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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Warrior Code

11 Principles to Unleash the Badass Inside of You

Tee Marie Hanible; read by the author

Macmillan Audio

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

INTRODUCTION


No one is born a warrior. We don’t come out of the womb with armor and weapons and the honor, courage, discipline, and strength to conquer life’s toughest battles—to win the mightiest wars. That mettle—that ability to stare the enemy in the face, choose the right weapons, and fight with all one’s might to survive—is learned and earned with time. With experience. With the knockdowns and the wherewithal to get back up again, no matter what, every time, having learned a little more about what it takes to do so, no matter how strong or cunning the opposition.

This is no easy task. That opponent is a sly one, for sure—not even, in most cases, a real person we can touch, see, or hit. Indeed, our biggest foe is not a person at all. It is, instead, all the things that hold us back from realizing our true strength and ability to win at life: fear, laziness, anger, ego, stubbornness, and so much more. Each threatens our greatest desires—that new job; true love; better connections with family and friends; stronger, fitter bodies; higher education; respect; stability—and brings the fight right to our doorstep. Directly to our hearts and minds. Neither knife, nor gun, nor fist is brandished, but this enemy can be every bit as lethal to us humans as an AK-47 with a full clip.

Being a true warrior, then, isn’t so much about our ability to throw hands or shoot with precision or conquer adversaries we can actually see. It’s about identifying our inner strength—tapping into the very core of our being to overcome the everyday obstacles that threaten to derail us at every turn. We all have the skill, knowledge, and muscle to get this done. Not only to endure but also to thrive—to be unbreakable.

I know this to be true because my life was not set up for survival. At least not an easy one. Before I’d even turned a year old, my father was shot dead in the street, my two-year-old brother crumpled at his feet. Not much longer after that, social services removed us from my mother’s arms and dropped my brother and me into the complex, soul-sapping foster care system, leading to the Chicago home of a strict but loving couple that raised us in a whirlwind of poverty, old-school discipline, and a rotating crew of almost two dozen foster children in and out of their three-bedroom apartment. By age seventeen, I’d been kicked out of school, shot, piled into the back of several cop cars, handcuffed in a police interrogation room, awakened in a hospital bed after a drug-induced fainting spell, pregnant, and an active member of a dangerous gang. That I made it out of all of that is a miracle.

The military saved my life.

I survived the streets of Chicago, but becoming a Marine gave me my armor. Made me a warrior. At every turn, I proved myself as a woman and a single mother in the military, destroying every physical, mental, and emotional barrier to take my rightful place as one of the first women to serve in a male-dominated combat mission during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) / Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). So strong was my pull to defend my country, I deployed to Iraq—leaving behind my daughter, my family, my friends, and all I knew and loved to join my band of brothers on the ground. My work as a recruiter in the military as well as one of the Marines hand-selected to assist the Marine Corps in its mission to open combat roles to women paved the way for more strong women to join the military’s elite. And after retiring from two decades of duty, I used my mix of tough love and Marine mettle to mentor everyday men and women on the hit Fox reality show American Grit.

When I consider where I’ve been and my journey to the right here and now, I know that every trial, every heartbreak, every decision—the good and the bad—every bullet made me the warrior I am today. Because I chose not to let the adversity I faced define or wreck me. I carried on.

I’m nobody’s hero. I’m a woman. A mother. A daughter. A philanthropist. A Marine. A badass. A survivor. And I have a little something to say about what it takes to be a warrior. Pro tip: it’s a lot more than muscle. Follow my journey in Warrior and you just might see that you, too, have what it takes to win your own personal wars.

—MARINE GUNNERY SERGEANT TEE HANIBLE

1

IMPROVISE, ADAPT, AND OVERCOME: GET SOME GRIT

THE WARRIOR CODE: PRINCIPLE #1

To be gritty is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

To be gritty is to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal.

To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice.

To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.

—ANGELA LEE DUCKWORTH, ACADEMIC, AUTHOR

Grit is perseverance—that passion we use to push through adversity, no matter the obstacles. That stick-to-itiveness. It comes wrapped in qualities like discipline, self-motivation, fearlessness, and a smidge of optimism. There’s plenty of research that suggests that when it comes to achievement, having grit is as important as, if not more than, intelligence or talent. Ask any new Marine and they’ll likely tell you the same: yes, of course you have to have brains and brawn to make it through the Crucible, the final physical evaluation that tests whether recruits have the physical, mental, and moral fortitude to be a Marine. But it’s that grit—that dogged determination in your heart, in your sinew, in every fiber of your being—that gets you through fifty-four hours of food and sleep deprivation and forty-eight miles of marching while carrying forty-five pounds of gear as you work together to overcome obstacles, problem-solve, and help your fellow recruits ace the combat assault courses, the team-building and warrior stations, and the leadership reaction course. When your body is weak and your mind is tired and telling you, “Give up—you’re not going to make it,” it’s that grit that kicks in and propels you forward and sees you through the end.

I believe we all have a bit of grit in us. It can reveal itself naturally, like in my case, when I had to lean on it to push through my challenging childhood, or it can be drawn out of us, like a bucket of water from a well when everything else in our lives has gone dry and we need the fortitude, the strength, the coping skills to quench our thirst and just keep pushing.

My grit was born, bred, and nurtured in the midst of childhood trauma. Before I took my first step, before I could even say my own name, the odds were against me. I was born in Chicago to a man and a woman whose troubles never gave them peace—that refused to give them rest. When I was just ten months old, that trouble found my father on a quiet street on the South Side, where he was walking with my big brother, a chocolate dewdrop still in diapers, tottering on the pavement alongside our dad. Quick as a flash, someone walked right up to the two of them, pulled out a gun, and shot my father dead. Just left his body—crumpled, bloody—right there in the middle of the street, with my brother standing over him, screaming. From what little information I’ve managed to gather over the years, my brother wasn’t hurt, but beyond that, I have no idea if the person who killed my father was ever found, arrested, or punished.

This was the beginning of the end of our family and the tragic start to my life.

Not long after, I’m told, child services showed up at my mother’s door, packed up my brother and me, and piled us into the back of a car—drove us away from our mother, away from our home, away from the only family and life we’d ever known. Promises were exchanged: if she got herself together, child services told my mother, she could get her babies back; the moment she got herself together, my mother told child services, she would get her babies back. Those were promises never kept.

Instead, my brother and I ended up in the care of Minnie and William Hudson, an older couple who made a tacit agreement to house, clothe, feed, and love on us—to do all the things our mother simply could not and would not do. They kept a home on the South Side, not too far from where my brother and I had been living—a tiny, crammed, three-bedroom apartment that held court for a rotation of children numbering anywhere from two to twenty at any given time, sleeping on the couch, the floor, sometimes three or four to a bed. The two of them were the only parents I’d ever known, and their ragtag collection of foster care children would become my de facto extended family, a group of children who did not carry the same blood as I but who stood in as sisters and brothers and play cousins and even mothers when I needed that nurturing touch—the touch that I never again got from my birth mother, who, despite promising to visit my brother and me, never came to see us. There were many visits from social services caseworkers checking up on our well-being and offering counseling, but never, ever did my birth mother darken the threshold of the Hudsons’ door, much less step back into her role as our caretaker, as the mother who gave birth to two children and dedicated herself to feeding us, clothing us, loving us, praying over us. The magnitude of this was devastating, as it would be, I’d imagine, for any child aching for her mother’s kiss, her mother’s touch. I was consumed with wondering where my mother was, what she was doing, why she didn’t come for me. If she loved me. Mrs. Hudson, then still my foster mother, never minced words when I asked the questions: from the moment I was able to understand the words coming out of her mouth, she told me all she knew about how we’d come to live with her, and when she got updates on my mother’s whereabouts and living situation, she made a point of letting me know, too. The more I was able to understand the gravity of my mother’s actions, the more I was able to chart her absence, the larger the hole in my heart grew. That emptiness was compounded by the news that, at some point, she got pregnant again and had a baby girl—a child, I assumed, she kept and cared for on her own. There I’d be, cuddled up next to my brother in a tiny corner of our bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to the rhythm of his breath and wondering where this new little sister was—if she was cuddled up next to my mother at that very moment, what their room looked like, why my mother loved her enough to raise her but not even check up on me. Eventually, my adopted mom would tell me that my little sister wasn’t in my birth mother’s care at all—that she gave up that baby, too, and she was being raised by our grandparents. Knowing this tore me to pieces, too; my grandparents loved my little sister enough to take her in, but not my brother and me. We were beasts of no nation. I was a motherless child.

But Minnie Hudson was there for me. She stepped into that empty space.

Momma was a grandmotherly type—the kind of no-nonsense woman who, typical of her generation, thought children should be seen and not heard. She and Dad were already well into their sixties when my brother and I arrived, and by the time I hit double digits, they looked old enough to be my grandparents. When I close my eyes and picture her, my mind always zooms to me as a little girl, playing skellies and jacks and jumping rope with the other neighborhood kids, my forehead sweaty, pigtails flying, breathing heavily, hard at play, when she steps out the front door of the apartment building and calls us inside for dinner. Always, she’s in a housecoat, like the very embodiment of Tyler Perry’s iconic Madea character from the movies: gray-haired, larger-than-life, older, brash, stern. A bit embarrassing. It would nearly kill me to turn toward her voice and see her standing there, her hand on her hip, that same housecoat clinging to her body, waving us into the house for dinner. All I could do was hang my head and scurry inside, hoping everyone would honor the code that it’s not acceptable to talk about anyone’s mama.

I wouldn’t have tolerated that anyway. Minnie Hudson loved me in the best way she knew how: by providing for me. She didn’t have much outside the checks she got from the state to care for us kids, but she stretched every penny to make sure we kids had exactly what we needed. We weren’t the Cosby family living in a brownstone, wearing expensive sweaters, sitting in a well-appointed living room talking about jazz music and which fancy college we’d attend—not even a little bit. Even the simplest things were out of reach: there were no Friday night family bowling trips or Sunday treks to the Riverwalk or family dinners at a favorite deep-dish pizza spot. I can remember going to the movies only twice in my childhood, including once when my older sister Patricia took her daughter, Nichole, to see ET and let us tag along.

Even more challenging was adapting to the emotional instability of being a child in the system. When you’re a foster child, you embrace disappearing—get comfortable rather quickly with becoming an inanimate object. Your lot is clear and the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries are practically scrawled in blood across the proverbial wall: your foundation is shaky and could crumble beneath your feet at any moment if you step out of line or show yourself to be a burden, which could result in your being sent off to a new foster care home or, worse, a group home, where your safety and survival is almost always tested. I wanted to be the kept child—the one my foster parents didn’t send away.

That was always the fear—that if I didn’t mind my business or I was too much trouble or my brother acted out, we’d be sent away. It’s not what we were told, mind you. But we’d witnessed kids coming and going, and I don’t know about my brother, but I was scared. Of course, because I was so young and no one told me differently, I didn’t know that when a foster kid left my then-foster parents’ home, that child was to be reunited with the birth parents who’d worked hard to get their children back. In my child’s mind, foster children who acted out got the ultimate punishment: a precarious living arrangement even more unstable than the one they were living in already.

I witnessed this up close repeatedly. The foster kids who came through my then-foster parents’ home weren’t there for only a short spell; they’d stay until their families got back on their feet—six months, a year. Some of them would be my age; we’d go to school together, play and eat and sleep together, tell the kids in our class, “Oh, that’s my cousin,” or, “That’s my stepbrother,” or whatever title we could think of to explain the new kids and where they came from. We’d make up fantastic tales about where they were from and how they were visiting the house for a while—whatever we could pass off as the truth without having to actually tell the truth.

But when they left, another hole would get hammered in my heart, ripping off the scab that covered over my issues with abandonment. The one that hit me the hardest was Caroline. She was my sister through adoption—a girl my parents took into their home and raised for years. But she was so sad and angry about her circumstances; she wanted desperately to be back with her birth family, and she resented our adopted mother for taking her in and legally turning her into a Hudson. In Caroline’s mind, our adoptive mother broke up a potential reunion with her birth mom. Before the ink could dry on her adoption papers, Caroline was plotting an escape: she was going to run away and find her blood mother and father, and she decided who would help her.

“I’ll pay you five dollars,” Caroline said, cornering me outside our apartment building one afternoon while she, Nichole, and I were playing. She was dedicated to the cause and wanted to make sure I was, too. “I’m going to write a note, and all you have to do is tell her you found it under your Cabbage Patch doll and give it to her. Can you do that?”

I was about age six and just happy to be with the big girls. But really, I didn’t want Caroline to go. She was my sister; I looked up to her, and she was kind to me. I thought I took up the same space in her heart, but her birth family had a magnetic pull on that muscle. She needed to be with them more than she loved being with me. She wanted out.

A few weeks after she hatched her plan, Caroline made her move. She kissed my cheek and cupped my chin. “Be good, you hear?” she said. And with that, I watched her as she tossed a small duffel bag filled with her things out the porch window and climbed out after it.

I cried for the longest time after she left. But even at that tender age, I understood why she had to leave. I didn’t necessarily agree with it; I never resented my mother for adopting me, but I did resent my situation. Eventually, I came to hate that my birth mother left my brother and me there to fend for ourselves—to have to be those kids with no history, no bloodline, no connection to our ancestors.

This was most acute every year when we had to do the obligatory family tree assignments and other classwork that involved revealing details about our birth, parents, and homelife. I hated it. It was the bane of this adopted child’s existence—sitting there in a classroom with clammy hands, waiting to show off a poster full of lies, pretending that my birth parents never existed, wishing I had the real details of my lineage—that the leaves in my tree knew me and I knew them and the blood that ran through my tree’s roots reached deep inside of me and made my leaf as rich and strong and vibrant as the leaves on my classmates’ family trees. But I didn’t have that; it was an impossible, impossibly insensitive assignment that made me feel like a loser. Already, I was embarrassed because my parents were older, and every time they came to the school for family events, the questions flew: “Is that your granny? Why are your parents so old?” It only got worse when those family tree assignments came along, and the teachers and counselors would work with my mom to help me work through the trauma and grief of being unable to complete the assignment, making me stand out even more. Every time the assignment came, I would get the worst case of anxiety; I’d be sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the paper, my pencil poised over the empty spaces as tears streamed down my cheeks. My now-adoptive mother did her best to try to make me feel better about it, but what I preferred was to not do the assignment at all. Alas, the teacher wasn’t about to change the entire assignment for an entire class of thirty kids because one kid had a problem with it, so I’d do the best I could, which, in my book, was never—could never—be enough.

I was desperate to know in which direction my blood flowed, but it wasn’t something that I spoke about out loud, because I didn’t want to insult my adoptive mother—didn’t want her to think that I didn’t appreciate all that she had done for me or recognize that my birth mother had failed me in ways that my adoptive mother had not. I did pour out my feelings on the page, though, in a book I penned for a young authors competition at my school. It was called “Why Me,” about a girl who struggled with being adopted and not knowing where she truly came from. In my story, the birth mom came back, only to have to navigate her daughter through a series of emotions—love and hate the strongest among them—as they reconnected and forged a new bond.

The book made it through the district competition and actually went to state competition, but I missed it because there was no one to take me. I was sorely disappointed—a familiar refrain in my childhood. But I never told anyone.

It was more important that I keep my head down. To stay as silent as possible. Because the last thing I wanted was to be a burden—a child who was seen and heard. More than any information I could have ever gleaned about my birth mother, what I needed most was to be kept around. In my child’s mind, doing so was about survival.

I’m not going to lie: recounting the emotional and physical trauma of my childhood is not an easy thing. There is a lot of pain there—the kind that’s so white hot and sears so deeply that I didn’t even realize when it was happening that it was actually hurting me. But this was my way as a child—indeed, the way of all-too-many children who deal with trauma: we go through the fire and hold in the screams because yelling out could expose us, make us a visible target.

This is a lot like what it’s like on an actual battlefield: we are trained to avoid detection, a skill that, behind enemy lines, could mean the difference between successfully evading capture and becoming a prisoner of war. We’re taught, among many other things, specific skills, like how to move silently while crossing terrain, keeping snow and leaves from crunching beneath our feet, and how to move with the wind so that the sounds of nature mask the noise of our legs swishing or our gear jiggling as we slip around trees and up hills and through fields with foliage swaying in the breeze. We’re also taught, in the face of great pain, to swallow our cries because one shriek, one yelp, one small screech could alert the enemy to our position and get us killed. Though we go to combat ready to die, we warriors on the battlefield keep a laser-sharp focus on both our mission and staying alive.

It is about survival.

What needs to go hand in hand with survival, though, is resiliency—grit. We have to have the ability to stand tall, get tough, and persevere after life knocks us down. So many of us suffer from real trauma: physically abusive parents or partners; poverty and its effects on our ability to have the basics, like food, shelter, and a safe environment in which to grow; toxic work environments; drug and alcohol dependency that further unravels our ability to physically, mentally, and emotionally cope. But the true mark of a warrior is being able to pull yourself out of the muck that the trauma causes in your life and move on with it.

I’m not suggesting for a second that you dismiss the pain. Feel that. Let it burn. But then grab your first aid kit, put some salve on it, wrap it, and let it heal. Learn from it. And vow to make it so that whoever comes behind you doesn’t have to feel that same pain. As a child, I survived the emotional turmoil of living in a home where my stability—the very ground on which I put one foot in front of the other—was constantly shifting and moving. Uncertain. I wasn’t sure from one day to the next if the knock on our apartment door was my birth mother coming to claim me, or if the kid I was sleeping next to and calling my sister would be gone tomorrow, or if that little thing I did that all kids do would earn me a whupping I’d spend weeks trying to forget. But each one of these experiences ultimately made me hardy. They didn’t break me. Looking back at all that I went through as a child, I can still see the good there. I can also recognize that the trauma helped me develop an extremely thick emotional skin that helped me soldier through some difficult moments in my life: getting pregnant as a teen, witnessing extreme violence in my neighborhood, getting kicked out of high school, leaving my daughter to answer the call of duty overseas, three failed marriages. My survival through each of these things and so much more was dependent on grit. And I came out the better for it.

So how do you get yourself some grit, even and especially if it doesn’t come naturally to you?

STARE DOWN YOUR FEARS. When faced with something that feels absolutely insurmountable and scares the mess out of you, don’t turn your head away from it. Instead, acknowledge you’re scared, figure out the reasons why this is so, then come up with a rational plan for how to overcome that fear. For example: the very thought of making a speech in front of an audience of strangers can send some people into a full-on panic. To build up your grit, accept the invitation to give remarks at your company’s annual retreat, then get yourself prepared by thinking about what you’re going to say, writing down your key points—or your entire speech—then practicing it alone and then in front of a trusted group of people before you present it at the retreat. By the time you’re standing in front of your colleagues, you’ll have that fear licked.

I know—easier said than done. But life is full of high-stakes situations that become all the more stressful when you approach the task thinking about all the ways something can go wrong. Besides, failing won’t kill you; it’ll make you feel bad, sure, but on the other side of it, you’ll only get better, stronger. You might even learn from your mistakes and try again with that new knowledge—the kind of knowledge you need to actually turn your effort into success. I think Winston Churchill said it best: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

BE SELF-RELIANT. Of course, it’s always great to be surrounded by people willing to lend a helping hand, but no one is going to put his or her back into meeting your personal goals like you will. This is something you learn fairly early when growing up in challenging circumstances. If I wanted something but I knew my mother didn’t have the money to get it for me, I found a way to get it for myself. Now, I may not have always gone about it the right way; stealing coats out of lockers, wearing my sister Nichole’s clothes without asking, and taking some other things that didn’t belong to me weren’t the right ways to go about getting what I wanted, but I did learn fairly early on that if my heart desired it, I had to go get it, because waiting for it to be handed to me wasn’t an option. There was a safety net for families like mine, sure, but it was frayed by politics and a lack of resources, a combination that leaves mothers to struggle, children to go hungry, and communities to crumble. If you wanted to eat, you needed a roof over your head, you had to have a little money in your pocket to make it from day to day, you had to depend on yourself.

I know this sounds like a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” argument, but that’s not what I’m suggesting here. I truly believe it is our collective responsibility as humans to support fellow humans who are incapable of being self-sufficient, meaning they neither have nor have access to resources for basic care. But when you are self-reliant, you take responsibility for being the sole agent of your development and survival. You know the saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime”? That’s what I’m talking about: learning how to fish so that you can sustain yourself, even in times when others are incapable or unwilling to help you.

I’ve learned that the only person I can truly depend on is me, and I know that no matter how difficult the circumstance, I can find a way to make it through by remembering home and acknowledging and truly understanding how far I’ve come and knowing, for sure, every single component I had to call on to be the Tee Marie I’ve become. I’m not ashamed of who I used to be; she was an incredibly important piece of my life puzzle. But I came to know that growth was possible. Necessary.

BE OPTIMISTIC. In every cloud there is a silver lining, but you won’t see it if you’re constantly waiting for the rain to fall. Focus on the things that bring you joy and know, for sure, that trouble doesn’t last always. Think about it this way: I failed my first rifle range qualification—couldn’t do what needed to be done to pass muster when it came to the rigors of showing I had what it took to be a Marine. I could have given up, dropped out of basic training, and gone back to Chicago with my tail between my legs. But I didn’t. Instead, I called on my grit to go for it a second time, and I had faith enough in my physical, mental, and emotional abilities to go harder the second time around and ace what I had to do to pass the test and become a Marine. I knew I could do it, I envisioned myself doing it, and I did it.

GET BACK UP—EVERY DAMN TIME. Life is full of moments that knock the veritable wind out of us. You can either lie there and wallow and agonize over what’s happened to you, or you can stand back up, dust yourself off, and keep going. This is that bounce-back: you can fall and get back up bouncing on your toes. No matter what gets lobbed like a Molotov cocktail your way, you adapt in the face of things that threaten to tear you to pieces: family problems, issues with your mate, a boss that drives you batty, a toxic workplace with coworkers who make it their personal business to sabotage you, even serious health problems. In my case, getting back up came in the form of being kicked out of school and, instead of dropping out, going to military school and doing what I had to do to earn my diploma. I had to prove to my family and especially to myself that I had what it took to buck the low expectations of others and graduate—make something of myself when everyone else saw nothing but the worst in me. No matter how many times life knocked me down then and knocks me down now, it is like the famous poem by my favorite writer, Maya Angelou, in which she brags, “Still I Rise.” The grit is the part you call on to get back on your feet. You got this.

WARRIOR WORK

List three life challenges you’ve faced, plus how you persevered.

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List a tough challenge you’re facing now. What scares you most? What can you do, right now, to dig in and develop a plan to fix it? List the steps to that plan.

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Grit is not just a simple elbow-grease term for rugged persistence. It is an often invisible display of endurance that lets you stay in an uncomfortable place, work hard to improve upon a given interest, and do it again and again.

—SARAH LEWIS, CULTURAL CRITIC


Copyright © 2019 by Tee Marie Hanible