Travis Haley on deployment in West Africa.

Travis Haley: Life Lessons From Liberia, West Africa

Former Recon Marine Travis Haley reflects on a time during combat operations in Liberia, West Africa. I had just returned to our ROC (Recon Operations Center) from a long, grueling reconnaissance mission. It was a hot, humid and rainy subtropical environment, and I hadn’t eaten anything in over a day.  Loaded with 50-plus pounds of gear and drenched in sweat, I dropped my helmet on the table. Quickly I began to download photos and classified information to a secure uplink to the Joint Task Force commander. From the corner of my eye, I saw “our boys” sitting on the porch railing doing their thing.  

“Our boys” were Liberian boys we had effectively “adopted” during our time there, as most of their parents and many other villagers had been killed in the civil war just weeks prior to our arrival. These kids were the epitome of master survivalists and the most resourceful kids I’d ever met. We built a great family relationship with them, and they taught us all about their culture, local politics and who was good and who was bad. They even knew where weapons caches were in the city. We had our perfect little informants, and we took care of them with water, chow and medical. We provided them with additional security for their villages.  

As I was taking off my gear with the immediate goal of grabbing some food, I looked over and saw the boys eating bananas and decided I had to have one. I asked Sholay to throw me a banana. I caught it, said thanks and started to peel it. Since it was not yet ripe and was difficult to peel,and I was hungry. I quickly deployed my Emerson blade and made a small slice at the base of the stem. As I returned the knife to its place in my pocket, I could hear the boys on the porch chuckling. Of course, I asked why they were laughing. 

Sholay jumped off the railing, walked over and said, “You Americans think you are so smart with all of your technology and stuff, but you don’t even know how to eat food right.” Immediately, I looked at him in disbelief and questioned him further. The young boy then grabbed the banana from my hands, flipped it over and pinched at what we would consider the bottom of a banana. He then effortlessly proceeded to peel it apart with three perfect peeling motions. Shockingly, I looked at him and that I had never known or seen that method before. “Thanks, Sholay. I didn’t know that.” 

He backed away and said with a smirk, “You just did something a monkey wouldn’t lower himself to do.” Even though I was standing there with all my weapons, cameras, computers and high-speed gear on, I felt like the dumbest person in the world.

Oddly enough, if you ever observe monkeys with bananas, you will see that they eat them in a similar way. It is instinctive to them. They know what the tops and bottoms of bananas are since they pick bananas from the banana trees. We consider the top of the banana to be the stem because of how it sits in the grocery store. However, the stem is actually at the bottom. Bananas grow on trees in a way that we—in our ignorance of banana trees—would consider to be upside down. 

Even though we are only talking about a stupid banana, it was a huge wake-up call for me because it made me look at things in life differently. In our lives, things are presented to us on social media, the news, through conversations or reading that, more often than not, are not truly what they appear to be. It is important to educate ourselves and, more importantly, to keep an open mind about everything, especially when we feel we are 100-percent certain about a topic or an issue. We all have something to learn from others, no matter what their backgrounds. The world is grey, and it becomes a more interesting place when our eyes, ears and minds are open. This helps us to adapt and to continually push back our limits … and, hell, it might just save your life one day.   

The moral of this story should not be forgotten. It’s not the cool gear, guns, confirmed kills and war stories that make a warrior. Sometimes, it’s about taking in the little things, even if they seem irrelevant. I never would have thought that my perception of a piece of fruit could lead me to a higher level of self-actualization, intelligence and, ultimately, becoming a humbler and more aware warrior.  

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