating the Pathways programs the following story may have never been told in public:
We had just finished humping 5 clicks through a triple canape near the Cambodian border along the Ho Chi Min trail. Doc and I had just sat down in the mud, taking advantage of the break in the rain. It was now monsoon season and all it did was rain, then rain, and then rain again. The smell of napalm and burnt flesh was choking. The smoke from all the fires hung low to the ground like our famous delta fog. Death and destruction was everywhere. We had been working over this area for the past four days and there was now nothing left standing.
I had just torched off a chunk of C-4 to heat up my ham and lima beans for lunch when it happened. Over to my left about 10 yards away there was something moving. I asked Doc, “What the heck is that?” Neither of us could quite make out what it was, so we got up and walked over to see what was moving. It was a pile of maggots next to a big boulder. Partially hidden by all the mud and boulder we almost missed seeing those two small brown eyes.
Surrounded by white, those two little brown eyes were staring right through me. We laid down our weapons and started frantically removing the mud and debris. Careful not to remove the maggots we pulled this little boy out from under the boulder where he had been trapped.
Unbelievable, he was still alive! Missing his left arm just below the shoulder and some of his left leg, this little boy never uttered a word. He only stared at me as though he was in a dream. The only signs of life were the maggots, continuing to do their job eating his dead flesh. Doc and I wept in silence. There was nothing more we could do but wait for the chopper to pick him up and take him back to base camp for medical help.
Four days earlier we were air lifted into that area to take on a suspected Viet Cong encampment. Boy did we get a surprise. As it turned out we ran into a NVA regiment instead. The North Vietnam Army was there to greet us. My MOS was directing artillery and air strikes for my company.
For four days. I pounded the heck out of the area with everything I could lay in. The rain I directed did not come from the clouds. Now we were back mopping up the mess in the area we were in on the first day of the ugly firefight. Can you imagine finding this little boy alive after four days with those injuries?
Ten days later we returned to base camp to get re-outfitted and get new replacement after being hit hard. I took our interrupter over to the base hospital to find out what had happened to the little boy. He was still alive and doing fine. They told me where he was so we went to see him. I was terrified. My God what have I done?
The moment I saw him I started to tremble. With the help of the interpreter, this is what we found out. His name was Van. He was 11 years old. When he was nine years old he was kidnapped by the NVA from his home in Hanoi in the middle of the night at gun point. He had been forced under the threat of death to run up and down the Ho Chi Min Trail carrying guns and supplies for the NVA. If he refused his family back home would be killed.
By now I was becoming weak in the knees. I asked the interrupter to tell him how sorry I was for causing his injuries. He just looked at me with those little brown eyes. I asked him if he knew who I was, he smiled and said yes. You are one of the Americans who saved my life. I started to well up inside as I mumbled to the interrupter, “Ask him when he saw us sitting in the mud getting ready to eat, why he did not call out for help?” The little boy told us that their captures told all the boys that if they were captured by the Americans they would be eaten alive.
I recalled this moment during one of the exercises at Heart as though it were yesterday. I cannot to this very day imagine the pain the little boy must have experienced during those four days and nights. Now, you stop for a moment and consider this: you’re kidnapped from the safety of your home, forced into slavery under the threat of death for you and your family and then you’re blown up. Knowing you are hurt, but not how bad, you’re covered in maggots, your only source of food, you’re convinced if you call out for help you will be eaten alive, and you’re all alone, left to die.
Now that’s what happened one day a long time ago when a young American solider met a young North Vietnamese boy. Both boys meet in a mud hole, one day at war, and a long way from home.
I have painfully recalled this story for you to consider something. We all experience our reality from our own point of view. From my point of view, I was responsible for the injuries to the little boy. From Van’s point of view I was one of the American soldiers who saved his life. Remember it is in the sharing of our story and understanding the narrative of our life, that we are released from the pain of our past. From the pain of our past we create our tears for today. Our tears for today are what cleanses our soul. Our soul is the source of who we are.
Who are we? We are Love.