I died on September 7th, 2011. Or, at least a part of me did. OR maybe it was a version of me, but in a substantial way my life was forever changed.
September 7th was the last day I would ever see the world I live in. It was the last day I would run untethered, the last day I would gaze at the sunrise over a beautiful mountain range, and the last day I would bear arms in defense of our country and way of life. It would be the last day of my life as a Navy Bomb technician.
When I awoke in the hospital after withstanding a blast at close range from an Improvised Explosive Device )IED), doctors informed me that the damage to my eyes was too severe to be fixed, and that as a result, I would be blind for the rest of my life.
Over the next few months I would learn that the loss of my vision was not the greatest loss I had suffered. The loss of my ability to serve would be synonymous with a loss of identity, which would prove to be much more substantial than the loss of my eyesight.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a part of the navy. More of that has to do with the movie “Top Gun” than I would like to admit, but regardless of the source of my motivations, that was the beacon that I guided my life by for a long time. In high school, I sought an appointment to the Naval Academy, not because of the education, but for the opportunity to attend one of the most elite leadership institutions in the world. There, I studied not to become a Naval Architect, but to become a Naval Officer and a leader. I trained hard not just to Beat Army, but to prepare myself for the rigors of combat. When I graduated, I was commissioned as a sailor in the greatest Navy in the world, and that was how I saw myself. My sense of identity was derived from the organization I was a part of.
Over the ensuing seven years, my life revolved around the Navy, my fellow sailors, deployments, and our mission set as bomb technicians. Thankfully, I received a wake up call early one morning…
During my rehabilitation, I learned how to utilize technology and adapt aspects of my lifestyle in order to function without my vision. At the same time, I had to learn how to adapt my self image, my identity, to a new world without the Navy. I was forced to take a long hard look at myself, and work out who I was at a core level, not merely a Naval Officer from St. Petersburg, FL. There is so much more involved in the composition of character than where we are from and what we do for a living. I began to discover this as I peeled back the layers of my own character.
I started asking myself questions like, why did I want to be a part of the EOD community? Why did I want to join the Navy in the first place? Why did I seek to serve in combat?
My answers were all centered on my desire to be virtuous… I wanted to be apart of something special… I wanted to serve my country… I wanted to prove I had courage, resiliency, and passion. I had heard stories about my grandfather in WWII where he had manifested such characteristics. I had read books about Spartan warriors who lived and died by their virtues. I had heard these talked about in the recruiting videos for the Naval Academy, and I wanted in!
But why? Why is it honorable to be courageous? why is respectable to be resilient? Why is at admirable to live with passion? What is honor anyway? Why is it important to seek the respect and admiration of our peers?
I think that these questions needle at who we are on a very fundamental level. Our nature as a species is predicated on our ability to face and overcome challenge. Every species on Earth has to provide food and shelter for itself in order to survive. This concept has driven evolution, and while some species have developed shells and claws, we developed an intellect and opposable thumbs. Armed with these we developed fire, and landed ourselves atop the food chain quick, fast, and in a hurry. Despite the lack of natural enemies, we proved that we’re not immune to challenge, and before long we turned on ourselves. War has become the greatest challenge of our kind, and thus has become a proving ground for the various aspects of character that might enable us to face and overcome challenge. A warrior who is courageous, resilient, and who fights with passion will more often than not succeed on the battlefield, and that is why we have come to revere these character traits as virtues.
I suppose this is why as a young man I wanted to become a part of the navy. I wanted to train as a warrior, I wanted to learn the value of virtue, and I wanted to test myself on the proving grounds of virtue, on the battlefield.
Having been removed from the battlefield, it was important for me to find a new way to prove to myself, and to my peers that I was still a warrior. I needed to prove that I could still stand up to challenge with courage, that I would not give up in the face of adversity, and that I would pursue happiness with determination and passion.
I was lucky to find a new proving ground in the form of a pool. My participation in the Paralympics gave me the conduit, the medium I needed in order to validate my core identity as a warrior. Through competing as a part of Team USA, I found that the challenges offered by sport, and the challenges offered on the battlefield are very similar. The stakes are different, but the core virtues are the same.
On September 7th, 2012 I stood atop the podium in London proudly a completely new and rediscovered version of the same person I always was. It took having my identity being stripped away for me to realize who I had been all along!
The good news is that you don’t have to be blown up to experience this sort of personal discovery! I would like to challenge you to turn the lens inward, and ask yourself these tough questions… Who are you at a core level? Why have you chosen the path you are on? What are your core values? Why? Are you living up to who you are on the inside? Are you practicing and developing the virtues you hold dear?
What defines you?