I was still at senior at West Point, roughly 50 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River, on September 11th, 2001. I was in a course on Chinese politics, about to listen to a lecture from U.S. Defense Attaché to China, when my professor turned on the television in time to watch the second tower go down. Quietly, he said that we wouldn’t hold class that day and that if anyone was interested, an informal prayer group was forming outside. Instead, I chose to dart across campus back to my room to make phone calls and send emails to family and friends.
Everything changed after that. West Point, like all military installations, went into airtight lockdown. Cadets asked relentlessly to go down to aid the recovery effort only to be channeled by the chain of command into a drive to collect socks for first line responders. Rumors surfaced of early graduation to fight in Afghanistan, as earlier classes had done in time of conflict. President George W. Bush’s commencement address included his famous “doctrine of preemption,” which those awaiting diplomas correctly interpreted to mean that war was soon coming. And so I joined one of the first units to fight in Iraq.
September 11th and the several years following in Iraq comprise a sort of dizzy, harried few years that have taken many years for me to reflect on. My first thought about this period is that, it was, to appropriate a line, the best of times and the worst of times. I felt at many points that this was the most rewarding endeavor that I have ever been a part of. I led a group of committed, professional soldiers in a dangerous environment and held my own. Self-confidence grew. Although I’m certain there were better officers there, I think on balance my guys would say that they thought I did well given the circumstances, and that they had faith that I would do what was best for the mission and them (in that order). We helped people that had experienced the horror of a brutal, authoritarian regime and an entirely lawless society. In some moments I wish I could go back, because – when else have I mattered more to humanity than I did then?
Then, reality sets in: I’m married now with a newborn. That fact is what draws me back into remembering the negative things embedded in my psyche from that time. I took human life several times, which one never, ever forgets. We lost good people in strange ways: our unit’s first death was a tank driver that drowned when his vehicle tipped forward responding to a civilian distress call, his turret stuck in a desert stream. We lost good people that were close to me: at some point nearly every day since then three faces from the first deployment jump into my mind’s eye. My first maneuver commander was killed a few weeks in; the college classmate from another unit I saw in passing just before he was killed in action; one of my soldiers whose helicopter on the way to morale leave was shot down. Their faces are frozen in my memory and I think of them often.
The worst moment came soon after these. My younger brother’s unit was stationed a few hundred miles away, so we never had the chance to see one another. But we exchanged a couple letters, and found one another’s unit phone number and tried to arrange a phone call. It didn’t work as we were on opposite and largely variable schedules. One day after my unit had moved from Fallujah to the western desert, I was walking somewhere with some fellow officers, when a Private came to me with a message: my brother’s unit had called and that I needed to call them back “immediately.”
I asked if it was my brother himself that had called; the Private was insistent that it was his unit and not Rob. I asked if it was just a run-of-the-mill message; the Private said that it was not and he repeated the word “immediately.” I left my friends and jumped in the truck back to headquarters, all the while wondering what I would say to my Mom if the worst had happened. All I could think about was an image of myself sitting next to my brother’s flag-covered casket on a flight home to Minnesota. This was the low point of the war for me and the knot that I had in my stomach nearly doubled me over.
When I arrived, the message had indeed been ordinary and my brother and I spoke a few days later. I told him as best I could about the mistaken message, editing out (of course) the less-than-tough-guy sentimental parts.
After my second deployment, I found myself in a deep emotional valley. I lost a significant relationship, which had led me to leave the active component of the Army, and generally felt as if I had lost the concept of “fun” forever — as if my twenties had been taken from me. I looked around at my friends from home and dwelled on all that I had missed while deployed. I was alone, without a job, and felt lost. September 11th and Iraq had broken me.
I started running. At first I ran because I could: I had a bad knee injury in college that stopped me from doing so for three years, but at the tail end of the last deployment I found I could do it again. It felt good to be out in nature, alone with my thoughts, or, from time to time, with some good music. I would run more and more until I raced my first marathon in 2006 and I was hooked. I sought new places to train, new events to sign up for, which gave me a renewed sense of energy. I got healthier physically and felt better emotionally.
There was one race in particular that I desperately wanted to enter, but didn’t have the money: the TransRockies Run, a 120-mile, 6-day stage race in the Colorado Rockies. A family friend and Air Force veteran, Tom Cocchiarella, organized some veteran-friendly businesses to sponsor me, and off I went. After finishing the race, I thought to myself: if Tom was willing to do so much for me, to help me along to get back to “normal,” why can’t I do the same for others that are worse off than I? Why can’t I help those that have both emotional and physical scars?
So I asked Tom for his help in “paying it forward,” and, on Veteran’s Day 2008, Tom and I launched “Team Minnesota Wounded Warrior Project.” We dedicated ourselves to raising money and awareness on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project, a nationally lauded non-profit organization dedicated to honoring and empowering the most severely wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. To motivate potential supporters and demonstrate solidarity with the physical challenges these wounded American heroes face daily, I have run in hundreds of miles of ultra and distance running competitions. Since we began, Team Minnesota WWP has raised just over $130,000, become the organization’s top individual fundraisers, I was named the U.S. Army’s Athlete of the Year in 2009, and Tom has expanded our local support through some generous help from the Saint Paul Vulcans. We’ve been amazed at our journey’s longevity, considering our initial goal was $25,000!
But, for me, it’s been about much more than that. Like many others, September 11th altered the course of my life, and the new trajectory arced toward a difficult and unhappy end. Running was the catalyst that redirected it; Team Minnesota WWP augmented its growth. Both gave me renewed faith that I could have a positive impact on the world. They brought me into a community of people that continually inspired me toward my better angels and instilled a sense of hope, where hope had, for a time, become forlorn (to paraphrase General MacArthur).
I really felt like I had come full circle, when, at a Vulcan-sponsored event this past year, a young veteran who had been shot through the knee came up to Tom and I. His stiff leg produced a bobbing tilt to one side, and you could recognize his difficulty from a distance. Tom introduced him and as I shook his hand he said, “You know, sir, if it wasn’t for this, I’d have been the athlete of the year!” I jokingly shot back, “Not a chance, kid.” When he walked away, I smiled, and was proud to have had a small part to play in his post-injury confidence, knowing how difficult that transition can be. I also wondered if he really could have taken my title.
Then I started drawing up a plan to get to $200,000.