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Monday, January 24, 2011

Lunch with Medal of Honor recipient Sammy Davis

By David "Jager" Burnell 

This past week at the shot show there were many amazing experiences to reflect upon. Perhaps one of my favorites is the day we went to lunch with the team from Voodoo Tactical and sat next to Sgt First Class Sammy Davis Medal of Honor recipient.

As we gathered round the table Sammy was in his Army Dress uniform and sported the Medal of Honor around his neck. He limped while he walked and his eyes twinkled with a bright shine which masked the pain of conflict well.  Steve the president of Voodoo and the lunch host invited me to sit next to Sammy. My best friends and co workers were there also.  As we sat down I yielded my seat next to Sammy to fellow veteran and friend John Bravo. John sat on Sammy’s left and his wife on his right. During the lunch striking conversation between Sammy, his wife and the rest of us began to fade as this war hero slowly removed his medal from around his neck and handed it to each of us. On the back was engraved the date of the action and his name. We got to handle the medal and listen to the familiar and unfamiliar stories of a pure warrior. Culminating this event for me was when Brandy (our VP of Marketing) and Sammy’s wife were so engaged in pleasant and real conversation that they both just beamed goodness. It appeared as if they had been friends for life.  It couldn't get any better I thought to myself. Just then John then was asked by Sammy to place the Medal of Honor back in its proper place around his neck. This for me was a highlight beyond words, beyond description. Here I sat with my team, and my friends viewing, hearing and memorizing this event.

The medal was being placed upon him by a younger hero cut from the same cloth and committed no less to his mates. I knew this first hand and personally. I sat and watched and my eyes began to water with deep respect and reverence for symbols of the feast we had just shared.  The Medal is the highest symbol our nation has to give to anyone. It is the ultimate thank you and garners the highest respect.  Twice I got the privilege of saluting Sammy with this precious symbol around his neck.  First when I greeted him and then upon his departure. As I locked my heels and straightened my back and rendered the crisp salute of respect I thanked him again for the time, message and honor of of being with him. Then we left.

Prior to our lunch I was informed again of the loss of several of our veterans who were killed in recent combat operations. This stirring news rocked my world and caused me great uneasiness and strife prior to meeting with Sammy.  Even this night the 23rd of January, 2011 no more than an hour ago I heard first hand of more USAF Special Operations friends cut down in the prime of life and for the cause of friends. The war is costing so much, so very much.

How does one process the loss of a friend, the death of ones enemies, or the brutal reality of violence and conflict. As a veteran of hundreds of high speed 911 traumas where I bagged burned children in metal coffins, pulled mangled bodies from under water where I amputated them from submerged aircraft, experienced military service for over a decade, and recently performed body guard duty in Haiti after the quake.  I can only offer my simple, dysfunctional observations and suggestions.

Many years ago we set out to make a film called Danger Calls - RESCUE. In this documentary my fellow SAR veteran and buddy and I tell stories of rescue/recovery missions. They are gritty and real and life threatening and self changing. After the making of this film I was not able to “put the genie back in the bottle” very easily and found myself awake at all hours of the night and at times short tempered and ill fitting for most circles.

As the founder of the “Combat Stress Program” taught in the Urban Warfare Center® I knew that I had a unique understanding of trauma and could impose stress and then help others walk through the symptoms and adjust their behaviors to improve performance during high stress encounters, but I myself was struggling with the results of a life exposed to grave risk again and again.  Eventually I put the memories back in the bottle and assumed a “normal life of dysfunction”.  A couple years ago I became a Body Guard or PSD Operator for high risk areas. Basically I learned the ins and outs of how to protect folks on foot, in vehicles, from the air and on water. Right after graduation Haiti had the largest disaster in recorded history and I became the honcho for security of the largest volunteer task force in that post earthquake country. This triggered many emotions from years past and to make a complex and long story short I found out I had a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) upon my return. I was told that it is not a mental illness but a physiological one. Basically the brain did not store my traumatic experiences correctly and as a result I cannot at times shut down the carousal of memories, or cope well at times with the simplest of triggers.  many times I feel lonely in a crowd and most often feel like others don’t get it... or me. Sound familiar?  I didn't want to be “broken” and could still function under pressure well.  At times I even wanted to return to the fray and bury myself with more conflict as a way to resolve the strange feeling of not fitting in.

The reason I write this article is that I KNOW many of you feel the same way. I know this because I did not think anyone else knew about these feelings after making the film Danger Calls - Rescue. I thought I was doomed to extreme behaviors and irrational thinking. I thought I was alone.  Sure I knew there were other vets with “flashbacks” and I even knew they struggled.  But the messed up thinking process told me that no one could get my situation.  An example extreme behaviors that relate to this condition is never really feeling safe. This may be often or not, but it comes in waves of perceived reality. Another is not being able to trust anyone at all, or at varying degrees being able to trust few. These are all symptoms of trauma related experiences where the brain is not running correctly.  The classic feeling for me is that the terrain is dangerous and everyone around you is a potential lethal threat. While this might make a superior PSD Operator or body guard, it makes a poor friend, husband, father and brother.

My message here is simple... There IS lots of information on this stuff and you are NOT crazy or beyond help.  I myself am in the middle of my mission to get things running “normal”. I will not quite even though this is some of the hardest work I have ever done. Each session brings a hope of better days and an understanding that some things will pass with time and others will longer to correct. This hope comes after exhausting mental exercises that bring it all back in realtime.

As the CEO of OPSGEAR® I speak to many of you and see inside your eyes the scars of service and the pains of war. As I have trained hundreds of soldiers, airman and police I see the marks of sacrifice and the fear of fitting in.  I am reaching out to each of you that have been marked by conflict in any form. Military, Police and Rescue are common vehicles for these challenges and are the earmarks for behaviors that lead to suicide, divorce and addiction.  To break this down simply I would say this.
  1. If you want to tell the world to go to hell, realize you have an issue.
  2. Call a clinic and see a trauma specific counselor, begin the process.
  3. Realize that the fight will likely not be over soon, but tools will come to help you cope and it WILL get easier.
  4. You are NOT a crazy even though you feel like it... your brain needs help storing correctly.
  5. People generally don’t get this trauma thing, don’t expect them to get it outside of docs that deal in it. Be patient with others.
  6. Count your victories as they come. This might mean a two week stretch of decent behavior. Or a day of not feeling overwhelmed.
  7. Accept the fact that you have earned the right to have these issues through service.
  8. Know that in time and with help you will not only survive, but be able to heal and then if you desire you can help others.
I know this may sound like a bunch of shizzle to some of you, if it does then you most likely don’t need to read it. If you identify with any of it then you should read more on the subject and seek some sort of assistance.  One of the things I have personally come to realize is that ONE traumatic event can cause PTSD. Many of us have significant trauma in that our experience in high risk areas, or in dealing with death is INTENSE, SUSTAINED over a long period of time and FREQUENT. These are all multipliers for and prime drivers for PTSD. These metrics compound the symptoms and negative behaviors that can lead to depression and suicide.  Below is a link to self assess and maybe get on the road to coping with your service.


Sgt First Class Sammy Davis and each one of you who have served pay an awful price each day as the survivors of conflict.  We are also the benefactors of those loved and lost.  I say THANK YOU to ALL who have served their follow man in any form where lives hung in the balance and where hard things needed to be done. May God Bless each of you and may you feel his love as you recognize the need for help, embrace the tools and reenter the world where the reality is that not everyone is trying to kill you and the landscape is beautiful and no longer tactical terrain.

David Burnell
CEO and Founder of OPGSGEAR® and the Urban Warfare Center®.