Most people by now know the origin story of Iron Man, the rich guy turned savior of the universe. But I don't know if many people truly understand that Iron Man is only the superhero he is because of his trauma.
As a young Marine, I had the chance to volunteer for my first deployment back in 2009. I was 20 years old and finally had the opportunity to truly serve my country during a time of war. Ever since I was a boy I had this urge to be a warrior, a hero and this was my chance! No amount of training or preparation could prepare someone for what combat was actually like but I knew it was something I needed to do.
I had just finished my schooling as a Signals Intelligence Marine before arriving at my duty station in Hawaii. Months later my unit asked for volunteers to ship out to Afghanistan and without much thought, I raised my hand. I soon found out that the only spots available were essentially for truck drivers. I had just spent around 8 months at the school of cryptology learning signals intelligence and now I was slated to ship out as a truck driver. So I shifted gears, pun intended and went to work learning to drive just about anything I could, MRAPs Humvees, you name it I drove it. Once I arrived in country things shifted once again, it seemed like not only was I not going to be "driving trucks" but I was shifted into the role of a team leader. Shortly after getting my new orders, I began the workup for our first major operation called Operation Khanjar (aka Strike of the Sword). Come to find out that this was not only the largest Marine Corps Offensive since the Battle of Fallujah in 2004 but it was the largest airlifted offensive since Vietnam. My team attached to 2nd LAR and 2nd Force Recon, one of the only battalions that were not airlifted in.
As I continued my training, in preparation for this massive operation, I ended up severely injuring my left leg. While working out, oddly enough doing HSPUs, the wind kicked up and I flipped over hitting both of my legs on a piece of wood, ultimately ripping my shin above my knee cap on one side. At first, I didn't realize what had actually happened until I looked down to see that my shin and knee cap were exposed. I will spare the details but it was not a pretty sight. After a few four-letter words all I could say was I am not going home, not like this. I hadn't even gone on my first mission yet and I get hurt working out.
I was trucked over to a British camp nearby since we were not yet well equipped to handle an injury like this, where I ended up having surgery to close my leg back up. Without any way to put me under, I was awake for the entire procedure. I eventually passed out from the shock before waking up confused with my leg wrapped up from the hip to the ankle. I attempted to get out of bed and collapsed on the floor unable to support my own weight. I knew it was bad but not sure what this meant, I thought for sure I would be sent home. As soon as my senior enlisted came to check in the first words out of my mouth were I am not ready to go home. That's all I could think of is the fact that I was not ready to leave. I had a duty to my team that was unfulfilled and this is not how I wanted my story to end.
This was just the beginning and to make a long story short, I was able to convince my command that I was not only willing to stay but able to move forward with the mission as planned. So I removed my stitches with a pocket knife and showed them I was "cleared" and ready to go. Still very much in pain I tied my boots a little tighter and loaded the truck.
My team and I left as scheduled and began the 3-day journey down south into Helmand Province in support of Operation Khanjar. Of all the units pushing out we were going the furthest. About 15km north of Pakistan. This essentially meant that we were on our own out there. We arrived just before July 4 2009 and were able to take control of an old castle where we set up our base camp.
The best way to describe what it was like on a daily basis is a quote from Dale Comstock;
"Combat, long periods of boredom and solemn thoughts of home punctuated by moments of stark terror and chaos.”
This is what it felt like, lots of boredom broken up by chaos. The memory of those chaotic moments are sporadic at best, some details I will never forget and some I couldn't remember if I tried. Unfortunately, there are too many days and too many Marines lost to try and fit into one blog post and I don't want to leave anyone unrecognized or remembered appropriately. But more than any one day or trauma it was the overall experience and confusion that followed when it all ended. It wasn't until I came home that I realized the damage that was done. Not only to my leg but to my mental health.
I was named after the Arch Angel Michael and I had always identified with that purpose. My mindset at the time was that I was there to fulfill my purpose as a guardian angel. Now finally at the tip of the spear, I thought this was the end of my journey and I was more than at peace with that end. Not in a morbid or suicidal way but I think anyone volunteers to go to war has to be at peace with the fact they may not come home. No one tells you that coming home may be the hardest part.
I was left with a shotty recollection of 10 months of boredom and chaos. What stood out more than anything was the overwhelming guilt I had wondering if I could have done more to save those lost around me. As an Intelligence Marine, the biggest part of our job was what we call indications and warnings of enemy activity. This meant it was our job to know what the enemy was doing and was going to do before they do it. We had the opportunity to intervene and keep our men safe. My small team was 100% of the signal support for two battalions and after 10 months of fighting and loss I ended up carrying the burden of every one of those losses on my shoulders. Thinking I could have done more, It should have been me.
I was broken and lost. It took years for me to accept that I did everything I could to protect the Marines around me and that It was ok that I survived. We were all ready to make that sacrifice and some paid that price and others did not get that opportunity although ready. I struggled for a long time before finally letting go of that burden and It came from a conversation I had with the Mother of one of the Marines we lost.
I got out of the Marine Corps in 2012, after my time in Afghanistan and later in the Philippines. I felt a strong urge to find the family of Ryan H Lane, one of the Marines that was killed right behind me on July 23, 2009. This led me to Pittsburgh to meet his family and finally see where he was laid to rest. It was the first time since leaving Afghanistan that I actually saw where a Marine was buried. His mother Kathy took me to see him and stood with me for what seemed like an hour rubbing my back as a cried. Letting all the pain and suffering I had felt for years out at that moment. Once I was able to regain my composure I asked her what I could do.
She said, "Don't forget him and be happy. Live a good life, don't be sad but live life to the fullest. That's what he would want for you."
This was the permission I needed to finally let go of the guilt and sadness I had held on to for years. Fast forward to today.
I am living life to the fullest, not in sadness but in memory of those we've lost. I feel purpose in what I do, owning Black Iron CrossFit has been such an honor and privilege. I get to help people live happier and healthier lives. I get to help people through movement and I have had the chance to connect with so many amazing people, sharing my story of suffering and perseverance. Inspiring others who have been through their own trauma and showing them that it truly a gift, not a burden.
To bring things back to Mr Tony Stark...
Iron man was born in trauma, in the first movie he was blown-up in a convoy and his chest was embedded with shrapnel. Upon waking up and hearing the news he had two choices, one to slowly let that shrapnel work its way further into his body and kill him, or do something about it. He took that challenge and invented something because of his condition. The core in his chest was not designed to power a suit of armor it was designed to keep him alive. That's it. It wasn't until he realizes that it was more than just survival but it was the opportunity to be better than he was before. He was still a prisoner and made the decision to choose freedom over captivity. He built a suit of armor around that core, around his trauma, and used that to escape.
Now a free man Tony Stark truly understood the gift of his trauma. He began to evolve not only as Iron Man but as a Man altogether. He improved his armor every chance he got and became the superhero we all know today. Eventually sacrificing himself to save the universe. He would never become the man to save the universe without his trauma. What could have been looked at as a burden became the gift that gave him the ultimate purpose.
Whatever trauma you have dealt with in your life as a veteran or civilian alike I urge you to not only accept it as part of who you are but be excited for the gift you were given. Start building your suite of armor and realize that you have the opportunity to be a superhero because of the things you have been through. Whether or not you are dealing with your own experiences in combat or just dealing with the traumatic events of this year understand that...
Your Trauma Is a Blessing Not A Burden
If this resonates with you in any way please email me. I would love to hear from you. This was difficult to write and in no way a perfect expression of such a deep and tough topic but I hope it helps inspire you to become your own superhero.
Love you 3,000
Sergeant USMC and Owner of Black Iron CrossFit