The first time I ever laid eyes on Casey, I watched him get shot and then walk off the battlefield—on national TV. The footage, from a major national news program, was one of the first things that Coach mentioned when he told me about his son. A team of journalists embedded with the unit had captured footage of a firefight in which an insurgent, hidden in a ditch, had managed to get off a series of rounds at the Americans before he was eliminated. Casey was shot through the left shoulder, not terribly far from his heart; it was an armor piercing round from a few feet away, and it blew out a hole in his back. The video shows his face in a silent but calm grimace as the medic works on him. The person I saw there was consistent with the man that I met when we finally got to speak on the phone: focused and composed. It is an extraordinary glimpse into the character of a man when put into the pressure cooker; in this case, unflappable.
It turns out that the medic who had been working on him in the field that day was a Green Beret; Casey had been serving among conventional forces at the time he was wounded. No matter what unit he was serving in, though, it always seemed like Special Forces was his destiny. That is what anyone who knew much about it would tell him, anyway. Years after Basic, his former bunkmate called Casey up to let him know he was about to become a Green Beret—and that this shit was right up Casey’s alley. He knew that the guys with the green berets were badasses, but he never entertained the idea of becoming one. Still, the suggestion would follow him. When two of his own soldiers went off to selection, they again came back and said Casey needed to go for it. It’s not surprising that he did—years earlier, as a young recruit at MEPS, he recalls telling them that his ambition in the Army was to get the biggest bonus, and to not sit at a desk. They asked him if he wanted to be a “ninja of the Army.” “Shit yeah, sign me up!”—Casey’s reply. The people at MEPS were actually talking about the role of Fire Support Specialist, but eventually Casey found his own route to the ninja role anyway.
It probably just seemed meant to be that the guy who would work out on weekends with the 100 lb ruck, gas mask, and 20 lb dumbbells—“just to make it stupid”—would be cut out for the most elite and selective training that the Army had to offer. Everyone around Casey seemed to see it before he did, and he can’t quite explain why. I suggest to him my theory of high performers—the mountain climbers who see their goals not as summits, but as constantly retreating horizons. No matter what he has ever achieved, it’s never yet felt like he’s reached a pinnacle; there’s just more to strive for. I ask him if this resonates, and if all the SF guys are all like this. “Oh, for sure,” he tells me. “And it’s not just one thing. A lot of us are working at several things at once.”
Because of the nature of his work—and the fact that he is still on active duty—I didn’t want to ask Casey for details of his training and combat experiences. Instead, we stuck to what is arguably a far more fruitful topic: mindset. Having been raised by an Army veteran and pro-boxer, growing up in the fight world, and finding success in the world of Special Operations, Casey is a goldmine of information on what mental toughness looks like. I set about getting to know this side of him.
“I’ve always been the quiet person,” Casey explains, his voice soft, composed, and even-toned. “I hate yelling. When I yell, my voice strains. It doesn’t even get very loud.” I pick up on an element of self-control in everything he does. This isn’t a coincidence; it’s a formula for his success. Casey teaches me that the key to learning this type of self-control is to train yourself by placing yourself in stressful situations (“self-induced stress,” he calls it), and then calming yourself down while continuing to move forward.
“For the majority of my military career, all the training has been self-induced stress; specifically, my training over the past several years. It’s the best training in the world. But the way I approach problems, or the way that problems pop out at me, I just think of things differently. During freefall training, jumps at whatever thousands of feet, the first few times I did it—and even still occasionally—I’d get nervous, and my heart rate would increase. So I would intentionally slow it down with breathing exercises. In any situation, if I start feeling uncomfortable and my heart rate starts to increase, I will intentionally slow down my breathing.”
Across the fight world—in combat sports, too—self-induced stress is a critical part of training. Athletes spar to learn to perform under pressure, because the body’s performance while flooded with adrenaline is a very different thing psychologically and physiologically than it is when we ask ourselves to perform from a relaxed baseline state. But I learn from Casey that the importance of staying calm under pressure is also part of the professionalism that his job calls for.
Me: “Why is it so important to keep fear, mental rage, or fire in check?”
Casey: “Because every mistake I make now would get blown out of proportion. If I fly off the handle and make a mistake while I’m in a foreign country, I can get myself and my entire team kicked out. And that stuff will show up in the news. It’s not just going to be me; I’m going to drag my entire organization down with me.”
Critical lessons in professionalism that any of us who have ever lost our cool on the job can relate to, and what stands out to me the most is that these lessons in self-control are coming to me from someone with a very finely-honed capacity for violence. We often equate violence with people who have flown off the handle and lost control of themselves, but the violence of which Casey is capable as a combat sports athlete or as a warfighter is of a very different sort. Refined, controlled, calculated. As a boxer, I can relate to this perspective; I know from experience the truth of what Coach told me: “when you lose it, you’re like kamikaze. You’ll land one good shot, but get killed in order to do it.” Angry, emotional fighters are volatile in the ring. The more emotional you get, the more your form goes out the window. Fighting on instinct, anger, and emotion, you’re less tactical and less strategic; that’s when you leave the openings that will get you knocked out. In Casey’s line of work, it’s the same dynamic, but the stakes are higher. That’s the kind of stuff that will get you killed. It seems to be true across the board: emotional control is paramount in all violent scenarios, whether sport fighting or in wartime combat.
There is a second and more subtle truth that emerges from Coach and Casey’s experience. As one develops their capacity for violence, they must simultaneously develop their capacity for self-control, or they will become a liability rather than an asset to society. It is one thing to walk into a room and know that you can kick everyone’s ass; it’s a very different thing to act on it. I remember how Coach prefaced his boxing advice to me: “Stay cool; calm. Your time will come.” It’s tactical patience in a nutshell, and a lesson—it seems—that he effectively passed on to his son. Just as critical in boxing as it is in Special Operations.