Pain is Unavoidable, Suffering is a Choice
By Alex Happer, United States Army
I was merely 2 weeks into my 17th year of life when I decided to enter the Delayed Entry Program (DEP) at the local Army Career Center in Wake Forest, NC. I was easy for the Recruiting Station Commander in the fact that I already knew I wanted the one job that is almost always available, Infantry. Born son of a New York City (NYC) Detective (retired), who witnessed the events of September 11th at my mother’s side in the kitchen of our single story, Long Island home on the corner of Tupper Avenue, I was convinced I had just watched my father die on national television, and became very convicted at a young age. How could these individuals across the world who don’t even know as much as his name try to kill my father? Leaving my mother widowed and my little brother, Addison, big brother, Ryan, and myself without this tremendous man who has blessed us all with such incredible fatherhood. I’m sure he would argue otherwise, but it seemed as if he never really did anything wrong. The epitome of the “All American Dad”, a sworn NYC police officer before he even turned 21. By the grace of God he was not amongst the thousands of Americans who did in fact lose their lives that day.
Ten years later I stood in front of SSG Mitchell Hawkinson, a US Army Recruiting Station Commander, claiming I wanted to enlist as an Infantryman. And only as an Infantryman, going as far as telling him to spare his and my time if he were to attempt to convince me otherwise. His response was something to the extent of, “Well how do you feel about jumping out of perfectly good airplanes and knockin’ down some doors while you’re at it?”. Sporting a Ranger rolled patrol cap, 10th Mountain Division patch with a Ranger tab floating above, a midnight black Combat Infantry Badge, and a sense of presence that could dominate any environment, I marveled at this guy. Little did I know at the time, but to this day, Mitch (now a First Sergeant) has become and remains a big brother, mentor, and source of inspiration to me even after my separation from service.
Upon graduating Infantry OSUT on Sand Hill, I was assigned to the legendary 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the then 4th IBCT, 3 ID, Fort Stewart, GA, “Cotton Balers by God, Damn Fine Soldiers”. I showed up in December and expectations were high given the unit’s seemingly unfathomable status as a premier light infantry battalion. Not to mention, we were to deploy to RC East, Afghanistan in March. I was excited but nervous in that I had just turned 18 in basic training and didn’t undergo any of the pre-deployment training that 3-7 had gone through. Graduating as top shot in basic (the highest marksmanship qualification), my background in competitive shooting, and my seemingly good conscious kept the nerves slightly at bay. I knew I was proficient in my craft, but this was a whole different ballgame.
Later, in the first week of March, 2013, we lifted off US soil in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, on a plane full of killers hell-bent on delivering the most deliberate and above all lethal efforts of the United States to the Taliban’s front door.
Throughout the 100+ dismounted patrols, dozens of engagements, hundreds upon hundreds of indirect fire attacks on Combat Outpost Solten Kheyl, and the untimely deaths of five friends and fellow American warriors, my perspective on life changed. On the 23rd day of July 2013, my exact one-year anniversary in the Army, I was called to an event that undoubtedly changed my life. That morning we responded to the scene of an adolescent child (he was believed to be 11-13 yrs old) who decided to ride a donkey, laden with approximately 250 pounds of homemade explosives into the formation of 1LT Jonam Russell’s platoon and detonate. My platoon was on the truck line standing by as a quick reaction force (QRF), in the event that anyone outside the wire needed reinforcement. After feeling the concussion wave of the blast across the street, we all timidly peaked over the wall and discovered the mushroom cloud that had engulfed the village of Solten Kheyl. Moments later we got the call over the radio to go reinforce Russell’s platoon as they had just sustained substantial loss of life and where in a mass casualty situation. The adolescent child turned suicide bomber had instantly obliterated 1LT Russell, Sgt. Smith, Spc. Nichols, as well as Spc. Welch who would later succumb to his wounds. Another vehicle-borne suicide bomber would take the lives of even more combat engineers conducting a route clearance patrol in front of our outpost a couple weeks later. Concurrently we were all still responsible for our own dismounted patrols.
In the same time frame I had broken up with my stateside girlfriend and received the tragic news that my grandmother, who I had been extremely close to, had been suffering from cancer all along. At the time I was still awaiting my 19th birthday and was furious that they didn’t consider my beloved grandmothers approaching death worthy of my knowledge. I now understand why my parents kept such news from me, but by the time they gave in and I got word, her cancer had metastasized and was terminal. Unfortunately I was not able to fly home immediately due to the fact that she is not an immediate family member. But my company commander and first sergeant where in fact able to put me on the absolute very first flight our unit was to take home. I got off the plane, was briefly welcomed by my family, and was immediately rushed from Fort Stewart, GA to the hospice facility back home in Raleigh, NC.
The doctors were certain she would not survive long enough for us to be reunited one last time. But that night my grandmother opened her eyes, for what would ultimately be the last time, to see me standing at her bedside still in my dusty Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniform. Her now 19 yr old grandson, just a baby-faced kid sporting his Combat Infantry Badge and 3rd Infantry Division combat patch, was the reason she was able to hold on. My teary eyed parents stood in the corner as I was able to let her know I was finally safe again. After speaking a carefully chosen and well thought monologue, we decided to head home to get some sleep. After all, I was finally home on American soil for the first time in 9 months and was looking forward to a good night’s rest. The following morning we went right back to the hospice to spend whatever time I could with my grandma. Approximately 20 minutes into that visit, with my father and I to her left, and my mother to her right, she passed. My father had just lost his birth mother, and I, my grandma.
To this day I’m not able to explain my lack of emotion as I watched my now parentless father cry uncontrollably. Even more so then when he and I stood at his father’s open casket the previous year. I was completely numb and was clueless as to how. How could I not be hysterical as I was for nights on end after losing Russell, Welch, Nichols, Smith, or Ramirez? In my first 24 hours home from war, I held the hand of my incredibly gracious, precious, and virtuous grandmother as she took her last breath. And yet had no emotion to show for it.
Fast forward a few years to my current situation. I’m 22 years old and out of the Army with my honorable discharge, countless letters of recommendations/affirmation from high ranking men I still marvel, and a twelve-hour college schedule that I don’t have to pay for. Yet my psychologist’s notes read “prominent inability to experience prolonged positive emotion” followed by a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I can count on one hand the nights I’ve slept the duration of the night undisturbed in almost four years and have overcome an addiction to both alcohol and painkillers. What do I have to show for all the pain and suffering that I willingly subjected myself to earlier in life?
Through pain I’ve gained perspective. Perspective on where my life is at now, where it has been, and ultimately where I want to go. For the rest of my life I no longer have to live with the insecurities that plague my generation. I have learned how to optimize my life to be one that yields happiness as a bi-product, not a goal. It wasn’t until recently that I learned how to build a positive perspective on my past experiences, but I am grateful that I did. So many individuals go through life with distorted misconceptions of what matters. We spend money that we don’t have, on things that we don’t need, to impress people that we don’t even like.
Kids my age walk around with such a chip on their shoulder, constantly feeling obligated to prove to the world that they fit in or am “alpha”. I checked the block before 99.99% of the kids my age even knew which room to find the paper with the block on it. I can live comfortably knowing the repercussions of my actions in 2013, both good and bad, will stay with me the rest of my life. I’ll never forget getting off the plane in Bangor, Maine. It was our last stop on our flight home to Fort Stewart, and also the first bit of American soil we touched since deploying in March. That November afternoon, the actions of one of the very first Americans on American soil to welcome me home, still pleasantly haunt me to this day.
As I’m walking through the terminal I immediately locked eyes with this gentleman who was mid pack of the small crowd of USO members that welcomed us off the flight. He was sporting a jet black WW2 Veteran hat with a big bright blue/silver Combat Infantry Badge embroidered on the front. I felt as if this man was looking into my soul. As I approached him, we didn’t exchange names, not even a single word. He shook my hand with a surprising degree of strength, all while a small tear began to fall from his left eye and his bottom lip began to quiver. He then removed his right hand from mine and placed it gently over the Combat Infantry Badge I had finally been permitted to wear (even though we were awarded them within our first few weeks in Afghanistan). Again he didn’t say a word, didn’t even make an attempt to, and yet I felt such an immense amount of emotion coming from this man. Before I held up the rest of the guys behind me, I continued to walk down the terminal. But not before I would catch the most defying grin I’ve ever seen of any person I’ve interacted with my entire life. This grin, it wasn’t your typical grin of arrogance, cockiness, belittlement, it was a grin that took me years to “decode”. A grin I now determined to say….”Welcome to the Club”.
It wasn’t until a few minutes after that man shot me that grin, that I realized the true depth of what I had done. I joined a brotherhood that now puts me in the company of men like him. A brotherhood where hundreds of thousands of men have laid down their lives for each other. A brotherhood that says no matter the circumstances, I will always be amongst brothers that care for me as if I were one of their own.
These are the memories that plague my brain. These deep, emotional, pivotal moments of my life are the overwhelming majority of my day to day thought process. And yet people of my generation remain so superficial. Engulfed in building opinions on other people’s success and failures alike. So determined to bring others down and wait for someone else to pick them up. Willing to make themselves slaves to a system of debt in order to be in the spotlight for maybe a day, a week, or even a month. I, on the other hand, am now able to not only be in the spotlight without spending a dime, but I’m able to determine where that spotlight goes based on my personal values and newfound perspective on life.
Why is it that someone would rather spend tens of thousands of dollars on that flashy new car, to come home and sleep on a substandard mattress? Why would someone spend hundreds of dollars on a flashy new watch, but brush their teeth with a ninety-nine cent toothbrush? Why would someone choose not to invest in their education, when even the great Aristotle said “The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living and the dead”? Where exactly are people compromising their own ethics and happiness to please others? What is causing people to be riddled with such conviction, enigma, and entitlement simultaneously? Why is our debt transactions list twice the length of our aspirations?
These questions, I believe, will help lead us to the discovery of our own true values in life. With pre-established values, principles, ethics, the universe will yield to you. Align yourself with someone of a similar state of mind. I personally aligned with the ancient philosopher Socrates. A man who’s Socratic methods of questioning myself, led to the discovery of what I truly love in life, and that is to bring the best out of everyone around me. A rather attractive idea, after bearing witness and participating in the very worst mankind has to offer. So find what you value, want and love in life…and let it kill you.
Alex Happer was born on Long Island, NY. Shortly after September 11th, 2001, his father (a New York City Detective at the time) moved his family to Raleigh, NC, where Alex would attend Wakefield High School. An accomplished golfer, receiving multiple scholarships to play at the Division 1 level, Alex insisted on enlisting into the United States Army and graduated as the Company “Top Shot” of his Infantry OSUT class at Fort Benning, GA, ultimately deploying to Afghanistan with the 3rd Battallion 7th Infantry Regiment.
Alex voluntarily separated from the Army in December of 2016 and would go on to pursue bodybuilding, bull riding, motocross, surfing, and a slew of other activities in the process of settling down in Wilmington, NC. He attends Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) with a desire to transfer to the University of North Carolina, Wilmington (UNCW) to pursue his degree in Psychology. He is also now the proud father to his Australian Shepherd, Russell Ray Happer, named after his fallen comrades, Lt. Jonam Russell and Spc. Ray Ramirez.