In coastal California, where I grew up, there was a low military presence. I rarely saw a member of the military. My grandfather and great grandfather, whom I considered my best friends, had both retired from the Air Force. My mother had served for 13 years and my father for three. So while I may not have grown up with the military straight in my face, subtle things were instilled in me throughout my childhood, such as respect for our flag.

In high school, I was a bad student. I cared more about lifting weights and making friends than I did for my studies. I was also a stand-out athlete with great potential to play college ball.

While my parents did not force college down my throat or provided a solid guide, I probably wouldn’t have listened had they done so anyway. During my senior year in high school, I didn’t even take my SATs. I knew I wanted to join the military.

Coming from a long line of Air Force lineage — my great grandfather served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Vietnam — you’d think the Air Force recruiter would have an easy sell, but I never went to see him. I wanted to be an Army Ranger! When the young motivated Sergeant came to my house and showed my father the hooah video, I thought maybe even my dad was going to join with me, it was that enthusing. So, off to the boot camp I went.

While many talk about how easy or fun boot camp was for them, I didn’t have fun at all; it was a nightmare. This honestly was exactly what the California kid, who thought he was the toughest on the block, probably needed. After the camp, I was assigned my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS): 11M.

What the hell is 11M, and what the hell is a Bradley Fighting Vehicle? And do they even have Rangers in Kansas? Not so much, but that was my next stop.

Stepping off the plane in Kansas in flip-flops, board shorts, and a hoodie, you could feel the winter wind that whips through the state and cuts to the bone. (Keep in mind that when I was 18 we didn’t have phones to check the weather). I dumped my duffle bags and put just about everything on. What had I gotten myself into?

Luckily the unit I was in was great. My first Army “battle buddy,” Jeremy, took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. Today, over 20 years later, we are still close.

After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was finished with the military and was set to get out and become a motorcycle mechanic. I cleared the post, had my household goods shipped, and my gear turned in at CIF.

On my last day, all I needed was my final stamp, and I was a free man to pick up my DD214. I walked into my final out briefing and in walks a tall, slender civilian. In a deadpan way, he announces that we all had been stop-lossed. WTF?! I raced upstairs to get my DD214. I tried to pull a fast one on the lady upstairs; however, she had already heard. A month later, I was back in Baghdad in the Triangle of Death.

Our infantry company had 130 men in it. Of them, 80 would receive purple hearts, many several. And a number of our men would be lost.

One morning, while I was sitting on route Irish on top of my Bradley Fighting Vehicle (remember the part where I wanted to be a Ranger), four little birds came swooping by, operators hanging off their sides. They flew in like a magical dance, graceful, fast, loud, and violent. It was the most motivating thing I had ever seen. I was instantly hooked. I re-enlisted and went to see the Special Forces recruiter; I wanted to be a Green Beret.

Within six months of being home, I was on a plane to Special Forces Assessment and Selection, which I passed. And the rest is history.

This story was originally published in May 2020. It has been edited for republication.