In November 2006, I was working a good job at a Fortune 50 company on the east coast.  At the same time, my best friend from college, Chad, was a Marine in a sunny little spot known as Fallujah, Iraq.

One fateful evening I was standing barefoot in the living room of my spacious, high-ceilinged, probably over-priced, apartment in the Ballentine area of Charlotte, N.C. I had just separated from the Air Force and was settling into the life I thought I was supposed to pursue. I was going to prove my work ethic and capability, and scratch, claw and elbow my way up to the top. And, unbeknownst to me, I was going to answer my phone and abandon all of it.

Chad’s older sister was calling. She was informing me that, during operations in Fallujah, his element had been ambushed.

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The rest is a blur of gut-wrenching emotion, combined with mental energy expended in a futile effort to reconcile the news, years of memories, recognition of missed phone calls and text messages, and bracing for what Lindsey might say next.

I was spared considerable pain, where so many Americans and our allies were not.

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“He’s alive,” she said.  “His Humvee was struck by an IED, and he lost his leg.  He’s at Walter Reed now.”

Suddenly, my job didn’t matter. My duty to my country and my friend did. An understandably emotional response endured, and over the next 12 months, as I interviewed former Navy Seal and Army Green Beret veterans, I became galvanized toward my career pivot.

The considerable financial risk and career-sacrifice seemed miniscule. If I wouldn’t fight for my friends and the country that was affording me this corporate opportunity, what was the point? To profess compassion and love and support but then pass the responsibility to act on to someone else was unacceptable.

Much to the surprise of many around me, I enlisted in the Army.  I was a college-educated, former Air Force officer, but through my study, I found my greatest opportunity to leverage my intellect and physical abilities resided in the medical specialty on an A-Team; an enlisted position. It was a small sacrifice to achieve what I believed was maximum effect to the benefit of my country. After completing the Army’s 18D course, a Special Forces selectee is the highest trained medic in the world. Suddenly the sacrifice looked more like an opportunity.

Since receiving that call, I’ve spent more time in dirty, dangerous, disease-ridden parts of the world than I care to remember. I’ve survived certain death. I’ve held life in my hands and been present where it had been extinguished. And I’ve forced my family to share the burden. 

Shortly after enlisting, the Special Forces pipeline began. I remember the endless runs through a forgotten corner of God’s creation known as Camp Mackall. I remember pushing past exhaustion daily, waiting for the familiar metallic flavor of my breath, indicative of the capillaries in my lungs bursting. Feet slipping and contributing to the choking clouds of sand and dust as I crested yet another hill on a run of undetermined distance.

I remember my hands going numb from the relentless pressure applied to my shoulders by a ruck that was 60 to 70 percent of my body weight.  I remember the ammonia scent as soldiers burned through energy reserves and bodies began drawing on less sustainable internal energy sources. You only ate when everything else was done.

But what I remember most was driving on through exhaustion, motivated by the thought that over every sunbaked, sand-covered hill, or at the end of every 18-hour foot movement, Chad was there. He was hurriedly returning fire, pinned in the burning Humvee as rounds cooked off behind him, but doing it endlessly in time, other Marines scrambling to return fire and extricate their wounded.

Since receiving that call, I’ve spent more time in dirty, dangerous, disease-ridden parts of the world than I care to remember. I’ve survived certain death. I’ve held life in my hands and been present where it had been extinguished. And I’ve forced my family to share the burden.

I separated from active duty in 2015 and I’ve been humbled by the “thanks” and supportive sentiments of so many, and not just on Veterans Day.

As I write this, I’m on the 46th floor of 1 World Trade Center. My youngest son is at home in Nashville, having his first birthday today. We rebuild and renew because we answer the call.

The patrols, the firefights, the casualties, the critically burned pediatric patients and prayers that my hands would move quickly enough to help them. The missed holidays, the promises to my wife, and later my children, that I would be home soon. The shallow explanations of classified operations and short-notice deployments. The abandonment of a promising career at a good company. I was wrong.

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I was wrong to call those sacrifices. It was a privilege. A privilege to serve, to fight, to free the oppressed and stand up to the terrorists and tormentors of so many around the world.

It was all a privilege.

Thanks, America, I owe you one.

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