RUDDERLESS AND ENVIOUS of his brothers who were fighting the war on terror, Sam Barrett joined the Army Rangers in 2005, at the age of 23. He finally had a purpose, but after three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, he was home again in 2009, frustrated without the structure of military life. He found solace by seeking out other veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, which marks its 10th anniversary this October. Since then, Barrett has cofounded Brothers Reconnecting in Growth and Healing Trauma (BRIGHT), a support group for vets like himself. He has a new mission now, and he doesn’t have to wear a uniform to complete it.
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For five years after high school I lived a very self-centered life. I decided I couldn’t stand idly by and watch my brothers put themselves in harm’s way and not do anything myself.
Obviously it was nerve-racking and scary. But I think I was able to handle it emotionally. On my third deployment I was the routes guy; we’d have a target, and I would plan how to get there. That also meant that I walked point. You’re with maybe 40 other guys, but there could be 150 to 200 feet between you and the next guy. And it’s pitch black and you’re walking into a village. When you’re in the middle of the platoon, you think, “Okay, I know this guy is in back of me; I know this guy is ahead of me.” We call it the warm and fuzzy feeling. But when you’re walking point, you have the sense that you’re all by yourself. It’s like, “If rounds start popping off, I’m going to be the first one to get hit.”
One time we got into a gunfight , and a bullet skipped past me and hit my private, who was right behind me. It went right past the back of my heel. Afterward you’re like, “Holy shit.” But looking back on it now, I think, “Wow, everything else is so boring.”
The first six months after my contract was up sucked. I felt like I was 22 all over again. I had been preparing young men to go overseas and perform complicated, specialized missions. I was doing something that 99 percent of the people in this country couldn’t or wouldn’t do. And when I didn’t have that anymore, I was just another unemployed guy. Not having that next mission, not having any real focus that seemed impactful, that was super tough for me.
I think I came out of the Army the same way I went in. Mostly I don’t like being in crowds. I don’t know, maybe at the mall or something like that. Anywhere with large groups of people, where I can’t readily find an exit, then I need to get some space.
I’m not one of those people who thinks, Because you didn’t serve, we can’t be close. Some of my best friends are civilians who have never served. They won’t ever understand what it was like over there, and that’s okay. And they get it that they don’t get it, you know? But if someone says, “Yeah, man. I get what you’re talking about,” no, you don’t. And you never will.
You can’t understand how it feels to carry one of your friends away from a firefight and hope that he doesn’t lose his leg. You can’t understand how it feels to have a rocket-propelled grenade shoot over your head and hope it doesn’t hit someone that you care about. You don’t know how it feels to have to take someone else’s life. You don’t know how it feels to, in three months, stand at half a dozen funeral services.
A lot of guys carry around a lot of guilt—especially if their friends get hurt or killed during operations. And when they get out they don’t know how to deal with it. That’s one of the things BRIGHT is trying to help people with. By being able to share it with others they think, I know this person is going through what I’m going through, so I can give him a call, instead of drinking a fifth of Jack to numb the feeling.
When it was time for me to get out, people would try to scare me: “It’s a safer bet to stay in than to take your chances on the outside.” And to be honest with you, there is a sense of security by staying in. You get paid every two weeks. There’s health care. You stay in for 20, and you’re going to get a pension. And there’s definitely a lot of question marks on the outside. But at the same time I’m like, “Maybe it didn’t work out for you on the outside, but I’m not going to be scared into thinking that I shouldn’t go after anything else.”
Even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got out, having been elite, having done amazing things, I didn’t want to backtrack.