Our Parents’ Careers: Navy SEAL, Entrepreneur, Circumnavigator, Farmer

Photo credit: Jessica Spengler, CC BY 2.0.

I hear the screen door open and shut, then the thump of work boots against the wooden hallway floors. After a 10-hour day, my father has come in from the fields to help my mom cook dinner. He’s wearing his typical uniform—a dirty, hole-covered T-shirt and old jeans. He tells us that he spent his day putting in fence posts, baling hay, and checking on the cows to see if any have gone into labor.

One might not guess that my dad is successful, given the way he presents himself. He despises dress clothes, drives an old truck, and prefers the friendship of humble country folk over ambitious city-dwellers. Yet successful he very much is. In fact, the people with whom he’s acquainted sometimes half-jokingly refer to him as “the most interesting man in the world.” With intelligence and an unmatched work ethic, he has accomplished essentially every goal he’s ever set.

As a high school student, my father had his eye on becoming a Navy SEAL—so step by step, he went about making it happen. He got into the Naval Academy. He adhered to an intensive fitness regimen of his own creation. When, during class, he was asked what he aspired to be and his answer was met with laughter, the skepticism fueled him to work even harder. At 5’8’’ and 150 pounds, he wasn’t the typical SEAL candidate. But his determination paid off.

After four years at the Naval Academy, he was accepted into BUDS, the SEAL training program with a notoriously low completion rate. “At the beginning of BUDS, we were put through intensive physical testing in what’s known as Hell Week,” my dad tells me. “It’s when most people quit. In six days, I probably only slept for two hours. The instructors would make us lay in the surf all night long, when it was freezing, and every once in a while we’d line up so a doctor could check us for signs of hypothermia.” With an iron will and a little luck, my dad made it through Hell Week—as well as the rest of his training. He was initiated into the SEAL teams.

A few years in, he was married with a baby (that’s me!) on the way. At that time my dad was frequently away from home, and he wanted to play a larger role in his family’s life. As soon as his five-year commitment was up, he left the military and took a civilian job as a distribution supervisor at Johnson & Johnson’s orthopedic division. He had no intention of working his way up any corporate ladders, however. Instead, he focused his attention on achieving another dream—the seed of which had been planted when he learned to sail as an 8-year-old. He wished to travel around the world, with my mother and me in tow, on a sailboat.

“Working at Johnson & Johnson, I was never going to be able to afford to sail around the world,” he recalls, “so I began reading about the best ways to make a lot of money. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked for the government, so I wasn’t really informed about that sort of thing. After reading Rich Dad Poor Dad and The Millionaire Next Door,I decided I had to start a business.”

He and my mom toyed around with lots of ideas. They thought about selling shoes, or presidential toilet paper, or starting a wholesale nursery. The lightbulb finally went off when my dad realized Johnson & Johnson could save money by outsourcing the packaging of the orthopedic and spinal implants it sold. He wrote up a business plan for a company that could provide such a service and pitched it to his boss. She liked the idea, and he had his first client. Millstone Medical Outsourcing was born, and for several years, my dad ran the company. He grew the business from four employees to a hundred, expanded the services he offered, and acquired more customers.

Despite his increasing success, my father was unhappy. He had gained weight, was constantly stressed, and stayed late every night at the office. Starting a business was supposed to be a means to an end—to have sufficient funds with which to circumnavigate. He dreamed of the boat he would buy, the exotic lands he’d travel to, and long voyages across oceans. So, after four years as CEO, he found a buyer and sold Millstone. At 33 years old, he walked away not only with enough money to sail around the world, but to never have to work again.

My dad outfitted a sailboat, and moved my mom, my baby sister, and me onto it. It was a drastically different life from the one we’d had in the American suburbs. The living space inside the boat was small and cramped. As an adolescent, I started homeschooling. We bathed in the ocean to conserve fresh water, and ran a generator twice a day in order to have electricity. There was no internet—we received email through a complex HAM radio setup.

Residing on a sailboat may have been a lesson in minimalism, but it was also an adventure. My father captained the boat through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean. In Polynesia, he got a tattoo from a native man who lived on a remote hilltop. We sailed through the Indian Ocean, during which venomous sea snakes slithered past our boat, and onward to Africa, where we went on safari.

On our twenty-day return passage across the Atlantic, we discussed as a family what we would do when we got back to the United States. After three years of boat life, our circumnavigation was almost complete. We liked the idea of moving to the countryside, away from the bustle of towns and cities. My father decided he’d become a farmer.

Seven years have passed since my family bought a farm in Virginia, and my dad is now 46. Whenever I return home to visit, there’s always much to be done. More than 100 sheep graze in one pasture, and 200 cows in another. There are eggs to collect from the chicken coop, and three horses to feed. My dad recently purchased timberland that surrounds the farm, and he’s turning it into pasture to support a larger cattle herd. He is also working to put the 850-acre farm into a conservation easement, and has a small private lending business on the side. While he doesn’t need the money, he likes to keep busy.

After changing direction so many times, my father feels ready to settle down for good. “This is where I plan to die,” he often says. He intends to build elaborate gardens, hiking trails, and several ponds to attract wildlife. Most of all, he’d like to see the cattle herd grow to 500 head. “I want to build a legacy, get the cattle business to the point where it can run itself and provide passive income for my kids.” he says, “And hopefully leave this piece of earth more beautiful than I found it.”

If his previous accomplishments are any indication, he’ll make it happen.

Caroline Tillman is a freelance writer and seasonal worker. She’s obsessed with long-distance hiking and minimalism. Follow her on Instagram @carolinektillman.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Parents Month series.

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