An American Story
I should not have survived the explosion in Afghanistan. The fact that I am alive is a testament to the purpose I still have — to serve others.
I am the oldest of five children, raised with small town values in Arkansas. My parents taught us the importance of service to country and the opportunities a good education offers. Those values inspired me to apply to one of our nation’s prestigious Military Academies.
Being raised in small-town America, they don’t ask whom you know in Washington. They take the measure of a man by asking what they stand for – even what they’d die for. The 9-11 terrorist attacks only reinforced my resolve to serve, even if that meant I might die for my country.
POST 9-11 AT WEST POINT
Being at West Point while we had troops in combat meant a heightened sense of purpose. We were the first class to enter West Point during wartime since Vietnam — all of the leadership and military training was to lead troops in combat.
Four years later, I was commissioned as an Infantry Officer. Leading troops in combat would no longer be a hypothetical exercise. After completing training at the Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia, I was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas as a brand-new Airborne & Ranger-qualified leader of troops. The journey to my goal had taken six years. I was ready.
I deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2008.
SEPTEMBER 4TH, 2008
September 4, 2021 was the 13th anniversary of my Alive Day, the day I celebrate the anniversary of my defining near-death experience.
Our mission was rooted in nation-building. Our orders were to provide security for a convoy transporting turbines to a dam on the Helmand River. I informed leadership of security concerns over aspects of the mission, but my misgivings were not heeded. We would do our duty and conduct the mission, as ordered. On the way out, the platoon of a fellow West Point classmate of mine was ambushed. My own platoon was the closest friendly force, so we moved towards the battle to help provide support to those soldiers.
Right when we entered the engagement area, everything went silent. I felt my body sink into my seat. I saw a bright, brilliant flash of orange. It filled the vehicle, and I knew that we hit a roadside bomb.
I remember thinking: How long is it going to take to burn to death?
The bomb exploded under the fuel tank of my vehicle, leaving me soaked in diesel and engulfed in flames. I dropped to the ground, screaming for help, but I found no relief from the pain. I remember thinking: “How long does it take to burn to death?” “What is the transition from this life to the next going to be like?
In my complete isolation, I gave up the will to live. But then I heard a voice.
“Sir, I’ve got you!”
Despite being wounded himself, my vehicle’s gunner braved the bullets and extinguished the flames from my body. His words and selflessness reignited hope within my soul.
In mere minutes, I went from complete despair to total faith. I realized I was going to get off that battlefield, and I knew there was life ahead.
My wounds required me to be MEDEVACed to the DoD Burn Unit at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. I knew that I would need time to recover and rehabilitate, but I couldn’t accept the fate assigned to me by my doctors.
I truly thought I would be bandaged and join my soldiers again. But the doctors made it clear: my military career was over. I felt like a leader without anyone to lead and a servant without anyone to serve.
MY PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL RECOVERY
The first part of my recovery was physical. Over 30% of my body had third-degree burns and had to be replaced with donor skin. However, my donor sites also responded as a burn, leaving over 50% of my body scarred. I went through more than 30 surgeries over three years of recovery and healing.
Through these physical trials came a spiritual transformation.
Throughout my childhood, my family attended church and I practiced the faith of my parents. But I did not find or accept the reality of true belief in God. I was young and thought I was invincible. Up until the explosion, I lived a very self-focused life. I did everything with a focus on bettering myself.
I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and serve, even if that meant I might die for my country.
My pride changed to humility as I was reduced physically, disfigured and scarred, and confined to a bed unable to bathe or feed myself.
My mother met me in San Antonio, Texas, and became my constant caretaker, an “angel” by my side. She found strength for both of us by reading the Bible. I found a life-changing, foundational passage in Romans 5:3-5: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
I was captivated and challenged by this verse. Why would it instruct me to find joy in suffering? I was left with a choice in the midst of my suffering: to be joyful in those circumstances, trusting that it would result in more endurance, better character, and a strong hope in redemption from a God who loves me; or to become bitter and angry.
LIFE AND LOVE FROM THE ASHES
I had another “angel” with me as I went through the early phases of my recovery. U.S. Army First Lieutenant Amy Larsen worked in the Burn Unit ICU as a critical care dietitian, and she was there with me through the challenges and triumphs of my recovery.
I had no way of knowing that it was the joy I chose to find and apply to my days that would be the key to her seeing past my scars. I can’t explain love, but I know we arrived at a place of trust together and, in less than a year, committed ourselves to one another as husband and wife.
I’m neither a victim nor a hero. I believe I was simply doing my duty to my country.
Amy taught me to see through the scars to the true potential within us all. These revelations impressed upon me a new life mission statement: “The life I live is not my own.”
I’m neither a victim nor a hero in my own life story. I believe that I was simply doing my Duty to serve my country. Real heroes may wear a uniform, but it isn’t required. Heroes are the people – like my gunner, my mother, and my wife – who come to the aid of those in need, despite overwhelming personal suffering and sacrifice. Without those heroes in my life, I would not have survived and found the inspiration to thrive. They drive me to pursue that greater mission to serve others in need, once again.
GRATITUDE AND SUFFERING
Suffering is a part of being human. Regardless of the circumstances or injustices, we each possess the opportunity to choose our response to the trials and suffering in our life. We can allow it to permanently crush us and choose to be bitter, vengeful, and angry. Or we can push through. We can overcome. No one should endure these trials alone. When you see suffering: Reach out, raise your voice, and say, “I’ve got you.” Sometimes that’s all a person needs to find hope.
A FREEDOM STORY
In 2008, Taliban Insurgents shelled us one night with rocket fire, using a small village as a shield. We didn’t engage. In the morning, the Taliban fled and we were met by the Afghan villagers thankful for our overwatch and dispersing the Taliban. My prayers are with all crying out for freedom.