While serving as cadre at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, I had a student named Riley Stephens. I didn’t like him. Personally and professionally, I saw nothing of value in him. I simply judged him harshly and felt very negative about him. To my great relief, Staff Sergeant Stephens failed to meet the standards in training. My recommendation was NTR, or Never to Return. I felt so strong in my dislike for him that I couldn’t picture how he had made it as far in training as he did. I even felt as though my own Green Beret would have less value if he got one. He was stealing my oxygen and the sound of his voice grated on my nerves.
Riley Stephens was gone! I was glad. I told him when he left that my own dad would be pissed if I passed someone who wouldn’t be able to save my bacon in combat. Apparently he had done well after that because he received strong recommendations to make it back into Special Forces’ candidacy. It wouldn’t have been my place to raise an objection to this as I had left my instructor position to rejoin a combat unit.
This Stephens guy went all the way back through all that tough training again. This time he passed. I found out because he was on the A-Team I later joined for the big mission I was wounded during.
The real wake-up call with Riley Stephens came when I was lying wounded on the battlefield surrounded by some guys who couldn’t possibly save my life. They kept telling me to hang on, that the medic was on the way. Don’t get me wrong, I had some great and heroic help, but not the kind that could actually save my life in that condition. I was dying. They said, “Here he is, Stube!” Then I saw the medic running up to my feet with that big aid bag. It was Riley Stephens.
My pain was horrible, like nothing I’d ever imagined. The traumatic damage and burns were unbearable. Yet, when I saw Riley, these words came quickly: “No hard feelings, right, Stephens?”
His eyes were wide open with concern and professionalism as he performed a rapid trauma assessment on me. It was clear that he wanted so badly to save my life. It was also clear that he wanted to prove to me that he could do this now—when it counted. He could save my bacon. Riley hit all the marks of a flawless trauma clinic, stopping hard to reach hemorrhaging in multiple places, dressing burns, and so much more. He had become a better medic than me, and for the first time, I could feel pride in it. Before my own life was on the line, it would have been an insult to me that a student could be better than me. What an ego. Now I know that it is necessary that we give everything we have to the next generation. If they are not better than us, then we are failing. Yet another example of how I needed this to get the chip off my shoulder.
Though I should have been long unconscious by that time, I had the blessing and the curse of being fully aware of everything happening. As an SF medic, I was very concerned with everything being done, and how. I remember feeling like I didn’t need to worry anymore. I saw that he had firm command over my survivability. He and the good Lord both had hands on me that day.
As I witnessed my teammates and commander clearly upset by my condition, I started feeling upset too. I was getting indicators that they thought I would surely die. Taking a page out of Chief Stube’s playbook, I tried to get Riley’s attention as my teammates carried me on the litter toward the medevac Blackhawk two hours after I’d been hit. I couldn’t speak up loudly, so I reached up toward Riley, who was at my right shoulder for that movement. As I reached toward him and strained to speak his name over the noise of the battle and the helicopter there to take me out of the battlefield, he noticed my effort. Immediately, Riley screamed out to the crew with a true sense of urgency. “Put him down easy. Now!” As the litter touched the ground there was a whole team of heads reached in over me to see what was wrong, and everyone got silent. I used all the strength I had to speak up. “Riley, when I get…back…to Kandahar…I’m …telling everyone…you…touched…my...penis!”
I think it worked. I could see humor and relief in everyone. Riley seemed on the verge of tears, though, as he uttered words to the effect of, “Stube, you son of a bitch….”
I just couldn’t stand the thought of everyone being down, even if I was going to die. The guys hoisted me up once more, and marched me toward the noise and the rotor wash of my green chariot. To Kandahar I went, but in my mind it was to the unknown.
I saw Riley back at Fort Bragg a few months later, when I got a pass from the hospital to go home for a few days. When he stood before me, all I could do was cry. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and guilt. So grateful for how he worked to save my life, and so guilty for the way I had judged him and cast him away. Also guilty that friends we shared had been killed, but I survived. Riley hated to see me broken like that, and he quickly wrote his name and number on a post it note to hand to me. He put his hand on my shoulder firmly and walked away. He was saving me from the embarrassment of crying, and it also seemed that he had a hard time dealing with it.
I put the note on my computer monitor at home, and made firm plans to be in touch with him. Riley Stephens had gone from being a man I despised, to someone on my permanent Christmas card list. I now wanted my son to know him and be mentored by the hero that saved my life. But what was different about Riley now? Or was it me? The answer is that Riley always had it in him to be that professional, warrior and hero. The sad truth is that I didn’t have it in me to overcome perceived differences and focus on absolute commonalities. God put this one right in my lap. Why hadn’t I mentored him when I caught negative indicators? Why had I kept him at an arms-length, salivating for the opportunity to fail him? This had been my failure, not his, and that wouldn’t be the last time I cried over it.
A couple years later, I had not called him. I did not send a Christmas card. I had not taken my son to be around Riley Stephens. While I had been focused on myself, my recovery and my new life after the military, Riley had been back in combat multiple times. I was still thinking of myself when the call came in that Riley had been killed in Afghanistan. The medic on scene could not save him. My considerations for building and maintaining a team changed in that moment. How could I have been and stayed, so selfish?
I think about Riley Stephens a lot and all day on Veteran’s Day. Now I just want to be the man he showed me how to be.