Probably the most unexpected thing about me is that by virtue of being an athlete, I had actually felt judged years before I ever looked physically different. That is because when you are an athlete, people are always watching you, and you always have to perform, even on and off the field. Back then, quite ironically, I may have had my body physically in tact, but I was never comfortable with my looks. I was aware that due to my size I must have looked really intimidating. But in general, I operated out of fear….fear of how what others were thinking of me, how they perceived me. My greatest fear was of failure. In some respects, my fears were not misplaced, however. My first boss years ago even confided in me that people that met me were afraid. I was grateful for his honesty, and worked hard to have people get to know me first….the person rather than the fit athlete.
To give some more context about me, I graduated from West Point where I played football, and hold a Masters Degree from Georgetown. West Point was the place I met my beautiful wife…we’ve been married for twenty six years and have two wonderful children. Ultimately, I became a Colonel in the U.S. Army and I also assumed command June 25, 2012, of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. It was because of my military service, where I was stationed abroad for long stretches of time, that I found myself in Baghdad in 2007. That is when the accident happened. There I lost my legs in addition to receiving other injuries as a result of a roadside bomb exploding. I was in the hospital for 45 days and of course initially, it all was a shock. But then, while there I was faced with the first opportunity to hide my body. I had a steady stream of visitors and at one point a nurse asked if I wanted them to leave when it was time to show my bandages and newly changed body. It was in that moment I realized I had a choice, and I realized that I needed to let go and let them all see me for what I had become. I had nothing to hide since this was now me.
Immediately, and perhaps ironically, by taking this action, it felt like shackles I had self-imposed were finally being removed and I felt free! I realized that this was the new me and I couldn’t care any longer what people felt. Even more importantly, I realized that although I was certainly at an emotionally vulnerable point in my life, that I still had my loving family, who unconditionally accepted me regardless of my physical change. To them, I was still their dad, husband, even still their role model. They had always been my proudest accomplishment and somehow, despite what had happened to me, I was still theirs. That gave me a lot of strength.
As a result, these days I wear my scars proudly, and I do not seek to hide them whatsoever. I’ve come to realize that life is precious, tomorrow is not promised, and every day I wake up is an opportunity to make a difference. I love to travel, and my goal is to scuba dive in the Red Sea one day soon. For those of you who have seen an old movie called, “Shaft,” I am greatly inspired by the late director and photographer Gordon Parks. Like Parks, I have followed my lifetime love for photography and some of my works have been featured at Gallery 138 in Manhattan this summer. Also, with my success in my break-out role in the 2012 film, Battleship, I have also continued to act, with a new series coming out on television this fall.
My life has changed a lot since those days when I worried about being judged, before the explosion. It’s almost as if my life started over, on that very day back in Iraq. I have been incredibly fortunate, surrounded by my family who have supported me, quiet poetically, every step of the way. When I am asked how has my experience changed me the most, I simply say that I smile a lot more than I did, and I have learned to accept people unconditionally, including myself.
I’ll leave you all with this: You don’t know if the sun is shining if you haven’t had any rain.