Confronting my sense of invincibility has been a long time coming, perhaps too long. Throughout my career I’ve sat down in an attempt to address the idea, but finally, I’m putting pen to paper.
The process makes me think of the lyrics from Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen, by Australian song writer Baz Luhrmann. “Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth, oh never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded.” Luhrmann was right; I did not enjoy what I had until it was too late. My youth disappeared on May 5, 2010.
Until then, the beauty of youth resided within the walls of the United States Naval Academy, where physical and mental endurance with a well-placed touch of arrogance led to a self-concocted feeling of invincibility.
I recall the quotes that adorned the hallways of our dormitory, such as the one by T. E. Fehrenbach:
“The man who will go where his colors go, without asking, who will fight a phantom foe in jungle and mountain range, without counting, and who will suffer and die in the midst of incredible hardship, without complaint, is still what he has always been, from Imperial Rome to sceptered Britain to democratic America. He is the stuff of which legions are made…”
While at the academy, combat veterans of both Iraq and Afghanistan showed me that invincibility was strongly encouraged, if not required. And I wanted to build a successful career in the armed forces, so I embraced the notion.
I often thought about the meaning of the word invincible. Had someone asked why I needed to think of myself in this way, my response would have been, “Being ready and able to inflict violence resulting in the death of another individual while simultaneously putting one’s own life at risk takes a particular mindset.”
Although I wasn’t fully convinced of my own immortality as a Marine officer, I behaved as if I feared nothing. I’m sure many mistook my false bravado for arrogance. But as the famous saying goes, “Fake it until you make it,” so I did.
Wall Street or Silicon Valley was not my next destination after I graduated from the naval academy. Unlike some of my high school friends who attended mainstream universities, my classmates and I were heading to war. That time in my life reminds me of Nathaniel Fick’s book One Bullet Away when he writes:
“Dartmouth encouraged deviation from the trampled path, but only to join organizations like the Peace Corps or Teach for America. I wanted something more transformative. Something that might kill me—or leave me better, stronger, more capable. I wanted to be a warrior.”
I joined the Marine Corps, along with two hundred classmates. We knew what lay ahead and it was now our time to go out and meet it. We did so, with youthful eagerness. A few months before receiving our commissions came a personal moment, wearing the uniform. All soon-to-be lieutenants suffered through an inordinate number of uniform fittings. But on graduation day, admiring the fine craftsmanship and immaculate tailoring, I quickly realized the small burden the alterations had been. I remember displaying the countless uniforms across my desk believing any one of them could stop a bullet. It only added to my belief I was in fact invincible.
The war on terror raged throughout my tenure at Annapolis. My chosen career path required two additional years of aviation-specific training. But I was ready to fight. I longed for battle.
In the sweltering heat of May 2007, approximately 200 of us soon-to-be second lieutenants let out a resounding, “I do!” during the oath of office cementing our paths to war. In dress uniform, and at the ripe age of 24 standing alongside my peers, I pretended no longer. I was, in my own mind, invincible.
Fast forward, three years after my commission and with aviation training in the rear- view, I lived with two former classmates in San Diego, California.
It was shortly after 6 a.m., and in the pocket of my jeans a loud ring echoed throughout the house, jarring my sleeping roommates awake as I silently cursed that I had forgotten to put my cell phone on vibrate.
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I answered the phone and heard what I can only describe as telemarketer silence. I whispered, “Hello?” I heard a long, drawn-out pause followed by a voice without inflection.
“Ryan, it’s Skip. He’s gone. Bull, he died.”
Bull, as he was affectionately known, was a lieutenant in First Battalion, Sixth Marines serving in Afghanistan on his second combat deployment. I don’t recall the remainder of the conversation, but distinctly remember standing in complete silence as tears accumulated in the corners of my eyes, distorting what I was blankly staring at in the distance.
Previous phone calls or news stories of fallen service members were easier to deflect. They were someone else’s friend, someone else’s brother, or a different class at the academy. I was always able to keep tragedies like this distant—I could no longer. It was always someone else, until it wasn’t.
Brandon “Bull” Barrett was killed in action on May 5, 2010, while serving in Afghanistan. My eyes well up with tears today as quickly as they did almost a decade ago at the loss of a friend that still stings with the same newness. Until that phone call, I was invincible, or maybe I wasn’t after all. Instead, just a scared young man in the infant stages of his career pretending to portray what he thought courage looked like.
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Looking back, I don’t think any of us foolish, just young and eager to leave our mark. Since receiving that phone call in the early morning hours of Thursday, May 6, a piece of my heart chips away whenever I see the loss of any service member. Unable to keep them distant, they are all now so very personal.
I traveled to Marion, Indiana, for Bull’s funeral, joining many who traveled from across the country to pay their respects to a Marine who had died serving his country.
My invincibility was born under the hot Annapolis sun as I stood in my dress uniform with diploma overhead—a very proud moment in my lifetime. That belief was shattered the day my friend and fellow Marine passed away when I realized at the age of 26 that wars are real, bullets can kill, and no matter what nametapes adorn your uniform, no one is immune from the effects of war, and no one is invincible.