Strength in the face of adversity

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jim Alves
  • 4th Security Force Squadron Commander
Late on a Saturday night, as my wife and I were catching up on a favorite show of ours, Rescue Me, which, ironically is a comedy about a group of heroes, I received a phone call that would forever change my outlook on life. What transpired over the next 1-2 minutes felt like a shot to the stomach: "Sir, we've been in contact with the Bagram Command Post and though this is first report, looks like an Airmen has stepped on a land-mine." Because you can never expect this, my first thought was, why are they calling me, must be a mistake. However the controller, a consummate professional, quickly finished her notification. "Sir, the Airman is Staff Sgt. Benjamin Seekell, he was conducting a dismounted patrol outside the wire at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, when he along with his dog and another Airman stepped on a land-mine. The initial report is saying that he has lost his left foot. He is currently in surgery at the hospital at Bagram. Unknown the status of his dog."

The phone call now hit home. Sergeant Seekell is one of my canine handlers,

With a good portion of my squadron deployed at any given time, this is something that goes through your mind, however it's a situation that you can't practice for and until you have to, you don't know how to deal with it. I had to ask the controller to repeat herself, probably about three times to make sure I had the whole story, but it was also to make sure I wasn't dreaming it. By that point, I had repeated what the controller said enough times that my wife had the entire picture before I had hung up the phone.

Like the rock star of a key spouse she has become since we have taken command, she already had all the information on Sergeant Seekell's family before I could ask for it. In fact, she already had our next 10 steps laid out. Lori, my wife, got me through the night. The phone calls to my leadership were easy and straightforward.

"Here's what happened, as soon as I have more info I will let you know."


Very little questions and a whole lot of support, however the notification to his wife was the piece my wife and I talked the most about. How do we do it? Do we wait for more information or give her what we have? The answer came down to, what would we want? Though the information was preliminary, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, etc., we decided we would go with the quick information even if it turned out to be incorrect or it changed, hold on to it and be accused of holding information if she or someone else heard through the social media realm.

So my wife and I gathered a friend of Sergeant Seekell's wife and his supervisor and went to the house to inform his wife what we knew. What do we wear, how do we start off, what happens if she's not home...those are the questions we asked ourselves prior to ringing the door bell. Thankfully, I think we got them all right. As a mentor would ask/comment rhetorically later on, "there's nothing in the leadership books to prepare you for that."

However as influential and unforgettable of a night as that was, that wasn't the lesson that I will hold on-to for the rest of my life and what I want to relay. In fact, that lesson started once we made that notification to Sergeant Seekell's wife, Megan.

You see, unlike most of what we are taught, the initial notification was spot on. Sergeant Seekell, along with Military Working dog Charlie and another defender from the Memphis Air National Guard stepped on a land-mine that day.

As we were reeling back here from the injuries and telling ourselves to keep our chins up and stay positive, an interesting bit of news kept coming back to us here. That news was that even though Ben was in the hospital, he not only was in "good spirits," but he was smiling and laughing with everyone and just talking about getting back to work. Surely, I thought since it wasn't 24 hours after the injury, he must still be in shock. However that bit of news kept coming back to me: While he was in Afghanistan, when he transitioned to Germany, even after he went through his second of a series of surgeries, everyone who talked with him, including his wife, kept saying he's doing great, he's in great spirits and just wants to get better so that he can get back to work.

Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, he was on a plane back to the states within 72 hours after the injury, having been through three surgeries at that point. Two of my kennel staff, my chief, his wife and I took a trip to Washington, D.C. to welcome him home and to meet him at Walter Reed. Even though I had heard that he was in such good spirits, what I witnessed over that 24 hours in D.C. was nothing short of inspirational.

First there was Megan, his wife. Most people I had talked with about Ben's injury could barely keep from crying, but here was his wife...Rock Solid is the word I use. Full of an emotion that wasn't sadness or pity, but pride. Pride in her husband for the job he does every day and also for how he was handling the situation. My motivation while I was in D.C. was to match the strength Megan was showing.

Next there was Ben. We were all awaiting his arrival at Walter Reed. Now while this is usually a solemn event, but we gave him a good solid "Defender Welcome Home," hooting and hollering like a bunch of kids at a football game. Though he was pretty well tied down to the bed, and couldn't get the energy to yell back, instead like something out of a movie, he gave us a big "thumbs up." A moment that I will never forget. That thumb's up was the symbolism of his entire outlook over the coming hours/days. He talked very little about feeling bad for himself or that he was mad at the world, or anyone else. Instead, everything he talked about was positive. He was alive he said, that's all that mattered. He can't worry about the fact that he lost his foot. He's alive, his dog, his partner, was alive and the only thing he needs to focus on is getting better, for the Air Force but more importantly for his family. From the very beginning his goal is not just getting better, but doing what he can to be a fully functioning Security Forces Airman, who will be able to deploy again.

It has been a little over a month since the accident. He has gone through a total of five surgeries, and now has lost all of his leg from below the knee. Military working dog Charlie is also doing well. He is back with us at Seymour going through his own rehab.

There is a good portion of this world that would be depressed or be mad at the world for what happened, but Ben and Megan have maintained that same laser focus they showed during the initial hours after the event. His determination and resolve have stayed the same, he doesn't just want to get better, he wants to be a fully functioning member of the active duty military. Through his rehab and the challenges, Megan along with their three small children have stayed right by his side, encouraging him the entire way to get back to being a fully functioning Airman and to get back to being what he loves, being a dog handler.

We all face adversity and we all react differently to set-backs in our life, however if an Airman can lose his foot and he along with his wife keep their motivation for life, then there is not much that should be able to drag you down. Now don't take this the wrong way, you will face adversity, we all do, and while going through that adversity it might seem like nothing can go right, but when you get to that point, think about the Seekells. Ben's motivation was that he was alive and though I didn't get into any parts talking about him feeling bad, I know there's probably been a time or two where Ben has asked himself, "Why me? Why now?" But instead of focusing on that, he realized there is nothing that can change the situation he's in, so instead of focusing on the parts he can't change, he instead focuses on the parts he can. The part he can change is his motivation and determination that he will make it through and that he will be a dog handler again. The funny part is, though I know it's going to be a long road, I know he will too. Because as I said earlier, I take my strength from Ben and Megan and if they want it, then so do I. He will be a Dog Handler and a fully functioning Airman.

This gives me solace, this gives me strength. For this I can say, that Ben and Megan are my heroes.