There is a bond between friends you make while serving in a war that is as strong as a brother’s love, an attachment that lasts until eternity.
Even in the most elite groups there are those who are more elite- and even within the innermost circles of excellence, there is the chosen one, the golden boy. I have never been that person. In the last group of men I served with it was a hero named Bruno.
Within a collection of Special Operations Warriors I worked with at Camp Morehead, Afghanistan one is a Green Beret Major named Kent. In the Special Forces Community Kent is somewhat of a legend.
Kent has a face and build that belongs on a Special Forces recruiting poster- he is charismatic, constantly smiling and reassuring others with his easy going manner. He is a leading man capable of awing audiences, easily portraying the hero he really is.
With his mane of golden hair that sweeps back from his face he always reminded me of the actor Brad Pitt, especially when he was trying to talk you into doing a “death run” with him.
Standing five feet ten inches tall he is immensely athletic even more impressive when you consider he has only one leg. He is lean from long endurance events, very fit from hours of working out and a robust build from never missing a day in the gym.
He is a compact, powerful man who exudes confidence and authority. Although his speaking voice is always calm, almost gentle, modulated only by a faint Southern accent from the assortment of army posts he has been assigned to all over the American Southeast.
Kent’s most annoying and enduring habit is breaking out into popular songs from the 80’s where he only knows a handful of the words. His singing is something that tends to bring to mind cats congregating on a backyard fence.
All that being said he one of the greatest friends I have ever had and in a sense saved my life by an example of his own courage.
Operation Volcano II
On July 27, 2007, Kent participated in an operation designed to capture a senior leader of the infamous Mahdi Army (High Value Target) in the city of Karbala, Iraq. Kent’s team “fast roped” from helicopters into the area. The insurgents attacked the American forces from three sides with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s.
With the insurgents targeting one of the American positions, Kent aggressively maneuvered his men to reinforce the beleaguered soldiers. It was then that he noticed an insurgent armed with an RPG, less than ten meters away from his position.
Disregarding any concern for himself, he bravely charged forward, shot and killed the insurgent, saving the Americans in the nick of time. Realizing that the US forces in the building were in grave danger, Kent exposed himself to enemy fire in order to gain a better position to cover the other soldiers in his unit.
From this location, he managed to limit the insurgent fire on his team. In the final moments of the engagement he rounded a corner and he found himself face to face with an AK-47-wielding Mahdi fighter.
Kent made a split second decision, firing at and killing the insurgent. However, as the terrorist fell to the ground fatally wounded, he let loose one last burst from his AK-47, which wounded Kent in the legs and back.
Despite being wounded in both legs and his back, Kent shot three enemy soldiers in the encounter and his actions earned him the Silver Star, the third highest award for valor.
He is one of the most talented leaders I have ever met. When most people would have given up or faced depression with losing a leg Kent saw it as simply another obstacle to overcome.
Impossible to dislike, he has lived a charmed life, and his very presence in the unit has raised morale. People enjoy being around him, especially our Afghan Soldiers because he has the sunny aura of a man to whom even though something bad has happened to him he has not let it define him.
Although he would love nothing more than to be fighting dug-in entrenched insurgents alongside indigenous soldiers in the badlands, he used his knowledge to teach a new generation of Afghan and American soldiers.
His nickname is “Captain America” because he is the epitome of being a perfect soldier. Being decorated for bravery in the face of the enemy has led to some modicum of recognition.
But for Kent more anything else it has become the motivation to volunteer for dangerous assignments and protracted combat. His true gift comes in training soldiers and again, Kent uses his extraordinary talents to do just that.
He is an expert in preparing perspective Special Forces candidates for the rigors of combat. His calling seems to be training young men mentally for the brutality of what they could expect in combat and how to survive.
He stresses in each class he teaches that the horror of war and combat are survivable, that his students need to look at each other when the going is rough and in that process, there is a lasting bond that is developed, a bond of brotherhood of facing the worst circumstances and coming through it together.
He is on his fifth combat deployment and has a solid reputation as an operator and a shooter, something that is hard earned in the competitive world of Special Operations Warriors.
Leading By Example
An apostle for fitness, Kent is a running and lifting enthusiast and being his workout partner is a practice in torture and pain. His prodigious feats of strength and endurance include running over the two mountains we have the line the base.
Kent’s motto is that to lead soldiers in combat you have to lead by example. He believes the best example of your mettle is planning and conducting intense, grueling physical training.
He thinks that no worthwhile Soldiers would follow a boss who couldn’t demonstrate the tremendous and psychological prowess of a Combat Leader. The one large indicator of that ability to lead elite Soldiers is physical fitness. He looks at in two ways.
One was that it makes him feel good both physically and mentally, but in another way, it was like any trade smith practicing his craft. His vocation is leading men into battle and to do that you had to have physical, emotional and mental endurance.
The best way to practice and develop these traits was long, hard workout sessions where you test both your mind and your body. All of this is made more impressive because Kent does it all with a prosthetic leg.
Kent as a Teacher
Kent has a keen sense of humor and his full-time hobby is giving me a hard time. With his acerbic wit and anarchic temperament, even in the worst of circumstances he is always fun to be around.
But at his bedrock what makes Kent really tick is his understanding instinctively about balance in his life; without being able to articulate the why or what of a situation he knows what to do in almost any scenario.
Kent’s most enduring quality, the one that makes him a real hero, is that he is a far more honorable man than he’d ever admit; for him, there are some things that are fundamentally right, as there were some things that are fundamentally wrong.
Kent will be the first one to tell you that life is not fair; citing the loss of his leg as an example, but that has never stopped him from believing that life is what you make it.
Kent leads not mostly with just impressive bouts of endurance, but with his heart. He is loved and admired by Afghans and Americans Soldiers alike. In one cause Kent is a true champion.
His helping wounded Afghan Soldiers who have been crippled or hurt while serving with American Special Forces to get follow-on medical treatment in the States.
Watching Kent use spare parts from his own prosthetic leg to rebuild the artificial leg of an Afghan Soldier named Rahim, who survived a roadside bomb that killed two Americans, Kent is in his element.
Smiling as he re-tooled the leg and added a few pieces he explained to me the intricacies of prosthetics. Rahim is headed to the States in a few weeks, largely due to Kent’s lobbying on his behalf to Fort Bragg.
In typical, modest fashion Kent simply said, “We owe this to them. They fight and die beside us, it’s the least we can do.”
Haunted by Memories
I have suffered for a long time with some memories and times better left forgotten. War devastates not only our physical being but our very soul. In war, chaos overwhelms compassion, violence replaces cooperation, fear replaces rationality, and instinct dominates the mind.
When the mind and conscience is drenched in these conditions, the soul is disfigured and you can seem lost. It seemed like there was a removal of the center of my mind, and always there was the presence of my wartime experience and it affected everything I did.
For me the haunting of my memories from Iraq and Afghanistan were something I never really got over. I felt like I was trapped in a limbo where the past and present seemed to intermingle without differentiation or continuity. Nothing felt right until Kent helped me place my experience into perspective and helped to rejoin my body and mind.
What was once separate now felt joined. Kent’s own experiences far eclipsed anything I had been through, but over the last four months of us talking about what we had both seen and done in both life and death it help me to come to terms with what I had experienced.
He was unlike any other therapist or counselor because his own time in combat was so much like my own but far worse. From talking about what we had been through it took the mythic arena of war from something epic into the mundane.
We talked about the friends we lost, on more than a few occasions we came to realize we had known some of the same men but in different times of their lives. We talked about what had brought us to this point in our lives, to examine its nature and discover its truth.
I told Kent about how both Phil and Bruno had died. How those brushes with death had changed and lived with me. He told me about the loss of his leg and his countless months at Walter Reed and about coping with only one leg.
We both talked about why we had returned to Afghanistan after no one would have faulted us for not coming back. We focused on the spiritual dimension of combat for therein lies the great sway that allows young men to be drawn to what they think will be the glory of war.
In this effort, we went back the beginning of our careers and we talked about other warriors we had known who had fallen. Mostly we talked about the landscape of the inner self and how the soul is forever changed by the experience of war.
Kent summed it up best, “You never really get over the war. You always want the excitement and camaraderie that comes with being in combat. But the damage it leaves behind is something epic. In time, you just learn to live with it.”
What makes Kent a hero, in my mind, for evermore is how he listened and taught me ‘how to live with it.’ Bro, you will never really know how thankful I am for you giving me back my tomorrows when for so long I only lived in the todays.