As I waded into the starting area of my second triathlon last Sunday, I started reflecting on the events in my life that led to my being waste deep in water wearing spandex with a latex cap over my freshly shaved head. All at once it hit me like a ton of bricks. I slipped even further behind the back of my wave, off to the side of the barge where no one would hear me sniffing or see my goggles filling up from the inside. “Weave would love this. He would really eat this up.” “Weave,” Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Weaver, and I served together as Army Rangers in Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. For the history buffs or movie fans, Bravo Company’s actions in Somalia were featured in the New York Times Bestseller and eventually, the movie “Blackhawk Down”. Aaron was interviewed several times and is featured in a few History Channel documentaries.Life in the Ranger Regiment can be pretty difficult. Among other things, the operational tempo lends itself to a 75% divorce rate. The average tour of a soldier in the unit is less than 18 months, despite the fact that many serve there for more than 10 years. I managed to stick around for nearly eleven years, due in large part to the mentoring and coaching I received from men like Aaron. We were roughly the same age, and we made rank at the same pace, but as an infantry squad leader Aaron was always one to lead by example. He was a gifted athlete, often leading our squad training runs at a blistering sub-six minute pace. I could hang with him for the duration and that carried a lot of weight with him. Medics in the Ranger Regiment have to prove they are worth mentoring, as they typically don’t last as long as the average Ranger. So Aaron went out of his way to help me when he saw something in me that was worthwhile. On one occasion, after a night parachute drop on uneven terrain, Aaron carried my sixty pound medical pack on top of his own gear so I could limp along the 12 mile march route with a partially torn ACL. He refused to let me take it, and he never complained (had I said anything about my knee hurting, however, he might have kicked me right in the kneecap...). After my multiple knee operations, Aaron was my arm-chair physical therapist. If I said my right knee was hurting, he would jokingly slip a rock inside my left boot to “give me something to take my mind off of the pain.” After surgery in the Rangers, one has 90 days before they must be fully combat ready. I don’t think my accelerated rehab was such a good idea in retrospect, given the fact that my knee joint looks like the surface of the moon. But I never failed a 90-day physical on his watch.After I left the military in the fall of 2000, I lost touch with Aaron. I knew that he had gone to flight school to become a helicopter pilot. I am certain he approached his flight duties with the same tenacity that he made his signature trait in the Rangers. I chose a different path after our service together. I chose civilian life and everything that comes along with it, including a completely sedentary lifestyle. Over the first 3 ½ years I was out, I gained about 35 pounds. I did not run even one time. In early January of last year, I lay awake in the early morning hours. It was probably 4:00 a.m. I remembered what it was like getting up at that hour every day and running with Aaron. The shame was overwhelming. I went to my closet and got down a pair of dress slacks from my “Dress Blues” uniform. The top button, if it could talk, would have said “You’ve got to be kidding me buddy. You want me to go where?” I went through my clothes and realized that, save for one pair of pants with some elastic, I could not get any of the dozen or so pair of pants to button. “Good thing I wear scrubs at work,” I recall thinking.
Wide awake, depressed, distressed, and generally unhappy, I went and logged on to the internet to check my email. Finding nothing in my inbox, I logged off and the MSN webpage popped up on the screen. There was Aaron’s face under some headlines and text that I couldn’t bring myself to read. The room became very dark, very narrow, and I became nauseated. “Mogadishu Survivor Felled in Blackhawk Crash” was the headline I ultimately forced myself to read. I processed that, at the same time remembering Aaron’s silhouette moving briskly down the road in the darkness under the combined weight of our gear. He couldn’t be dead. Aaron was too strong, simply way too full of life for something like that to take him. I read the next line: “Aaron Weaver fought to serve in Iraq, battled cancer, then died when his Army helicopter went down in Iraq.”
Bill and Aaron
I used to make fun of Aaron whenever he had a date. Being the superior athlete that he was, Aaron was a perennial top performer in The Best Ranger Competition. The BRC is one of the most challenging endurance competitions in the world. When it came to dating however, well, it was hard for Aaron to understand why ladies would not want to go back to his place to watch videos of his BRC efforts….on the first date. Usually they went, but it was typically a means to an end…right about the time he started critiquing himself, again. Turns out he found a girl who loved him and found the guy we all knew and loved to be too good to pass up. And, he became a daddy. He was also a survivor of testicular cancer. I am certain Aaron approached his fight with cancer like he did everything else in his life. Aaron fought and beat the disease in much the same manner that Lance Armstrong did. After the fact, he returned to his duties as an army aviator, and somehow, God only knows, he got a medical waiver to fly combat missions in Iraq despite his
continued need for diligent follow-up care. Aaron was in fact riding in the back of a Blackhawk helicopter on the way to a hospital unit for a check-up when the aircraft came under fire and was shot down. Aaron died in service to a nation that he loved dearly, and I am sure if given the choice between succumbing to cancer or dying on the field of battle, Aaron would have wanted it this way…..no questions asked.I stood at my kitchen sink, bawling, retching and wanting to break something. I looked at my reflection in the kitchen window. Eyes swollen and nose bright red, I asked myself aloud, “What could you do anyway? You’re too far gone to even think about going back to the Ranger Regiment, fat ass.” I thought of Aaron being able to look down at me and see me the way I was that early morning….gut hanging down over my boxer briefs and crying like a little kid. Then with the pain and disbelief, came the shame of knowing how disappointed he would be in me for letting myself go. I walked outside and down the road to the canal adjacent to my yard. The black water rippled in the moonlight. I thought about jumping in, knowing I had no significant swimming ability. It was then that it occurred to me that I had done little in my life since I left the Rangers that required any real physical effort. I was a complete toad, plain and simple. I realized I needed to make some changes. It started out as a desire to honor my friend and do something that would make him proud of me. It has grown to be a life-altering path that may never have otherwise seemed worth following. Over the course of my life I have never identified with the idea of having personal heroes. When I hear people talk about Lance Armstrong being a hero, I can’t say that I see him that way. I believe he is perhaps the greatest athlete of our time. I am certain he has overcome adversity and displayed incredible courage and tenacity over the course of his illness, recovery, and subsequent dominance of the Tour de France. But I do not know Lance Armstrong personally. For all I know, Lance and I might not get along if we were neighbors. There is simply no way to tell. In light of that, despite the tremendous respect I have for him, I stop short of calling him my hero. When I train on days when I’d rather stay in bed, I find myself thinking “What would Aaron tell me to do?” The same holds true when I want to cave and cut a run short, or when I want to turn back short on a bike ride. I approach my swim training in a way that I felt would meet with Aaron’s approval. When my knee swells up, I laugh and think about putting a rock in my left running shoe. Aaron, in death, has become my personal hero.In the week preceding the TriAmerica Sprint Triathlon in Irving, Texas, one simply could not turn on a television set without seeing Lance Armstrong. The parallels between his life and that of my buddy Aaron are uncanny. If you look at Aaron’s photo, you might agree that they even favor one another. I believe the coverage leading up to the Tour de France has stirred more emotion in me than anything before. Sunday when I was digging deep to find a reason to take another step, or to stick with that hard gear for another ten seconds, it was as if Aaron was right there pulling me along.
See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3920150/ for a related story.