Sean Parnell is a Decorated Combat Veteran, NYT Best Selling Author, Father, Leader, Republican Candidate for the 17th Congressional District of Pennsylvania, and Glenn Bill’s guest on this episode of the Get Attitude Podcast.
1:08 – Sean Parnell introduction. New York Times Best Selling Author of Man of War and All Out War
2:50 – What was the transition going from non-fiction to fiction?
4:17 – Do something bigger than you
8:20 – What was your self-talk to get through the death of that little girl?
9:55 – Guardian angels in Afghanistan
18:18 – Good vs evil
21:10 – What was your attitude going into war vs coming out of it? What is your pivotal question. Am I worthy of the sacrifice? What would you do in your life if you knew you would not fail?
26:36 – Living a meaningful life
28:22 – What does it mean to be a warrior?
30:52 – What can America do to lower suicide rates of our veterans?
32:57 – What are a couple of questions that we should ask our warriors?
33:57 – Soldiers with attitude
35:26 – What was your platoon’s mantra?
38:18 – Knowledge Through The Decades – Attitude lesson as a newborn. Sometimes if you raise enough hell, you get what you want. Don’t let anybody limit your joy.
41:51 – Attitude lesson at the age of 10. Never walk by evil.
46:21 – Attitude lesson at the age of 20. Do more than you’re paid for. Learning the value of a dollar.
49:46 – Attitude lesson at the age of 30. Strike while the iron’s hot. Follow your heart.
54:12 – What’s on the horizon for Sean Parnell?
55:25 – Show close
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I want to welcome everybody. Please remember to subscribe, rate, review, and most importantly, share with the people in your life that need to get some attitude. We are here with a special person and a person I have known for several years. It is a pleasure to call him a friend, Combat Vet, and New York Times bestselling author, Sean Parnell.
Thank you, Glenn. It’s great to be here.
It has been a few years since I have seen you. Tell us what you have been doing with yourself the past few years.
When Outlaw Platoon came out, the book took off. It came out in 2012. I spent a lot of time traveling around the country telling that story, giving leadership presentations, and working with the American Warrior Initiative to give back to our vets. I did that for six years with probably 50 events a year. One day I said, “I made myself a promise in Afghanistan to do more than this.” That was the beginning of writing fiction.
How has that challenge been? We talk about closing the GAP from nonfiction to fiction. What had to be in your attitude when you said, “I’m going from this Outlaw Platoon to this whole new genre.” What were the steps? What did you look at? How did you make that happen?
For me, there was a point in time in Afghanistan where I remember clearly where I said, “If somehow I make it home alive, I’m going to try to do everything that I can to make my dreams a reality.” In combat, there are no second chances and you don’t have a 100% chance of coming home. Since I was a kid, I always wanted to write a book, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction. I have been a lover of fiction books since I was a kid in 2nd or 3rd grade.
Like any serious goal, writing a book to a kid is saying that you want to be a director of a movie or something like that. Somehow, the dream didn’t feel real. There’s something about combat that there’s no guarantee that you are going to come home alive. I knew that if I would be blessed enough to make it home alive, I was going to do everything I could to write. That’s how the journey started and I was lucky enough to make it home and I was lucky enough to give all that a shot.
If you would, I would love to let our readers on the GAP know a little bit about your experience that started Outlaw Platoon. The story you have is an incredible one when you first arrived in Afghanistan and the little girl that you met, so if you wouldn’t mind helping out our people. We are in the last part of our show, Attitude Booster Number Ten, Be a Part of Something Bigger than Yourself. Sean’s story when he arrived in Afghanistan is unreal. We are going to talk and work with Sean to find out what being a part of something bigger than yourself is. Your opening story might be a great way to do that. If you wouldn’t mind, oblige us with that story for our readers.
My journey started when I was a sophomore in college. Like most college kids, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At the time, I was an Elementary Education major and I changed my major to Secondary Education. The truth is that I never felt like I was on my path if that makes sense. I feel like when you are on the path that you are meant to be on, you know it and you walk it. When I was a sophomore, that wasn’t the case.
All that changed when September 11th, 2001 happened. I saw those buildings collapse, fall down and people die on national television. I felt like I knew exactly why God put me on this Earth, and that was to serve something greater than myself, join the military, and get the fight as fast as possible. Join the infantry, go to Ranger School, go to Airborne School, and do all that cool stuff so I could take the fight to the enemy.
Eventually, I’ve got an opportunity to do that a few years later. This was in 2005 and 2006. If you think back to that time, people thought that the war was won in Afghanistan. We had gone into Afghanistan in 2001. We had taken down the Taliban in three months and to most Americans, their eyes were fixated on Iraq. The Taliban were defeated and we were involved in a stability and support operation over there. We had the exact opposite experience. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into. We didn’t know the composition of the enemy and we didn’t know how many people we were fighting. We were thrown into the meat grinder. On my first day, I’m trying to wrap my mind around the enormity of being 24 years old and being a leader of 40 troops. That was my job. I was their Platoon Leader, their Commander.
I knew at the time, every decision that I make could forever alter the trajectory of their lives and the consequences of a bad decision might mean one of these amazing Americans goes home in a body bag. I was 24. I have never been out of the country at that point in my life. We landed in Afghanistan, our Bird got shot up the first day, the rounds missed us, and we landed in a playground. I remember running down to the front gate of our base and there were probably 20 or 30 Afghan families carrying these broken, bloodied, and wounded little kids ages 2 to 6.
At that moment, I thought, “War pulls no punches.” Oftentimes, the innocent and the kids are caught in the middle. I learned that lesson early. We did everything we could to help these kids. I remember running this little girl to the aid station as fast as I could but before I could get her there and get her the help that she needed but she had passed away before I could even get to the doctor. That was a microcosm of our entire deployment. It sucked really bad.
What did you say to yourself to get through that? What was the self-talk that was going on in your head that kept you moving forward? Do you remember?
I remember very clearly sitting on my bunk trying to wrap my mind around that death and saying, “How am I supposed to lead my men competently while getting shot at in life-or-death situations and experience things like this that are life-altering?” They are emotionally traumatic and it doesn’t matter how much training you have or how prepared you are.
Every time you experience something like that, it whittles a little bit of your soul away. What I said was, “My men deserve a leader that’s confident, decisive, and that will get after it for them. The American people and their families deserve that, too.” There are more important things that I have to do as a leader in combat. The essence of those things was a realization of, “It’s not about me at all.”
For our GAPers, whether you are a mother walking on the beach going through a hard time, a father, coach or teacher, Love Adversity number eight, your way through adversity is maybe to focus right on something that’s bigger than yourself and those other people that are bigger than yourself. It sounds like that’s what you did. I have heard you speak many times. If you could, we can move out of Afghanistan into the present. You had to hold up a mountain with few men. I don’t know if this is true or not but a grandfather or one of the kids that you work with saved your life. I would love to hear that story because it comes around.
I don’t get a chance to talk about this that often. Before I get into that, I want to talk about serving something greater than yourself. I was not focused at all. I was a C student. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When 9/11 happened, that’s a tangible example. We were reached out and attacked. People say all the time when you join the military, “I want to raise my right hand and serve something greater than myself.”
All that’s true but what it did for me was give me a laser focus on my life where my professional career was tied to service of something greater. It doesn’t matter if you are an accountant or you are working in the mortgage industry. If you can figure out a way to braid your career with something that matters that you feel is bigger than you, that is your rocket fuel to propel you through the adverse and difficult times. In order for me to be in the infantry, be a Ranger, be on the front lines, get what I wanted, and achieve my goals, I had to be a 4.0 student.
I had to be number one in my class because there were thousands of other people that were competing for those few slots. I went from a C student to a 4.0 student. I went from not graduating with no honors to graduating magna cum laude in a year. It was that principle of serving something greater than yourself that gave me the focus I needed to drive through everything else. Leading to the story that I’m about to tell, we had been in combat for a year at this point.
It was January that year, 85% casualty rate, six of my men had been shot in the head, we had been through hell and back. Over 3,000 indirect fire attacks on my base. My platoon was shot at. We were in direct fire engagements hundreds of times. We are two days from coming home. Everyone in my platoon is like, “We made it. This is great. Two more days, 48 hours, and we are on our way home.”
I learned that lesson the hard way after this attack. I get this call in the middle of the night after we have been through hell. Everybody is convincing themselves that they made it. I get this call at 3:00 in the morning in late January of 2007 and it’s a sobering call from my Battalion Commander saying, “Sean, we are over 300 enemy fighters move into attack your unit now, 250 from the East and 100 from the Northwest approaching you in a massive pincer movement.”
We were building what was to become the first combat outpost in Afghanistan and the base itself wasn’t even complete. We were surrounded by half-filled walls. I had four gun trucks on the ground. I’ve got twenty guys that were mentally checked out, ready to go home that hadn’t been given the warning yet that these people were coming to attack them. It was one of those moments like, “I might not make it through the night.”
What ended up saving you?
Prior to this, we drove through a remote village and we witnessed some of the most horrific things that you could possibly imagine in this village. Kids that were captured, raped, forced to do horrific things, and tortured by the Taliban in Al Qaeda. The depravity of our enemy that we face there, I have never seen or experienced anything like that in my life up until that moment. What we did was make a conscious decision to take care of the Afghan people and do everything that we could to protect them from the enemy’s predations. That included giving them medical treatment in our medical gear. We help those little kids and the village elder.
One of the kids that had been tortured the worst by the Taliban was his grandson. He fell in love with American troops after that and he knew that the enemy was coming to attack us that day. He walked all the way to Forward Operating Base Bernel, which was 35 miles away from where his remote village was. He started 2 or 3 days prior. He was in his 60s in wearing nothing but flip flops to warn us of the attack. That ultimately is what saved us.
We stacked up air from Apache helicopters to Predator to AC-130 gunships to Strategic B-1 Lancer. The goal of the infantry is what they say and it might seem harsh but when you get on the objective, the only thing that you want to have to do is kick boots because if you are in a firefight and combat, you are losing. That day was not a fair fight.Doing the things that matter most to you will serve as your rocket fuel to propel you through difficult times. Click To Tweet
You guys lived, which was good. That story is so powerful. I would have to think that you have a heightened sense of karma maybe. You were over there doing good and when you committed to those kids, I will never forget when you told that story from the stage. It impacted me to say, “The goodness that can happen when you are doing something bigger.” Do you believe in karma or did the battlefield had you go, “That karma is BS.” What was with all that?
I believe in a lot of things now than I did before I went to war. I’ve got the Saint Christopher medal that I wear. My grandfather had worn it. He went to church every day. He was one of those old-school Catholics that would do the sign of the cross every time he passed the church. He died the day before I was supposed to go to Afghanistan and I was lucky enough to attend his funeral. He was a second father to me. My grandmother pressed this medal into my hand and said, “I feel like he let himself go so if you keep an eye on you over there. He would have wanted you to have this.” It’s this metal right here. It’s been in my family and he wore it every day since 1946. It’s inscribed as such on the back.
There was a moment on the battlefield where I fractured my skull, I was knocked unconscious, I didn’t know what was going on around me and I felt like I could hear him. There are probably some people out there who think I’m crazy but I felt him with me. It was a crazy, weird sensation but I look back on that moment and it feels like it was yesterday. It still feels real. There were times when we’ve got shot at so much. I would go back to the base and I would look at my uniform. There would be holes in my uniform so I’m like, “How did this bullet not hit me? Why am I still alive? Why am I not dead?”
Saint Christopher is the Patron Saint of Travelers. Here’s my medal. I wear St. Jude, Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases and Miracles. I’m my daily communion taker as well. Maybe your grandpa is sitting here on this episode with us. It’s funny that you would even bring that up or say that. Are you still a practicing Catholic?
I am spiritually a Catholic and less into the bureaucratic entity that’s the church.
Also are millions of people. We are not here to talk about religion and politics but that’s the way it goes.
I’m an open book on all of it. I feel when you come home from war, that changes your view on things. I’m spiritually a God-fearing guy but I’m also jaded about a lot of other experiences. You don’t go through all those life and death experiences when you are 24 and not come out thinking differently.
I would have to think that you said at least once, “How could there be a God after you saw what you saw?” Did that question ever broach your mind or the people around you? How did you reconcile that?
I ask myself that all the time, then and now, every day. The way I reconcile it is I think about what it means to be an American warrior and what it means to serve in the greatest military force the world has ever known. Those aren’t talking points to me. What makes the US military truly exceptional is at the core of who we are, we are liberators and protectors. We are not conquerors. When you think about that, if that is what makes us special then we also have a choice as to, whether or not we are good or evil, and we are given that choice from God through free will.
That’s how I reconciled, though. You see how evil the enemy is over there and you say, “There are people in society nowadays that will excuse that. That’s how they have always been. It’s what you would call cultural moral relativism.” I don’t agree with that. Some things are just evil. If you are preying on small children, you are evil. Good versus evil is a choice. The American military chooses good every single day.
One of the best reconciliations that I talked to was with a nurse. I did a little bit of work in a children’s hospice with children with cancer. She’s going, “How in the world can there be a God and these kids are suffering from cancer?” Somebody, and it might have been St. Paul, I’m no Biblical scholar said, “Through death is how we learn how to live. God may put evil to help us understand good and God puts death in our lives, and in front of us to help us understand how to live better.” I thought, “That’s a good way to reconcile things.”
The fact that death surrounds us every day, you never know what tomorrow can bring. I don’t mean to be fatalistic but the fact that we are mortal and we know there is an end is what makes life worth living. It’s what makes things special. I’ve got to believe that there’s a larger plan out there for all of us. Regardless of what you believe, I feel that I came out of Afghanistan with a much greater appreciation of life.
That’s such a great message. What was your attitude going into war and coming home from war?
It’s a journey, an odyssey. Think about it like this. A lot of the reason why warriors struggle is because they go from a prestigious warrior culture where being the best riflemen in the battalion means something to the core of who you are. A lot of these kids come out flipping burgers or making sandwiches at Subway, there’s nothing wrong with that. I did that before I joined the military. It’s fine but there is a significant qualitative existential difference between those two things.
People can be jaded when they come home. I recognized that right away. I thought, “This sucks. This is a challenge but I raised my right hand and I volunteered for this. Who am I to complain about it? I wanted this. This challenge is something that I asked for and I have to own it. I have to do what I say, move out, draw fire, and be as successful as I possibly can.”
One of the things in our book that we talk about is this thing called A Pivotal Question. Some people get it, some people don’t. You may not have it but you are good and you are a speaker now. For God’s sake, you are a Ranger. I’m sure you might be able to figure it out for them. My guess is there’s something that goes through your head.
In the ABC’s, we talk about your pivotal question. In times of great stress and in times of great decision making, we are all run by this story but we are all run by a question that we continue to ask ourselves. My pivotal question before I changed it was, “What does can’t mean?” I talk about the quality of our life is determined by the quality of questions we ask ourselves about our life. I changed my question to what does can’t mean because I will use it to achieve a lot but I would leave carnage behind me.
I moved my question to, “How can I move people from can’t to can in a loving and constructive manner?” When I changed that question about my life and not what goes through my head now, my life changed. What I’m wondering is, do you find yourself as you walk around and/or when you are under great stress or a great decision, is there a question that you find yourself asking yourself all the time?
The very fundamental ones. One of which is, every morning I wake up, I draw breath and I ask, “Am I worthy of the great sacrifice that my man who never came home sacrificed for me?” They didn’t get a chance to come home. Thank God, I sure did every single day. I live life to the fullest because they didn’t get the opportunity to. That’s the first question that’s on my mind every day. The second one is, and this one has been important for me, “What would you do in your life if you knew that you could not fail? How often do we limit ourselves by virtue of fear of failure?”
The catalyst for writing Outlaw Platoon in that book was making sure that the legacy of my troops was captured on the page so we could pass down their heroism from generation to generation. What’s interesting about that is that I joined the military in the wake of 9/11, went to combat, fought and came out. The next greater-than-myself mission was preserving the legacy of my troops.
That is what gave me the laser focus to get that book published. I was rejected by my own agent 4 or 5 times. I was rejected by every major publisher out there. Everyone hands down said no. What it came down to is the focus of, “This mission of writing this book is bigger than me.” That is that right there is what made me feel unstoppable in the pursuit of accomplishing that mission.
Once Outlaw Platoon came out, it was a matter of, “What’s next?” It’s the question of, “What would you do if you knew that you couldn’t fail?” I made myself a promise that if somehow I made it out of Afghanistan alive, I’m going to try to take a crack at fiction. I’m not a writer. John Bruning taught me everything I know about writing and on Outlaw Platoon, he worked with me, taught, coached, and mentored me every step of the way. I had a great apprenticeship with him.
I took what I learned and I brought it to the fiction world. It was a totally different style of writing but I wasn’t going to be stopped. I knew this was something that I wanted to do. I knew that I promised myself that if I made it out alive, I would take a crack at it and I did. The book, Man of War, which is on the shelves now is the 5th or 6th version of that story. I was rejected by my editor 5 or 6 times. I had to start from scratch. It’s like, “How hard are you willing to work for the things that matter to you and for the things that you want to do?” That has always been at the forefront of my mind.
You hit it when you talked about the fuel of life. I think about our GAPers who are reading now. What you hit on is so important with that second question. When people are stuck or feel other people are dictating their future, or when people aren’t willing to take the next step to see what they are able to do, oftentimes, we find what is holding them up or holding them back is they are all introspective. It’s all about them.
They are only focusing on them and how they feel. What you said was, “My mind was about my troops.” The lesson there for our GAPers is if you are stuck in a personal relationship, a business relationship or a financial problem, who knows what problem you are in. The answer may or probably does lie outside of yourself. Sean, that was awesome.
I personally believe that the root of all human suffering is excessive focus on oneself. We draw and drive meaning through putting others before ourselves. Nobody is coming to your funeral because you made $2.5 million every year for 30 years when you die. People will come to your funeral based on what you do for others. That ultimately is how you leave a legacy. That all starts with service with something greater than yourself. What predisposes all of that is the understanding that it’s not about you and if you want to live a meaningful life, you can’t excessively focus on yourself. You have to put others before you and figure out a way to serve others.
They say that the root of all suicide rests in the question, “Why can’t it be better for me?” Suicide is the most ultimate selfish sacrifice. That’s what has been said but that leads us to our next thing, which I know you are in tune with, and that’s the suicide rate of our warriors. For us to call them selfish people and that didn’t seem right, that’s probably offensive.
I agree with you. There is a cultural misunderstanding of what it means to be a warrior in a warrior culture. If you think about what it means to be an elite warrior and what we believe, there’s a reason why veterans say to each other, “Until Valhalla.” They believe that when they die, they get to go be with their brothers in the halls of Odin in Valhalla. Samurais, when they die, fail or feel like they failed, take their life because it’s an honorable end to the life of a warrior.Death is everywhere every day. Understanding the very fact of mortality is what makes life worth living and so much more special. Click To Tweet
Warrior is the oldest profession in the world. It’s archetypal in many ways. The traits of warriors transcend from one generation to the next. In ways that we don’t even realize, I am similar to Samurai that fought on the battlefield 1,000 years ago or a Spartan that fought 2,000 years ago. Those qualities are in American warriors and there’s no question in my mind about the elevated rate of suicide in this country among American veterans. There’s a correlation between how we frame suicide in our mind as maybe getting to be with your brothers again versus how civilians see it. Is that the full answer? No. Are the things that we could be doing better culturally? Absolutely. Veterans don’t see suicide as a wholly negative thing.
It’s a great perspective. You are not a doctor or a psychologist but what would be the number one thing that America could do if we put this on a priority to help our warriors lower that suicide rate? What could America do if it knew it wouldn’t fail to help these guys? What would your thoughts be?
The solution of two veteran suicide lies in a solution that is largely cultural-based. In other words, there’s no policy that our lawmakers can make in Washington that will fix the issue. There’s no amount of money that we can dump into the VA to help them fix the issue. Of course, there are reforms that we can make that would make things better. What it boils down to is that most veterans when they come home feel like they are exiles in their own country. They feel like their friends, neighbors, and family don’t know them or don’t understand them anymore. That can lead to a profound sense of isolation. Isolation, in its most extreme cases, can lead to drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide.
What can America do to help this problem? Make veterans coming home from war more important to every family member and every person in this country. It starts with a simple conversation of civilians asking veterans what their experience of war was like. The important reason is that civilians in this country vote our politicians into office and our politicians vote to send us to war.
Therefore, civilians have to share the responsibility of sending warriors to war. Therefore, they have a responsibility when soldiers come home to help them carry that heavy burden. Conversations first, last, and always with our veterans, based on mutual respect and understanding, going into it knowing that you don’t have all the answers. You are not going to understand but you are willing to listen and you can take it.
That’s great advice. We have people that see warriors. Help them help our worth. What would be the 1 or 2 best questions to ask a warrior when you see them?
I don’t look back on this stuff in a negative way but every veteran comes home and gets some, “Did you kill everybody? Did you kill anyone? Did you shoot anyone? What was that like?” Every veteran gets that and that’s okay. I get it. People are surprised when you say yes. If you had to say something to a veteran, maybe it’s not a question. It was like, “You felt like it was your duty to serve. I feel like it’s my duty as a responsible American citizen to listen if you need someone to talk to. More than that, I want to hear about it. I care. I can take it and you are not going to hurt me with your experience, so tell me. I can handle it.”
Hopefully, we will take that advice. Let’s shift gears a little bit. I would love to know. There’s nothing like the brotherhood of soldiers. Tell me the soldier that you felt had the best attitude. Let’s honor him. When you went, “That guy has got a good attitude. That guy always lifted us up.” I’m wondering, what’s his name? Is he still with us or not? Why did he have such a good attitude for you?
I was so lucky to have all my soldiers. Every single one of them was special and lifted up in different ways. That was one of the things that I felt was truly special about Outlaw Platoon. We had guys from every walk of life, Black, White, Asian, Christian, Atheist, Muslim. It didn’t matter where you are from or how much money you made. We were all in it together. Every one of those guys was exactly what we needed them to be at the exact moment they needed to be at to help lift us all up. To name one would be to do a disservice.
We had so many great soldiers that when you felt like you were at your lowest and you felt you couldn’t go anymore, there was someone right there next to you helping to pick you up. That was the critical component of what made us so successful in combat. It was about the man next to you first, last and always. While we were different, we were always there for each other.
Attitude is the way you dedicate yourself to the way you think in it’s simplest form. I’m curious as a leader because I know you talk about this, what is the leadership attitude? In your platoon, was there an attitude or a mantra that you guys live by? I would be curious to know what that was.
We had a love-hate relationship with this. We were the best. The end. What’s funny about this is that we were the black sheep in the battalion leading up. We couldn’t get anything right. We would get re-cocked on training exercises, “Do it again for 1, 2, 3, 4 or 20 times.” We were the Bad News Bears. By the time we’ve got to combat, we were locked on target and we gained a reputation in theater both in our unit and amongst the enemy that we were by far the best.
That’s a catch-22 or a double-edged sword in combat because if you are the best, you are the one that gets all the hardest missions. You are the one that leads the point on every operation. You are the one that takes the heaviest casualties. The attitude of, “We are the best. To hell with everybody else. We stand alone together.” There are life and death situations. Guys were getting wounded all around us. We would rather have been the best than anything else. All of that negative, the risk of life, limb, injuries, and death in combat came secondary to the attitude of we are the best and we own it.
We have had some awesome guests and this is one of the best episodes we have ever had, Sean, so I do appreciate you.
Are you kidding me? This is amazing. You are crushing it. I love this. I love the concept. I love everything that you’ve got going.
I was wondering, is there a podcast for our vets and our warriors to listen to? Is there a guy that’s out there helping with the warrior podcast?
I did his Jocko Willink’s podcast and what he does is he essentially profiles warriors on his podcast, not all the time but a lot of the time. It was 5.5 hours long, which I didn’t know. I was lucky enough that he invited me to the show. I flew out there and it was a crazy experience. He’s got 1.5 million listeners and stuff. He does such a great job at going deep on warrior issues are. If you are a veteran or family member and you want to learn more about warrior culture, you’ve got to listen to his podcast.
We want our GAPers to hit Jocko. I’m sure everybody does. We are starting out. We are launching and we are honored that you came. Sean, we are getting ready to close our episode with something that we do call Knowledge Through the Decades. This sometimes catches our people a little bit off guard. What we are going to do is ask you to go through your life from birth to where you are now with the best lessons that you have been taught. We get gold on this because it’s unrehearsed and we want you to speak from your heart. What we do is we say, what is the best attitude lesson or what is the best lesson from an infant, from when you were born or when your children were born? What can infants teach us?
Sometimes if you raise enough, you get exactly what you want.
You are getting the unvarnished truth here. I don’t know what’s going to come out of my mouth. That’s crazy.
If you bitching enough and when you get about one year old, then nothing happens for you. Sean, I’m curious, where were you born? You mentioned that your dad was one of your heroes. Tell us a little bit about your earliest memories as a kid.
My mom and dad were amazing. I love them. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
You were born in Pittsburgh. You have great parents. I’m curious about your earliest childhood memory, the earliest lesson you had as a kid if you remember.
I probably have memories earlier than this but one of the most profound memories I had was when I worked my butt off to build this clubhouse by myself. My dad had taught me. We built a deck together in the back of our house so I was inspired to build this clubhouse. I did and I worked hard. I was in the 3rd or 4th-grade work on those saws, nailing and pieces of plywood together. I built my own clubhouse with my own two hands.
We had moved into a new neighborhood and I perched it up. I read my first book there on day one. I went to bed, woke up, and the whole thing was destroyed. I was devastated. These new bullies from this neighborhood that I was in have destroyed this. I was crushed because I had invested so much time and energy to do it and build it myself. My mom said something to me that I will never forget and it stuck with me for a long time, “Sean, I’m so sorry that this happened to you. You can’t let anybody else limit your joy. You do what you have to do if you do.” She was a great mom.
I thought about that years later and said, “It makes sense because if you let someone determine your attitude or your mood, then you give them 100% control of yourself.” That’s what she meant. Right after that, I remember I never understood why she did this at the moment but she and my dad helped me carry that thing back up the hill and set it up because they don’t let anyone limit your joy.
You may have bled into Sean Parnell as a ten-year-old so I may have to have you reach back in and find me another antidote. I want you to think about being ten years old in Pittsburgh and hanging around your friends. Did you have siblings, brothers or sisters?The root of all human suffering is excessive focus on oneself. Click To Tweet
I’m the oldest of four. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers.
You probably don’t mind kicking the crap out of them or something like that. That message was big. Don’t let anybody control your joy. Is that what you told me?
Don’t let anyone limit your joy.
Interesting word choice. Tell me your greatest attitude lesson at ten besides that.
I remember at ten years old probably, one of the most formidable experiences of my life was bullying. I was bullied terribly. I remember clearly on the bus this group of kids who are way bigger than me and everyone says, “It’s a bully. Punch him in the nose. Stand up for yourself.” Sometimes it’s not that easy. Sometimes there are five guys that are way bigger than you. If you punch one of those, you are dead. Sometimes there’s no way out.
I remember I sat there on the bus while these kids relentlessly bullied me. No one got up or said anything. That leads me to this life lesson that I learned of never walk by evil. If you see something that is terrible, you have a moral obligation to get involved and put it to a stop. Those two stories I told you about my mom and this specific experience are ultimately what led me to the military in some strange, roundabout way.
It’s amazing as we do this and we get into people’s attitudes, we find. That’s part of the reason we do this. They go, “That’s why I am the way I am.” Bullying is tough. I have always been one. I was always usually one of the bigger kids and I didn’t allow it. I was the protector of others. That’s always the way I was. I was the youngest of five so I was constantly bullied. I feel that.
People reading this may be parents of kids that are being bullied. They are maybe kids that are being bullied. I’m talking about physical abuse and physical bullying. I don’t know how to overcome that. Emotional bullying, you can do stuff with it. Do you have any words of wisdom for families that either have got a child that’s being bullied or you are being bullied yourself? Do you have any thoughts on that?
In this case, parents need to be involved and not detached. Looking back, those experiences shaped me. Those hardships shaped who I became. It doesn’t make them right. As parents, generally speaking, we want to fix every issue that our kids go through. If your kid is experiencing bullying in school, you would want to put it to a stop but you know where the line is. If someone is being horrifically bullied and getting their butt kicked every single day, it’s physical, it’s distracting them from sports, school, other relationships and affecting their mood, parents have to get involved.
There is a time and place for that. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there isn’t but I am saying, you’ve got to get involved. You’ve got to go to the school, talk to the principal and the teacher and you have to ask them specifically what they are doing to put a stop to it and how they are combating bullying in their classrooms in their hallways. When you give your kids to the school, you trust that they are being protected to the same level that you would protect them. If that’s not the case, you have a duty as a parent to get involved and say something.
Some people don’t even know the names of their kids’ teachers. Unfortunately, I hate to say that, that might have been me but I had a good wife that was active, so that’s good. Sean, you are through grade school. What high school did you go to?
I went to two. I went to Franklin Regional High School but I graduated from Greensburg Central Catholic High School.
You didn’t get kicked out, did you?
No, but I wasn’t exactly the most stellar student on the face of the Earth either.
The Catholics got you shaped up and you’ve got that 4.0.
It whipped me into shape.
Sean Parnell at twenty, what was the attitude lesson that you learned, and what impacted you most at the age of twenty?
What impacted me most was I didn’t earn my first paycheck but I had worked my butt off in an Italian restaurant. For years, I had worked there as a busboy at the lowest levels washing dishes. I worked my way up to when I was twenty. I was waiting tables and I was a bartender. I remember looking back when I was twenty thinking like, “Sometimes you are not going to get all the accolades. Sometimes people aren’t going to come up to you and say, ‘Good job.’” There’s no substitute for doing the right thing all the time and working your butt off.
In that regard, at twenty years old, I thought to myself, “Here I am doing what I want to do but I didn’t put a timetable on it.” I work towards that goal diligently every day to make it happen and it happened. I took that lesson. I feel like I can apply it to my life in other ways but ultimately, I learned it when I was twenty.
Number four, do more than you are paid for. People don’t like number four, especially teenagers and Millennials. They want to do less than they are paid for.
They think their pay should be more than what they deserve.
We did a study. I love Millennials and I’ve got kids who are Millennials but the two things they value most are fame and fortune. They all want to be famous and they all want to be rich but they just want it to happen. It’s interesting.
I can’t tell you how many people that I talk to at book signings, “You are a writer. That’s so awesome. I want to do that, too.” I’m like, “It’s learning to ride a bicycle without a seat while you are on fire.” It’s not easy. Getting a book published is not easy. It’s like I’m out in Cabo sipping Mai Tais writing books on my downtime. That is not how it is. It’s the least sexy job on the face of the planet. What people tend to do is see the success but not the hard work that got it that got you there.
As a keynote speaker, I love it. I go on stage. You have done it and you speak. You don’t just show up and do an hour keynote and that’s it.
It’s rough and hard.
You are missing family, got to connect with the room and got to do your research. There are a whole lot and people are always like, “I wanted to be a motivational speaker, Glenn.” I go, “Be careful what you wish for.” We get to twenty and you go, “I need to do more than I’m paid for.” At ten, I need to never walk by evil. As a baby, you said, “I’ve got to disrupt some crap and let everybody know what’s going on. I can see the path.” You were 30. Were you in Afghanistan at 30?
I was in Afghanistan at 24. I was a Company Commander in the infantry. Perhaps I might have even been out. I might have been a newly retired captain who was looking for his next mission.
Do you remember your 30th birthday at all?If you let someone determine your attitude or mood, you are giving them a hundred percent control of yourself. Click To Tweet
I do. This is great. I was in grad school back in Pittsburgh and I had a surprise birthday for my 30th birthday.
Who threw it for you?
One of my friends.
Did you drink some good Bourbon?
I’m more of a whiskey guy, a Jack Daniels guy but absolutely, I did.
I remember when we had Jack after a time we talked once. It was fun. I liked that guy. When you get to Indy, you come. I’ve got a nice whiskey bar for you.
It sounds good to me.
What was the attitude lesson when you were 30? What comes to your mind that can help our GAPers?
I was in grad school for Clinical Psychology getting my PhD but I didn’t feel I was on the right path. Initially, when I’ve got into a PhD program, the reason for it was that I wanted to help soldiers that are struggling. It felt like an altruistic motive but I didn’t feel in the right place. I’ve got the opportunity to write Outlaw Platoon. I’ve got an agent and a publisher, and all of a sudden, I had this big book coming out and I was facing a choice to stay in grad school or publish my book. The university made it hard to do both. It was impossible, in fact.
I knew that I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get out there and preserve the legacy of my troops or stay in grad school and fulfill a commitment. I have never fulfilled a commitment. This is why it was hard. I’m a never-quit kind of guy. When I start something, I finish it and I have always been like that. I knew what was right the whole time but it was a difficult decision. Eventually, I made the right one and promoted the book. I struck while the iron is hot. It’s because I did that, I can help thousands of more people than I ever could have in a PhD program. At the time, I agonized over the decision.
You know in your heart of hearts and your gut what’s right. Even when you meet somebody, that subtle feeling in your stomach or the back of your head, “I’m not so sure.” Listen to that voice. It means something. It’s your unconscious mind either saying, “Warning, Will Robinson or this is right.” In the wake of grad school when I was faced with that choice, I knew what was right but I agonized over the decision. I learned that lesson to listen to that little voice in my head, trust it and follow your heart.
With what you said, I felt in that spot as well. I’m convinced that the people that are reading this, because they are searching on how to bridge the GAP, are in that same dilemma. There’s almost too much opportunity for a lot of us. We are all being sold on what we should be doing and we are all being told to compare ourselves with others when we shouldn’t. We become immobilized with all the opportunities when it’s all said and done.
Your guidance, the stories that you talked about, where you come from, how you shaped your attitude, and how you made decisions when it was tough are all information that our GAPers can take as they are sitting there trying to get and bridge the GAP from where they are to where they want to be. It was an honor to speak to you.
I want to thank you for your service. I want to thank you for what you do for our warriors. I hope that we have plenty of warriors that are going to join us here on the GAP and especially reading this interview. One final question. We have done All Out War. What’s on the horizon for you? You have written your third book. What’s your attitude now? What are you thinking about? What can we be seeing from you in the next few years?
I’m 30,000 words into the next SteelBook. I’m working on a nonfiction leadership book. I’ve got two books in the pressure cooker. What you said about crossing that GAP, what it boils down to when you are surrounded with opportunity because we all are. We’ve got the freedom to do and choose what we want to do every day. Ultimately, that’s what it boils down to. What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
For me, that’s always in the forefront of my mind before I make any decisions. I’m going to write and keep writing these fiction books. I’ve got my third book that will come out in September of 2022. It’s going to be no holds barred. I’m excited about the story. The year after that, I’ve got a leadership book coming out as well. That’s not a follow-on story directly Outlaw Platoon but distills the leadership lessons that I learned while I was getting shot at. Over the next few years, that’s what you are going to see.
What I will title this when we promote this will be Sean Parnell Bridging the Gap from Afghanistan to the New York Times Bestseller Stand. How does that sound?
That’s cool and edgy. I’m cool with it.
Sean, it’s always so good to see you. I hope someday we get to speak again on a stage. I hope when you are an Indy, you look me up. When I’m in Pitt, I will look you up. My best to your family and God bless you. I appreciate and thank you for being the person that you are.
Thank you for having me, Glenn. I appreciate your friendship and the time you gave me.
Thanks and we will see you on the next Get Attitude Podcast when we talk about being a part of something bigger than yourself.
- ABC’s of Attitude
- Outlaw Platoon
- Man of War
- All Out War
- American Warrior Initiative
- Jocko Willink’s podcast – Past episode
About Sean Parnell
Army Ranger, combat infantryman with the elite 10th Mountain Division, and veteran of 485 days of fierce fighting along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Captain Sean Parnell’s leadership skills welded his platoon into one of the most fierce and effective American fighting units in modern military history. Repeatedly outnumbered and outgunned; Sean’s “Outlaws” battled furiously in the most rugged terrain on the planet—the towering Hindu Kush Mountains. Eighty-five percent of his platoon received Purple Hearts for wounds incurred in battle, but his men gave far more than they received. Outlaw Platoon killed over 350 enemy fighters in some of the biggest firefights of the Afghan War.
Sean was wounded in action on June 10, 2006 when his platoon was nearly overrun for the first time by a force that outnumbered them almost ten to one. Refusing to leave his men as they battled the enemy at point-blank range, Sean was knocked unconscious and wounded two more times during the firefight. Each time, he returned to his feet to lead his men again. His selfless example prompted one of his Soldiers to remark later, “Sean Parnell saved us all.”
Since leaving the Army, Sean has penned the NYT’s bestselling book, Outlaw Platoon, which is the story of his platoon’s crucible of combat in Afghanistan. He is a regular contributor on Fox News & has appeared on dozens of national TV & radio shows, including CNN’s Up Front with Erin Burnett, PBS’s Tavis Smiley Show, Fox & Friends, The Laura Ingraham Show, Hannity, Real News on the Blaze & The Savage Hour with Michael Savage. Articulate, down to earth and engaging, Sean’s leadership abilities have been called the, “gold bar standard of the post-911 Army.” He is a subject matter expert on Afghanistan, the insurgency we face there, leadership & how to use it to inspire & motivate men & women to achieve common objectives.