Excellence is Delicious: Navy Cross Recipient Brian Chontosh on Philosophy, Acceptance, and Finding your True Self

Brian Chontosh is a little bit of a legend. Now I’m not just talking about ‘he’s a real cool dude’ kind of a legend (although he is). When I say ‘legend’, I mean like a leprechaun sliding down a rainbow into a pot of gold kinda mythical legend. He’s a big deal. The real McCoy. At least he is in my brain.

I can’t pin the exact day I heard about Brian Chontosh, but I know that it must have been in 2004. I know this because in 2004 I was a young second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, and I was a student in a place called The Basic School. The Basic School (TBS if you are into the whole brevity thing) is a place that all Marine officers go to learn how to be Marine officers. They teach you how to (not) get lost in the woods. They teach you how to take orders from Staff Sergeants and make it look like you are the one giving them. Basically they teach you how not to fuck everything up if you are ever lucky enough to be allowed to lead actual Marines.

As a part of this curriculum, TBS has a well-established program of hero worship. It is an effort to point all Marine officers’ needles north in the great moral compass of ‘what right looks like’. They hold the idols of Marine leadership before you like human gods. Men like Dan Daly and Chesty Puller and the more modern James Mattis. These are the men to emulate. This is who you want to be. Captain instructors would read the glorious citations of recipients of the medals of valor (mostly the Medal of Honor). 

“What’s the best part of that story?,” they would bellow.

“He lived to tell about it!,” we would yell.

They wanted to inspire the fresh meat with these tales. Because we were about to head to war ourselves, a long and ugly one it turns out, and the Marine Corps needs leaders full of piss and vinegar.

It was in this context that I heard about Brian Chontosh, recipient of the Navy Cross for badassery. It was in TBS in 2004 that I heard of the Marine officer who cleared an entire enemy trench line. In doing so, he killed a lot of bad guys. And when he ran out of ammo he used their weapons to kill more bad guys. No, really. Go read his citation. You can find it on Wikipedia under the ‘Brain Chontosh’ entry.

Eventually I graduated from The Basic School and was foisted upon the Marine Corps, another second lieutenant to tolerate. I was nothing special, but I didn’t mess up too bad so I suppose TBS did its work well. After a few years and my own adventure in Iraq, I returned to the states and found myself an instructor. But I was an instructor at the artillery school, a sort of finishing school after TBS. There I taught Marine and Army officers the intricacies of their occupational specialty. And it is there that I heard the name Brian Chontosh again.

You see, my Marine students came fresh from The Basic School. And from that place they brought tales of a Marine captain named Chontosh. A war hero. A man who stood in the frigid cold, shivering in a basic uniform, not accepting a coat while the lieutenant students huddled in their sleeping bags. These lieutenants would recite the stories with awe in their voices. These weren’t second hand accounts. They saw him do it. 

They also brought stories of a hard-assed warrior who didn’t play nice with those who couldn’t hack it. According to the story, Captain Chontosh encountered a young lieutenant eating during an orders brief. Chontosh admonished the lieutenant for eating when he should be taking notes and paying attention to the order.  

The lieutenant retorts, “But sir, chow is continuous.”  

For those who don’t know, ‘chow is continuous’ is the phrase of a warrior. There are no meal times in the field; we do not set aside time for the frivolities of “lunch” and “dinner”. This is because there are no meal times in combat. Fighting doesn’t stop because you are hungry. You eat when you can. 

Chontosh isn’t having it from the hungry lieutenant. He responds, “Chow is continuous, not constant you fat fuck.”

Any warrior loves that response. It makes us laugh. And it fills us with pride. A Marine, especially an officer, is expected to be fit and trim and ready for battle. Eating when you should be working is anathema. It is against the code of a warrior. 

That is the Brian Chontosh that I knew. He was a character in a story. He was a legend. Almost a myth. That is the Brian Chontosh that most of the world knows. So it was a bit of surprise to speak with the man on the phone and to hear him speak with such intelligence, humility, and philosophy. It’s nice to talk with heroes and learn that they are real men who suffer the same flaws as you. It’s nice to know that they put their pants on one leg at a time. To be fair, I didn’t ask how he puts his pants on, but I am comfortable assuming that it is one leg at a time. 

First off, to know Brian Chontosh is to call him Tosh. Second, take whatever assumptions you have in your head about Tosh and flush them. They are all wrong. The Tosh that I spoke to, the one that I now know, is a different man than the man in the stories. Which is interesting because he says the stories are true, “Probably. Sounds like me.” 

Tosh presents a Zen demeanor these days, laughing at the story as I tell it to him. But you can tell by speaking with him that the same fire lurks just beneath the surface. It is that fire that drives him. I know because it drives so many Marines: fire and passion and the wont to give the entire world the middle finger. 

Tosh told me that he joined the military for an unsexy reason: he was looking for direction. Tosh tried the Air Force first. At the time, he had a friend in the Air Force who was doing well. But a troubled record meant that the Air Force wouldn’t have him. But Tosh isn’t one to give up. He joined the Marine Corps instead. Because fuck them, that’s why. 

Who is this ‘them’ to which his fucks are directed? To hear him tell it, ‘them’ was his parents. But I have a sneaking suspicion that ‘them’ is the world. Eighteen year old Brian Chontosh, like so many Type-A males, was headstrong and had no direction. His parents wanted him to join the military because they thought it would straighten him out. Fuck them. Let’s see what the Marine Corps can do to me. There are a few thousand Marines out there with the exact same story.

Just like all those other troubled young men, Tosh found a home in the Marine Corps. And the Marine Corps did the only thing you can do with an athletic, intelligent, and headstrong 18-year-old. They made him an infantryman. And there, in the rose garden of the infantry, young Tosh bloomed. Tosh was a natural warrior. 

He was so good that after a few years the Marine Corps put him on the officer track. He went to college. Then to Officer Candidate School. Then to The Basic School. Tosh dominated along the way. Not a big surprise. 

He graduated at the top of his class at TBS. As a reward, he had his choice of any occupational specialty. Any job, just name it. He picked infantry. Fuck them, that’s why. Those are my words, not his. That is me trying to get into his brain; to see the world through his eyes. I think he picked the infantry because it is a challenge. And a guy like Tosh needs a challenge. The rest, as they say, is history.

I never met the Tosh of 2000 or 2003. I sense there was a lot of bravado in this talented young man. I sense there was a chip on his shoulder. But war and life have a habit of taming the fire out of young men. To hear Tosh speak of himself in the past tense, you can feel how much he has changed. He has mellowed. He’s gone from cocky kid to philosopher.

Tosh won’t admit to being a philosopher though, “Who am I to have a philosophy?”

But do the wise think they are wise? Probably not. In the great irony of life, that is the sign of true wisdom. So yeah, Tosh, you’re a philosopher. I’m going to go ahead and slap you with that label, even though you flat out told me that you are not. Sorry.  

But don’t get too excited, folks. Tosh isn’t an armchair philosopher. He’s not an academic philosopher. He’s done his fair share of reading, sure, but he doesn’t opine on the opinions of others. He doesn’t laze around and wax semantic about the Stoics over wine and beluga caviar. Tosh doesn’t wear a tweed jacket and smoke a pipe. Instead, he’s the kind of philosopher that philosophizes on the move. In PT gear. He philosophizes in the present. He’s an experiential philosopher. His philosophy is up close and personal. It’s raw and real. The way philosophy is supposed to be. 

When discussing philosophy, Tosh talks about the concepts of ‘mental toughness’ and finding oneself beyond a mere title or single life-defining event. He practices what he preaches. His philosophy is hard won. Tosh talks about getting caught up in his own BS; he talks about allowing the Navy Cross to define him and moving past that. 

“What happened to you is not who you are. It shapes you. But it does not define you.”

So what does a legendary warrior-philosopher do after 21 years of Marine Corps infantry? Well you sure as hell don’t go work for The Man. Instead, you do what any warrior looking for answers does: you go on walkabout. You journey. You seek the spirit dream. Then you perch yourself on a mountaintop and wait for those who seek wisdom to come to you. No, but really.

After a couple of years of soul-searching, Tosh founded the Crooked Butterfly ranch in Colorado. On a mountaintop. Well, “a nice hill in the mountains”, as he describes it. But in my head, this ‘hill’ is the metaphorical philosopher’s perch. Why Crooked Butterfly? According to Tosh it is because butterflies don’t fly in straight lines. They are perfectly imperfect. That’s poetry, baby. It sings. If that doesn’t have philosopher written all over then I don’t know what does.

At the Crooked Butterfly, Tosh is both perennial student as well as teacher. At the ranch or in some other outdoors place, Tosh meets with his clients. He seeks wisdom in nature because, “you can’t lie to Mother Nature, she is always going to force you to know the truth.”

And using the great battering ram of nature he breaks down barriers and walls to get to the true essence of a person. And there, in that space, Tosh helps his clients sort through their shit. To find themselves. To find acceptance. Tosh knows first hand about acceptance. 

When I asked him if he had found peace he replied that he had found acceptance instead. He doesn’t seek peace. He’s accepted what happened to him. He’s accepted the terrible things that he has done. No salacious specifics here, folks, sorry. This ain’t that kind of article. But we don’t need to be specific. Just know that when you find yourself in war, shitty things happen. Good people are forced to do terrible things. That is the price of war. And it is paid by the warrior. 

That’s why Tosh’s philosophy is so real. He’s lived it. And he knows that all the wise warrior can do is accept what happened, learn from it, and move on. Tosh doesn’t dwell in the past. He dwells in the present. That’s some deep philosopher shit right there.

At the end of our conversation I cornered Tosh with the tricky kind of dickhead question that people like me ask: pick one word to put on your tombstone, one word to define you. His word: “Good.” I like it, I tell him. Simplicity is best. He wants to be a good person. Not popular. Not famous. Not rich. Good. Then I felt bad about my ambush question and asked him to pick a phrase instead. 

“[I’m] just an average person trying to be better everyday… trying to suck a little bit less than I did yesterday.”

That last bit. Well that’s the Stoic philosopher speaking in the tongue of United States Marine. We all suck. We can only seek to improve. Every day. Like a boss. That last bit also shows that the underlying intensity of the man who charged into an infested enemy trench line is still there. The blade is still sharp. It’s just sheathed in wisdom. 

And the first part? Average person? Nah. Because if you are average, Tosh, then what the hell does that make me? But I do appreciate the humility. 

So, dear reader, if you are ever on a journey for truth and happen to be in Colorado, I encourage you to climb a mountain and look for a wise man. But I hope you are in shape because he won’t be sitting around staring at the clouds. He’ll be moving with fire and passion and intensity to the top. Because excellence is delicious. And if you can keep up, you might just find some wisdom too.

Thanks for reading, 

Dustin

 

To learn more about Tosh and what he does, visit www.crookedbutterfly.com.