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[Book Summary] The Way Forward: Master Life’s Toughest Battles and Create Your Lasting Legacy

The Way Forward (2022) examines the intersection between combat and life as experienced by two decorated American veterans. Although war can be brutal, it also helped the authors uncover their humanity. And along the way, they learned some of life’s most important lessons that can be applied in both military and civilian contexts.

[Book Summary] The Way Forward: Master Life's Toughest Battles and Create Your Lasting Legacy

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Learn important life lessons from two of America’s most famous soldiers.
Endless repetition is the secret behind mastering the basics of any skill.
There’s an important difference between fear and panic.
Following rules is generally important, but sometimes you need to reject authority.
When it comes to mental health, you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast

Genres

Motivation, Inspiration, Personal Development, Biographies, Memoirs, Leaders, Notable People, Historical Asian Biographies, United States Military Veterans History, Afghan War Biographies, Self Help, Psychology, Philosophy

Introduction: Learn important life lessons from two of America’s most famous soldiers.

In lots of ways, Robert O’Neill and Dakota Meyer are just ordinary guys. They love spending time with their families and going hunting. And you can regularly find them drinking a cold beer with their buddies. But behind their normal exteriors are remarkable men – two of America’s most famous veterans, in fact.

Rob achieved fame when it was revealed that he was the Navy SEAL who fired the bullet that ended the life of America’s most wanted terrorist: Osama bin Laden. Although he’d initially tried to remain anonymous, the news eventually leaked, and he’s been in the national limelight ever since.

Dakota, meanwhile, served as a Marine in Afghanistan. And when he returned home from a tour in 2009, he was heralded as a national hero for not only helping rescue fellow soldiers caught in a Taliban ambush, but also retrieving the bodies of his fallen colleagues while under fire. What’s more, he did all of this in defiance of orders to stay put.

Rob and Dakota have a lot in common. For their bravery, they’ve both been awarded the nation’s highest military decorations; for Dakota, this included the Medal of Honor. Both men have also collected a wealth of experiences while serving their country. And it’s these experiences, and their resulting life lessons, that the following summary explores.

In these summaries, you’ll learn

  • how “free throws” are the secret to Rob’s success in life;
  • why Dakota thinks rules sometimes have to be broken; and
  • how MDMA is heralding a new era of mental health treatment.

Endless repetition is the secret behind mastering the basics of any skill.

When you get famous, people begin to ask certain questions: How’d you get where you are? How can I be more like you? What’s your secret? It was no different with Rob. Ever since the public learned that it was him who fired the bullet that killed America’s most wanted man, he gets asked these questions all the time. How’d you become such a good shot, people often want to know. Fans even ask him about the secret to his happy marriage. Luckily, over the years, he’s figured out a great answer: free throws.

It sounds crazy, but that’s kind of the point, because this nonsensical answer leads to people inquiring further. What do “free throws” have to do with his success in life? It’s then that Rob launches into explaining one of his core principles – the importance of mastering the basics.

Rob learned this long before he was a Navy SEAL. As a kid, he spent hours with his dad at the local gym shooting hoops. To help him get better, Rob’s dad implemented a rule. Before they could go home, one of them would have to shoot twenty free throws in a row. If neither managed to do it, they’d keep going – even if it meant missing dinner. The more tired they got, the worse they shot. But they kept going, no matter what.

As Rob got better, they raised the stakes. Once, this even involved steak – no pun intended. If they kept the free throws going until they got to 25, the reward was a steak dinner at a local restaurant. As time went on, the endless repetition led to better and better results. One day, Rob’s dad set a family record of 91 free throws in a row! But it was only six days later that Rob beat that with 105. Thousands of shots turned into tens of thousands. Rob eventually got so good at basketball that he landed a place at Montana Tech, where he continued playing his favorite sport on the college team.

Without those free throws, Rob wouldn’t be where he is today. That’s because at a young age, he learned the importance of endlessly repeating the basics to get good at something. And at the end of the day, this principle doesn’t just work for sports. If you want to get good or even great at something you love, you need to accept that you won’t get there overnight. You’ll need to be disciplined and put in the hard work. You’ll have to accept the necessity of endless repetition. Although it might take months or even years, at some point the basics of the skill will become second nature.

For Rob, it turned out that basketball wasn’t his calling. But he’s applied the lessons he learned on the court to all other areas of life. In his military career, this meant countless hours at the shooting range, and braving the seemingly endless drills involved in becoming a Navy SEAL. It’s this endless drive and dedication that later led to him being awarded America’s highest military decoration – the Medal of Honor.

There’s an important difference between fear and panic.

Now, while endless repetition will take a person pretty far, Rob has other attributes that have helped him get where he is today. After all, being a Navy SEAL is more than just sharpshooting – SEALs are legendary for their toughness and their endurance in even the most grueling circumstances.

But Rob thinks another, lesser-known skill that Navy SEALs practice is even more important. That’s the ability to stay calm and avoid panicking no matter the situation. A perfect example of this is a drill he experienced during boot camp; after the fact, he learned that it was meant to simulate combat during a shipwreck. If an enemy managed to strike a SEAL ship, how would the crew react? Would they survive while floating in the ocean among complete chaos?

At the time of the drill, however, none of the recruits were aware of its purpose. The instructors ordered the whole squad to jump fully-clothed into a 15-foot deep pool. There was barely any room to swim, but the instructors kept pushing the squad together nonetheless. Some began to sink, unable to tread water because of the lack of space. When they did manage to get their heads above water, to gasp for air, the instructors pushed them back under.

Slowly, squad members began to panic. Some grabbed onto others to try to stay afloat, and of course this only resulted in both being dragged down into the depths. Meanwhile, the instructors were screaming contradictory orders at them: Find your crewmates! Move away from your crewmates! Keep your head above the water! Get underwater! And so on. Those who panicked or didn’t obey failed the drill.

It’s through drills like these that SEALs are conditioned to not panic even in the worst of situations. Because all it takes to get the whole squad killed is one SEAL panicking. Panic spreads like wildfire, and can cause entire groups to react irrationally very quickly.

Now, it’s important to make a distinction between panic and fear. Panic is something you should avoid. But fear? Often, fear is something you should embrace. In fact, fear is a natural, healthy human instinct. It provides you with adrenaline and helps you make judgment calls in fight-or-flight situations. In SEAL terms, fear is known as a “heightened sense of awareness.” While panicking is dangerous, fear is necessary in order to stay alive.

Rob believes that that distinction is an important lesson that others can learn from SEAL training. Life often throws you into unpredictable situations, and it’s important that you react in a rational way. If you panic, it’s likely you’ll make irrational decisions, so instead, always try to stay as calm as possible. In situations that aren’t life or death, panic is still contagious. Even when you’re alone, panic grows exponentially – the only difference is that you have to bear the weight by yourself.

So remember: however bad a situation seems, don’t panic. At the same time, don’t forget that there’s also danger in being too calm all the time. Complacency can actually be just as dangerous as panic – if you let your guard down, it’s much more likely you’ll make serious mistakes. And whether you’re a soldier, construction worker, or doctor, mistakes can have serious consequences.

Rob nearly learned the dangers of complacency the hard way. While serving in Iraq, he was part of a platoon that conducted regular night raids against insurgents. At first, their strategy was to fly directly to the target building in helicopters. This, of course, alerted whole neighborhoods to their presence. They then bombed their way into buildings and took out insurgents with brute force.

The problem with this strategy was that they became easy targets for insurgents to repel. Either that, or the helicopters approaching gave the insurgents enough of a warning that they had time to escape. So the platoon decided to adopt a more stealthy approach, landing out of earshot so the insurgents had no idea they were coming. And instead of blowing up doors to get into houses, they’d gain entry through quieter means, reducing the chance of enemies escaping.

These stealthier methods had a big downside, however – it took much more time and effort to conduct the raids, and night after night, they’d show up at target houses and find no insurgents there.

At this point, Rob’s team started sliding into complacency. Why not just go back to the old ways, they thought? They might have been louder, but at least they could get back to base in time to catch the evening mess and play some Xbox. After all, it didn’t seem to make a difference if they went in loud or not – the insurgents weren’t there either way.

But when they went back to their old ways during the next night raid, their complacency almost got them killed. That night, the enemy opened fire even before their helicopter touched down, and it was a miracle that none of Rob’s team got hit. Their desire to play Xbox nearly cost them their lives. Remember, fear isn’t panic; it’s a healthy, “heightened sense of awareness,” one that can keep you alive, and it’s a far cry from complacency. By leaving their fear back at the base, the SEALs had endangered their own lives.

Although they successfully eliminated their target that night, the experience shocked Rob out of his complacency. From then on out, stealth raids were the platoon’s preferred mode of engagement.

Following rules is generally important, but sometimes you need to reject authority.

In a military context, complacency isn’t the only killer. Sometimes, blind obedience to authority can also lead to horrific situations. Rob’s co-author, Dakota, found this out the hard way during a tour in Afghanistan.

Now, of course, it’s extremely important to follow some rules. Some are common sense and can keep a soldier from getting killed. The military is known for its strict command structure; soldiers always have to obey orders given by a superior. And most of the time, there are important reasons for orders. Sometimes, though . . . there just aren’t. And it’s important for everyone, soldiers and civilians alike, to recognize when rules no longer make sense and need to be broken.

One of the first times Dakota disobeyed a direct order was during a mission to Ganjgal, an Afghan village. The aim of the mission was to provide supplies to a local mosque as a peace offering. The village’s attitude to the American soldiers was neutral at best. Even though Taliban fighters had been routed out of the village weeks earlier, it was still a dangerous situation.

Dakota had a bad feeling about the whole mission, particularly because it involved the armored vehicles that were transporting the supplies waiting outside the village, with American and Afghan soldiers then delivering them on foot. The reasoning behind this was that it was meant to be a clandestine mission, and vehicles entering the village would attract unwanted attention. For Dakota, this strategy basically amounted to asking to be ambushed. He was even more unsettled when he was ordered to stay back with the vehicles. He attempted to convince his superior officers otherwise, but to no avail.

It wasn’t long until they heard gunfire break out. Radio transmissions were full of the screaming voices of his squad members caught in the ambush. Dakota immediately called up his commanding officers back at base, requesting permission to advance into the village with the armored vehicles. His request was denied. He then requested artillery or air support, which was also denied because of the risk of civilian casualties.

At this point, Dakota knew he had to break the rules – as he saw it, the risk of civilian casualties meant nothing if his squad members were going to be mowed down by Taliban insurgents. He advanced the vehicles into the village to rescue his team from the ambush.

It was a bloodbath. Four Marines were killed that day, and eleven severely wounded. And if Dakota hadn’t disobeyed orders and advanced the vehicles under his command into the kill zone, there might have been even more casualties. For this act of simultaneous defiance and bravery, President Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor.

This sad story exemplifies the fatal problems that too many rules can lead to. Four men died that day because generals safely tucked away in their base refused to break the rules of engagement. Dakota thinks that it’s precisely this obsessive culture of rule-following in the military that led to America losing in Afghanistan and Iraq. By enforcing generalized “rules of engagement” that are meant to apply in every circumstance, soldiers on the battlefield aren’t allowed to think for themselves and adjust to the situation. Even if rules go against common sense, they’re still followed, and this can lead to good people dying in the process.

Dakota thinks it doesn’t have to be this way. He’s made a rule for himself – if a rule doesn’t pass the common-sense test, then it’s time to stop trusting the authority making such rules. It doesn’t matter if the authority is a military bureaucracy or other similarly bloated organizations like corporations or governments – if rules don’t make sense, then individuals need to consider breaking them.

Unfortunately, Dakota thinks the problem of blind deference to authority is getting worse in American society, not better. All too often, people take what they hear in the media or from politicians as gospel without questioning it. They don’t think for themselves anymore. And for America to remain a beacon of freedom, its citizens are going to have to start questioning authority – and breaking a few rules along the way.

When it comes to mental health, you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

So far, we’ve seen that there are a number of important principles anyone can learn from elite soldiers like Rob and Dakota. Their tours of duty led them to confronting some of life’s most difficult questions, and at some points they weren’t even sure if they’d make it out alive. But while both survived the horrors of war and lived to tell the tale, they didn’t come out totally unscathed.

Like countless soldiers before them, after returning home, they both developed post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The things they saw while serving their country were truly horrific, and when they returned home, they were haunted by their memories of war. They’d become numb to death and killing, and both developed substance abuse issues.

For Rob, the worst part of all of this is that the government department in charge of veterans’ health wasn’t able to diagnose his PTSD, let alone treat it. This infamous bureaucratic machine is the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the VA for short. Although Rob had conducted 400 missions and witnessed unspeakable acts of violence, he didn’t receive a single mental health evaluation when he returned stateside.

Like many other veterans, Rob’s experiences with the VA have themselves been trauma-inducing. He doesn’t doubt that individual doctors and nurses care about the veterans they’re tasked with helping. But because of careerist VA administrators who don’t care about the military, a lot of veterans don’t even get to see the doctors. And if they do, it’s sometimes too late – suicide rates among veterans are much higher than those of the general population.

From 2016 to 2020, Rob’s local VA Medical Center in Washington, DC, fired three medical directors. Among the reasons given were shortages of medical equipment and doctors having to work in less-than-sterile conditions. These sorts of problems put patients’ lives at risk, and can compound existing health problems rather than help veterans recover.

After a series of negative experiences at the center, Rob realized that government-run healthcare was not going to help him get better. To recover from his PTSD and alcoholism, he instead sought out a private clinic offering experimental PTSD treatment. Although the treatment used the illegal drug MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, he decided it was worth a try. MDMA is now being used to treat PTSD in clinical trials across America, and so far, it’s been remarkably successful. However, this clinic wasn’t taking part in those clinical trials – its use of MDMA was illegal. Rob decided to go for it anyway; after all, sometimes you have to break rules that go against common sense, right?

It turns out that the drug was the miracle Rob was looking for. After the very first treatment, he felt a sense of peace that he hadn’t experienced in years. The drug helped him come to terms with the horrible things he’d been forced to confront while serving his country. And the cure wasn’t just short-term, either. To this day, he still feels much better.

Rob believes that MDMA and similar novel treatments should be made more easily available. Legal, clinical trials still remain hard for most Americans suffering from trauma-related mental illness to access. However, with a little less bureaucracy, countless Americans could be benefitting from such treatments in the near future. Whether veterans or civilians, mental illness is a growing scourge in American society. Rob firmly believes that the government should not get in the way of people being able to access these revolutionary treatments.

Final Summary

There are a few takeaways from this summary. The first is the importance of free throws. It might take time, but constant repetition is the surest route to mastery. Next up is the difference between panic and fear. Avoid the former, and embrace the latter. It just might save your life one day. Finally, don’t forget that while rules are often made in good faith, they can end up overserving their purpose. So don’t shy away from breaking them if you feel it’s necessary.

About the author

Robert O’Neill is one of the country’s most highly decorated Navy SEAL combat veterans, involved in our nation’s most strategic military campaigns, including the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. By the time he was honorably discharged after almost 17 years of service, O’Neill held combat leadership roles in over 400 missions across four different theaters of war. Among his 52 decorations are two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars with Valor, a Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, and three Presidential Unit citations. O’Neill is the author of The Operator, his New York Times bestselling account of his years as a SEAL and the hunt for Bin Laden. Today, he is a public speaker, security consultant, philanthropist and FOX News contributor. Through his charity, the Special Operators Transition Foundation, O’Neill works to raise awareness and financial support for special operations military personnel making the difficult transition from the battlefield to the boardroom. He is from Butte, Montana.

Robert J. O’Neill | Website
Robert J. O’Neill | Twitter @mchooyah

Dakota Meyer is a United States Marine and veteran of the war in Afghanistan who became the first living United States Marine in 41 years to receive the Medal of Honor, for his actions during the Battle of Ganjgal on September 8th, 2009. His book about the events of that day, Into the Fire, was a New York Times bestseller. Today, Meyer serves in the Individual Ready Reserve of the US Marine Corps Reserve, is an advocate for American veterans, the creator of the podcast Front Toward Enemy with Dakota Meyer, and the entrepreneur behind Own The Dash and Flipside Canvas. Born and raised in Columbia, Kentucky, Meyer is a father of two beautiful daughters and lives in Austin, Texas.

Dakota Meyer | Website
Dakota Meyer | Facebook
Dakota Meyer | Twitter @Dakota_Meyer
Dakota Meyer | Instagram
Dakota Meyer | YouTube

Table of Contents

Prologue 1
Part 1 Preparation
1 American Boys 9
2 Taking Aim 29
3 Find Your Heroes 49
4 Leaving 65
Part 2 Duty
5 Drilling Down 85
6 Open Your Eyes 103
7 In the Shit 127
8 Choose to Connect 143
9 Praise 159
10 Homecoming 179
11 Recuperation 201
12 Build Your Circle 221
13 Be a Firefighter of Life 241
Acknowledgments 265
Notes 269

Overview

American Sniper meets Make Your Bed in these life lessons from decorated United States service members and New York Times bestselling authors Robert O’Neill and Dakota Meyer—an in-depth, fearless, and ultimately redemptive account of what it takes to survive and thrive on battlefields from Afghanistan and Iraq to our daily lives, and how the perils of war help us hold onto our humanity.

Rob O’Neill and Dakota Meyer are two of the most decorated and recognized US service members: O’Neill killed the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, and Meyer was the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. But beyond their actions and courage in combat, O’Neill and Meyer also have much in common in civilian life: they are both sought-after public speakers, advocates for veterans, and share a non-PC sense of humor. Combining the best of military memoirs and straight-talking self-help, The Way Forward alternates between O’Neill’s and Meyer’s perspectives, looking back with humor at even the darkest war stories, and sharing lessons they learned along the way.

The Way Forward presents O’Neill and Meyer’s philosophy in combat and life. This isn’t a book about the glory of war and combat, but one about facing your enemies, some who are flesh and blood and some that are not: Your thoughts. Your doubts. Your boredom and your regrets. From Rob’s dogged repetition at the free throw line of his childhood basketball court to Dakota’s pursuit of EMT and firefighter credentials to aid accident victims, these two American heroes turn their experiences into valuable lessons for every reader.

Gritty and down-to-earth, O’Neill and Meyer tell their stories with candor and vulnerability to help readers handle stress, tackle their biggest obstacles, and exceed their expectations of themselves, while keeping life’s battles in perspective with a sense of humor.

Video and Podcast

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“The Way Forward will help every reader master their own challenges—this is a must-read book!” – Admiral Bill McRaven, U.S. Navy (Retired) and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Make Your Bed

“War stories with a motivational twist…Both authors suggest, knowingly, that the best plans don’t often survive reality, but it’s important to plan anyway, for “you’re never out of the fight.” – Kirkus Reviews

“O’Neill and Meyer are skilled storytellers. [They] offer plenty of advice for veterans navigating reentry to civilian life.” – Library Journal

“Raw, funny, and poignant, each chapter is an important life lesson from two guys who have thrived in life’s toughest battles. The Way Forward will help every reader master their own challenges—this is a must-read book!” – Admiral Bill McRaven, U.S. Navy (Retired) and author of #1 New York Times bestseller Make Your Bed

“Rob and Dakota are the real deal—warriors. patriots. leaders. And damn good men. In this fantastic book, they turn the dangerous, the confusing, and even the crude moments of combat and life into meaningful, insightful and life-changing insights. This book will make you laugh…and learn how to forge a lasting legacy in the process. Their incredible stories alone are worth the price of admission, and then you walk away learning how to chart your own way forward. Buy this book—and learn how to stand up and face your enemies!” – Pete Hegseth, television host and bestselling author of American Crusade: Our Fight To Stay Free and Modern Warriors: Real Stories From Real Heroes

“The Way Forward is not only about the making of two of America’s greatest heroes but a journey of how common men are forged by family, friends, and brotherhood to make extraordinary sacrifices for their nation. There is no political left or right in their lessons, just an exemplary show of honor, courage, commitment, and faith in protecting their fellow citizens. Their words are guideposts to changing your life and building your own legacy.” – Malcolm Nance, former U.S. Navy senior chief petty officer and author of the New York Times bestseller Defeating ISIS: Who They Are, How They Fight, What They Believe

“In The Way Forward, two American heroes share their inspired messages that are designed to help you achieve and live a heroic life. This is impactful storytelling that implores you to listen.” – Lt. Col Dan Rooney, bestselling author of Fly Into the Wind: How to Harness Faith and Fearlessness on Your Ascent to Greatness

“An inspiring, enthralling, and entertaining book packed with extraordinary anecdotes. I can’t think of two people better equipped to be life coaches or offer leadership advice than these two great American heroes.” – Piers Morgan, journalist and television personality

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