For injured Navy SEAL Jason Redman, war’s lessons led to important lessons in life

Cadet Mario Caruso (left) and Cadet Sam DeLong (right) stand with former Navy Seal Jason C. Redman after the Colby Military Symposium on April 6-7.

Cadet Mario Caruso (left) and Cadet Sam DeLong (right) stand with former Navy Seal Jason C. Redman after the Colby Military Symposium on April 6-7.

It was one pity-filled visitor too many that caused him to put pen to paper and let the determination flow from his mind while recovering in a hospital bed.

“Attention to all who enter,” he wrote. “If you are coming into this room with sorrow, or to feel sorry for my wounds, go elsewhere. The wounds I received I got in a job I love, doing it for people I love, supporting the freedom of a country I deeply love.”

The sign continued, “I am incredibly tough and will make a full recovery. What is full? That is the absolute utmost physically my body has the ability to recover. Then I will push that about 20 percent further through sheer mental tenacity. This room you are about to enter is a room of fun, optimism, and intense rapid growth. If you are not prepared for that, go elsewhere.”

That sign now hangs framed on a wall at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. “I might have written it,” said the sign’s author, Lieutenant Jason Redman, a retired US Navy SEAL. “But all I did was capture the spirit of overcoming and the mindset our wounded warriors specifically need.”

Redman’s hospitalization and long recovery time was the result of taking a burst of machine gun fire at close range while leading his platoon on deployment in Iraq in 2007. He was recently on NU’s campus as a panelist in the Colby Military Writer’s Symposium on the topic of the costs of war, and has written his first novel, The Trident, which encapsulates his transformative years as a member of the SEAL teams and his path to becoming a leader. Redman took time while on campus in an interview to talk about his service, his path to recovery, and what he learned through it all.

The military had been on Redman’s mind from a young age. Coming from a family of service members, he had long been enthralled by the tales of his grandfather flying a B-24 Liberator in the European Theatre of WWII.

Between the ages of 11 and 13, he became fascinated by the branch of special operations. Redman said the US Army Ranger Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) used in Vietnam were the first to grab his interest.

That changed, though, when his father, a former paratrooper, picked up on his son’s interest in elite forces and told him about a group of Navy SEALs he had encountered during his training. Little material was published about the select group of sailors at the time but the elusiveness of their training only made Redman’s interest more defined.

Small for his age, the local Navy recruiter was far from impressed with what he saw in the 15-year-old boy who walked in and announced he wanted to be a Navy SEAL, and promptly told Redman to walk right back out the door. But just as the SEAL’s mysteriousness made Redman more intrigued, the recruiter’s dismissive attitude made him all the more determined.

“By mere fate, I almost ended up joining the army,” Redman said. Two years of persistent interest in heading for the SEAL teams had done nothing to sway the opinion of the recruiter, so Redman decided to pursue his dreams of special operations elsewhere – he’d join the army.

However, doors closed in his face at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) for the army as well. A reconstructed eardrum from a young age disqualified him from passing the Army Airborne physical – something the doctors said would inhibit his body’s ability to adjust to the change in pressure at different altitudes.

So with a no-go from the Army doctors, and a medical note in hand saying he could in fact function at different altitudes, Redman tried once more for his boyhood dream at the Navy recruiting station. It couldn’t have been timed more perfectly.

Gone was the former recruiter who wanted nothing to do with the undersized teen, instead replaced by a sailor who was more than enthusiastic to put Redman on the path to becoming a SEAL.

After graduating Navy Basic Training, successful completion of his advanced schooling to become an intelligence specialist, and a short stint of being assigned to the headquarters unit for the eastern seacoast SEAL teams, Redman reported to the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training (BUD/S) to begin candidacy in January of 1995. He was just 18 years old.

Redman remembered a few times during his indoctrination when he began to doubt if his dream of earning the Trident of the SEALs would ever become a reality.

“I went into Hell Week with a little bit of unrealistic expectations from some things I had been told,” he explained. Hell Week is designed as a gut check to test how committed sailors are to becoming Navy SEALs. It is a five-day span in the sixth week of phase one of BUD/S in which candidates operate under extreme stress with just four hours of sleep during the week, bouts of intense cold, and extreme physical activities.

“I had been told, if you can make to it sunrise on Wednesday morning, it’s all downhill after that. I got that locked into my mind and that was my sole focus.” That proved to be incorrect.

It was the following night that proved to be Redman’s crucible. BUD/S has a saying: It pays to be a winner. Thursday night found the candidates enduring a series of races in the pool as boat crews, and Redman’s boat crew was losing everything.

The cycle became this, he explained: lose a boat race; stand on the ten-meter platform with arms outstretched, soaking wet in 48 degree weather and 25 mile-per-hour wind; compete in the next boat race; lose the next boat race; repeat.

Doubt struck again later that night as the boat crews were low crawling up the beaches with the heavy rubber boats atop their backs. An instructor jumped in right on top of Redman burying his head into the sand. Finally, Redman thought he had reached his breaking point but still he pushed on.

For the next four to five hours his mind was in a constant state of tug-of-war until resolving around one final conclusion: “I’ll die before I quit,” he said.

Redman earned his Trident, completed the rest of the SEAL training by the age of 19, and took his place among the teams. He served as an enlisted sailor for just over six years before being recommended for the Seaman to Admiral Program, which would allow him to go to college and return a commissioned Ensign.

He began at Old Dominion University just weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center but was persuaded by his commanding officer to continue through school and be able to lead men after he had commissioned and returned to the teams.

In 2005, Redman got his chance to join the fight and deployed to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, and he began a chapter in his career that his book titles, “The Breaking.”

Redman’s delayed entrance to the war made him eager to experience combat and prove his worth alongside his teammates who, at that point, were all seasoned veterans.

“There is no shortcut to being a good leader,” he said, reflecting on the lessons he learned. “There is no instant thing that is going to occur that suddenly springboards you up to being a good leader. A courageous act doesn’t make you a good leader, it just makes you courageous.”

At the time, Redman was desperate for some courageous act that could be his springboard, something he now looks back on as immature leadership. Pursuing that opportunity ultimately cost him the respect of his brothers: the very thing he was trying to gain.

In a rash decision amid an intense firefight, Redman attempted to reinforce an element of SEALs who had come into enemy contact, on his own. Without notifying the proper team members due to poor communications reception, he and a fellow SEAL plunged down into the dense valley below that his teammates were fighting in to help.

Doing so ended up stalling the SEAL’s ability to call in air support, as not knowing Redman’s location greatly increased the risk of friendly fire. Redman had not been aware air support was on stand-by. Finally able to made radio contact, his commander immediately ordered him out of the area and the air support was sent in.

The mistake earned him the nickname “Rambo Red” Redman said, something he feels civilians liken to the Sylvester Stallone character with nothing but good connotations. But for a SEAL, it was the ultimate disgrace. “It blasts in the face of everything that makes an effective fighting unit, an effective fighting unit – everyone working as a team toward a main effort.”

His mistake was the catalyst for what would be a long, grueling, transformative, and above all, extremely humbling, process through which he learned to accept responsibility for his own actions and what it takes to truly be a respected leader.

“I didn’t own [the mistake] at the beginning, I really fought it,” Redman said. Instead, he spent his time coming up with ways to justify his actions and refusing to look at the bigger picture.

“But that’s the biggest thing, is you have to own it, and you have to understand why it is you made that decision. Because once you do that you can be honest with not only others, but yourself.”

For Redman, it was his experience at Ranger School, where he was sent to learn and develop his leadership abilities, that caused him to accept ownership and begin putting one foot in front of the other on the road to redeeming his reputation.

It was another year and a half before he had finally rebuilt the respect and connection he had once held with his teammates, he said.

Redman knew it would require another combat tour to put his newly learned lessons into action, he explained, and prove to his brothers he was worthy of being their leader.

In May of 2007, he was deployed to the Al Anbar Province of Iraq. Four months later,he was severely wounded by an enemy ambush while on a night patrol.

Ultimately, the process of rebuilding his character and reputation prepared him for what was to come. “That road that I walked, from hitting bottom of the barrel, being faced with losing my trident, and possibly being out of the SEAL teams, and then recovering my reputation, was the hardest road I have ever walked in my life,” he said. “That road really prepared me to be severely wounded.”

Two gunshot wounds to the left arm and one gunshot wound to the right side of his face began a four year recovery that included: 37 surgeries; 6 blood transfusions; a tracheotomy worn for 7 months and 2 days; 1500 stitches; 200 staples; 5 plates; 1 titanium orbital floor implant, 15 screws, 8 pins, 20 skin grafts, 3 bone grafts, 1 calvarian bone graft, his jaw wired shut for 12 weeks, and 50 pounds lost.

But despite the onslaught of procedures and operations, Redman faced this new challenge as he had learned to do in leadership: one step at a time. He decided early on, he explained, that he was not going to let others plant the seeds of pity and doubt into his mind.

“The no-hope mentality, and those that mentally quit, it is a virus and it will spread among people. The more intense and stressful the situation is, the faster it will spread. If you are in a weakened mental state, the easier it is for that virus to plant seeds in your mind. So if you are a leader in a situation where morale is low and someone gets that no-hope mentality, crush it.”

His military career, from start to finish, has also enabled him to develop principles of leadership and living that he now shares with businesses and companies so others can grow in the same way he did (www.sofspoken.com).

For students at Norwich, cadet and civilian alike, he emphasized three principles.

“Live greatly. Fear drives so many things in life. You have to be willing to break through that and seize opportunities when they present themselves. If you never try, what a shame.”

“Lead always. If you are going to be a leader, then lead always. You can’t pick or chose when you are going to lead. Every decision you make, you should think about how it impacts you as a leader.”

And most importantly, “Overcome all – build your mindset around the fact that things are going to go wrong. Things aren’t going to go to plan, you are going to hit adversity, but you’re never going to quit.”

Comments

  1. Pops Meharg says:

    Wow, what a story, and his 3 principles will get one through just everything, I lived those principle in my 7 years as an Army Officer, and 27 years in civilian management. There is an old scout motto, “Be prepared”, I have lived many serious challenges, things where there is no advance training. Bailey, this article should be printed in the Stars and Stripes, Just Wonderful. Thank you for being my grandson. Love Pops

  2. Steven P Robinson says:

    Great article, speaks to how I have tried to conduct my fight against pancreatic cancer.

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