Sunday, April 27, 2014

Vulnerability and Courage: A Wounded Warriors Perspective

Last week I had the privilege of listening to Brene Brown speak at West Point. She gave an incredible talk about vulnerability and courage that caused me to immediately reflect on my experiences as wounded warrior. I gained some new insights and shared that with her after the event was over.

Photo courtesy of Susanne Jenemann

I have continued to reflect on “Vulnerability and Courage” over the last few days and captured it in this blog post.

As she spoke my first thoughts about vulnerability and courage led me to think back 10 years to when I was wounded along with 9 of my soldiers.  During the fight my soldiers and I were very vulnerable and it took courage to lead them under fire and eventually accomplish our mission. (Read more about this on this here, here, and my Alive Day WOD here) I was awarded the Bronze Star medal for Valor for my actions under fire and received the Purple Heart due to being wounded by enemy fire.

As she continued to speak, I realized that was not the context in which she was speaking about vulnerability and courage. She next spoke about shame, and men's vulnerability as “weakness” and I felt that she was talking to me.  Weakness and shame are exactly what I felt after surgery and I was recovering from my injury. I was a warrior, decorated for valor and was being told by medical professionals that I would not be able to stay in the Army and continue to be a member of the military profession. Here I was the guy who took a big hit to the chest, recovered and stayed in the fight, being told I would never be that badass again. That CRUSHED ME!

For a while I took that to mean "I was not good enough" anymore. This was shame and vulnerability and it scared me. But then I went though a transformation with help of family and friends and in Brene Brown’s words I had the "courage to be imperfect”.  She mentioned "If you choose courage you choose to get your butt kicked”.  Recovery was an emotional roller coaster as I struggled to get back to my old self but realizing that due to my combat injury I would never be my former self again. I was getting my “butt kicked” on a regular basis but I chose courage over being comfortable and I was determined to recover and remain a member of the Army profession.

In her talk she linked vulnerability to joy and belonging. As I leaned into vulnerability and had the courage to be imperfect (I tick when I run).  I discovered I had a new sense of self-worth and belonging to my profession.

Before the war I was a triathlete and as I recovered I was able to start racing again. I was not nearly as fast as I was before the war but I eventually got over that. I was glad to be alive and happy to be able to complete a triathlon again. Due to my successful recovery, I was retained on active duty and kept my sense of belonging and identity. I went on to command a tank company in Korea and another company at FT. Polk, La which I deployed to Afghanistan. I received the General MacArthur Leadership award while I was deployed (My wife received it on my behalf from General Casey in May 2010).

 The purpose of mentioning the award is not to toot my own horn but to share my reflection on Brene Brown’s comments about choosing “Courage or Comfort” and “Vulnerability is Courage”.  I realized that I would never have received the award if I had not chosen courage and not had the support of my family and friends.

Her talk also caused me to think about the mental health issues some Veterans face when they transition out of the Army.  This is not my area of expertise but here are my thoughts.  There is a higher sense of purpose many service members feel when they are in combat with members of their unit. Whether they are analyzing the intelligence to find the enemy, running the logistics to support the fight, or moving into a building and engaging the enemy face to face, the sense of purpose felt in combat is hard to match after Veterans return home.  The short video below from my experience in combat captures that.

There is a certain vulnerability in facing the fact that you will not be part of a team with that sense of purpose again. It takes courage to reach out and find that new team.  Brene Brown referenced Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech which really connected with me and the work I do with Team Red, White, and Blue.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Connecting these Veterans with people that have been in the arena and giving them a new sense of purpose is important to their reintegration into society. There is sense of camaraderie that comes from being next to someone who has faced the same challenges in the “arena”.

I encourage Veterans and community members to put themselves out there and get into the "arena" by joining Team Red, White, and Blue in our missions to enrich the lives of America’s Veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

A big THANK YOU to Brene Brown for taking the time to come speak at West Point. Check out her TED Talk on Vulnerability here:

Vulnerability is Courage and Courage Counts!

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