How do you live after you should have died?
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the organization of people. How is it that a collection of strangers can imagine themselves to be a community? Why is it that the culture of that imagined community can seem immutable for generations, only to transform with sudden revolutions in leadership, philosophy or law?
Growing up in Bakersfield, California, with my eyes glued to the news and my bookshelves crammed with histories, I thought this capacity for reimagination was the motive force in human affairs, the magic that turned subjects into citizens and set men free. I thought that if every community could be liberated and organized in this way, humanity would know no limit.
Ideas are destiny. Mine sent me to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to platoon leadership in Afghanistan, to the intensive care unit—and, eventually, to law.
Eager to help
The effort to reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq brought me to West Point. I knew that America had not entered the war on terror with the intent to build nations any more than the Union had begun the Civil War with the intent to abolish slavery. But by 2006, nation-building was the Army’s mission, and I was eager to help.
After graduation in 2010, I was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and ordered to lead a platoon of paratroopers—the most difficult job I’ve ever had. This was genesis, a year and a half of learning who I actually was when push came to shove, and what it took to lead 24 men who were older, tougher and more experienced than myself.
My unit deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, at the beginning of America’s withdrawal and the Taliban’s reconquest.
What I saw broke my heart.
Even in communities choked by biblical poverty, a fragile sort of prosperity bloomed amidst violence. And everywhere: children. Boys and girls walked to school in the early dawn. Roads overflowed with motorcycles, battered trucks and herds of livestock off to market. Young families built new houses and started new lives. Nothing better demonstrated the country’s hope in its future than this baby boom, and nothing better symbolized the fragility of that hope.
But our missions also took us through villages where that vulnerable prosperity had died, where the Afghan army existed only on paper, where the Taliban severed the highways and executed government officials, where schools were closed and markets empty.
Our patrols, undermanned and perpetual, sought to cauterize these wounds, to keep the violence away from the towns and families that might save the country if only they could live and grow in peace a few more years. So we walked the countryside. We found improvised explosive devices and hit them, ambushed and were ambushed. What little we accomplished constitutes the most important work I’ll ever do in life.
On Sept. 26, 2012, a civilian walked up to my team on patrol and detonated a suicide vest. Ten pounds of homemade explosives killed two of my noncommissioned officers, Sgt. John Gollnitz and Staff Sgt. Orion Sparks. Two more soldiers took shrapnel to the face, arms and legs. One small piece drilled into my brain, nicked my optical nerve, ricocheted off the inside of my skull and came to rest in a crevice between lobes. I lost consciousness.
A heroic medevac effort and series of minor miracles got me from Puli Alam, Afghanistan, to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where I woke days later to a world of darkness, muted voices and incomprehension.