I met Andy Stumpf in August 2005—about six months after he got shot in Iraq. He was resurfacing from a strong bout of whiskey and pill bottle roulette and heard something in my words that suggested I might shine a light towards the exit—the good exit. I was a few years away from my own version of that game and on a pretty good path, with actual, useful experience of a different kind to share. Our initial connection occurred around fitness—he invited me to teach a seminar for the team where he worked—as did our disconnection when I went walkabout from an organization where he found opportunity, a sense of community, and a calm reentry trajectory.
After that split it took years for us to reconnect but (I suspect) we each watched each others’ live from afar so when Andy did make contact regarding an appearance on his own Cleared Hot podcast it was easy to do so: we have each seen too much to allow the trivial to get in the way—and some of what we have experienced renders what is serious to some trivial for us. Mutual experience is good shorthand. I don’t have to explain “bet your life” to someone who has done it. And mutual respect makes many bridges easier to cross.
On the other hand, having been to the edge that renders most problems trivial and come back from it presents its own set of issues. Both of us have struggled—and still struggle—with meaning in the everyday, in the normal, in a world where white-hot intensity is a distant memory and its knife-like ability to separate meaningful from meaningless is no longer consistently available. Sometimes the experiences we had in the past feel like a barrier between us and the experiences we can have now. We developed the habit of using risk to clarify perception and without it I think we both realized that our ability to discriminate and to relate is underdeveloped. In one of our conversations about the difference between thrill-seeking and thought-seeking he said, “It’s not the risk I’m looking for but what the risk provides me,“ which is clarity, perspective, and self-awareness.
Andy was medically retired from the Navy in 2013. During his 17-year career he worked his way through the SEAL pipeline up to the varsity squad, a team with which he executed hundreds of combat operations. Andy earned a stack of medals and decorations during his career. More importantly, he learned a lot of hard lessons and had the mental dexterity to extrapolate them to other aspects of life — and service after service. He continues to work for the military community, raising money and awareness for organizations such as the Navy SEAL Foundation and Gold Star Families in general.
His record-setting wing suit flight in 2015 covered 18.26 miles of horizontal displacement over the course of roughly eight minutes and he made this flight in an effort to raise one million dollars for the Navy SEAL Foundation. Andy has made over 7000 skydiving jumps, many hundreds of BASE jumps, and travelled to some of the greatest BASE jumping locations around the world. This activity, he freely admits, allows him access albeit briefly to the sensation and experience he grew to love as a soldier. It is not without risk and during the podcast he talks about the transitional moment when, “I stop looking at where I’m going to hit but looking at where I’m going to go,” which is a lot like life: if you stay focused on the negative outcome a good trajectory and result is unlikely.
While BASE jumping and wing suit flying seem awfully hectic and loud, Andy has discovered value and beauty in the quiet discipline of bow hunting, in the research, the planning, the stalking and patient waiting, and in the uncertainty of the outcome. This requires, “90% of the skills of my old job,” and the experiences are stretched out over a much longer timeline than the art of falling/flying. Volume makes up for the missing intensity and the contemplative moments—which may last for hours—allow for serious examination of Self as well as the environment influencing and influenced by that Self.
I often wonder if this is what we (all of us) seek: the ability to understand ourselves and the world around us, how we affect it and vice-versa, and thereby learn to navigate whatever is in front of us. Recently, I read a simple admonition he wrote that describes and defines much for me, “Don’t chase a title, chase a purpose.” It made me ask myself which I am doing and for that I thank him.
Check out Andy's website here
You can find the Cleared Hot podcast here or any place you can listen to podcasts
Episode 36 of the Dissect podcast with Andy is here