Written by Adam Carr with Jason Roncoroni

When I was a kid, I spent my time playing the role of the Soldier. When I graduated high school, I had my chance to do it for real.

I came from humble beginnings from a blue-collar family in Dayton, Ohio. My father owned his own barbershop. My mom worked a variety of jobs to ensure that the bills were paid and food was on the table. Like so many parents, mine worked hard and sacrificed so that my sister and I could have a decent childhood. I love my parents for the life they gave me, and through adversity and scarcity, I learned to appreciate everything I got in life. I began working at a young age. I was washing boats at age 14, and I also worked as a cashier and a service manager at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. I had some unattractive jobs growing up, but I believe these jobs helped to shape my character and work ethic. The most influential job I had growing up was the time I worked as a lifeguard. Working as a lifeguard provided a great opportunity for me to talk to girls, but it was also the first time in my life that I was responsible for the welfare of others. I felt a genuine sense of pride in serving others in my community.

Some lifeguards spend an entire summer season without the challenge of having to save a life. I wasn’t so lucky. It was late in the fall when I had to rescue a man who was drowning in a lake. This man was swimming in an alcove away from where I was as the lifeguard. I never saw him. A friend of his alerted me to the situation. I raced across the lake to his location. I dove into the cold, murky water. I still remember how surprised I was with how deep and dark the water felt that day, but I was too late. He had sunk too deep in the water and had drowned before I could get to him.

I was commended for the bravery of my actions. The conditions were extremely dangerous, but I didn’t hesitate. I was told that there was nothing I could have done to save that man. He had drowned before I even dove into the water. Those facts did little to console me. I didn’t feel brave, and I certainly didn’t believe I deserved a commendation. What I felt was the shame from my guilt. I felt responsible, and I committed to myself that there would never be another drowning on my watch. Never. When I wasn’t working, I spent my time playing sports. Like many kids, I played soccer, basketball, baseball, and I also ran track and field. Playing sports was my outlet for adventure, but deep in my heart, I longed for the opportunity to see the world.

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During high school, I excelled in track and field, and I committed myself as an athlete. I was just applying the work ethic and fortitude I learned from my parents and my own work experiences throughout my life. I was determined to win a scholarship because I didn’t have money for college. A scholarship was my ticket to a college education and a life beyond Ohio. I traveled to the Nike Invitational Indoor Track Meet in Maryland, and I ran as a member of one of the best relay teams in the country. Because of my success as a runner, I was confident that winning a scholarship was within my grasp. Unfortunately, I tore my hip flexor shortly after the Nike Invitational. My dream of a track and field scholarship ended in an instant after years of hard work. I was devastated. College seemed like such an unlikely option for me after my injury. Without a scholarship, I didn’t know how

I could possibly pay for my education. I had some friends who entered the National Guard, but I wasn’t sure the military was the right fit for me. I found the potential for college benefits somewhat enticing, but I just wasn’t excited about joining the Army . . . until I watched the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001.

Like every American, 9/11 changed my life. I still remember the emotions I felt that day. While the attacks were happening, I felt fear, confusion, and anxiety. Those emotions quickly turned to something else - anger and rage. I was pissed off, but it was no longer just about me. It was about serving others. I was inspired to serve my country. Along my Hero’s Journey, I answered the call. I signed a six-year contract with the Ohio National Guard. At the wise-old age of 18, I left Dayton Ohio for Basic Training at Fort Jackson.

The military was a life I never knew I wanted. The military offered adventure, and I felt like I was a part of something special. My entire life up to this point prepared me to excel as a Soldier. By the time I turned 19, the war in Afghanistan was well underway. There was even talk that we would invade Iraq. I spent a lot of time as a kid pretending to be a Soldier, but this was real. I learned that the first time I lost a friend in combat. I never forgot the promise I made to myself that nobody would ever drown again on my watch, but death took forms in combat. War was pernicious like that. I lost too many friends. I learned the hard way that nothing could prepare me for what I would experience through war or its aftermath. I recently graduated from high school. I wasn’t playing the role of the Soldier anymore. Now, I was living it.

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This article is Part 1 of a three part series commemorating the stories of our Veterans.

Adam Carr is the Deputy Director for Operations and a Project Director for Save A Warrior. He supervises and provides the Integrative Intensive Retreat to help struggling veterans address the condition of moral injury, PTSD, and depression.

Jason Roncoroni is the Chief Leadership Officer for TRIBE, an integrative approach to transform the wellness of the Veteran community.