Filling the Void: Life Seen Anew From “A 10,000-Foot View”

It started with James.

He and Brian were close friends in an already tight-knit squad of Marines. James was the team leader, and Brian constantly looked up to him.

But an Iraqi suicide bomber took them from each other. Brian survived the attack; James did not.

“He was such a good person that it was a pretty big loss for me,” Brian said.

In the attack, Brian suffered a shoulder injury, hearing loss, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. Through his recovery, he realized it wasn’t healthy to dwell on James’ death, but instead to live for him — to see the world anew for him.

James had always been a multi-sport athlete — “always dabbling in something, and I kind of took that character from him.”

The blast also robbed Brian of the ability to remember anything earlier in his life than high school. Through his therapy, he had to learn to swim again. Soon he was signed up for a two-mile open ocean swim.

Wanting to build on that momentum, his therapist suggested a triathlon. So, he relearned how to ride a bicycle, signed up and took third place. That’s when he knew he was hooked.

“It was my major coping mechanism and I never stopped because it filled this void,” he said. “It finally gave me this sense of feeling grounded.”

While he felt grounded, his triathlons took him all over the world for several years. And again Brian grew restless.

“I’ve never really found that to be what I really wanted to do,” he said. “I enjoy it, it’s fun, keeps me out of trouble, but I’m still searching for something to find my place.”

One night James came to Brian in a dream, as he sometimes does. “That may be weird to some people, but he told me he wanted me to climb mountains,” Brian said. “He wanted me to overcome another battle, another obstacle.”

But there was a stipulation: James wanted Brian to do it with a group, not in the maverick way he’d approached triathlons.

Brian knew it’d be a stretch for him. “Marines don’t really play well with others,” he said with a laugh. But he remembered No Barriers Warriors from a display he once saw and applied.

“I’m coming from this realm where it’s me against me all the time,” he said. “It was really different to be out with people that struggled, but they struggled with their own internal battle to where they wouldn’t ask for help. I learned I needed to offer that help.”

On Sept. 11, 2014, Brian stood atop Mt. Whitney with James’ name inked into his No Barriers flag. He learned he could be part of a group again. And he internalized that his summit isn’t always going to be the top.

“It was, to date, one of the coolest experiences of my life,” he said. “It gave me that perspective, and a fuel for wanting to be outside and plan the next one.”

After leaving Whitney, he started thinking about his next trip. On May 7, he’ll finish his college courses in Ohio where he’s pursuing a public health degree. The next morning he’ll fly to Anchorage, Alaska, en route to climb Denali with several other No Barriers Warriors alumni.

Between then and now, Brian said he’ll keep busy training for a March LavaMan triathlon in Hawaii and volunteering for the Red Cross.

But his head is in May.

His mind is already at the summit.

James will be there, too.

“Whitney allowed me to look at life from a 10,000-foot view,” he said.