By Luis Rivera –
My story starts on September 21, 2010. It was a routine operation from the Arghandab River Valley in Zabul Province into the hills of Deh Chopan. I was assigned to SEAL Team Three Alpha Platoon as the Platoon Chief – Senior Enlisted on Fire Base Lane, responsible for roughly two hundred Afghan Army, U.S. Army, Afghan Security Forces, and Afghan civilians, as well as the 22 men assigned to the platoon. We were conducting a turnover operation between SEAL Team Three and SEAL Team Four. Our job that day was to fortify a building in a particular village we had chosen to clear, because of the intel we had been operating on for the last 6 months. The sequence of events was textbook: Six Chalks, Two lifts. The first lift left at 2:30 am – The Task was to insert our Supporting Effort on selected peaks with the Purpose of providing significant over watch for the Main Effort: Whose Task was to clear the village with a purpose of locating key personnel. The Supporting Effort’s secondary purpose was to cover major avenues of approach to deal with any fighters seeking to join the fight that came from nearby villages.
The first lift departed as we waited on the helo pad. I reclined onto my day and a half pack as I listened to the two radios I had going into my Sylinx radio head set – The earpieces were custom fit into my ear canals (They provided ear protection, amplified voice conversations around me, and filter loud noises like gunfire or explosions.) I was in Chalk Five, Lift Two. The wait was supposed to take twenty-five to thirty minutes. At the forty-five-minute mark, I started to grow concerned and I checked my radio and asked for more info from our COMMS guy. We were receiving broken radio communications. The wait turned into an hour and a half. Then we heard the rotors of UH-60 Black Hawks approaching. But it came from the direction we didn’t expect. It was a single Black Hawk coming from the opposite direction. It landed near my chalk and a single crewman exited the door as I greeted him. He asked me to gather several other men. Although it was still before dawn, he recognized I was the Platoon Chief and his words were, “Chief, grab six or seven other guys, we had a Black Hawk go down and we need you to assist in securing the crash site”. My heart sunk into my gut. A million thoughts racing through my mind. We had been in the area before, this was text book, the pilots landed there before, they must have been shot down, “Please, please, God I pray everyone is alive”. I loaded up one of my EOD techs and six of my most experienced men.
As we approached I could hear our JTAC/Comms guy on the ground as he was coordinating stacks of aircraft to use as show of force and land to pick up bodies. We flew over the crash site, gained altitude, and waited for what seemed like an hour and a half. I still didn’t know if we had lost anyone until he said those four letters, “F. K. I. A.” – Friendly Killed In Action. The pain in my gut grew worse. Then we landed. Our Task was to take up tactical positions on the hill where the Black Hawk crashed and set up a perimeter on the hill of the crash site with the Purpose of engaging enemy fighters that sought to exploit this situation.
We lost nine men that day. One SEAL from ST-3 Alpha Platoon: LT Brendan Looney. Two SEALs from ST-4: SO2 Adam Smith and SO3 Denis Miranda. One enabler from ST-4: Senior Chief David McLendon and Five Soldiers from the 101st Combat Air Brigade: Pilot – CWO3 Matthew Gabriel Wagstaff, Pilot – CWO2 Jonah David McClellan, Crew Chief – Staff Sgt. Joshua David Powell, Door Gunner – Sgt. Marvin Ray Calhoun Jr., and Aviation Liaison Officer – Major Robert Francis Baldwin. Major Baldwin had just returned from two weeks of leave with his family. He knew it was our last mission and wanted to be a part of it. The Black Hawk was carrying 12 men and therefore three survived. A LT from SEAL Team Four – who coincidentally was sitting opposite LT Brendan Looney – he suffered neck, back and leg injuries, an Afghan Army soldier – who suffered major brain damage, and an Afghan Interpreter – who suffered a broken back. After an Army Pathfinder Unit investigation, it was determined that the Black Hawk merely crashed and hadn’t been shot down. The cause of the crash is mute – nine men jacked up to fight that day and nine men lost their lives. I honor them.
SEAL Team Three – Alpha Platoon was scheduled to return to the U.S. on October 2, 2010, but we left early to attend LT Brendan Looney’s funeral service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery. He is survived by his wife Amy. Brendan has two brothers who became SEALs shortly after.
That was the last mission of my Naval Special Warfare Career. I would later serve as the Leading Chief at the Land Warfare Training Cell of the SEAL Qualification Training School and finish off my career as the Senior Enlisted Advisor of the NSW Orientation Course which orients students to training prior to them entering BUD/s First Phase.
I did what most warriors in that situation do – I stuffed in into my pack and moved forward. What I didn’t realize was that I had found my worth as a United States Sailor in the failure of that mission on September 21, 2010. It didn’t matter that I was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Louisiana, graduated high school and enlisted at 17 years old, served 10 years on two Fast Attack Nuclear Powered Submarines, graduated Honor Man at Naval Submarine SCUBA school, graduated Honor Man at BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) Training. The only thing I found myself worth in was the success of that last mission. And with my second marriage on the brink of divorce I retired in March of 2015 after 24 years eight months of service as a Senior Chief. I was 43 years old.
Shortly before my retirement I felt as if I hadn’t fulfilled my role as Navy SEAL Chief. I had achieved the rank of Senior Chief, but I decided to turn down orders for one more deployment. I needed to work on my marriage. And with that decision, I sealed my fate in never advancing to Master Chief. I grew bitter and angry with myself, and I felt ashamed that I didn’t finish strong. As a result, I chose not to have a retirement ceremony and therefore robbed my family of that experience.
I was angry, depressed, anxious, forgetful and losing interest in my health and myself worth. My wife noticed something was seriously wrong with me.
Before I attended Mighty Oaks, I felt like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole – I could find nothing to fit into. I thought I needed to find a skill so I decided to learn to become a mechanic, diagnosing engines – specifically BMW engines. The school was going great for six months until my oldest daughter called needing help.
I have three children (ages 19, 21, and 22). They are from two previous relationships. My two youngest are from my first marriage. My oldest was born out of wedlock one month after I was married to my first wife. I was never married to her mother. Although I paid child support I neglected my duties as a father and as a result she found affection and security in peers and people who were detrimental to her life. She lived in Arizona at the time and she needed my help. Long story short – I drove six hours to find my daughter addicted to meth and I needed to fix it. She started on marijuana at 14 yo, then meth at 18 yo, and from October 2015 until January 28, 2016 which was the day I picked her up, she did meth whenever she was coherent.
After 9 days in a hotel room, watching her come down, bonding with her and trying to get her into a rehab facility I realized I couldn’t fix this. I couldn’t bring her into my home and fight on two fronts, because my marriage needed repair. My daughter needed professionals. It was shortly after that situation that I walked into the Mental Health Clinic at the VA and sought help just so I could sleep. I was prescribed medication that put me to sleep, but I still felt horrible inside. My wife found a case manager at the VA and we were introduced to Mighty Oaks.
I filled out an application in the Spring of 2016 and was put on a wait list. Months went by as I focused on other things and took medication to help me sleep. My wife had only one thing in mind. “Get him to Mighty Oaks!” When the time came to go to Mighty Oaks I felt better and started to think I didn’t need it. I actually called the application coordinator at the time, Branden Kunath and told him “I needed to learn a new skill and so I am going to a new school. I don’t want to take spot from someone who needs it. Cancel my application.” That was on a Wednesday. The school I wanted to attend started the next day. Wednesday night I received a phone call from a former SEAL that I hadn’t met. He spoke with me about the importance of going and he flat out told me, “Dude, you need to go, just go…I’m going to send a video of Chad and I want you to watch it”. After getting home that night my wife and I watched it and she was in tears. It was then I knew I had to go.
When I showed up to Mighty Oaks I didn’t know what to expect. As I said – I felt like a square peg trying to fit into a circle hole. I soon found out I wasn’t alone. That week taught me the importance of living a life with purpose – not forgetting the events in my life. I realized those events shaped me and created a new purpose in me. I will never forget the class that caused a light bulb to turn on. Jeremy’s Legacy class challenged me – and my team leader, retired Col. Bill Coate poked me in the chest and asked the question – “If you had to describe the legacy you want to leave, what would it be?” I was prepared to give an answer based on all the mistakes I made in life. But then the light bulb came on – I realized he asked me, “the legacy I want to leave“. Just like that, I knew I had a choice. It didn’t matter that the mission in 2010 was a failure. It didn’t matter that I was injured in 2006 and lost friends during that deployment as well. It didn’t matter that I failed as a father, and as a husband. It didn’t matter that my parents got a divorce when I was twelve and caused me to lose interest in school. It didn’t matter that I was molested at the age of 10 by an adult male cousin. I now had a choice to put a period on that page in my life, hit the enter key, and start a new chapter. Back then, the program was called fight club. It started Monday, and the light bulb came on that Thursday. It was a process and a fight. God used these men in this program to be open books and expose their failures and point to Christ as the solution. It was then I realized – if God made me, then He can restore me.
I then knew what I had to do. I had to align my life with the life I was created to live. And that starts with me getting to know the one who made me. Practically, that meant I needed to go home and make it a point to wake up every morning and read His word – The Bible, out loud in an audible voice. That’s the best way I knew I would understand it, speak it into my home, and get rid of the darkness that was filling me and my home. One thing I knew was this – where there is light, darkness can’t stay. And that’s what I have been doing since June 17, 2016 – the day I committed my life to Christ, put a stake in the ground, and started moving forward. MY LIFE HAS RADICALLY CHANGED!!!
I wish I could share the many signs I have been given to reassure me that I am on the right path, but I will share two.
The first sign I was given was this: two months after I left Mighty Oaks I had been working on trying to rekindle the relationship with my wife.
The struggle to repair my marriage was one of the most challenging things I have experienced. I had a plan and took steps repair what I had broken. But my past was full of broken promises and disappoints that set us back many years. My wife was struggling with trusting me again.
But I had faith that God would work on her heart and heal us through it. One morning I was making breakfast as she came downstairs with tears in her eyes and she said “I am sorry…”. I didn’t understand what she meant until she said, “This has been the best two months of our 14-year marriage”. That happened two years ago.
The second sign I was given is this: my daughter is no longer on meth, she has completed one semester of school, she lives in Kentucky and still able to hold down a job. Without my knowledge or her knowledge, she made the decision to start a new life in Independence, Kentucky in March of 2017. In September of 2017 Mighty Oaks held its’ first Legacy Session in Columbus, OH. Since Independence, KY is three hours away I decided to visit her for a day. I was blessed to know that she lives in a place that I could have never imagined. It’s safe and conducive to her recovery. The day before our Legacy Session Graduation, which was held in a church, our Executive Director, Jeremy Stalnecker asked me to share my testimony. He didn’t know I invited my daughter to attend. That day I shared my testimony with my daughter in the audience and she listened with tears in her eyes – sober and thankful and loved. Thank you God.
God kept his promises – If I submit myself to him, He is capable of redeeming every aspect of my life that has eternal implications. He has done exactly that.
My advice for those of you that are struggling with depression, anxiety, anger…is this. Trust in the One who created you. Because He is the only One who can restore you.