Written by Ryan Hendrickson, author of “Tip of the Spear: The Incredible Story of an Injured Green Beret’s Return to Battle”
I used to hold my demons close. I allowed myself to believe the comfortable lies that made it possible to let the dark times in my life define me. Two failed marriages? A difficult childhood marked by abuse and poverty? Let those excuses explain away your failings. Scapegoat your shortcomings. That’s what I did for years, without even hardly realizing I was doing it.
Until I stepped on the IED.
Suddenly, in that split second, my life, my leg, and all I thought I knew about myself was blown apart. Who I had been before—Ryan Hendrickson, the Green Beret—was no longer who I was. A new identity had been conferred on me, whether I liked it or not: Ryan Hendrickson, I-stepped-on-an-IED.
Flown from hospital to hospital, undergoing one surgical procedure after another, I allowed this new identity to sink its teeth in. You are unlucky, it told me. Life is unfair. The world owes you better. You are a victim.
The events of the weeks and months that followed my injury filled themselves with subsequent adversities that allowed this sense of self-pity, self-loathing, and survivor’s guilt to take over my mind. In one of the events that is still incredibly difficult for me to talk about today, my friend Calvin—the one who had come to me in the hospital after I was first wounded, and told me “We are going to get those motherfuckers who did this to you”—was killed in action shortly after I left Afghanistan for the US. Another friend, my buddy Will, that I went through the Q-Course with, had both of his legs blown off by an IED—while I still had one of mine, and my doctors were working to save the other. And the list went on, so who was I to feel bad for myself? I did anyway, though, and this just compounded my bitterness.
My father, having two tours in Vietnam himself, had seen this before. He knew the pitfalls of it, and he could see the dark road I was heading down. It was then—in my hospital room at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio—that he laid it all out for me.
His words come out a little differently every time I tell the story, but his message remains the same.
“The way I see it,” my father told me, “right now, you really only have two options. The first option as I see it is you can become your injury, and let this injury define who you are. You’ll forever be known as ‘Ryan who stepped on an IED in Afghanistan,’ or ‘Ryan the former Green Beret, never the same after he came back.’ You can let this injury slowly take you over, and basically become an entirely new identity until you totally lose who you were. It’s the most dangerous path to go down, because you will never move past Sept 12th 2010. With an event like this, if you don’t get control of your life and deal with what happened—in your brain, body, mind, and soul—you’re going to surrender to the victim mindset. It was pretty bad what happened to you, and nobody is going to blame you for thinking this way, but it is a very dangerous mindset to have and lonely path to travel.”
Then he gave me my second option.
“Your other choice is to use this injury to make yourself the better man. You just got handed the opportunity to hit the reset button on life. You can use this injury to make yourself a stronger man; to be that person who builds up the people around you, that makes them want to be better themselves. You can even use this injury to renew your relationship with God. But as long as you are laying in this hospital bed taking on the victim’s role, and allowing this injury to become who you are, you’re not going to be able to see the amazing opportunity that you’ve been given.”
I’m not gonna lie; it was hard to see it at first with so much going on and through all of the pain and the questions that I was having. One minute, guys were telling me I was going to be ok, but the next second they were the ones getting blown up or killed. When you’re going through that kind of pain, allowing yourself to embrace the victim’s role is a comfortable and easy way out. Seeing the trials you’re facing as “an amazing opportunity” feels damn near impossible.
The other problem—which isn’t really a problem at all—is that the military takes very good care of you when you are wounded. I have nothing but the highest praise for the medical care that I received in the weeks and months following the IED blast. The danger arises when you start to confuse this quality of care with the idea that you’re owed something for what you went through. I don’t fault anyone for going down this path—not everyone has Larry Hendrickson there to warn them about this pitfall—but it’s a dangerous place to find yourself.
Not everyone is going to see eye to eye with me on this, but I don’t believe it’s the best thing for you to embrace the identity of yourself as a wounded servicemember, and allow people to thank you for your service. I know that they are well-intentioned, but what are they thanking me for? Being injured in the line of duty doing a job that I volunteered for? Who is thanking the farmers, teachers, paramedics, and police officers for their service? Who’s taking care of them when they become injured or sick on the job, and can no longer perform their duties?
Where’s their safety net?
Coming to this humbling realization was important for me because it broke me of that tendency to feel like the world owed me a debt of gratitude for being a wounded Green Beret. Do we in Special Forces inherently have a pretty dangerous role? Yes; we are always out in dangerous territory with a group of unknowns, taking the fight to the enemy. It’s all volunteer, though. No one forces us to do it. It’s a job and the path that I chose after being in the Navy and the Air Force; a challenge that I sought out. Some guys want to be in cybersecurity or work on diesel motors and be mechanics. I don’t support a mindset that believes one person is better than another because of their job. Athletes and movie stars may be gifted, but they’re no better than you or I. It’s the regular, everyday Americans in the underappreciated and underpaid jobs who are keeping those celebrities afloat. A larger paycheck or a famous name don’t make you better than anybody else.
The lesson that I had to embrace was a simple one that nobody likes to hear: you are not special. I’m not, and neither are you. This applies to all of us, no matter how famous or talented we are—your favorite celebrity is no more special than you are, and vice versa. When you realize this, as I did, another critical lesson comes into focus: you can’t use your past history as an excuse to define who you are today. I went through a period of time as a kid where my stepmom had done some pretty bad things to me; as I grew up, I took that to give me the right to tear women apart. Everything was always their fault. My two failed marriages? Not my fault. I was defining myself by my past adversity, using it as an excuse instead of owning my actions.
It’s hard to admit that you’re the victim of your own behavior, beliefs, and choices. Still, one of the most freeing things I ever did was accept that while life just happens (and oftentimes, it’s nobody’s fault), how I responded to those things was 100% within my control. I realized that when I let go of reacting to the adversities I faced in my life, I was free to choose to respond to them in more productive ways. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not a hard road and a daily struggle for me, because I’m human just like anybody else. It’s very easy to preach it, but it’s extremely hard to live it. I struggle with it every single day of my life.
But it’s been the key, for me, to moving forward.
After the injuries that I suffered, nobody thought that I would keep my leg, let alone return to the battlefield. I never forgot the sound of the Taliban celebrating on the radio as I was evacuated from the blast site, though. I couldn’t let them have that win; I had to get back, and that’s what I did, just 18 months later. I kept my leg, relearned to walk, run, fight, and perform my full duties.
Along the way, I’ve found that the lessons I’ve learned are opening up new doors to opportunities that I never could have envisioned before being injured. Facing adversity can be isolating if we allow ourselves to believe the tempting lie that we are the only ones who have ever suffered so much, or in just this way. But we can’t allow ourselves to do this.
It’s simply not true.
Everyone has stepped on their own IEDs in life. We’ve all been through shit that comes out of left field and absolutely blindsides us. Each of us has felt destroyed, broken down, and hopeless at some point in our lives. But what I have learned is that there is great freedom in accepting that this is just life. Life is harsh and indiscriminate; bad things happen senselessly to good people every day. Whether through the fault of our own or not, in the aftermath, it does none of us any good to dwell on why. At times, life can be downright ugly, and it will take everything you have if you let it.
This is the critical thing, though. If you fall into the trap of looking backward—taking the easy way out, falling into the victim’s mindset, and letting the tragedies you’ve faced define you—you’ll miss the opportunities in tragedy that my dad taught me to find.
If I hadn’t taken his advice and pulled myself out of that downward spiral, my book would have never been written. I would’ve stayed a victim, controlled by the situation that I’d found myself in. Instead, I tried to implement what he had said. I tried to see the positives in what had happened to me and tried to use the situation to make myself a better man. I asked myself how I could use the situation to build up other people around me.
I will be the first to tell you that it took some practice to learn to see the benefits of a shitty situation. Writing, for me, was the first step toward making sense of everything. I didn’t set out to write a book; I just needed to get it all off my chest. As I did, I started to see how selfish I had been at times. I saw where I was saying “poor me;” I saw where I thought I was owed something. Watching those things spill out onto the paper was the further impetus for change that I needed. Once I saw where I had been the issue, I could take that self-realization and change myself for the better. Had I been dealt a shitty hand a few times in life? Absolutely, but that by no means makes me special. And by telling myself that my destructive behavior and victim’s mindset were everyone else’s fault but mine, I was holding myself back from meaningful change.
In the months since sharing my story, I’ve begun to see how common these experiences actually are. No matter who I talk to, the common theme remains the same. Bad things will happen and defeats will come, but when that IED blast hits in your own life, if you can’t pull yourself together long enough to find the positives—and if not positives, then at least lessons—there is zero chance that you will ever not be a victim of what just happened to you.
Not everyone is on the front lines in Afghanistan, but we are all on the front lines of our own lives. Pain is pain; depression is depression; misery is misery; loneliness is loneliness. Give the situations you’re facing in life the respect that they deserve. Refuse to be a victim. Don’t lay down your gun and surrender—and remember that you are never alone. You can find meaning in the chaos, and you will come back from this as a better and stronger person.
My story is proof that it is possible.
Ryan Hendrickson is the author of “Tip of the Spear: The Incredible Story of an Injured Green Beret’s Return to Battle,” available now wherever books are sold. After being wounded in an IED blast in 2010 and considered a battlefield amputee, he kept his leg. Though medically retired, he fought to remain on active duty and redeployed as a Green Beret in 2012. In 2016, during a firefight with the Taliban, he risked his life under heavy enemy fire to rescue three Afghan soldiers cut off from friendly forces and return the bodies of two dead Afghan soldiers under the ethos that ‘no one gets left behind.’ For his heroic efforts on the battlefield, SFC Hendrickson was awarded a Silver Star, our nation’s third-highest award for valor.